Antarctica faded away into the mist like a dream as we entered the Drake Passage for the second time.
Like our first time, we went to bed with land in sight and woke up in the vast sea. The loss of that one propeller slowed the journey enough that we spent three days on the Drake instead of 2.5, but it also meant that we were fortunate enough to travel in between two major storms instead of through them. It was cloudy, foggy, and windy, with the precipitation switching back and forth between rain and snow. The ship rolled side to side, back and forth, sometimes tipping 30degrees or plowing into the 30foot swells we travelled on, causing huge sprays of water off the bow. The decks were closed off to the students as it was too dangerous to be outside. We had finally been introduced to the ‘Drake Shake’, conditions that were considered normal for this stretch of sea.
I wasn’t scared of the water or the storm. What I was scared of was the huge bangs around the ship as things crashed into the sides, and creaked and groaned. Sometimes it sounded like the ship had hit an iceberg, the bangs were so loud. In our freezing and humid room (the heater was timed and shut off after a while until you manually turned it back on) the trash can rolled back and forth across the floor, along with our baggage and whatever else we had left out and unsecured. I spent nearly the whole three days in bed due to seasickness with the ocean swells rolling me back and forth – into the wall, into the rail, into the wall, into the rail. It was non-stop, there was no way to escape.
During this crossing I only got sick three times, a huge improvement compared to the trip down where I threw up 28 times in just 6 hours. The downside was that to achieve such a feat I starved myself for the whole three days – I never had even a sip of water. I did try to venture out in the evenings for the group meetings despite feeling awful, which turned out to be quite the task. When walking you were pushed back and forth across the halls into the walls, and you could not go down the stairs until the ship was tilting backwards or you ran the risk of being pushed down by the momentum.
Teah Dickson, Kaitlyn Obstfeld and myself did an interview over the satellite phone for the Whitehorse Star newspaper while travelling through the stormy Drake. When Kaitlyn came and woke me up for it, I asked if it was possible to reschedule because I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to make it to the interview. I could barely stand from weakness, and didn’t think I’d could talk for any length of time. We couldn’t put it off though, so she helped me up to the bridge where we were told that we would have to go outside for the phone to work. I was nervous about being out there with the big swells, despite our leader Justin standing close by to help out and keep us safe. When my turn came to be interviewed I took a deep breath, clutched the railing with one hand, held the radio close with the other, and talked to the interviewer on the phone in as normal and energetic a voice I could muster. Being outside in the fresh air actually made me feel a little better, so I was able to focus on what was being asked and answer with more clarity. I have to admit that I felt pretty proud to have done that and spoken so well despite the conditions.
You can read the interview here.
Turns out, fate guided our expedition once again and ensured I was up there being interviewed at exactly the right time.
An Amsterdam Albatross came in.
Considered to be one of the rarest birds in the world, it is critically endangered with an estimate of just 120 individuals remaining. They have been recorded breeding only on Amsterdam Island in the southern Indian Ocean, and due to its rare status, little is known of its movements outside the breeding season.
When it approached the ship I was sitting on the floor beside Santiago, the Ornithologist, waiting for my turn at the interview. He asked if I was feeling well enough to come and look at the birds following the ship, and I replied that the only birds that would get me up then would be if they were lifers, or rare. I was just too ill. I turned on my MP3 player quietly in an effort to ease my nausea, and not a moment later Santi waved for my attention. “There’s an Amsterdam Albatross out there.” “Yeah, right.” I said. “No, really! It’s very rare!” he told me. I’d never heard of an Amsterdam Albatross before; I thought it suspicious that something apparently so rare would suddenly (and ironically) show up at that moment, aside from the fact that he showed no visible excitement about it. The birders I hang out with back in the Yukon would express such excitement that doubt would be impossible! I was positive he was pulling my leg. “Yeah, it’s probably the first world record right?” I said sarcastically. “No, it’s real! If you don’t come and look you’re going to miss it.” Finally, I started to doubt myself. “Are you joking?” Of course, Santi insisted he was not so I finally got up to look. Sure enough, he pointed it out to me as a distant bird that resembled a juvenile Wandering Albatross. It wasn’t a good view, but it was a look. Then I was called out to my interview. While talking on the phone, Santiago and Justin gestured towards the side of the ship and I turned in time to see it fly by at close range. After that it left, gliding over the waves with that effortless ease that defines albatross. No one got photos unfortunately. It was the second Santiago had ever seen, and it was definitely my first. Thank god and thank you Santiago – I’ll never not believe you again!
Many other seabirds stuck around; in fact, our final evening on the Drake Passage presented us with a remarkable seabird show that had even the leaders shaking their heads in awe. Wandering Albatross, Royal Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, Giant and Northern Giant Petrel including our second uncommon white phase bird, Pintado Petrels, Slender-billed Prions, and Southern Fulmar swooped behind the boat to dive for the food we churned up in the water.
The next morning when we opened our eyes Geoff was on the speakerphones giving his daily “Good morning Students on Ice!” wake-up call, continuing on with “…and welcome to the Beagle Channel!”. I noticed right away that the ship was not moving. Nothing was creaking or crashing, and when I looked out the window land was on both sides.
Seasickness gone, everyone went out on the decks to soak up the warm temperatures, sunshine, and fresh, dirt-scented air. Two Peale’s Dolphins came up to the ship, playing and splashing below us. They were the first wild dolphins I had ever seen.
We spent most of the morning anchored in a bay waiting for our captain to arrive and guide us the rest of the way to Ushuaia. When he did come the dolphins went away with the captains smaller boat, and we began the final leg of our journey by water.
My first breath of Ushuaia air was a shock. After spending more than a week out on the ocean and in Antarctica where the air is absolutely pure, coming back to civilization and smelling only vehicle exhaust, food, and humid city air was revolting and overwhelming. I felt nauseated and could hardly take a breath. Retreating to the back of the ship where the fresh ocean wind was blowing towards us from down the Beagle Channel gave me a chance to recover and adjust. It took about fifteen to twenty minutes to get to the point where I didn’t really think much of the city smell anymore, and it made me realize exactly how adapted we are to our urban environments.
We went out for a final dinner together in Ushuaia after spending the afternoon walking around the city and gift-shopping. Our leaders had reserved a gorgeous restaurant tucked away in the beech forest outside the city for us to party in that evening. We ate a lot of food and had a blast!
After dinner we gathered the chairs up and held a last variety show in celebration of the journey. Many of the students and leaders performed ‘on stage’ for us, acting out skits, dancing, singing, and reciting poetry. Some of my favourites included the ‘Interpretive Bird Dance’ by Tessa, Shakti, Frances, and Mike Beedell, the Drake Passage variation of ‘A Horse With No Name’ by Justin Dearing, and ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fritzgerald’ played and sung by Geoff Green. I recited Robert Service’s poem, ‘The Spell of the Yukon’.
Geoff had been telling us for several days that they were planning on getting a band to come and play for us on our final night. We were very curious as to who it would be, but when he started talking about how the members of the band had flown from all corners of the world to come together and play a song for us we were convinced it would be our leaders performing. Sure enough, most of the guys came out dressed with baseball caps, open shirts and sunglasses, running down the aisle with their hands in the air. The audience roared! They performed one song for us, ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him’ by Joe Jackson, which they did way better than him in my opinion.
There were also speeches given by a few of the leaders – speeches that were so heartfelt and touching I think most of us were in tears. It was so sad knowing that we only had this last night together as a complete ‘SoI family’ and that in the morning we would be saying goodbye to some of our team. The time we had spent together flew by so fast, yet it seemed as though we had known each other for ages. We experienced Antarctica and the Drake together, learned things together, held discussions together, and helped and supported each other. We were at our worst together crossing the Drake, with students littered across the lounge couches and floor or locked in their rooms; we were at our best working together to take advantage of all the expedition had to offer.
We ended the night with a dance. There were flashing strobe lights that made everything appear to move in stop-motion, and everyone danced by jumping up and down in one spot with a hand in the air. It was my first time attending such a dance, and though it was fun it was also dizzying and disorienting. It didn’t do much for me, so after a while I went outside with some other students, hoping to hear an owl. It was a clear, starry night – the milky way was clear in the sky. Geoff pointed out the Southern Cross constellation, a first viewing for most of us.
After that it was time to board the buses and head back to the ship where we spent our very last night in Ushuaia. Looking out the back door beside our room, I could see the city lights forming long sparkling lines on the calm water. It was beautiful.
We were up bright and early the next morning packing up the last of our things and having our final breakfast before we said goodbye to our amazing crew and left the ship. There on the docks we said goodbye to a few people who would be leaving us right away, and the first of many tears to come over the next couple of days began to fall. Saying goodbye to Kaitlyn Obstfeld wasn’t hard, because I knew I would be seeing her back in the Yukon in a few weeks. It was more like a “See you later”. Saying goodbye others was much more difficult, because I knew it would likely be many years before we could meet again. Santiago and Scoby were among those we had to say goodbye to.
Once again we were on a plane, this time heading north. We followed the same path back, stopping at Buenos Aires next to board our huge jumbo jet for an 8.5 hour flight to Miami, U.S.A. Our flight was delayed for several hours due to a massive thunderstorm booming right overhead, which allowed us time to have dinner and hang out. The thunder shook the building, and Oden-sized bolts of lighting streaked to the ground from the heavy clouds. I had an interesting talk with our Oceanographer Joe Needoba about his work with microorganisms during these hours. It was cool to hear about how he got involved with it and what is required to get involved in a focus like that. He commented on how addictive the work is, but also said that it’s the kind of work you can’t do as a hobby or even learn much about unless you go to university to study it and follow that path as a career. It’s a complicated, in-depth, and detailed science. Fun to hear about though, and he gave me some tips on collecting my own water-living microorganisms for microscope slides.
Eventually the thunderstorm moved on and we boarded our jet sometime after 2:00am. Like on the way down, most of this flight was in the dark. Apparently, the jet staff went around at about 3:30am, waking everyone up and asking if they wanted dinner. Very few said yes. Dawn broke on Florida down below us later that morning. As we descended into Miami I could pick out the palm trees lining the roadsides and remembered my goal to get a photograph of myself underneath one. Some of our crew and leaders (including Olle and Justin) had to leave right away, so we had another tearful goodbye right after landing. The big goodbye didn’t come until later though, towards the end of our lunch and layover at the airport. The rest of our new American friends had to leave as we went to board our planes to Toronto. After we parted ways, the remaining group – all Canadians – seemed so small. Funny to think that we had seemed like such a large group on the way down.
When we began our decent into Toronto it was dark outside. I was apprehensive about landing because I knew I would have to say goodbye to the very last of our SoI family, but also excited because I would be spending the next four days with my friends from the Doug Tarry Young Ornithologist Workshop at Long Point in 2010. I had not seen them for three years.
Stepping off the plane and into the airport was such an amazing feeling. I saw the Canadian Flag on the walls and everything felt familiar and safe. I didn’t realize exactly how much of a foreigner I had felt through the trip until we entered Canada again. Unlike the airports down south, everything was quick and easy as we checked through and picked up our baggage. It felt like a breath of fresh air.
The 2013 Antarctic SoI team officially parted ways that evening and our expedition came to an end. After more than a year of preparation and about two weeks of travelling, the ending seemed too sudden. We were all pretty emotionally drained and cried out by the time we reached Toronto after having spent the last two days saying goodbye to various members of our crew, so few tears were shed. I think Geoff Green was one of the hardest people to say goodbye to. He was our expedition leader and the founder of Students on Ice. He is such a wonderful leader for youth – full of passion, enthusiasm, and inspiration – wanting to help us succeed at our dreams and putting everything he has into that goal. I hold a great deal of respect towards him. Thank you so much Geoff Green, for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime and your support!!!
A huge thank you to Clare Glassco and Shirley Manh also, who both spent all of last year coordinating the expedition and preparing the students for the big journey. Thank you to Justin Dearing for you encouragement, positive outlook, and for saying things I needed to hear. Thank you to Santiago Imberti for helping me to see such amazing birds through the journey (and for insisting on it when I didn’t believe what you was telling me 😀 ). Thank you to ALL of the leaders on this trip – you made the expedition a memorable one and gave us significant inspiration and valuable tools that we can use throughout our lives.
Thank you to all the students as well for your great energy, enthusiasm, dreams, jokes, and friendship. As Geoff says, it’s good karma that makes a wonderful trip, and you were all bursting with it!
Last but absolutely not least, a majorly special thank you to the Yukon – to all of my family, friends, and sponsors who supported me before, during, and after this expedition. I would never have made it to Antarctica without your support, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everything you all have done for me. It is very touching to see my community stand together to help me achieve something like that. Thank you.
Below is a list of my company sponsors. I would love to put the names of everyone who supported me on here, but there are far too many to list 🙂