Postmedia columnist Daphne Bramham crosses the notoriously rough Drake Passage from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia — known as the Serengeti of the Southern Ocean — to Antarctica. Her daily reports from the 18-day expedition cover issues from climate change and micro plastics in the ocean to Japan’s continuing whale hunt, the antics of penguins and the world’s wild race to tour, and exploit, this last frontier.
CAPE HORN — Homeward-bound, we had an albatross escort. Hundreds of black-browed albatross and a few wandering ones soared and swooped around our ship as it made its way through the Drake Passage.
They are iconic birds with an enormous wingspan, long lives and their ability to stay at sea for months and even years at a time; mythic birds, revered and feared by sailors.
They’re joined by some of their cousins, the giant petrels, who are also cruising on the warmer winds and water beyond the Convergence where the Southern Ocean meets the Atlantic and Pacific.
We were spared the fury of the Drake Passage, which has a well-deserved reputation as one of the roughest and most dangerous patches of ocean in the world. Instead, we got the benign face of what sailors call Drake Lake.
Land ho! Came the call soon after noon. The horn at the bottom of the South American continent was visible on the horizon.
A couple of hours later, a pair of dolphins skipped past the bow before we rounded the horn and turned up into the Beagle Channel en route to Ushuaia, Argentina.
Three nautical miles offshore with binoculars the massive albatross sculpture at the visitors’ centre was visible. It commemorates the many sailors who have died attempting to round the cape.
A black-browed albatross was one of several hundred that soared and swooped around the ship, Akademik Ioffe, as it headed north from Antarctica to Ushuaia, Argentina. Albatrosses and other seabirds feed in the rich waters where three oceans meet — Atlantic, Pacific and the Southern Ocean.
I am the albatross that waits for you at the end of the earth. I am the forgotten soul of the dead sailors who crossed Cape Horn from all the seas of the world. But they did not die in the furious waves. Today, they fly in my wings to eternity in the last trough of the Antarctic wind.
For 17 days, we’ve travelled the route of explorers, whalers, sealers and adventurers to a continent that few ever have the good fortune to experience other than in photographs and documentaries.
We’ve seen it at its absolute best. The only blizzard we had was of hundreds of thousands of prions flying and feeding on South Georgia. There were still brown-robed chicks at the cacophonous colony of upwards of 300,000 king penguins on the Salisbury Plain.
On another morning on the Antarctic Peninsula, we saw half a dozen leopard seals stalking, hunting and killing juvenile Adelie penguins that had only recently fledged and were still awkward in the water.
Another day on the continent, minke and humpback whales dining on krill came close enough to nearly touch them.
The journey was informed by fellow travellers like John Dudeney, a research scientist, historian, author and holder of the British Arctic medal for his contributions.
But there were others as well – naturalists, researchers, members of the non-profit Bird Life International, which has projects all over the world aimed at saving the most endangered species which include both albatross and penguins.
All shared their expertise whether in presentations, handing over binoculars to get the best view, walking or riding with us in Zodiacs to explain what we’re seeing.
Helpers were enlisted to sample water for a groundbreaking study to determine the prevalence or absence of microplastics in the Southern Ocean.
Photos of humpback whales’ tails, which are as unique as fingerprints, have been downloaded and shared so that researchers worldwide can track their migration that is the longest of any in the world.
At the penguin colonies, we tried to stay out of the way of the two doctoral students counting penguins for the non-profit organization, Oceanites’ giant database of penguin populations.
All of us — not just Antarctic newbies like me — have been awed by what we’ve seen. Both Dudeney and University of Dundee professor Tony Martin, who has spent years in the region studying whales and eradicating rats, say he’d never had a trip like it when almost every species on the Antarctic wish list made an appearance. The only few that we missed were long shots at best, such as the Emperor penguin, which lives closer to the South Pole.
Yet, none of the millions of photos can convey is the scale of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions, their isolation and the stark empty landscape of snow-covered mountains, ice sheets, blue-green glaciers and a turquoise sea studded with icebergs.
None will reflect the pure pleasure of silence and what it’s like to have that silence broken by a chunk of ice calving from a glacier or a whale surfacing.
Disconnected from the internet and Netflix, traffic jams and constant bombardment from advertising, there’s time to think about big questions about what we value and what we don’t.
In our overcrowded, interconnected world, South Georgia and Antarctica are reminders that there once was a world largely devoid of humans. Every day, we witnessed the natural world in action.
And, every day we were forced to reckon with the reality that even though Antarctica is virtually unpopulated, people have changed it and harmed it whether through hunting of whales almost to extinction, the introduction of foreign species such as rats and reindeer or the effects of climate change caused by the millions of tons of carbon dioxide that we pump into the atmosphere.
Antarctica is the last continent. And it’s the last place on Earth where we still have a chance to preserve it and all its pristine, natural beauty.
Daphne Bramham is travelling as a guest of One Ocean Expeditions, which has neither approved nor reviewed her stories.
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