“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”-Sir Ernest Shackleton
It turns out the Drake Passage is no joke. It was everything and then some that Julieta said it would be. We actually got delayed by a full day before we even entered the passage because the Captain deemed the seas too rough to proceed forward like our original itinerary had allotted for. Reports eventually filtered down to us (the passengers) that the reason for the wait was because the waves in the Drake were topping out at nearly 10 meters high.
The Captain really didn’t have much choice in the matter and so he dropped the Ushuaia’s anchor and we waited out the bad weather. And then we waited some more. We helplessly bobbed back and forth a little south of Cape Horn for what felt like forever. I’ve noticed that when you really want something and you’re super close to getting it, waiting becomes that much more intolerable. But while I’m willing to take a lot of risks in life, the one thing that I won’t ever step into the ring against is Mother Nature. She’s got Hagler’s chin, Tyson’s uppercut and Ali’s speed and footwork. In short, she is and will always be undefeated.
Our big break finally came after 24 hours of worry and wonder.
I was beginning to think that we’d never actually make it to Antarctica but when the ship’s intercom crackled to life, the mood on board quickly lifted. Julieta announced that we were finally going to attempt to cross the world’s most dangerous sea and that we should all begin to mentally prepare ourselves for the rough road ahead. At minimum we were warned that it was going to take 36 hours to safely get to the other side of the Passage.
Each cabin on board has been tailored for extreme weather just like this. Everyone’s bed has big metals bars on each side of it, which is meant to keep us from falling out of it at night. There are railings in all the hallways and inside each stairwell as well. Everything in the dining hall and observation lounge is bolted down so I’m sure that the tables, chairs and couches won’t budge regardless of the size of the waves we might encounter. But as everyone quickly found out, the same couldn’t be said for the human body’s frail and fragile stomachs.
Thankfully, I happened to be one of the few (by few I mean three or four passengers) to have escaped the death grip seasickness took on the ship once we entered the Drake. It clenched down with all its might and ravaged the ship relentlessly for nearly two straight days. The angry ocean made just walking around the ship nearly impossible and every time we hit a really big wave all my things flew out of my closet and across my cabin regardless of how much I had secured them.
Now I have no idea why I didn’t get sick, I took one of the seasickness pills that the onboard nurse passed out, but so too did everyone else. You would have thought that the Ushuaia had turned into a floating quarantine center from the sight of people. Yellow faces, bloodshot eyes and that deer in headlights look overtook most people.
Everyone pretty much kept to themselves during our time in the passage itself. Staying in their rooms, and close to their toilets, seemed like most people’s strategy. Because of my natural desire for solitude I drifted away from the others passengers and hung out in the cabin I was sharing with a perfume salesman from Prague. Yes, you read that right, my roommate was a perfume salesman from Prague. Even Doctor Seuss couldn’t have dreamed this unlikely pairing up in his book Oh, The Place’s You’ll Go!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Antarctica!
Hope you and the perfume salesman enjoy your stay!
But all kidding aside, it was really rough going. And outside of the small talk with my roommate and the occasional light chatter in the dining hall, there wasn’t much going on. Only rarely did anyone ever see the really sick ones. They’d pop up for a second or two at meal time but only to grab some dinner rolls and then run right back to their rooms with their arms full of carbohydrates.
At 7:30AM on the fourth day onboard, the ship’s loudspeaker ripped through our cabin and woke me up.
Julieta’s voice once again crackled, as wanting more sleep fought for my eyes. “Good morning, good morning my dear passengers”, which is how she greeted us each and every morning. But as she continued her message, it was clear something was different today, “I am happy to announce that we have cleared the Drake Passage and today we will be arriving at Half Moon Island shortly.”
After breakfast I stuffed my long limbs into all the layers of clothes I rented back in Ushuaia, which although was only four days ago felt more like four years ago.
It took me a good fifteen minutes to get dressed. I’m desperately afraid of cold weather so I put on every layer I had with me. Underneath my waterproof ski pants I wore fleece lined sweat pants and underneath them was a layer of thermal stockings, which were tucked into both pairs of wool socks I had already put on. Underneath my ski jacket was another only slightly lighter jacket and beneath that was a sweatshirt and a thermal top that matched the bottoms. Since I haven’t cut my hair in over two years the gigantic size of my bun meant that I’d have to let my hair down if I wanted to get my wool hat down past my ears. I was so insulated that I could barely bend over to pull on the knee-high rubber boots the expedition team provided us with.
I bounced down the hallway and stairwell like the Michelin Man and once I made it to the back of the ship I finally stepped outside. An Artic blast of cool air slapped my face as I stepped into a real life snow globe. The breadth of the winter wonderland immediately sucked all the oxygen out of my lungs. Snow was falling ever so gently and there was this God-like hush that fell over everything. I’d never felt so far away. I don’t just mean far away from the places I once called home like Pennsylvania and Florida, but just so far away from the world I’d grown to know over the past 36 years.
It’s like I’d stepped into a vacuum that’s been sealed off from the rest of the world. Everything is so peaceful and so calm here; even the ocean water, which tormented us the past four days, is still and lake-like now. The Ushuaia is moored in the middle of the natural bay that the island’s crescent shape shoreline creates and I can see Half Moon Island off in the distance. The first zodiac (rubber dinghy) is sliding towards it and the tiny waves it’s making feel like there rippling across all of eternity.
Technically today’s landing is considered to be part of the South Shetland Islands and not Antarctica, but I’m not one to split hairs. This feels like Antarctica and we’re only 75 miles from it anyway. After a second zodiac takes eight more passengers, I board the third one to leave with a few other passengers and we skip across the ocean top like a perfectly thrown stone. With the wind whipping across my face, it quickly becomes the giddiest moment of my life.
My excitement only builds as we close in on land and once I jump off the zodiac I immediately spring into action. There’s an incredibly photogenic old wooden whaling boat that had wrecked at the south end of the island so I head towards that first. The cutest Chinstrap Penguins you’ve ever seen are waddling by and as I crouch down to film them in between the snowflakes I’m just so thrilled that my job is to capture exactly this kind of thing.
Each step takes me deeper and deeper into the landscape and also down the well of my own creativity. I’m finally feeling the way I’d always wanted to feel behind the camera. I’m not only creating content for myself out of love, but also at the same time this is actually considered work. I’ve managed to merge the two and blur the lines between love and work, passion and paychecks, art and ego.
And here’s the thing about Half Moon Island. This place is so much different than anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’s untouched. The thing I’ve never liked about going to see all the great wonders of the world like the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu or the Roman Coliseum is that there are throngs and throngs of sweaty tourists right there along side you. And no matter where you go, it’s nearly impossible to find a quiet moment to yourself where you can stop and take in the beauty of your surroundings. Not to mention that they’ve all become so commercialized that they’ve almost lost their magic altogether. There’s a ticket you have to buy, a line you have to wait in and rows and rows of souvenir stands that take away from the original ambiance the place undoubtedly once provided, but that’s not the case here. And since we’re on such a small ship with so few passengers, everyone is spaced out around the island and exploring their own little nook and cranny without a care in the world.
After a short hike to the top of the island to look out over thousands of chinstrap penguins, I board the zodiac for a second time and it zips me across the bay to Cámara Base, which is a scientific research station nestled in the foothills of the Menguante Cove. It’s Argentinian owned and its only open during the summer season, which is when the research is conducted. The base itself is comprised of four small buildings, which are surrounded by a couple of satellite towers. Most recently a Colombian Geologist was here mapping out the region with the use of drones.
After a few hours of exploring, I head back aboard the Ushuaia and I’m shocked by what greeted me.
It’s like a magician was on board because the great distance between myself and the other passengers immediately vanished. Buoyed by our first landing and woken up by the cold Arctic air and the return of everyone’s stomachs to normal it was like a wave of comradery burst through the ship that I couldn’t help but dive head-first into.
The dining hall, which had otherwise been pretty quiet, was transformed into a rowdy saloon at lunch where everyone was trading stories of not just their morning, but of their lives. And I swear I could almost see it. I could almost see this invisible thread being sown through us all as our spoons clanged against the bottom of our bowls of vegetable stew.
My grandmother’s favorite hobby has always been knitting. She’s sown thousands upon thousands of wool sweaters and as a child I would sit and watch her sow. She’d sit at the end of her couch with a big ball of yarn in her lap and she’d widdle two long knitting needles effortlessly together without looking. She’d create these intricate designs and the needlework she used to do reminds me of this lunch. We’ve been pulled tightly together. It started at the back end of the dining hall and by the time lunch had ended I could tell that the thread had wound through all of us.
Right then and there I knew that things wouldn’t ever be the same for me again and that we were all in for the trip of our lives.