Saturday, October 19, 2019

Straits of Magellan and the Drake Passage

There are certain places on this planet that, as my younger self read and learned about the world from books, sounded just unbelievably exotic to me and are now a particular thrill to experience in person. I felt like that when I went to Borneo last year, and I felt that way again as the LMG began its pass through the Straits of Magellan and passed Cape Horn. I mean, come on: the freaking STRAITS OF MAGELLAN! This is some legendary age-of-exploration stuff here. And I was there! As the radar of the ship's location showed (the southern tip of South America on the left and Isla de los Estados on the right)...

...and then I went up on deck to experience first hand. That's the sun setting over Cape Horn behind me...

...and Isla de los Estados glowing in that setting sun on the other side of the ship.

Total peace and beauty.

I'm glad I appreciated it for everything it was worth, because already the waters were getting rockier, and the next couple days were something else. I was on so many sea-sickness meds and was so out of it from that and the constant movement that honestly the whole thing was a total blur. But here's a little bit of what it was like to go through the Drake.

At one point I walked into the galley as one of the first really big swells tossed us, and several bowls of fruit that had been on shelves above the tables all went soaring across the room and the fruit landed and started rolling everywhere. One of the ship's crew came in right behind me and I regret not having stopped to take a video of us trying to pick up all the fruit. Every time we would reach out for an apple or orange, the ship would roll and it would dart away from our hands. It took forever to clean up. I can tell you definitively, though, that prescription anti-nausea meds for sea-sickness (despite giving you terrible dry mouth and dilating your eyes so you can't see anything up close and making you too tired to focus on much of anything) WORK, even if they make you feel like a zombie.

The upper decks of the ship were closed while we were rocking and rolling through the worst of it--too much danger of someone getting tossed overboard, which would have been a death sentence. We did manage, though, to complete a Drake Passage survey--one of the science projects that happens on the LMG: every hour or so, we released sensors into the water that recorded temperature as they sank, plus we did water samples several times/day. There were multiple shifts of volunteers, so I signed up to help with that and am glad I did. That was a good excuse to get a couple breaths of fresh air and a legit reason for being briefly on deck as we held on tight for science!

Other than that, I just slept as much as I could through the worst of the Drake, which was certainly not even as bad as it could have been! I wish I had more pictures of it, but I was too out of it to be able to think about how to record the experience.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Aboard the Lawrence M. Gould

The LMG is the smaller of the two icebreakers the US Antarctic program leases for its marine operations around Antarctica. (The larger--the Nathaniel B. Palmer (aka the NBP)--is too large to dock at Palmer; to remedy that and make Palmer access more flexible, all science will pause at Palmer the summer of 2021-22 for the build-out of a new pier that can host the NBP.)

But in the meantime, only the LMG can take passengers to Palmer. Once I got to know it, it felt like a cozy-enough ship. It has a lounge...

...and of course a galley...

...and a bunch of cute staterooms, each with a bathroom.

The problem, for me, was that there were more of us (the ship crew, the Palmer summer station support crew, and two scientists coming down early) than there were stateroom spaces. And the way they increase passenger capacity is by creating berthing in the cargo hold, in shipping containers outfitted with bunk beds.

Since I was one of the few support staff on the ship who had never been to Palmer, my lowly status earned me a bunk in the cargo hold, along with the two female scientists. It was clear to me everyone else knew what a miserable situation this was going to be, because people in the staterooms kept telling me that being in the hold is actually great because it's a smoother ride through the Drake (the rocking of the boat being less intense on lower decks of the boat). But I couldn't help but notice that none of the people who were in staterooms chose to relocate to the open bunks in the cargo hold. And there was a reason for that. It was miserable. The station manager tried to help the three of us in this container out by giving us a container with a bathroom, so that we didn't have to climb the stairs up to the main deck every time we needed to pee. But that ended up backfiring because the plumbing in the bathroom didn't work and it ended up leaking all over and stinking up the container the whole trip. Plus the sound of the ship's engines was incredibly loud down in the cargo hold, we did end up having to climb the dangerous staircase up to the main deck every time we needed to pee (a seriously precarious task while we were rocking and rolling our way through the Drake, so that it felt safer to just stay on the upper decks as much as possible, negating any potential benefit of having a "room" on a lower deck), there was so little space in the container that if one person needed to walk through, the others had to get into their bunks to let her pass, and all we had to hold our stuff was a gym locker each.

But, that was just how it was for the nine nights we spent living on the LMG (the last night of our time in Punta Arenas, the five nights at sea--rather than three because of a late departure and a rough passage across the Drake--and three more nights once we arrived at Palmer). One of those things about Antarctic adventures you just have to suck up!

I was finally starting to get to know my way around the ship as we navigated along Tierra del Fuego (if you have really good eyes or can expand this picture, you can see our route starting in yellow and then turning red)...

...and kept wary eyes on the weather forecast for the Drake passage. The downward-pointing beige bit coming from the top of the frame in the picture below is southern South America, the little bit of beige coming up from the bottom of the frame is the peninsula of Antarctica, the space between them is the Drake Passage, and the color red is bad news!

And so we braced ourselves for an "extra adventure-y" voyage south!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

South from Chile

Holy moly, the past two weeks have been quite a ride. There is so much to catch you up on. I will just start to do that little by little, post by post. I am all settled into Palmer Station now, but when last we spoke I was just leaving Punta Arenas, Chile. So let's back up and take a step toward getting you caught up....

For our last night in Punta Arenas, we slept aboard the LMG. (Oh, and a correction from the last post: I've since learned that the US Antarctic program does not actually own the two icebreakers it operates on the peninsula--just leases them.) This was handy for me since I am working in Cargo at Palmer this season. At McMurdo and South Pole cargo is transported mostly by plane, but Palmer is a marine station, so I began my ongoing crash-course in marine cargo operations. At first this just consisted of observing the movement of a RHIB that had been transported north for the winter back onto the ship for its return to Palmer for the summer.

Speaking of my job...I was hired in August by the Peninsula Logistics Coordinator (a full-time position with the program) as Palmer's Cargoperson for the summer, to be working under an on-site Cargo Senior. A couple of weeks after I signed the Cargoperson contract, I heard through the grapevine that the woman who hired me had quit the program. So--I was assured by the station manager when I reached out--things were going to be a little chaotic but manageable. Then, as we were starting the flights south to Punta Arenas, the guy who was supposed to be Cargo Senior apparently decided he was too overwhelmed by the chaos side of things and he decided at the last minute not to get on the plane. Long story short, the station manager ended up convincing me that under the circumstances, the best option would be for me to step into the Cargo Senior role, be able to complete turn-over with the winter Cargo Senior to start learning the job, the winter Cargoperson would stay an extra few weeks, and the program would fast-track the hiring of a summer Cargoperson to take over the job I was supposed to do. So I got on the boat with a 3-inch stack of operating documents to read to learn about the much more desk-, paperwork-, and computer-system-heavy job I am now going to be doing. Eek!

But I wasn't about to bail as well, so when the time came, on a day too windy for the LMG to leave the pier unassisted, a tugboat came along to drag us out to sea...

...we watched Punta Arenas fade off into the distance...

...we did a life boat drill in case of having to evacuate the ship (and by the way, for those of you who know him, doesn't the guy second from right look EXACTLY like my brother, in this picture?)...

...and off we sailed into the Southern Ocean.

Well, to be more accurate, we weren't in the open ocean to start with. The trip from Punta Arenas to Palmer Station generally takes four days: one day navigating the straights and islands of Tierra del Fuego; two days for the crossing of the mighty Drake Passage, aka the "Roaring Forties" and the "Furious Fifties" (those numbers referring to latitude) between South America and Antarctica, famously the most consistently tumultuous seas on the planet; and the fourth day on calmer waters again, navigating the rest of the way south along the Antarctic Peninsula.

While we were protected from the open ocean those first 30 or so along Tierra del Fuego, we were lucky to see a whole bunch of Commerson's dolphins!

But we knew the calm waters wouldn't last, as the weather forecast did not look fantastic. While we could, we visited the outside decks of the LMG, appreciating the epic sunsets.

That's probably enough for now...
Next post I'll talk about the ship itself before it makes its voyage across the Drake!

Monday, September 30, 2019

Punta Arenas

Less than 12 hours after my mom and I got home from Europe, I was back at the airport starting my fourth journey to Antarctica--but my first journey through South America, to Palmer Station (on the Antarctic Peninsula).

It was a gorgeous flight from Santiago down to Punta Arenas, on the southern point of the South American continent, the Andes soaring out the window to our west.

And a relief to end another 24 hours of air travel and be able to take a little break in Punta Arenas. This fancy new town sign was recently built in anticipation of 2020 being the 500th anniversary of the explorer Magellan discovering the straits that are named for him, the first time a European, at least, had been able to sail around the Americas from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Though the town of Punta Arenas itself is only about 150 years old, it is known primarily for being the gateway to the Straits of Magellan, so this anniversary will be a big deal here.

And we had some atypically clear weather to enjoy this sweet town.

Snow crab empanadas...yum...

And of course, the frothing seas clapping up against the edge of town, relentlessly...

I appreciate how lazy Chilean dogs seem to be, even on a day where the temps are slightly below "crisp."

Fittingly, the main plaza of Punta Arenas is centered around a statue of Magellan.

And on one side of that statue column is a human depiction of Tierra del Fuego. It's said if you rub his toe, it will bring you good luck for a safe passage across the Drake. I rubbed that toe like no one's business. And we'll talk more about the Drake in a future post.

Lots of my first day in Punta Arenas was spent aboard the Lawrence M. Gould (hereafter, the LMG), an icebreaker that sails regularly for Palmer with passengers, and otherwise hosts science experiments in the Antarctic seas. Tomorrow we will all board the LMG, sleep aboard for the night, and--if everything goes according to plan--set sail first thing Wednesday morning for Antarctica.

Behind the LMG, you can see the Nathaniel B. Palmer, the second icebreaker owned by the U.S. Antarctic Program, and an even larger ship that never comes to Palmer because the Palmer dock cannot support it. I don't know how rare it is for both vessels to be docked at Punta Arenas simultaneously, but it was cool to see.

So, this is my last evening with good wifi. On the ship starting tomorrow, I'll really only be able to text a bit, so you won't hear from me here until after I've arrived at Palmer at least five days from now (tomorrow in port, one day making our way through the Straights of Magellan, two days across the Drake Passage, and a fourth day traveling down the Antarctic peninsula to Palmer Station). Then I will spend several posts, I'm sure, catching you up on the voyage before we start covering life in Palmer.

In any case, don't worry if you don't hear from me for a week or so; I'll be back with news from the 7th continent once we get there!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019


We have had just this one evening in Warsaw, and we leaving tomorrow morning to fly back to the States. But I'm so glad we had at least this short visit. Coming out of the main train station we were greeted by a VERY IMPOSING building, Stalin's "Palace of Culture and Science," which was quite a sight and introduction to Warsaw.

But our Airbnb was on the edge of the "Old Town" of the city, so we spent the rest of our time there. I put Old Town in quotes because it (along with 80% of the city in general--unlike Krakow, which came through relatively unscathed in terms of buildings and infrastructure) was totally obliterated by the Germans during WWII, most of it in the last year of the war (1944) when there was a local uprising against the Nazi occupation...which was temporarily successful (for a couple of months) until Hitler sent reinforcements. Which demolished most of the city in retaliation for the uprising. So pretty much everything you see in these pictures has been reconstructed to look like it did pre-war. (Look for my adorable mom in this picture.)

The Old Town Main Square, with a mermaid statue that legend says is a sister mermaid to the Little Mermaid you can see in Copenhagen.

Then there's the Castle Square, where there was a flaming baton troupe doing its thing.

And then my mom and I had our last dinner of the trip, delicious crepes. Not very Polish (or were they?...I mean, there WERE pickles on the plate...), but dang they were good.

As this whole trip has been, from beginning to end. Now that all that's left is to get an Uber to the airport in the morning, it's also safe now to say it out loud: We have had basically perfect weather. It was pouring rain when we arrived in Budapest 2+ weeks ago, we got to our Airbnb and laid down to take a nap after our overnight on the plane, and when we woke up, the rain has stopped and it hasn't rained since. We've had an unblemished streak of beautiful, sunny days, which doubtless made this trip even more lovely than it already was with great company in some really special cities.

I'm sad to see it end!

But I will be back here almost without break. Next week I'll already be on a new adventure, via southern Chile back to Antarctica. So bye just for now, and see you very soon....

Monday, September 23, 2019


I'd heard from several people that Krakow is great and worth visiting...but WHOA. I was not expecting this. It's a BEAUTIFUL city.

Like any self-respecting European city, Krakow has an obligatory castle-on-a-hill. A lovely one.

I particularly enjoyed exploring outside the city center, in the former Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz, now a very hip area of young people and restaurants, along with lots of attempts to preserve the Jewish culture that once genuinely flourished here.

I ate pierogi until I was in danger of becoming a potato dumpling.

And I really liked the grittier side of the city we saw in Kazimierz. Because while the city center is very painted over, the things that have been metaphorically painted over in Poland are significant, and not something the country has moved past: the almost total obliteration of its Jewish population during WWII; 40 years of communist occupation; and even the general adoration of the late Pope John Paul II, who was Polish and lived and worked in Krakow for years before going to the Vatican...even as more and more is revealed about JPII's complicity in covering up the sexual abuse rampant in the church, and with 98% of Poland now Catholic.

We didn't have enough time to visit Auschwitz-Birchenau, but we did go to the former Jewish ghetto on the other side of the river, where the Schindler enamel factory is located. Now the factory (made famous by the movie Schindler's List) is a Holocaust museum, and Oskar Schindler's office space is preserved there.

We also made a trip just outside the city to the town of Wieliczka for a visit to its TOTALLY AMAZING salt mines. I should really do a completely separate post on this...but long story short, due to a shallow lake leaving extensive salt deposits here 13 million years ago, and the harvesting of this salt by humans for at least the past 6,000 years, and that evolving into more and more elaborate excavation deeper and deeper. Over the years, the mine was always a tourist destination and was a part of the culture and life of people here. This underground chapel--the walls, carvings, floors, chandelier crystals...EVERYTHING is rock salt!--has hosted concerts in addition to weekly services.

Horses lived their entire lives down in the mine, turning a mill day in and day out to operate the pulley system that moved things up and down within the mine, which had gotten to be 9 levels (and something like 450 feet) deep by the time (in the early 90's) when the bottom level flooded permanently and commercial operations largely wound down. I could go on about the salt mine forever; it was really mind-blowing. Suffice it to say, if you come to Krakow you should definitely visit the salt mines.

And you should DEFINITELY visit Krakow. I am definitely planning on coming back here someday again...