Crossing the Drake, first impressions of Antarctica




The MV Ushuaia, docked at the port of Ushuaia, waiting for us to board


Walking up the gangway of the MV Ushuaia, our floating home, I was filled with excitement for what lay ahead!

Walking up the gangway of the MV Ushuaia, our floating home for the next 20 days, I couldn’t even imagine what adventures lay ahead. It’s hard to describe how I felt, standing on the stern of the ship, watching the port of Ushuaia disappear into the distance. Excitement? Absolutely! A kind of excitement I have never felt before. Trepidation? None whatsoever. I think my feeling was more of a sense of mystery and anticipation of the complete unknown. I’d never been to Antarctica before and even though I’d been to the Arctic a few times, I couldn’t seem to imagine what Antarctica was going to be like. Of course I’d seen photos and watched documentaries. But the fact the fact that I was going to Antarctica… I was still in disbelief.


Me on the stern of the MV Ushuaia, with the port of Ushuaia disappearing into the distance



As we slowly left Ushuaia behind, I wondered what it would be like when we crossed the Drake Passage. The Drake, after all, is one of the roughest seas in the world. I’d never been sea sick or motion sick before, ever. But there’s a first for everything. I wasn’t worried about it though. I had Gravol (anti-nausea meds) and my Relief Band, an electronic gizmo that combats nausea through neuromodulation. Using electrical impulses, it stimulates a nerve in the wrist which sends electrical impulses to the brain, which then sends a signal to the stomach to restore normal gastric rhythm. Yes, probably too much information, but I am a scientist and scientists wanna know. The most important part about the Relief Band is that YES, it does work and yes, the Drake Passage put it to the test.


There is no way to take a photo to show what the Drake Passage was like. This is very, very clam and just before hitting the Antarctic Convergence

I say the Drake Passage put the Relief Band to the test. I’m not sure how many Relief Bands were on board our ship, but most of us had one. So there was lots of ‘testing’ going on.  Having said that, we were told by Greg Mortimer, our very experienced expedition leader, who has been to Antarctica by ship, many, many times, that our crossing was one of the smoothest he has ever experienced. It’s crossings like this where they call the Drake Passage, the Drake Lake. Don’t get me wrong. The ship pitched from side to side. And people were sick. Me? Just one hint of queasiness that the Relief Band took care of quickly. For those who do suffer from significant sea sickness, the crossing wasn’t fun. But it was FAR better than it was for the folks on the MV Ushuaia on the previous expedition who had 20 foot swells.

So why is the Drake Passage so notoriously rough? Blame the Antarctic Convergence. The what, you say? The Antarctic Convergence. It’s the name given to the region where the ocean currents that continuously encircle Antarctica – old, northward-flowing antarctic waters, meet the relatively warmer waters of the subantarctic. It’s where these two currents converge that things get rough. But we were really lucky. Relatively speaking, it was smooth sailing…


A map showing the Antarctic Convergence, where the warmer waters of the north meet the colder waters of the south

Once we passed the Antarctic Convergence and made our way toward the Antarctic Peninsula, the magic began to happen. It started with icebergs. Massive icebergs! I learned that there is an entire vocabulary to describe ice – whether it’s sea ice, fast ice, tabular ice bergs, growlers…. Our introduction to ice was seeing absolutely huge slabs of ice, many taller than our ship. My reaction to seeing these massive bergs for the first time was far from eloquent. I think I must have won a prize for the number of times I said the word, “Wow”. It’s all I could come up with. And for someone who is almost never at a loss for words, this was significant. I came to experience many, many time over the course of our expedition, that this was the one word I could articulate. It was a symptom of the most wonderful sense of overwhelm that I have ever experienced.


It’s impossible to not be in awe of landscapes like this

As we moved closer to the the South Shetland Islands, a group of islands north of the Antarctic Peninsula (the mainland, or antarctic continent), the icebergs became more numerous. I don’t care how many of those giant tabular icebergs one sees; they never lose their impact. They are so imposing. And to think that we are only seeing the 10% that is above water….


Massive tabular icebergs. Without anything for scale, it’s impossible to convey the immense size of these. Many were far taller than our ship. And remember that 90% of an iceberg is hidden below water

The ultimate in iceberg excitement was our first sighting of penguins on an ice floe. It felt like something out of a Disney movie, but is was real. It was our new reality. I can’t even come up with the words to describe the feeling of seeing penguins on an ice floe. Wow. Yes, that’s all I could muster. But the epitome of the magic happened when we passed by a massive iceberg, taller than our ship. It was boot-shaped. And on the ‘instep’ was a group of penguins. Wow again! Needless to say, my camera was working overtime at this point. I was craving capturing the moment to share with others. Since I couldn’t find the words to describe what I was seeing and feeling, maybe I could capture it with my camera. As I came to learn, the lighting in Antarctica is magical. It is varied, often due to cloud cover, but even on bright sunny days, the light seemed different from anything I’d ever seen before. The way the subdued, gentle light was bathing this giant penguin-covered iceberg was  beyond description. A case of a picture really and truly being worth a thousand words.


A massive iceberg with penguins hitching a ride

It’s hard to believe that seeing massive icebergs was a common thing and yet it never felt common. It always elicited the same excitement as the first time we saw them. And while we were busy doing our ‘classroom learning’, all learning came to an immediate halt and the meeting room emptied out when someone shouted, “iceberg!” or “whale!”.


A great way to travel!

Seeing land for the first time in Antarctica was equally spectacular. Our first encounter with land was at the Aitcho Islands, a cluster of small islands on the west side of the north entrance to the English Straight, which separates Greenwich Island and Robert Island, in the South Shetland Islands, and north of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Aitcho Islands, as they are officially known, were originally named the H.O. Islands – the H.O. standing for Hydrographic Office, a name of military original given to the islands when they were mapped in 1935.


Our first sights of Antarctica were these massive chunks of rock near the Aitcho Islands in the South Shetland Islands

Our first shore landing happened in there Aitcho Islands, on Barientos Island. And it was our up close and personal introduction to…..PENGUINS!!!


Sparring Chinstrap penguins


Arctic Expedition 2014 – Icebergs at Sunset

Icebergs at Sunset in the Labrador Sea. © Shelley L. Ball

Icebergs at Sunset in the Labrador Sea. © Shelley L. Ball

Some of the most incredible experiences on this expedition were the moments I was out on deck at night, alone, listening to the hum of the ship’s engine, gently rocking back and forth in the sea, the wind caressing my face, and my eyes being treated to scenes like this. Those were truly magical moments…almost spiritual moments. The overwhelming vastness of our earth only became apparent at these truly humbling moments.