Part of the adventure about going to Antarctica is getting there. And I'm not talking about the flights all the way down North and South America to Usuahia. Nor the everyday challenges of navigating around countries and customs unfamiliar to you. I'm talking about the somewhat infamous Drake Passage.
The Drake Passage is the part of the Southern Ocean that lies between the Antarctic Penisula and the tip of South America. Essentially four days (two going and two coming) are spent crossing it. But don't get the impression that it is dead time, the amount of seabirds that can be seen during the crossing is amazing, lectures about what you're about to see, or have seen abound, there are films, and amazing meals.
The bird life is phenomenal. Several different species of Albatross, including Wandering, Royal, and Black-browed are almost always present just off the ship. It is amazing to watch these masters of the air soar and dip, never flapping their wings, but using wind and gravity to propel them for thousands of kilometres. Its called Dynamic Soaring and some species of Albatross actually lock their wings in place. To watch them in even the strongest winds and stormiest of seas is indescribable. Dipping down to the ocean's surface, the tips of their wings almost touching the water, they use the difference in the wind's veolcity to gain or shed speed and then they snap back into the air, wheeling and turning.
Other species such as different petrals and shearwaters also abound, especially once the Antarctic Confluence is reached, and you can get can get crippling views of them. I spent a great deal of time on the bridge of the ship we were travelling on (for a couple of reasons), and one occasion watched a bird I didn't recognize soaring next to the window beside me. It pretty much remained there, moving a little ways off then returning, for several minutes while I flipped through a Seabird field guide until I identified it as a Soft-plummaged Petral.
Although it wasn't common during the passage there is also the opportunity to see whales and other cetaceans. On the Drake we saw Sei Whales, and Humbacks, a couple of different species of Porpoises, and Dolphins. One time, during the height of the storm, I got the briefest of views of a beaked whale, possibly Cuvier's Beaked Whale, as both the whale and the ship met in the trough of a wave.
The storm? Ah yes. The Southern Ocean has no land masses to interrupt the weather as it circles the bottom of the world (and I realize that that is a pretty northern hemispherecentric thing to say), and it is notorious for its storms, and the waves that accompany it. Crossing the Drake, where the ocean is at its narrowest, has a reputation for being rough. On our trip south to Antarctica we passed through a Force 9/10 gale, with steady winds of over forty knots, and 8 metre seas. It was, to me anyway, an integral part of the experience, and I savour the memory of it.
I was only briefly sea sick, when I spent too much time below decks, lingering in a lecture past when I knew I needed to get out. For me I found that as long as I could see the horizon (or lying in my bed) I was fine, which was the other reason I spent so much time on the bridge. If memory serves me, the bridge was on the 6th Deck, with the water line at the 2nd. We consistently had waves, or spray rather, wash right over the bridge. The ships stabilizers, which dampened lateral rolling, were constantly on. Despite this the ship rolled 30 degrees each way pretty much constantly. On occasion the rolls would get to 35 degrees, at which point things would begin lifting into the air, so setting down your binoculars wasn't an option.One of my vivid memories of the crossing is how I could look across the bridge, out the port side, and frequently see either nothing by grey ocean, or sky. It was, really cool.
Like I said, for the most part I didn't suffer, but others did. My cabin mate, a young fellow from Japan, never left the cabin, and was green. I'd occasionally pop in and leave him some fruit, bread, or crackers, and shared my ginger pills with him. After the trip he gave me a string of little origami cranes, to thank me for "looking after him" but in truth I mostly just watched him suffer. I wore acupresure seasick bands, took ginger, but most importantly kept the horizon in view, and kept food in my stomach (which I know seems counterintuitive but really seems to help).
The only other Drake Shake advice I have are these two things. First of all, enjoy the experience. It is something that only a few people get to experience, and all part of the adventure. The other is this, if you decide the seas are calm enough for you to have a shower, and while doing so you lose your balance and start to fall, if you reach out to grab one of the exposed water pipes to hold on to, make sure it isn't the hot water pipe.
Here are a couple of shots from the crossing, the ones that convinced Leah that she would never go with me to Antarctica. Try as I might to convey the spray breaking over the bridge I couldn't.
I've also modified one of them to put the horizon level.