Sailing South from the End of the Earth.

I will start by saying that despite general references to my 20 days spent at sea as Antarctica, only three days of the expedition were actually spent on the Antarctic Peninsula.  However, I do not expect widespread familiarity with the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Orkney and South Shetland Islands, and therefore conclude that “Antarctica” is easiest.  Needless to say, describing the expedition seems an unfathomably daunting task, so I will start at the beginning.

It didn’t seem like an expedition.  Not at first.  My first impression of the ship was that it simply looked too nice, even though it was absolutely dwarfed by everything else that docked at the port of Ushuaia, Fin del Mundo.  The briefings with our 94 fellow passengers gave a very luxury-cruise vibe that made me, as an Alaskan, feel rather out of place.  We were grouped together at a fancy hotel, given name tags, loaded onto tour buses.  As we boarded the ship, I was startled to find mosaic floors, shiny wooden interiors with gold trip, even an elevator.  Indeed, our ship, the Sea Spirit, which had been brought in as an emergency replacement for the ill-fated Clipper Adventurer, had been initially designed as a luxury cruise vessel destined for warmer climates such as the Caribbean (as made apparent later by the significant lack of adequate heating).  Devin and I were assigned to a large double room complete with a couch, TV, vanity, and balcony with deck chairs.  I remember thinking how unadventurous everything seemed, how far from “expedition vessel”.

Every one of those perceptions changed the moment we hit open water.

Having never travelled by ship before, I was surprised at the sheer force of even the mildest ocean rollers, even when largely balanced by the ship’s stabilizers.  We rolled. The ship rapidly became a parallel universe of rocking, shifting interior, walls and mirrors shining and glinting their perpetually moving reflections.  Appearances became entirely irrelevant; we were literally at the ends of the earth, and going south.  As we exited the Beagle Channel and set sail towards the Falkland Islands, it became apparent how tiny and insignificant the Sea Spirit actually was, a mere toy floating along at nature’s mercy in the vast ocean, en route to some of the most inhospitable and feared seas on Earth.

Ushuaia

Ushuaia, bearing a striking resemblance to both Alaska and Norway simultaneously.

Excited to be on board!

Leaving land behind.

Journal entry 24/12/2010

Woke many times in the night to the rolling, rocking motion of the open sea, to the frightful racket of the roof above our balcony splitting into sheets of loose metal and clanging loudly against each other.  Sea still rolling, barf bags lining every railing, stairwell and hall.  Will take getting used to.

The first days spent at sea were quiet and uneventful.  We attended lectures on ornithology, history and geology, made small talk with fellow passengers, adjusted our seasickness pills and scopolamine patches (lifesaver!).  We spent hours out on deck, mesmerized by the effortlessly gliding gale birds that followed the ship’s wake, our only companions in an endless expanse of blue seas and gloomy grey skies.  (It is amazing, upon realizing how isolated you truly are, how rapidly these birds become utterly fascinating).  Giant petrels and the occasional wandering albatross swept alongside the ship in silent, decisive motions, first up alongside the ship, then curving back to the wake, and returning to the ship again, time after time, seemingly endlessly.  These birds are able to separate the salt from seawater themselves, and possess a wing-locking mechanism that allows them to fly ceaselessly without expending any energy; their true home is the open sea.  And there we were, sudden unexpected visitors in their oceanic oblivion, to be followed with curiosity into the distant horizon.

A giant petrel, as seen from the stern.

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