Boarding the Hebridean Sky to begin our voyage to Antarctica is possibly one of the most exciting moments of my life. Before we board in Ushuaia, we learn that we are closer to Antarctica than Buenos Aries. We are a mere 1000 km from the white continent, while Buenos Aires is over 3000km away. The ship is amazing, nicer than some of the hotels we have been staying in. More importantly, the other guests and the crew are phenomenal. When the crew introduces themselves at our safety briefing, you can see the excitement in their eyes and their love for the white continent shines through. Some of them have been working down here for 10 years. They genuinely can’t wait to introduce us to the continent that they have fallen in love with.
Inside our cabins we find our Polar Latitudes jackets that we get to keep. They are stunning -red and white and they say Shackleton on them, who is my new idol. If you haven’t read Endurance, you must. The decks on ship are on named after famous Antarctic explorers, and I’m pleased to see deck4 is named after Douglas Mawson, one of the unsung heroes of Antarctic exploration. Alone on the Ice tells his story and is another must read.
As if to prove what a small world it is, we discover that our expedition leader lives next door to someone we know from Fernie. For those of who don’t know me well, I grew up in Fernie, a small town in the Canadian Rockies. To meet someone who knows someone from our town is a huge coincidence - especially considering where we are.
Dinner is delicious and after eating we retire to our rooms to “Drake Proof” our cabins. The forecast for crossing the Drake Passage is not favourable, and we make sure everything is secured and locked away before crawling into bed. I lay there for a good hour, unable to sleep due to excitement, and shortly after midnight, I can tell we have reached the Drake Passage. This stretch of water is the roughest on the planet, due to both winds and currents. We knew this part of the deal, and a rite of passage to reach Antarctica. You either get the Drake Lake or the Drake Shake. It feels like we are more on the shake end of things. We toss and roll in the open ocean, and although it’s rough, it’s not as bad as it could be.Yes, I have to crawl on my hands and knees to use the bathroom, but I know it could be a lot worse. One of the ship rules is that you hang on to the railing with one hand at all times. We are told that the waves are only about 5 metres high, which sounds bad, but when we learn that they can reach 15 meters, we feel lucky.
At 7:45 a.m. a wake up call brings us back to life and I have my first shower while trying to hang on to a railing. Easier said than done, but there is even a bench in the shower for really rough days. After breakfast I attend a lecture about Southern Birds.As a self professed bird nerd, I sit in the front row and listen to descriptions of birds we are likely to see at any moment. I am the most excited about the albatross - there are 3 different species here that we are likely to see. Sadly, we also learn that these birds are in danger of going extinct. The population is dwindling rapidly, mostly due to long line fishing. The birds get trapped in the lines and drown. New regulations are forcing fishermen to cast their lines only at night. We also learn that petrels, or tubenosed birds, get their name in a most interesting way. Jesus is not the only one who walked on water - so did San Petros - hence the term petrel as these birds appear to be walking on water.
In the afternoon, I take part in a Citizen Science project. There are 4 such programs on the ship, collecting data for Stonybrook University. It is too expensive to send scientists to the area to collect data, so the ship puts the tourists to work, and we get to participate in collecting data while we cross the Drake Passage. I help with the bird survey, which involves hanging out on the aft deck of the 5th floor and counting birds. Sounds a little boring, but to me, it was heaven. We saw several giant petrels and two species of albatross. We get to do this every day. The data is then sent to scientists and it helps them to do their research. There is also a whale identification program, cloud research for Nasa and water sampling. It’s a great way to pass the time and a way of giving back. It’s ecotourism at it’s finest. Birds in flight are my favourite thing to photograph, but I soon learn that photographing birds while on a moving ship is a whole new process. Trying to keep my balance while holding my huge camera and lens is a next level workout.
Fun Antarctica Facts
The White Continent has the thickest ice on the planet - 15 669 feet thick to be precise.
Antarctica has the lowest elevation on land - Denman Canyon is 11 480 feet below sea level.
Antarctica is home to 90% of the Earth’s ice. If it were to melt, the oceans would rise 213 feet. The amount of ice on the continent doubles in the winter.
Antarctica is cold. The coldest temperature was recorded at Vostok Station - 89 degrees Celsius. BRRRR
Antarctica is a polar desert. Hoarfrost is a major source of precipitation.
Antarctica also holds the record for the windiest place on Earth. The highest wind speed measured was 199 miles per hour. Hold on to your hats!
The white continent is home to the 5th largest lake in the world. Lake Vostok is 225 km long and 914 meters deep.
Antarctica used to be attached to South America, and the mountains on the white continent were once part of the Andes.