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The Drake Passage

Zodiac Cruise

We boarded our Antarctic vessel the L’Austral two days ago and set out from Argentina’s “End of the World” port, Ushuaia.

Late the night prior to last, we passed into the “Drake Passage” the only place on Earth where the oceans flow in a continuous circle around any lines of latitude. The Southern Atlantic and Pacific Ocean currents crash head on into each other at this point, making it a very rough patch of ocean.

Upon waking in the morning, Darren, who was out of bed first was violently sea sick.There were a few things we had to get done today, one of which was an Antarctic boot fitting, the un accounted for sea sickness did not make this fun at all.To make matters worse, I had also started to feel unwell – something I definitely had not counted on.All around the ship, the crew had placed sick bags, in the event that some poor unsuspecting passenger was so afflicted they couldn’t make it to a bathroom.

We managed to get through the boot fitting, feeling green the entire time with out incident, that is until we attempted to go back to our cabin and the rocking in the three to five-meter swells made me the aforementioned unsuspecting passenger, needing to run around a corner and make use of one of the provided bags.

Balcony of the L'Austral by Ponant

Darren and I took to laying down in our comfortable cabin for the majority of the crossing, but this was hampered by the fact that we had to keep getting up and going to various mandatory things.The second thing on the first day, was a Bio Security cleaning, which consisted of vacuuming all of ones outer clothes, planned for landing so as not to transmit any nasties onto the white continent.As I was the least afflicted by the rocking of the ship, it was agreed (or rather I reluctantly volunteered) to go and participate in this activity on behalf of both of us.

After the Bio Security cleaning there were no more interruptions that day.The Captain’s Gala dinner was in the evening, however I don’t know how any one managed to go and have anything close to a good time – notwithstanding the sea sickness, I can remember looking outside the floor to ceiling windows of my cabin from my horizontal position on the bed, to see an almost vertical horizon!

The second night of the crossing was by far the worst, waves pounded the ship and made a loud bangs followed by a sickening shuddering noise, and although Darren and I had appeared to have finally gotten our sea legs, we got very little sleep as one could not help but be terrified by the terrific power of the ocean at this point.I was later to learn, we had crossed the Antarctic convergence, the point at which the crashing South Pacific and Atlantic Oceans run into the Antarctic Ocean, creating a kind of three-way crush.

On the morning of the second day of the crossing Darren and I managed to voluntarily emerge from our cabin for breakfast.The sea had calmed somewhat, but it was still no mean feat attempting to negotiate the breakfast at the buffet in the main restaurant.The restaurant, which is on deck two was closest to the ocean and as usual we had chosen a window seat.The waves looked immense from this point and indeed our window spent half its time submerged by the swirling ocean around us. By far the thing that amazed me most with our view from the window, was not the unforgiving ocean, but the fact that there were birds flying around trying to catch their breakfast.Still hundreds of kilometres from land I wondered if they were land based or just lived out here in the passage.

When we had finished breakfast (what little we ate of it) we went back to the cabin, not trusting ourselves not to get sick again.In the early afternoon, another mandatory activity took place, whereby we were divided into groups for the coming zodiac excursions.At least this didn’t take long and only involved getting one’s name marked off and a sticker placed on your ship card.Darren and I were in the Silver Group.We were relieved to find the entire contingent of Chinese tourists (who we had not seen at all throughout the duration of the crossing) had been placed in a separate group.

Following the distribution of the colours, Darren and I decided we were well enough (with bags on standby) to attend one of the lectures in the theatre – our chief concern being this room had no windows!The lecture was on Antarctic Geology with Susan Currie and provided all the above-mentioned insight on why we had to endure such a rough crossing through the Drake as well as insight to the different types of Antarctic ice and how it forms.I was very interested to learn that the mountains of Antarctica which rise from this unforgiving ocean, were once joined to South America’s Andes before the great continental drift.

Drake Passage

After the lecture, Darren and I returned to our cabin where we realised that the ocean swell had reduced considerably, so much so we were no longer afraid to go out onto the balcony – although we still couldn’t sit as everything was soaked with icy water.We enjoyed the cold, and most importantly fresh sea air (the air in the cabin had become rather stale) and watched the first giant icebergs approach from ahead of the ship.

In the late afternoon, leaving the Drake Passage behind us, was most mysterious as the sky, which had been grey and overcast, suddenly turned completely blue.The fog which had surrounded us, left suddenly and the day was clear.Upon looking behind the ship one could see straight into the furious void of the passage, so much so that there was a clear line in the sky one side grey and the other blue and at the rear of the ship, zero visibility like we had arrived to this place from a portal to another world, and I suppose in a way we had.

We watched in awe as the first white mountains of Antarctica approached, after two years of waiting and planning, all our efforts had finally come to fruition.Words fail me, when I attempt to describe the feeling of seeing those white peaks for the first time.

Still in the cabin, an announcement altered us to the fact that, as the weather was good and we had arrived early, we would have our first zodiac cruise.Darren and I proceeded back to our cabin to put on, what seemed every available piece of clothing, collect our boots and special zodiac life vests and head to the rear of the ship to the Main lounge which was to be the staging point for all excursions.

Zodiacs

When it was time for our group to board, we headed down to the marina to get into the zodiacs.The zodiacs seated up to ten people, (although we were told if the sea was ever at all rough the number of people per boat would be reduced) and were inflatable around the edges and hard on the bottom and powered by a large outboard motor, steered by a member of the crew.

Gentoo Penguin

No sooner had we all climbed in than we were off, scooting around the bergs looking for wildlife.On this particular trip, we saw a few Gentoo penguins sitting on a small island and a fur seal who upon seeing us almost immediately dived back into the water.We also saw a couple of crab eater seals, lounging in the afternoon sun.

The bergs themselves were of particular interest, some were tall, some weathered in all sorts of strange places, some were huge tabular structures more than a mile long, others had small pools of turquoise blue water formed as part of their structure.Some had striking blue crevices, others had elements of grey, black and yellow earthy tones and some were just completely white.The zodiac excursion lasted around one and a half hours after which we reboarded the ship.The crew had tea and hot chocolate waiting, which was a nice touch.

As we sailed further towards to white continent, an announcement was heard from the Captain, a pod of killer whales had surrounded the ship to welcome us to this spectacular place, so few people manage to visit.The captain invited us up to the deck to watch the spectacle.In every direction, large fins rose from the water, sometimes followed by a tail.At one point one of the whales popped his head up out of the water to inspect the new visitors to his territory.

Darren and I returned to our cabin and ordered room service for dinner so we could continue to watch the whales from our balcony.We enjoyed their company, and a beautiful sunset, which never really got dark until someone looked at their watch and exclaimed “It’s 1 am!” at which point we forced ourselves to go to bed, excited for the days to come.

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The Drake Passage

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