Day 2 |
Feb 20, 2012

Drake Passage en route to Antarctica

By Peter W. Damisch, Historian and General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 57o 47’ S, 064o 06’ W
Weather: Sunny early but turning to overcast with long ocean swell and occasional wind gusts but no white caps
Air Temperature: 2o C / 36 o F
Pressure: 999 HPa
Wind: 50 km / hour

After a few, small bumps overnight from wave action, I awoke to a glassy sea with no breaking waves, only very long period swells. As a result, the Silver Explorer is making excellent time during our passage towards the Antarctic but still using our computer-controlled stabilizers to make our ride even more comfortable.

I took a quick check on the back deck to see what type and number of seabirds had begun to collect in soaring flight behind the ship. The net result was both good news and bad news. The ‘good’ is that the light winds are creating wonderfully calm ocean conditions. However, the somewhat ‘bad’ news is that our sea bird friends really prefer slightly windier and rougher conditions. In particular, we had a number of wandering albatross but not as many as all of us would like to see. These beautiful birds have the largest wingspan in the world, up to an amazing 3.5 meters from tip to tip. They fly tens of thousands of kilometers per year and remain at sea for years at time. I never tire of watching them soar, almost effortlessly, behind the Silver Explorer, diving down from time to time to feed on microscopic animals just across the surface of the ocean.

After breakfast I wandered upstairs to listen to Will, our expert ornithologist, give the first presentation of the voyage titled “Ocean Wanderers – The Tubenoses. A look at this most amazing family of birds.” Of course the ‘tube noses’ are exactly the birds that we have the privilege to observe, primarily during the oceanic portion of our voyage. A careful eye will also spot such smaller beauties as Wilson’s Storm Petrels throughout the Antarctic Peninsula. Will’s presentation generated a great number of wonderful questions after the formal lecture. Even better, Will was able to go directly outside with a number of guests to directly observe these wonderful birds in the ‘wild’. It’s always great to have visual aids to support your presentation!

I was next up in our onboard series of educational presentations titled ‘Search for the Unknown Continent’. This one is a bit of fun looking not at the modern 20th-century explorers, but rather at those earlier sailors who slowly peeled back the kilometers as they pushed to the South, not knowing the dangers or what they would find. I try to schedule historical discussions to match the very area that we are traveling in or near that day. In that fashion we can ‘walk in the shoes’ of the explorers. It’s wonderful to put one’s self into a ‘time machine’, then go back and focus on the people, emotions and motivations, not the dry dates and figures. We also have the chance to consider that people in earlier times weren’t just us with strange clothing, but individuals who had a radically different view of the world and what was acceptable behavior.

Following lunch, Conrad, our Expedition Leader, provided the critically important briefing from the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO). This material is mandatory for all visitors to the Antarctic. He also reviewed the Silver Explorer’s Zodiac operations and safety procedures in preparations for our future operations. These policies have been carefully honed through years of experience to provide a safe environment in many remote and beautiful locations around the Earth.

Soon after, the entire Expedition Team was available to assist guests who wished to borrow rubber boots for use in Antarctica. We almost always have ‘wet landings’ on beaches throughout the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands. Hiking boots simply won’t work in the surf, mud and penguin guano. Many guests bring their own pair of boots that they are comfortable with, while others rent boots from a third party operator. A third option is to simply borrow boots from the limited ship’s inventory. Of course not all sizes can be guaranteed to be available but we can usually help out in the most common sizes.

This busy afternoon continued with Stefan, one of our two expert onboard geologists, and his fascinating presentation called “Plate Tectonics – a ‘nearly’ all-explaining theory”. Geology has undergone a near revolution in understanding in just the past few decades, yielding completely new understanding about this globe that we live on. The very idea that all of us living on huge crustal plates that move about the Earth was previously considered to be completely outlandish and now is an accepted fact. Stefan provided a great review of these great new concepts along with some of the implications that affect all human beings.

Later, during the Captain’s Welcome Aboard Reception, I had the opportunity to speak with many couples from many different countries, all of whom were eager to experience enormous tabular icebergs, waddling penguins, blubbery whales and lounging seals over the upcoming days. In fact all of us, including the ‘polar fanatics’ on the Expedition Team are very much looking forward to the days of wonder and beauty that are in our near future.