Monday, January 11, 2010

EN TRAVELS TO ANTARCTICA - Dec. 31, Jan. 1 blog

Editor's note: Satellite transmission from the Antarctica peninsula became cranky last week, preventing timely transmission of these blogs. They are posted in their entirety in the following blogs.

December 31, 2009

DRAKE CAKE – We lucked out today, our first day on the water en route to the Antarctica peninsula. The feared "Drake Shake" never materialized. Sure, a few students were feeling queasy. As for myself, the scopolmine patch behind my left ear made me a bit spacey and so dog-tired I couldn't keep my eyes open. But by mid-day today, the waters calmed down and the passage between South America and Antarctica was a piece of cake, a Drake cake, if you will.

At 276-ft. long, the M/V Ushuaia is the perfect no-frills ship for this student expedition. In its former life, the ship was a research ship for NOAA. No hot tubs, no laundry, no midnight buffet, and no cute towel figures on our beds at night. There's a well-worn lounge, a bar for the adults, a 70-seat dining room and a conference room that seats 70 where we received a safety lecture, and learned about Antarctic ice and geology from experts in their fields.

The birdlife is starting to pick up as we near Antarctica. Outside the lounge of the M/V Ushuaia , we spotted wandering albatross, some whale spouts, and more varieties of petrels than you can image.

I'm in a starboard bunk room a few floors down with another chaperone, Stephane, from Belgium. There's a bunk bed, a private bath, and a small vertical closet with eight hangers. There's a non-working electric heater strapped onto the top of a non-working radiator. Spartan to say the least.

Today is a special day, the final day of the decade. Our New Year's Eve celebration included dancing on the top deck, skits by each group of students assembled in eight "pods," and a toast featuring fruit juice in champagne glasses. Expedition leader Geoff Green, the good sport that he is, came out as the 2010 baby. One pod group wrote and performed an original composition about seasickness, with Remy on guitar, and Janet, a barrister from the U.K., playing along on her clarinet. Best refrain: "We've got the churning and burning Drake passage seasick blues."

Tomorrow promises to be our most exciting day yet as we sight Antarctica, man the Zodiacs, and try to get in close enough to land. Many of us are students of Sir Ernest Shackleton and are looking forward to seeing Elephant island from a distance, especially Point Wild, the exact spot where 22 of Shackleton's crew were marooned for four months as Sir Ernest went for help in an open boat called the "James Caird." Even today, Elephant island is one of the least-visited landing sites on the peninsula.

But first, we'll need lecture on how to ride the Zodiacs safely and learn the international rules for visiting penguin and sea colonies. Although there is an expensive satellite phone on board and e-mail is available for $3 per minute, we are essentially cut off from the rest of the world as we plan to make this isolated continent at the bottom of the world our temporary home.

Note: bandwidth on the ship is too small to handle photos. Log onto the Students on Ice Web site to view images of our student and chaperone team (, and a collection of student-written blogs.

Friday, Jan. 1, 2010

Happy New Year – "If you're not getting seasick across the Drake, you're kinda getting ripped off," said Students on Ice expedition leader Geoff Green before we threw off the dock lines in Ushuaia. That may be the case, but the final leg of our crossing to Antarctica today was smooth as silk.

So here we are, New Year's Day and our ship sits quietly off Point Wild, Elephant island. We're here all alone, there's not another ship within miles of our location.

Last night, we all toasted in the New Year with fruit juice in champagne glasses. It wasn't until curfew and the students went to bed that the adults began their celebration with slightly stronger refreshments. We were invited to the crew's party deep within the bowels of the ship, in a secret area behind the conference room. The small, windowless room was a tight fit as about 25 of us danced to a thrumming salsa beat. One crew member dressed as Batman, another as a TV set (god bless him), and a woman was dancing with angel wings. The claustrophobic space reminded me of what a party on a submarine must be like. Raise your hands during a particularly energetic dance move and you could palm the ceiling.

Shortly after arriving at Elephant island, waves of students set off in Zodiacs driven by experienced staff members. The Zodes cruised past penguin colonies and the exact spot where Sir Ernest Shackleton left his crew as he sought help 800 miles away. There wasn't enough room for us to land, but we could clearly see the Chilean monument erected to honor Capt. Luis Pardo Villalon, master of the "Yelchor, "the ship Shackleton used to rescue his entire 22 man team without a single loss of life. What's up with that? No memorial to Shack? What is he? chopped liver?

It's humbling to view this barren strip of rock and sand and imagine the hardships Shackleton's men faced for four months as they awaited rescue by eating little more than penguins and seal, of which there were plenty.

The scenery here is truly spectacular. We motored past blue-white icebergs as big as apartment buildings. At the head of the bay is a receding glacier that calves blocks of ice and snow, some huge, others small "bergy bits."

The wildlife is astounding. There are penguins everywhere, sitting above us on cliffs, penguins looking like miniature restaurant waiters, penguins leaping through the water in search of krill, and penguins waddling who knows where across snow and ice fields strung together by penguin "highways."

Earlier today we saw fin whales spouting, an occasional seal, and plenty of sea birds including skua ready to steal penguin eggs the minute a nesting penguin lets down its guard.

Today also included a safety lecture that included a review of the Antarctica Code of Conduct:

There are no bathrooms. Go before you hit the Zodiacs.
Picking up even a pebble is forbidden.
We're told not to approach any animals closer than 15 feet.

Geoff warns: "Never hold, never even pet a penguin. Besides, picking one up is like holding a rugby ball that bites and poops on you."

Seasick or not (and only a handful were), in just one day we certainly received our money's worth. We have another seven days to go; I can only imagine what experiences we'll all share in the coming week as we make a temporary home here, the only continent on earth devoted to science and peace.

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