Some may not realize that it takes two and a half days at sea to cross the Drake Passage to reach the Antarctic Peninsula, and there is a reason why they call it “paying the Drake Tax.” This is a rare area of our planet where the currents are able to flow 360 degrees around the bottom of the globe with nothing to stop them. However, when the converging currents get to that narrow passageway between Cape Horn and the tip of the Antarctic peninsula, the water gets a bit..shall we say…”swelly” while trying to crowd its way through the passage.
The first clue is when you arrive on board and all the chairs and furniture are either tethered or bolted to the floor, and one of the first people you are introduced to is the ship´s Doctor, who tells you he has patches for the “special cruise price of $10 per patch — how many would you like?” I decided to test my sea legs and abstain from the patch, though I was a bit apprehensive from all the horror stories, so I took one Bonine tablet before we left. That was the last one, however as I found I really liked the motion of the ocean, especially for sleeping and that weightless feeling you get when the chair drops out from underneath you! It was amusing watching people navigate the decks like a bunch of drunken sailors. We had it easy on the way out, and the Expedition Leader, Hannah kept reminding us how lucky we were to have been able to cross in “Drake Lake!” The way back was not so easy, however as we encountered several squalls and 6 meter swells (look out the cabin window one minute and you see blue sky, 10 seconds later, a wall of water!) but people seemed to enjoy the adventure. The bigger the waves, the bigger the crowd was on the Bridge, watching the giant waves crash over the bow.
I think this two and a half day crossing is good to prepare one for the “other worldliness” of seeing all that ice. Finally the first iceberg was spotted at 5:45am on 6th Feb. There was a contest, but I missed guessing the time by two hours. We headed through the narrow Lemairre Channel with sheer ice cliffs on both sides shortly after that and made our first landing on Petermann Island that morning. The staff did a good job at coordinating the zodiac landings so we could all get “rugged up” (as my Aussie roommate called it,) without having to wait inside the warm ship wearing layers of clothing and rubber boots. They loaded us up in groups of 10 to make the landings on shore, often followed by a zodiac cruise before returning to the ship. We would make a total of twelve landings or cruises over the five days on the actual continent.
One of the main reasons why I chose this particular ship was because it was scheduled to attempt a Polar Circle crossing. I wanted to go as far South as possible — though the brochure made it clear there were no guarantees. But it was getting to be late summer, and the ship was not able to make it through the pack ice on their last polar crossing trip. So we made the one stop once we reached the continent just to get us all off the ship to hike a bit and experience a face to face encounter with a few penguins, then we were back on board to continue straight south in hopes of being able to cross as early into the trip as possible before the weather turned. The energy level on the ship was through the roof with tensions running high, while voices up on the Bridge were dead silent as the little red ship cracked, creaked, and groaned slowly through “The Gullet,” a narrow channel that had previously been too iced over to cross. The Captain steered us through icebergs twice our size, but reminded us all that our ship was an ice-breaker, not an ice-BERG breaker!
The circle is at 66 degrees, 33´S, and it looked like we were going to make it, though we would not cross over until sometime after midnight. Although the sun did not set until around 11:00pm, our expedition leader told us all not to wait up, because the bump of the imaginary red line would wake us 😉 We crossed over at 1:30am and sure enough, I woke up at 1:26am. The ship continued on south and was able to forge some new territory. We made it all the way to 67 degrees, 33´.9S to a new landing site, Cape Saenz, which was the most southerly expedition-style landing the Polar Star had ever made!
There was a celebration that night in the observation lounge, as the Captain bought us all a round of rum shots to celebrate having reached this milestone. I had also brought along a bottle of champagne in case we made the crossing, so Lynn, my roommate and two other friends, Myrene and Gisela had a toast to having been among the few to actually set foot on the continent below the polar circle.