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  • Rough Water: Crossing the Drake Passage

    The Drake Passage is the 600 mile wide channel between the tip of South America (Cape Horn) and the South Shetland Islands. It connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Until the Panama Canal was built, ships had to travel around Cape Horn to get from one ocean to the other.

    The Drake is notorious for rough water. When I left Ushuaia, Argentina on December 19 for Antarctica, I was apprehensive about the passage. Would I encounter fierce storms or "Drake Lake?" Like my shipmates, I slapped on a seasick-prevention patch as soon as the ship set out in the Beagle channel and hoped for the best.

    Although I thought I had secured everything in the cabin, I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of various items rolling and crashing about the the cabin. I couldn't walk because of the roll of the ship, so I crawled from my bed to gather and secure the items. I learned never to leave the lid of the toilet open on a ship, lest the medicine cabinet fly open and empty its contents into it!

    When morning came (which is difficult to tell with the nearly constant daylight), the rolling lessened just a bit. I crawled to the couch and shot some video. My cabin was on deck 5 in the bow of the ship, so the windows point slightly skyward. So when sitting on the couch in a calm sea, I should see only the sky. As you can see in the video, I was able to see sky and sea alternating. That gives you an idea of the roll of the ship. You can also get an idea of the roll by the movement of the sunlight through the window.

    I later checked with the bridge and found out that the worst roll that night was 30 degrees to each side, with waves as much as 6 meters. The wind was a Force 8 gale on the Beaufort scale. The Drake wasn't as bad as it could have been, but I was happy I put the seasick-prevention patch on.

    Our Captain adjusted our course, changing the itinerary, so that the ship (M/V Polar Star) was going with the sea rather than against it. That smoothed out the rest of the passage considerably.

    The passage on the way back from Antarctica was essentially smooth, the waves being only 3 to 4 meters. and the wind a Force 6 strong breeze.

  • A Penguin in Your Zodiac?

    What do you do when a penguin jumps in your boat? Snap a photo of the penguin if the boat is landed. If you are in the boat and a leopard seal is chasing the penguin, toss the penguin back into the water—FAST! You don't want a hungry leopard seal in the boat. The seal will grab the penguin by its feet and smack it around until it's dead.

    Leopard seals supposedly perform some fancy flipping maneuver that effectively skins the penguin, but I've also read the seal simply keeps flailing the penguin until it gets ripped into eatable pieces. The prospect of such a gruesome death is probably why a penguin flees so fast and will take the opportunity to jump into a Zodiac if it happens to be around. The Adelie penguin in this photo is just curious. No one chasing him. (Photo courtesy of Polar Star expedition staff.)