Crossing the Drake Passage: Antarctica Here We Come!
“Where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.”
~Sir Francis Drake
The boom was loud, jolting us from our sleep. It was the middle of our first night in the Drake Passage, and the gently rocking waves of early evening had become more intense, with seconds between their rise and fall, like hang time on a roller coaster. It reminded me of that classic episode of I Love Lucy where beds bounce across the motel room every time a train goes by.
The vast open sea between South America’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica is notorious for unpredictable weather and sometimes gale-force winds. About 600 miles wide, the Drake Passage marks the convergence of the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans. Although it seemed powerful and at times never-ending, we learned in the morning that our “Drake Shake” was not nearly as rough as it could have been. The other extreme along this pathway to Antarctica is “Drake Lake,” and most journeys typically experience a little bit of both. On our crossing from the Falkland Islands, waves reached as high as twenty feet, and winds were over 50 knots.
Preparations for our landings were in full swing on these days at sea. We checked out the zodiac boarding area on Deck 5, placed our rented waterproof boots in the assigned boot room locker, tried on life jackets and made sure the parkas provided by Seabourn were the proper size.
Lectures throughout the day offered information on wildlife and geography, but the most important meeting was a mandatory briefing on the rules of the continent. If you didn’t attend, you couldn’t get off the ship.
Antarctica is the only continent that does not contain a nation. It is governed by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, signed by 12 countries whose scientists had been involved in research there. In 1991, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) was formed, with the goal of creating safe and environmentally responsible travel for the private sector:
“Antarctica represents a more profound manifestation of international peace than any place in the world…formally designated a ‘natural reserve dedicated to peace and science.’”
The IAATO guidelines are strict. Clothing must be inspected and boots must be disinfected before and after each landing. Absolutely nothing may be dropped or left behind on the continent, and absolutely nothing may be removed from the shore or brought back to the ship. “The only souvenirs,” the Quest’s Expedition Leader Iggy Rojas told us, “are your photos.”
Iggy also reviewed the rules for viewing penguins and the other protected species on Antarctica. Just as we experienced at Volunteer Point, we would not be allowed past the periphery of the colony. The penguins are free to wander anywhere, always having the right of way.
The next item on the briefing agenda was preparation for our landings. In Antarctica, a maximum of 100 passengers may be ashore from a ship at any one time, and ships must maintain a 1 to 20 guide-to-passenger ratio at all sites. The Quest’s passengers would be divided into color groups and assigned specific times for going ashore. Times for the color groups would vary with each landing.
The expedition team discussed zodiac protocol, explaining the proper way to get in and out of the rafts. Most of our landings would be “wet,” requiring us to step into water that could be as high as the tops of our boots. We were reminded to wear our waterproof pants over our boots, rather than tucked inside. And we were required to wear life jackets over our parkas during every zodiac outing, with our color-coded ID armbands visible on the left sleeve.
Antarctica is clearly a place where rules and safety concerns are taken extremely seriously. As Iggy and others from the expedition team spoke, there was a strong sense of responsibility and pride, a love and excitement for this special part of the world. I got the feeling that no matter how many times each of them had been there, they couldn’t wait to return.
But of all the information, it was this thought from Luqui Bernacchi that stayed with me most of all throughout the voyage:
“When you get there, your first impulse will be to start taking photos. But before you do, stop for a minute and look around. Take it all in and be present. You are in Antarctica.”