My first morning on the Drake Passage began when I woke up at about 6:30am and had to run to the washroom to get sick.
This did not bode well.
I hadn’t even had a chance to fully wake up and the steady side-to-side rocking of the ship on the gentle waves of ‘Drake Lake’ had already made me sick. ‘Drake Lake’ is the name for the Drake Passage when it is calm, while ‘Drake Shake’ is used when it’s stormy and rough. Abnormally calm water in the Drake Passage is 1-3 metre swells, which is what we were experiencing.
The gravol patch I had put on about 10 hours ago did not seem to be helping at all, so I decided to stagger downstairs to the lounge for a cup of tea. I had to detour twice along the way for the washroom and the baggies taped to the rails throughout the ship.
Another very seasick student was in the lounge already when I finally got there. Though the ship was rocking gently it was still enough to make those without sea-legs weave back and forth across the hallways, so the rails came in quite handy. It was a bit shocking to find only citrus teas in the coffee area, and a bit of chamomile. No peppermint tea on a ship crossing one of the stormiest areas of ocean in the world – I shook my head in dizzy disbelief.
It was about then when Jody – the other seasick student – asked from across the room “What are these big white birds flying around? They’ve been here all morning.”. Not realizing the significance of this statement I turned un-enthusiastically to face the windows lining three sides of the room, clutching my steaming cup of chamomile tea. That’s when I saw them and time slowed down.
“Oh. My. God.”
Wandering Albatross – huge, white, and extraordinarily graceful - were gliding over the ocean swells alongside the ship. There were several, some pulling up close to the ship windows. Poring over the bird guide every night at home and watching You-Tube videos with my mentor did nothing to prepare me for actually seeing these magnificent birds with their 14-foot wingspans. They were accompanied by a great number of Pintado (Cape) Petrels – pretty, dainty little birds speckled in gray and white – and a couple of Black-browed Albatross.
Seasickness momentarily reduced, I darted upstairs to grab my camera and take some documentation shots. After that my stomach caught back up with me and I had to run.
The seasickness was terrible. Motion sickness has always been a problem for me, but in a car it’s easy to just stop for some fresh air and listen to music on my MP3 player for distraction. On the ship things like MP3 players were prohibited, and we were out in the rolling ocean with no land in sight. I knew that this would continue for two days until we reached Antarctica, and that was perhaps the worst part – not being able to escape and rest. We had been told to try to make it to all of the presentations and interact as much as possible with the leaders and students despite seasickness. I knew why; going to Antarctica is an extremely rare and valuable experience - one that you shouldn’t let anything get in the way of, and I didn’t plan to.
I really tried to participate in everything, but it was difficult. Going to the dining room was a mistake for sure. The smell of food was sickeningly overwhelming and I didn’t last 5 minutes. It was interesting to watch the staff work in the rocking conditions of the ship though. The cooks cooked great food, and the waitresses/waiters never stumbled or dropped anything even while carrying heavy trays laden with food, leaning over students to serve it. It would take great sea-legs, a strong stomach, and skill to be able to serve in those conditions.
Our first presentation that morning was given by Santiago Imberti, the expedition Ornithologist, about seabirds in the southern oceans. It was really interesting to go over while we were on the Drake and seeing some of the birds he was talking about. After that the university students had meetings with their professors, and then a presentation was done by Olle Carrlson on Whales and Seals of the Antarctic. Olle is from Sweden, and is a polar naturalist and experienced historian. Bianca Perren gave the next talk on Climate Change. Bianca is a Geologist, Artist, and Polar-Enthusiast – she has worked in the Arctic since 1998 doing research.
I lasted about 6 hours on our first day before I finally just felt too sick to continue. Once I was flat on the bed with my eyes closed I felt much better, but even then getting sick didn’t completely stop. A fun fact: in the 6 hours I was up and doing stuff that day, I got sick 28+ times. That’s an average of getting sick every 13 minutes! Something to add to my epic adventures :) I have never been so sick for so long in my life. It was so miserable that at one point while laying in bed I was seriously (and guiltily) considering whether or not Antarctica would be worth that much agony. Everyone had said that it was going to be such an amazing life-changing experience, and I greatly hoped it would be enough to make up for the violent seasickness. Thankfully, it was way more than worth it – it’s something I would jump to do again if the opportunity arose. Antarctica has made a huge impact on my outlook on life.
The night of our first day on the Drake Passage was New Year’s Eve, and a big variety show and celebration had been planned. It was a great show and lots of fun; many of the students and teachers went up to the bar to perform skits, songs, poetry, and dances. Mike Beedle, the expedition photographer and videographer, dressed up as a cow and danced and sang in one act. He later came out dressed up as baby New Year in a diaper as part of a skit done by a few of our leaders, which gave every person in the room a great laugh! I felt good enough at one point to go up and do a poem, so I recited Robert Service’s ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’. I thought that it was relevant to our trip despite it being a Yukon poem because it talked about a guy from Tennessee going on an expedition in a strange, cold, and icy world. I nearly made it through the celebrations but had to go and lay down for a while near the end. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that we were greeting the New Year four hours early due to the local time and high school students curfew, so I missed the countdown. “HAPPY NEW YEARS!!!!” chorused from downstairs, followed by cheers and delighted laughter. It was definitely a different way of greeting New Years – not very many people have been in such a unique place at the transitioning of the old and new year. I felt very lucky, and excited at what the new year may hold. What a tale to bring back home, and to tell during future New Years celebrations!
After midnight we crossed over the Antarctic Convergence, a natural biological boundary encircling Antarctica. It’s created by upwelling where the cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer sub Antarctic waters, separating the two different climates and marine ecosystems. Our expedition leader Geoff Green had told us when we set sail that whoever guessed correctly the time and place we crossed it would get a prize; he joked that we would feel a bump and see a red dotted line on the water as we passed over it, but more seriously hinted that we would feel a fairly substantial temperature change. It was definitely colder the next morning.
We were officially in Antarctic waters within the first couple hours of the new year, and would reach the first Antarctic island late on that first day of January.