Having taken wildlife trips all over the world, I was really looking forward to finally visiting South Georgia island and Antarctica. It's an expensive, lengthy, arduous trip and I did a lot of research to try and select the best company and voyage. It took over a year to arrange and plan, and now, it has taken me over a year to begin to blog about it. Usually I am eager to upload my photos and share my experiences, but this experience was so hard, on so many levels, I had to internally process it for some time before I could even attempt to put it into words. It is a long story that must be told in small pieces to be digested.
At the outset, I must say, it was a fantastic and amazing, truly incredible, experience. On many levels it is probably the best wildlife trip I will ever take. On other levels, it is probably one of the most depressing. I would love to go again, actually; knowing what I know now, I think it would be a better experience. Given the cost and the other variables, I don't know that it is realistic to even hope to visit again.
I am not one to visit places again and again - especially given that there is so much to see in the world and so little time and money to do so. I had fully expected this would be an amazing once in a lifetime experience. As soon as I began to meet my fellow travelers, I learned most of them had been before, and this was a repeat visit - for some people even 4 or 5 times. It was staggering to think of the cost of that; taking one of the world's most costly wildlife journeys so many times? Why on earth? I can say now that I understand why - but I could not possibly have understood initially. Now I too long to do the trip again. Cost and all.
Unlike most trips, this trip is overwhelming. Start with the ship and the boat ride. We were on the Ortelius, a former Russian research vessel, carrying roughly 100 passengers plus crew. The ship is not fancy, and I did not want a larger or smaller ship, or a luxury ship. The ship needed to be safe and provide a place to eat and sleep and that is all. (If I had to pick again, I would look for a faster ship and one with stabalizers). Although I knew the Drake Passage was supposed to be the roughest place in the ocean, I also knew that many people inflate claims of how awful things are. People cross it all the time, tourist vessels, so how bad could it be? Honestly, I had no idea. I tried to prepare by stocking up on scopolamine patches, ginger candies of three varieties from The Ginger People, Altoids peppermints, dry biscuits, and meclizine.
We flew to the Falkland Islands, and it was very rough and windy. The pilot said he "thought" he could land. Looking out the window, there was a crashed plane from former years next to the runway. The landing was technically non-trivial and exceedingly bumpy. It was a great relief to make it safely onto land again, but when I did, the wind instantly whipped my hair straight up and then into several different directions at once. It was cold, fierce and violent. Although we had planned to have time in Falkland Islands to explore, "due to the storm" we needed to leave quickly. We made our way across the island to the port and boarded in small groups, leaning into the wind, wondering how the brewing storm would impact the journey.
The seasickness briefing was given by the ship's doctor, from South Africa, as soon as the ship got underway. Avoid caffeine, don't bend over to tie your shoes. Eat, even if you don't want to. Etc. "It isn't a matter of if you will get sick," she said, "it is only a matter of when." Usually they tell you it is worse than it will be, to prepare you, I thought. Not in this case. As the briefing continued, and moved on to safety, and how one must always, always, always have one hand free for the ship in case it lurches and you need to catch yourself, I realized the danger was very real - not just of seasickness. Despite the expensive trip insurance policy, there is nothing that can really be done if an accident happens. The doctor can try to stabilize a patient, but the wind can be too great, and the distances too great, to get a helicopter for evacuation. Stories were told of people who died because they were on the stairs when a wave hit, carrying two cups (without one hand for the ship) and they were tossed and broke their necks. These were not tall tales but actual events some of the crew had lived through. I imagined the horror of the crew having to find someone dead in the stairwell, put them in the deep freeze, and keep going.
Then there were the broken legs and hips that required the ship to turn back and go to the Falkland Islands for the nearest hospital. Everyone on the trip of course had to turn around; one injury and the trip would be over for all of us. I looked at the people around me, many of whom were elderly. I reminded myself most had taken this trip before - they knew what to expect.
Feeling somber, I went to my cabin. The captain had ordered all windows closed and ports sealed with metal - the windows could break in the storm. The outer decks were closed and we were instructed to stay inside the ship and secure all belongings. I made sure everything was unpacked and secured. Within a few hours, though, everything in the room began to be tossed violently. The chair flew across the room. The trashcan in the bathroom clattered into the shower and bounced off the walls. The drawers all flew out of the desk. Laying in my bed, I slid about a foot towards the wall, then about a foot away from the wall, or more, with each wave. I padded the wall with my pillow and put on fleece so I would be less likely to slide (it didn't help). I had patched up, and I began to feel the effects: dry mouth, and it was hard to read. What would I do on a month long ship journey if I couldn't read? (Ironically, my Kindle had died and was barely revived on the Falkland Islands. I had a near panic attack. I revived it only to find I could barely tolerate reading due to ship movement and the patch).
At meals, the ship would roll so much that the water bottle would roll across the table, or the glasses would spill over. We all learned to just pick up our glasses or plates when the waves were especially huge, set them back down and keep eating. The crew had a tough job; I didn't envy them. There were crashes and breakage.
Doors to the stairwells were super heavy, and I could only open them when the ship was leaning in the direction they opened. Then, they'd open so suddenly I'd be flung into the stairwell. I'd grab a railing and then try to navigate the stairs. I was so shocked when a wave literally lifted me up two steps, or when another tossed me down two. I had my hands on the railing, I didn't break my neck or fall, but I could feel how it could happen. It wasn't an intellectual thought anymore; I could really feel the force of the waves and it was terrifying.
Storms in the southern ocean don't last hours - they last days. And nights. 24/7. No break. It was exhausting like nothing I can describe. All one could do was really lay down and wait. I watched the curtain on my iron-sealed porthole go straight out into the room and back against the wall with each wave. Periodically, there was a crash that sounded terrible, followed by a vibration of the ship, as though we had hit something. I am sure it was just a wave hitting the bow of the ship differently, but it was so odd to feel it go through the ship, to hear the ship creaking, to know that everyone was in a similar position, depending on the crew.
Every time we fly or travel, we are at the mercy of the pilot or whoever is driving the bus or steering the ship, but on land, we tend to think about the options. If we crash, there will be help, likely soon. In the southern ocean, it is different. There is nothing nearby. When the Captain would make an announcement, it was terse, accented, and to the point. "Gale force 11 winds. Do not go on deck, decks are closed. For your safety." Once, I went up to the bridge. I took a look at the 50 foot (no exaggeration) waves coming towards the ship. I saw the white-knuckled crew concentrating on steering into them so the ship did not capsize. I looked down as the ship plunged into the trough of the wave and veered up. I felt like I would throw up, and immediately left and went back to the cabin. You can't look at the horizon when it is moving by 50 feet every minute or two. I realized, more than ever before, that this was actually a life or death type of storm, that the safety of everyone was with the experienced Captain making the right calls. The crew shining lights into the night, steering one wave at a time. I sat quietly, out of the way, and waited.
At times, the wind was so strong, we didn't really move forward, we just stayed basically in the same place, riding it out.
Half of the days on the trip were storms like that. Half of 28 days. Bad luck, yes. Exhausting. Really scary at times. Being an atheist, I did not pray. I did hope the Captain was well rested, hope that the crew was staying in good spirits, admire the tenacity of the crew. I tried to read...with various degrees of success. I consumed, and began to ration, the ginger candy.
It was incredibly hard....and yes, I would do it again, and the coming posts will show why. It is hard to explain, but I will do my best.