January 09, 2004


Note: I've added several pictures and quotes to the penguins entry as well as a couple on this page. Go look.

Wind and Waves

"That night the temperature was -75F; at breakfast -70F; at noon nearly -77F. That day lives in my memory as that on which I found out that records are not worth making." -- Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

Our first day in Buenos Aires was hot and steamy enough to give me flashbacks to my time in Houston -- fortunately all our other days there were a bit cooler - comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt. Ushuaia was cool enough for us to want a jacket, warm enough to want to take it off walking uphill -- it's built on the foothills of mountains high enough to have snow at Midsummer.

We were very lucky with our weather on the ship. We'd been scared of the Drake Passage, which can have 60' (20m) seas. That wasn't helped any by realizing that the rough seas shown in Master and Commander were supposed to be near the Horn, not all that far from where we'd be, or from running into an acquaintance who's in the Naval Reserve and who had stories about being in seas that rough near Antarctica. It turns out that seasickness patches (Scoploamine, I think) are available only by prescription in the US, but you can now get Bonine or Dramamine that's good for 24 hours. Considering the number of people we saw who felt ill even with the patches on, I'm glad we got the Bonine.

Neither of us get seasick, as far as we know, but neither of us had been in very rough seas or on a boat for days at a time. We were sort of curious, but I'm one of those people who will lay still in bed for hours rather than throw up once and get it over with. It didn't seem like an auspicious way to start a long trip, anyhow. So we sailed in the late afternoon, had no trouble with the ship's gentle rocking in the Beagle Channel, but took our pills that night just in case. It never got terribly rough -- only 3 or 4 on the Beaufort scale, is my guess based on a wall chart they had -- but quite a few people were missing from breakfast the next morning, and a few more walked out after seeing food. Neither of us ever really felt sick and we got to like the rocking of the ship -- very restful when you're in your bunk and you're rocking head to foot as well as side to side. Either that or the drugs made us
want to nap at every opportunity the first two days -- we weren't nearly as sleepy on the way back, when we took Bonine on the first day through the Drake Passage but were finally brave enough to skip it on the second and last day.

Oddly, the worst place was in the dining room, especially when
they covered the ports and set up a screen for slides during the lectures on days we were at sea. That was on the third level and our cabin was on the fifth, so it *must* have moved more but we never noticed it as much up there. It may have been just the optical effect of being in a big room.

When we got down to the islands and the mainland, we had a few gorgeous blue-sky days and several tranquil gray ones. There are no waves down there; when a wave hits an iceberg, it stops. The only time we felt some swells was when we kayaked out into the Bellingshausen sea -- that was enough motion to get me a little nervous, especially since I was in a single that day.

For kayaking they issued us drysuits that we wore over one layer of long underwear and a layer of fleece. Mostly we were warm enough while paddling, cold when we sat still. We wore more layers in the Zodis, which can move fast enough to generate their own icy wind. After we'd been paddling, they'd get us in a Zodiac and either tow the 'yaks or leave them for other Zodis to pick up and speed us back to the ship -- we'd always have to pull our gloves and hats back on for that. Brr.

In that water, which was just a degree or so above freezing, you only last two minutes or so if you all in. The drysuits are supposed to extend that to 20 minutes or more. One guy did fall in, his second day in a kayak and first in a single. But he picked the right time; it was immediately after he'd gotten in, just a few meters from the gangplank. He was first in his boat; I got in mine, paddled a little way, looked overand saw him in the water. He'd somehow ended up floating with his back against the ship and the boat against his front. The kayak guide was there almost immediately, and a Zodiac was a few seconds behind; they got him out and back on the ship right away. I picked up his paddle, so at least I
felt a bit useful. (They did ask if he wanted to go back out. He said, "Not today, I don't think," and stayed with a double for all subsequent paddling.)

We got some warm days on land, though -- I remember one which must have been in the high 40s (9 or so Celsius). After walking around a Gentoo colony for a while, several of us took off our windbreakers and sometimes our fleece jackets and just sat on some nice warm stones to watch what the Expedition Director kept referring to as "A Day in the Life of a Penguin". Most days were colder, but it never really got below freezing. I'm reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard's account of Scott's last expedition as part of which he and two other men did a trip in winter in -70 degree temperatures. I'll stick to summer down there, thanks.

Ironically enough, on the way back we got stuck in a snowstorm in Chicago. It was much colder than anything we'd seen in Antarctica and visibly was so low I was surprised they were flying at all. Our flight was canceled and we were lucky to get stand-by on one two hours later. That one took off two hours late itself -- we finally got to the runway, the only one long enough to use in that weather and so the one that all the plaes were using, and then we had to return to the terminal to de-ice again. To my surprise, we did get out on our second attempt and got home about 7 hours later than we'd expected. On the other hand, it's a balmy spring day here, with highs predicted to hit 78 (25C). That is not what I want in early January. Can I go back to Antarctica now?

Posted by dichroic at January 9, 2004 03:24 PM