Checking Your Expectations: An Antarctic Cruise

By: Watkins Trinas


I could see two nautical charts on the ship's navigation table. They showed these waters have yet to be surveyed. The concerned captain relies on depth soundings to chart a safe course. This channel is new to him, though he?s sailed the Antarctic many, many times.

Oncoming dusk makes it harder to see, then the heavy snow starts. The falling flakes quickly accumulate on the bridge windows. We can barely see the icebergs that fill the channel ahead. We can rely on the radar to clearly show the floating impediments that loom ahead. Orange blotches, the program?s choice for icebergs, fill the screen. Ahead, we can see a super-sized orange glob, filling the screen. The berg is three kilometers from the ship.

The captain finally issues a quiet order at one kilometer. The ship changes direction with the adept handling of the helmsman. Peeking through the foggy snow, a tabular iceberg looks like a shy ghost. These types of bergs are only visible in this area of the planet. The top is extremely flat and wide, and the sides rise straight up. This one is over one hundred feet tall.

Antarctica has amazed me again. Attempting to reach the Antarctic Circle, we have been cruising aboard a polar-class vessel. We hope to reach that imaginary vortex on the bottom of the globe. We?ll pass some of the most desolate and inhospitable areas in this world as we travel. Antarctica was first seen in 1820. It took another 79 years before someone wintered over there. Explorers searching for the southern pole struggled and scientists were the next to approach Antarctica. It used to be that only very rich individuals could come to Antarctica, that?s changed. For about the same cost of visiting a Caribbean island, you can see Antarctica.

A manta ray with a curved tail is a little bit like what Antarctica looks like. Five hundred miles of ocean sit between South America and the very end of that curved tail. The area is known for its perpetually bad seas and is called Drakes Passage. ?The slobbering jaws of hell,? as the waters are also known, extract your true payment for wanting to reach Antarctica. One of the passengers told us all to stow everything and secure the latches on the cabin portholes before they went to bed.

Our ship left the Argentine port city of Ushuaia and passed through the Beagle Channel. Later we reached open ocean. The ship traveled on for two more days in extremely unsettled waters. Near gale-force winds were our constant companion. Ocean spray shot over my fourth deck window as waves crashed over the bow of the ship. Though it usually depended on how seasick you felt, you could see swells that were between fifteen and forty feet.

Two days out from South America brought us into the Southern Ocean. A coastal archipelago was a welcome sight that first morning. The land mass seemed to have calmed the waters a bit. Wispy clouds shielded high mountain tops. The smooth, white glaciers showed stark contrast from the dark, angular mountains that stuck through them. The frozen ice slabs fell into the sea. They were chopped and cracked in appearance. It looks like a huge mountain range has been plopped into the middle of the ocean.

The trip to the continent is similar, according to one passenger, to the labor of childbirth. Antarctica?s stats show it to be the windiest, highest, driest and coldest continent of all seven found on our planet. Getting the same amount of precipitation as Death Valley does each year makes it quite dry. Yet, Antarctica holds seventy percent of the world?s fresh water. No animals stay all year long on Antarctica and there is no indigenous human population. No one even owns the land.

Depending on how the weather is on a single day, shore landings and sailing routes are altered. We were warned to be flexible with when we expected to land, luckily we were right on time. Those groups to which we?ve been assigned meet on deck. My ten member group climbs into an inflatable boat. The powerful outboard quickly crosses the quarter mile to land. With that last step, I join a small group of travelers that can say they?ve actually reached Antarctica?s landmass.

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