Friends, I have some good news, and some bad news. The good news is, new blog post! You finally get to hear an update on our temporary life at sea! And more good news: photos! Soon, you can do what every lawless, free-spirited blog reader is born for: scrolling through these verbose blocks of texts until they are mere black-and-white blurs between what we really came here for. Pictures!
But, Susan! you cry at the cold, indifferent screen before you. I have scrolled this post already—you needn’t doubt it was my sole intention upon opening this missive to seek out the images that you, miserly creature that you are, have withheld until now (your poorly-drawn, boorish cartoons do not count)—and have found nothing but the dense verbiage to which I have been so hopelessly resigned henceforth. Surely you know I would not be reading this drivel at all right now if there were even a single picture of a blurry penguin to ogle!
Well, that’s the bad news. Here, aboard the Lawrence M. Gould, we don’t have a lot of bandwidth to play around with. So at least until we get to Palmer Station, you’re going to have to use your brain-theater to see envision those pretty pretty pics. You know, like they did in Ye Olde Days of blogging.
So. After passing out on the night of our arrival in Punta Arenas (or “PA,” as the cool kids call it), we were picked up the next morning at our hotel and brought to a warehouse by the pier. It felt very official (thanks in large part, no doubt, to the gleaming USAP insignia plastered on every surface in the place). We were then brought upstairs to a small conference room overlooking the warehouse for our final medical check.
Now, long before we’d arrived in Punta Arenas—long before we’d even received our plane tickets—we’d undergone a process of “Physical Qualification,” or “PQ,” to demonstrate our fitness for Antarctic deployment. This included a full medical history; immunization records; blood tests; dental x-rays; an EKG; and for anything marginally anomalous, a letter from our physician effectively saying, “Don’t worry, she’s good.” If that doesn’t sound too bad, then I’ve failed to capture the essence of the experience, because it was the worst. Lots of calls back and forth from the folks in charge of medical clearance, current and past doctors, and me in the middle, just silently pleading that no un-dotted i or un-crossed t would stand between me and this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But for all my grousing, I get it. Antarctica is just about as remote a location as it gets, and Palmer Station perhaps especially so, logistically. Some of the other American stations on the continent have airstrips, so at least some flights can come in and out. But it takes at least four days by sea to get to Palmer from, well, civilization. There’s a doctor on station, but certainly not the facilities of a full hospital. In that isolation, it’s better to be cautious.
So when we had our last medical check in PA, there wasn’t much left to do. Everyone who hadn’t brought proof of the seasonal flu vaccine stateside got a quick jab, and we all had our temperatures taken (with the sobering knowledge that if anyone’s temperature was too high, they’d be turning right around and flying home). That done, we headed downstairs for the next leg of preparations.
A lot of people have asked me (since, as I’ve mentioned, I babbled about going to Antarctica approximately always) about the clothing situation. Did I have to buy a bunch of intense gear before flying down? Thankfully, no. USAP supplies its participants with all the Extreme Cold Weather gear, or ECW, before embarking, which we get to use for the field season and return when we arrive back in PA. So for about an hour—and with the help of two of the most patient men in the world, Paulo and Sebastian—the soon-to-be passengers of the Gould tried on a litany of ECW. Steel-toed boots too big? Paulo and Sebastian grabbed you a pair in a smaller size. Glove liners too small? Paulo and Sebastian got you the next size up. The zipper on this jacket’s broken, and could I maybe get a second pair of these fleece pants? Paulo and Sebastian have you covered!
(I know, it stinks not having pictures. So just imagine the “shopping montage” in a movie. You know—the characters try on different outfits, surrounded by an entourage that provides wordless feedback? Like, imagine me with an enormous red parka that’s several sizes too big, and holding up my arms in a way that just says, “Eh? What do you think?” And Paulo and Sebastian cross their arms and shake their heads in a way that says, “It’s not the one.” And when I’ve finally found the pair of mucus-green rubbery overalls that fit just right, Hannah nods sagely and gives me the thumbs up. You get the idea.)
Bon Voyage, us!
That night, we slept on the boat while it was still moored in PA, and in the wee hours of the morning, we set off.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve never been on a boat overnight, so everything about this experience has been novel, though far from unpleasant. Hannah and I are sharing a bunk on 02 deck of the ship, on the starboard side (that’s the right side, for all you landlubbers.) It’s tiny—tinier than my freshman year dorm room in college—but we’ve got our own restroom, plenty of outlets, a desk and chair, and even a TV! (Before you get too outraged at the luxury: the TV shows footage from cameras mounted on different parts of the ship, as well as a few screens that get into the nitty-gritties of maritime life. Windspeed and ocean depth, and a bunch of other metrics that are so much sci-fi-looking gibberish to me.) Plus, we have our lifejackets and “survival suits” in here, in case we ever have to abandon ship. (I overheard someone referring to these survival suits as “gumby suits,” and I can see why: it’s an overlarge body suit with oven mitts for hands that you’re supposed to zip yourself up into if you ever need to go into the water. They’re insulated, but not particularly flattering).
There are railings everywhere aboard the Gould, and what a blessing they are. Now that we’re on the rough seas of the Drake, you can feel like a pinball walking down the hallways, bouncing from one wall to the other and back again. And then there’s the bizarre experience of climbing the stairs. Depending on the motion of the ship, one moment, you fly up the flight breezily, as if your feet need barely make contact to propel you upward. The next moment, you feel as though someone has cranked up the dial on Earth’s gravity, and just peeling your foot off the step is a small workout. Some bigger open spaces, like the galley, have no easy handholds (though the seats are all thankfully all fastened to the floor), so you feel like a toddler taking her first steps, swaying this way and that, speeding up and slowing down in a manner not quite rhythmic enough to anticipate. No wonder all the tables have sturdy cupholders built into them, and placemats with good friction that can keep your food where you want it, and not in your lap. And believe it or not, the food is actually pretty good. We’ve had a varied diet these past few days, with BBQ chicken, curries, soups, pizza, and pasta, and options for the vegetarians. We get three meals a day, plus plenty of pickings for snacking in between. (If only my appetite were up to the task. Dramamine and Bonine are godsends, but, this is the Drake Passage…)
The crew in general are efficient, friendly, and tight-knit. It’s no wonder that the passengers who have come through before are already friends with many crewmembers, who welcome them back with smiles and jokes and reminiscences of past voyages. As for us newcomers, we’ve been treated with the same friendliness and hospitality. The seas have been rough, it’s true, but in every other respect, the journey has been as smooth as possible.