PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Antarctica Journey, Day 11

Our last full day on the ship started early. Very early. Around 4 a.m., both Janel and I woke up when a series of swells and waves covered our window on the fourth floor of the ship. Later, I heard that it did the same for people on the fifth floor. This is a huge ship. That was a huge series of waves. Welcome to the Drake Passage.

It didn’t really calm down, but those were absolutely the worst waves that we saw. It was apparent at breakfast that the Drake Shake had impacted a lot of people because there were a lot of open tables. The winds were up to 50 to 60 miles an hour and the biggest waves went to 24 feet but they were regularly 18 to 20 feet. In fact, they rerouted our return to get out of this earlier, but we rolled away until midafternoon.

Almost everyone I saw that day had a visible patch behind their ear to help deal with sea sickness. As someone who has a whole host of health issues, I am happy to report that motion sickness is clearly not one of them. I had absolutely zero problems with the waves. I did not take a single medication, and to be honest, I kind of enjoyed the roll and the rock of it, but that was not something I advertised. I guess I just really like amusement park rides.

The only issue I had with the wind was that you needed to see where you were going in order to have something to grab onto when you walked because you could be thrown off balance, and I have trouble walking on a good day.

In the morning, there was a series of lectures and games as well as time to pack our bags in order to be ready by 8:30 in the evening. I packed sitting on the floor because it was easier than trying to balance.

One session was a quiz on wildlife facts that we had learned at the lectures throughout the trip. It was incredibly challenging with lots of difficult questions. But I am happy to say that I did not completely embarrass my family name, having a sister who is a wildlife biologist. My goal was to get at least half of the questions right, and I got two-thirds of them, which was good for a tie for third place. Granted, I think a lot of the people who probably c0uld have done significantly better may have been in their beds at that time of the quiz. I also benefited from a partner in the quiz who knew a lot of the things I did not.

When this was over, I went to another excellent lecture on Fridjhof Nansen, the explorer whose name was on our ship. I absolutely loved that. This company has so many PhDs in a variety of areas of the sciences as well as two historians. In my conversations with various staff members, it is very apparent that Hurtrigen Expeditions takes the Norwegian culture very seriously, in terms of their commitment to environmentalism and to broadening the worldview of the people on the ship. And it treats its employees very well.

I think that strongly impacts the people who are drawn to these cruises as well. There were only a couple of people who embodied the kind of tourist you always want to avoid, and most were the kind of people that I found thoroughly enchanting.

In the afternoon, they continued with more lectures, including one on mate, the drink that is so prevalent in Argentina. We were given an opportunity to make a cup of Mate. I don’t think I will be making it very often, however.

There was a panel on climate change and because I am committed to using this forum to educate, I am going to go into greater detail about that lecture.

We learned that to call something a climate it needs to cover at least a 30-year span. Weather is short term and is different from climate. Global climate change is vast and covers the whole planet

The Southern Ocean is bearing the brunt of the consequences of global warming. Ninety percent of the warming that has happened on Earth over the past 50 years has occurred in this ocean. Three-fourths of that heat increase has been taken up by the Southern Ocean because of the way the currents work.

This impacts Antarctica because it leads to:

  • Faster melting of the ice shelf.
  • Water getting fresher and less dense due to slowing ocean current. This slows down the flow of water around the world like a conveyer belt, which impacts temperature, rainfall, storms.
  • Less sea ice. Since 1979, some areas are ice-free.
  • Threatening the ecosystem. Krill love ice and provide 50 percent of global oxygen. Less ice means less krill. The krill’s demise could collapse existence as we know it.
  • Antarctic ice melts and not just shelf but continental ice. If someone says there is more snow to argue against global warming, respond by saying there may be more snow but we lose more ice and ice is vital to our global survival.
  • The coldest and driest place (-30 degrees to -80 degrees) on Earth experiencing a melt.
  • Water levels rising. Ninety percent of freshwater in the world is stored in Antarctic water. If it melts, the level of the oceans will rise of 53 meters. Also, saltwater affects plants and fields, which become salty, and impacts growth. Unclear water develops and there is more infection.
  • CO2 greenhouse gas increasing. It increases as ice melts.
  • Ocean acidification, which hurts the ecosystem at the bottom layer of food pyramid. This means our biodiversity is under threat.

We were urged to take action by:

  • Being aware and informed.
  • Voting for climate change action. Vote like your life depends on it. Because it does.

After this powerful panel, we had a farewell from the captain and the staff, who led us into a sea shanty, where we all sang together. It was truly quite joyful after such poignant presentation. We also watched a video put together with snippets of things that occurred on our trip and again, I was an absolute awe at all that we had seen, learned and experienced.

After this, we went to our last dinner on the ship. We once again ate with my German friend, Wilfred. During the course of the trip, my German improved tremendously, but I find that I am not a natural translator in any way, shape or form.

I wanted to say a word or two about the food on the ship. It was very very good. Our last meal was a variety of choices, including Beef Wellington and Baked Alaska. One of the things that I appreciated is that they had food that was deliberately and intentionally sustainable. There was, of course, a lot of fish because it was Norwegian, and a lot of white food, because it’s Norwegian. But they also had a couple of evenings when vegan food was served and focused on international faire. It was clearly European, but I enjoyed the meals thoroughly.

I went for a sauna after dinner, and then there was a fun event where each of the expedition staff had a random fact, and we had to attach it to the person. And then they told some hilarious stories.

An amazing thing came out of that. One of the expedition members who I had never met, the guy who led the sea shanty, had, in fact spent six months in a refugee camp in South Sudan. He was there as part of the White Helmets.

Immediately after the event, of course, I beelined to him because finding people who connect with South Sudan refugees is at the heart of my soul.

What unfolded after that was what can be described as a True God moment. He and I immediately connected on a deep and spiritual level because of our work with South Sudanese and because we understood things about our privilege and about the sense of joy that comes from people under siege.

As we continued to talk, he shared that his father, who struggled with alcoholism, had died two days before. Since my own father died while I was on a trip and I was unable to attend his funeral and because of my experience with Steve and alcoholism, it took our conversation to a whole different level. Juani was a profoundly deep man who had taken his father to Patagonia, while he was in hospice, because his father had never seen it.

I was so glad to be able to be present with him, with a sense of understanding that I suspect very few people can share. And on so many different levels. His job on the ship was as a kayak guide, and so there was also that understanding of whitewater. We talked late into the night, and I was deeply moved by the strong connection we made. He asked for my card so he could stay in touch. I am so glad I had the opportunity to be there for him at a moment of grief. I truly believe God placed me there at that instance.

After our conversation ended, I went out on the deck and had my deepest wishes fulfilled. I wanted to see the Southern Cross again. It was never dark enough when we were in Antarctica, but as we were getting closer to Argentina, the sky was darker, and the clouds cleared just enough for me to look up and see the constellation.

I used to look at it when I was in Zimbabwe, especially when I was in the rural area, as well as my time in Malawi. And the last time I saw it was at the conclusion of my trip around the world, when my dream to visit all seven continents was born. To see it again as this amazing trip ended felt like the cherry on top of a journey that was 60 years in the making.

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