PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Antarctica Journey, Day 4: Drake Passage

Today we continued our journey through the Drake Passage. To be completely honest, I had one of my better sleeps in a long time, and a large part is because of the rocking of the boat. It kind of reminded me of the days when I had a waterbed.

Organizers tell us that the waves are not as big as yesterday. However, the rolling nature of them, and the surge,  made it feel even more powerful to me. But it was a gentle roll that I am learning to enjoy, even as I have almost crashed into a few people while walking.

The focus of today has been getting on board with a lot of the naturalists, scientists and conservationists who are part of the cruise. In fact, it was so packed that I had to get takeout for lunch in order to attend all of the classes that I wished to attend.

We had a class on bird identification, and it was one of those times when I wished my sister, Gretchen, was with me on this trip. She is so knowledgeable of birds, but as organizers shared a lot about the different ornithological life we will encounter, I gained a greater appreciation for the birds we will most likely see.

One of the birds we will see is the wandering albatross, which has a wingspan of 3½ meters, the largest of any bird on Earth. I also learned that some albatross have a set of salt glands, like an extra kidney, on top of their heads, because of the saltwater they consume, which in turn is spit out through their mouths. Because they expel the phlegm through a small mouth and they have wide heads, the species of bird can be identified because their feathers have been marked by the spit on their faces. Birds are fascinating.

I also attended some classes where we learned about the citizen science project in which we will help assist, thus becoming reporters of what we see in the wildlife that we encounter as well as cloud formations, which will help with information about climate change.

Snippets of learning today included that Antarctica is the windiest and coldest place on Earth, which I sort of knew; that whale tails are like fingerprints, so individuals can be identified; and the most colorful species in Antarctica are invertebrates underwater. Above water, most everything is either white or black.

The class on the history of Antarctica was particularly fascinating. I could write endlessly about it, as we learned about the geopolitical situation. But the one takeaway that will stick with me forever is how Antarctica got its name.

For many years, it was known as Terra Australia, which is Latin for southern land. However, for some reason that moniker was given to Australia, so they had to come up with a new name for Antarctica. And ended up being named something that means “not the place with the polar bears,” since Arctic means Ursa Major pole star bear-“polar bear.” And this is NOT that place! I missed the day in school when they told us that was how the name originated.

In addition to all of the classes, I had a 25-minute session at the spa, where I had a wonderful conversation with the woman who provided my service. She is from the Philippines. She signed up for a six-month term on the boat to be followed by 2½ to 3 months off. At that time, she returns home to her family, including her 5-year-old child. She said it is hard, but she is able to make money to support her family during the time she works on the ship. She had worked for other cruise lines and said there is no comparison. I was happy to hear that what I had heard about Hurtigruten Expeditions was accurate and that the company is a just employer. The ship is a veritable United Nations, with 162 crew members from 24 nations.

In preparation for landing tomorrow, we had to vacuum all of our clothing to ensure that we do not bring any foreign species aboard with us. The organizers are very diligent in their care, abiding by international law, to provide for safety, with the priority being the care of the continent itself.

We also had a meeting for everyone who is selected to go camping. I think we all felt like we had had won the lottery. It was exciting to learn about the process. We will arrive at 8 p.m. and leave by 6 a.m. and cannot consume any food or defecate. Several of my new friends are in the group. (I knew at least half of the people at the meeting!) I pray it happens as I am SO excited. But I am tempering my enthusiasm as much as possible with the realities of the volatile weather.

Beyond all of that, I have had a great time getting to know more people and deepening relationships with the people I have already met, including another dinner with our German friend. My brain is getting a heavy workout as I am constantly speaking two languages. I have trouble enough with one.

We’ve also been rolling past icebergs, and I was fortunate to be one of the few people to see the very first whale sighting this afternoon — a humpback whale. It just popped up briefly, but it was so cool to see. They are called  “announcements whales,” since they disappear just as they announce they are there.

I need to wrap this up and head to bed because tomorrow is our first landing. It sounds like the weather may be challenging, but organizers constantly have one plan or another, and I am hoping that we are able to set foot on the continent. In any event, I am just excited to be here and learning so much.

One thought on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Antarctica Journey, Day 4: Drake Passage”

  • Carol January 8, 2024 at 11:52 pm

    What an amazing trip!


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