At sea in Antarctica

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

At sea in Antarctica
January 4, 1997

[Editor's note: Bill and Nancy Holmes recently had the opportunity to get passage aboard a research ship bound for Antarctica. Following is their report of the journey.]

We settled in easily to life
aboard the ship
"The great affair is to move" — R.L. Stevenson

"Ya got to move, ya got to move, ya got to move" — The Rolling Stones

These lines ran through my head this morning as I heard the vessel Gulvarino grumble to life and felt the soothing rocking motion of the ship passing through open seas. We had been four days at anchor in Bahía Fildes outside Frei Base. Our initial excitement at simply being in Antarctica began to be replaced by a need to move on — made stronger, I'm sure, by the fact that we have no idea of the ship's itinerary and when and where we are going.

Thankfully each of the four days at Frei we managed to fill with new experiences. Our first day, we spent touching land in our brief visit to Bellingshausen; the next with Martin and Hika, the German scientists, to explore their Antarctic tern site and to have our first encounter with the elephant seals. On Thursday, we had a private charter in the Zodiac with Rodrigo and Herman to the German penguin research site on Ardley Island and our visit to Artigas, the Uruguayan station. And yesterday morning, back to the Argentinian site, a place that for the Chileans is full of political significance, but for us meant a chance to explore the beach alone on a long stroll.

I think we will spend today and the next day anchored here in the bay off Prat Base, the Chilean station on Greenwich Island. Then I believe we'll head back to Frei to meet the Isaza with its crew from Inach (the Chilean Antarctic Studies Institute). Then I guess we wait until the Lanero arrives with its newly repaired motor. No one knows when this will be, but our two-day visit to Antarctica is turning into 10, and at $60 each day per person it's becoming a very expensive venture.

Elephant seals
For the Chilean navy, understandably, our visit here is highlighted by visits to the different bases. Inquiries about our schedule are punctuated by these events. These visits are an insight into the human population of Antarctica and the development of this unique "international" continent. For us, of course, the main interest is in the unique fauna — especially the penguins and seals — and the stark and stunning landscape of ice caps and glaciers breaking into the sea.

Of course there is also our life aboard the ship and this amazing opportunity to share the lives of the crew (la tripulación). The possibilities for interaction and to practice Spanish are unlimited, but dependent on one's energy. Too often in these last days I've been feeling tired and slightly sick. We've been spending much of our time aboard in our cabin or watching movies with the crew, during which we all stare at the flashing subtitles. Still, my ability to make myself understood is at its all-time high and I am rewarded during our visits to the bases by being able to explain our trip and understand the conversations. Often I am told — surprisingly — how good my Spanish is, as someone interrupts a colleague about to struggle in English to say that I speak castellano. A nice feeling, but still I realize how far I have to go.

Once we do finally set sail and set our course due north we will again spend two days to cross Drake Passage. We will probably stop as well at Puerto Williams, where I would like to disembark, but only if we can get money in U.S. dollars from the bank to pay the ship. Otherwise it's another day through the Beagle Canal and Strait of Magellan back to Punta Arenas. Hardly a punishment. We'd then take the bus back down to Ushuaia to reach our point of departure for the bicycling. Time and money, money and time ...

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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