You should never take a voyage in the Southern Ocean for granted. There is a reason why the latitudes in this region are called the roaring forties and the furious fifties. The storms there are of legend. And the closer you get to the higher latitudes of Antarctica, the latitudes become the screaming sixties!
We got our first taste of it even before we left the south side of South Georgia Island. Our last planned excursion on South Georgia was a cruise up into the stunningly beautiful Drygalski Fjord with its tidewater glaciers. As soon as we turned the corner to access the fjord, we were met with headwinds greater than 50 knots. The amount of whitecaps made the surface of the sea look like meringue on a pie. Some of those winds were katabatic (1) winds coming down off of the high glaciers, but a lot of it was what you normally see in the Southern Ocean. The captain decided to bag the fjord excursion and slowly turn the boat back toward the open ocean. We all had to have at least one hand holding onto the ship. As he turned, we exchanged the upward and downward pitching of the ship for side to side rolling.
Once we hit the open ocean in the Scotia Sea, the effect of the katabatic winds were gone and we were left with only 40 knot winds; but still a rough ride. Our position was about 55 degrees south and we will have two more days of this before we get to the South Orkney Islands and another day after that to reach the Peninsula of Antarctica. Our emotions were a mix of excited anticipation and dread as we headed further south into the most perilous waters on the planet.
With nothing but open ocean and foul weather to look at, we stayed in bed or sat in the observation deck most of the time. Even getting up to go to the bathroom was an adventure. One had to hold onto something or brace against whatever was available and lunge toward the next hand hold to make your way to the potty. I recall waking up in the near dawn hours with the feeling that I needed to relieve myself, but not wanting to get up after seeing 25 foot swells through the porthole window. Our ship, the Plancius, was bucking like a mad rodeo bull. To go or not to go…that was the question! If only I could stay upright for the eight seconds it took to get to the bathroom, I could get relief.
I hadn’t planned on this. Times like these are when you rehash the decisions you made in the past to get you to this point. Should I have booked this trip on a larger ship? If so, I might have less rocking, but the small expedition ship that I am on has provided me with more shore excursions and zodiac cruises than I would have had on a larger ship. Plus, it is small enough that I am finally getting to know my fellow passengers. Maybe I should have anticipated something like this and brought some depends so I wouldn’t have to get up to go to the bathroom. But I didn’t do either of those things. Therefore, I got out of bed. And it took me more than 8 seconds to get to the bathroom. But I got there safely.
Rolling and pitching. Pitching and rolling. Rock n’ Roll. With the bathroom door closed and no porthole to look out of, you can’t anticipate which way the room will be moving. So you prepare for both. I wondered, “How did Shackleton take a leak in these waters while living in a rowboat for 17 days?” With head leaning against the wall above the commode, and leaning at a 45 degree angle with feet splayed out wide, I had one hand firmly on the sink to brace myself and the other one on Moby to help with aim. It was a struggle to hit the moving target. If the commode were a canvas, I could have made a Jackson Pollock painting on it! Now to get safely back to bed…
Once safely tucked in under the covers, I decided to skip going to breakfast and ride out the waves in bed. However, midway through the morning an announcement came over the loud speaker. The ship was changing course away from Antarctica and heading back to the Falkland Islands! Apparently, one of the passengers took a bad fall and suffered severe head trauma. He was currently in the ship’s hospital in serious but stable condition, but needed further medical help. The closest facilities were back in Stanley, on East Falkland, which was a three day sail from here. We were too far out for a helicopter evacuation.
While I was disappointed about possibly losing the chance to visit Antarctica, I realized that this could have happened to any one of us, so was understanding of the reasons to divert the ship. The rest of the day the seas were still lumpy, but waves had lowered to less than 20 feet. I used two hands on the guard rails on my way to lunch in the galley that afternoon. At that time, we still thought that there might be a chance to still go to the peninsula after we got our comrade some medical help.
The next morning, I sat with some staff at breakfast. Without anyone saying anything, I knew something was amiss. I realize they must have been tired, taking turns in the infirmary attending to their patient. The expedition staff had to sleep in four hour shifts so that a minimum of two staff members could be in the hospital sitting with the patient at all times. But no information was shared at the table that morning.
After breakfast, an announcement was made for all passengers to meet in the observation lounge for a meeting with the captain. Afternoon briefings were common, but morning ones were not. Also, the captain was not usually part of our daily briefings with expedition staff. People had questions about the itinerary for the rest of the voyage.
Our lead guide was visibly shaken as she informed us of the passing of our fellow passenger, who succumbed to his injuries the night before. He was traveling with a group from the Sierra Club. The leader of that group, who had traveled with him before, said a few words about the life of her fallen friend. She said that while this is a sad moment, he died doing something that he loved. I wonder how many of us will be able to say that when our time finally comes. Many of us cogitated on the meaning of our lives.
A sea voyage can be a metaphor for our journeys through life. Sometimes the voyage takes us to unforgettable places of exceptional beauty, like St. Andrews Bay on South Georgia. Other times we suffer through the unpleasantness of stormy waters. At any time, a rogue wave may knock us off of our feet and cause us injury…or worse. And will anyone be with us to share those beautiful moments or dark times? And who will they be?
Our lives may seem like a vapor in the wind; fleeting and able to be tossed about by the circumstances that we find ourselves in. But even if our existence on this planet is so ephemeral and may be snuffed out at any moment, shouldn’t we live our lives in such a way that our “vapor in the wind” produces an agreeable scent to those living downwind of us? Events like what just happened are catalysts for deep introspection.
Some of the passengers peppered the captain with questions. By the nature of their questions, a few gave the impression that getting to Antarctica was the most important thing in their lives. The captain re-explained that since the death happened in international waters, they were required to go directly to the nearest port, which was Stanley on East Falkland. We would arrive in Stanley just five days before the voyage would end in Ushuaia. There would be an investigation and paperwork and there would not be enough time to travel to Antarctica and back in the time left on our voyage. At best we would have to cross the most treacherous waters on earth with only the slight possibility of only spending a couple of hours on the peninsula. At worst, a multitude of scenarios were in the realm of possibility. The slight possibility of a short reward did not justify the risk that we would all have to take. Alternate plans would be made to spend more time in the Falklands.
That should have been enough to be said. Even so, I couldn’t believe that a few people were still trying to lobby the captain to make the trip anyway. A couple of others didn’t read the mood in the room very well and were laughing and telling jokes. A man had just lost his life. He was a husband, a father, a brother, and a friend to many. Sadly, it seemed like they would have been content to wrap our companion in a bed sheet and give him a burial at sea so that their trip would not be interrupted. Thankfully, those few were in the minority. Although we all shared in the disappointment of a dream that did not come to fruition, most of us focused our thoughts on our fallen companion and his family and friends. In the context of it all, Antarctica didn’t seem so important to me anymore.
Last night (Jan. 2, 2023), the Monday night football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals was postponed after Damar Hamlin, a defensive back for the Bills, collapsed on the field after making a tackle. The young man suffered a cardiac arrest and a defibrillator was used to restore his heartbeat. He remains in critical condition in the hospital. All of the players walked off the field after kneeling and praying for him. Nobody cared about playing football after witnessing that. I had a similar feeling about Antarctica.
The next day the seas began to calm. The winds abated to about 15 knots and the swells were only about 6 feet. It was deemed safe enough to go back out on deck again. After dinner, I went upstairs to the bar for the first time on the trip. I hadn’t purchased anything on the ship to this point, but I bought a round of drinks for my roommate, for one of the staff members, and one for the friend of the deceased man. There, four total strangers shared a deep heartfelt conversation about the meaning of life. And ironically, how death plays such a role in giving meaning to our lives. As a result of his death, I got to know the fallen man much more intimately than I did in life.
The following day brought more reflection about the events that changed our trip. Would we be coming back another day to go to the peninsula? For some, it is the holy grail of travel. The company offered a 30% discount on future Antarctic trips in the next two years. Two people have already made plans to stay on the ship, which heads directly to the peninsula after we disembark in Ushuaia. Too much money and not enough time for most of the rest of us however.
I thought of our fallen comrade. I knew him for the most brief of times. He was directly in front of me in the line to get fitted for boots at the beginning of the trip. We exchanged only brief pleasantries, but I could see how joyful he was to be on this expedition. He didn’t get to see Antarctica, but he certainly did experience the fullness and magic of South Georgia before he died. He walked among 700,000 king penguins, rode in zodiacs next to fur seals, visited an albatross colony and dodged elephant seals on a deserted island beach in the remote South Atlantic Ocean. He had a shot of scotch on Shackleton’s grave and had visited West Falkland. Those things are so unique, and most people in the world will never experience them. Was that enough for him to die in peace? Would it be for me if today was my last day on earth? Yes, I think it would! But I still have some other things that I want to do while I am still here.
It was then that I decided not to return to Antarctica in the future. I am scheduled to teach a college class in Sustainability this winter. Since I have already been responsible for spewing a lot of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere for this one chance to go to the frozen continent, I feel I can’t really justify a return trip. The universe has spoken.
In the past I had already previously visited the High Arctic. Making another trip all the way down here just to say I’ve been to Antarctica seemed kind of selfish. South Georgia would be as far south as I am ever going to get. And, since I’ll never cross the Antarctic Circle, I guess I’ll never be considered to be bi-Polar. That’s okay. I have the memories of South Georgia and now the opportunity to visit East Falkland. If you read my post on West Falkland (Las Islas Malvinas) you know that I was disappointed that we previously had to bypass East Falkland due to weather. Now I will get to visit there and hike Mt. Tumbledown and explore battle sites of the Falkland War of 1982.
The gentleman who died on our voyage did not take Antarctica away from me. He ended up giving me the gift of Mt. Tumbledown and East Falkland, for which I am eternally grateful. My next post about climbing Mt. Tumbledown and walking East Falkland will be my final post about this Southern journey. As I think of the gift he gave me, I wonder what gifts I can give to others, in life as well as in death. Dear readers, may whatever voyage you are on be epic and may the fragrance of your life be pleasant to those downwind of you!
For those of you who have not read the prior post about visiting West Falkland, the link to the post is below.
A Falkland Islands Frolic: Las Islas Malvinas
(1) Katabatic adjective (of a wind) caused by local downward motion of cool air; a high-density drainage wind forced downslope by the force of gravity.
9 thoughts on “On to Antarctica!…then suddenly…”
Thank you for sharing this gift with all of us.❤ May we treasure it and ponder its truth.
As I read this I thought the very same thing about last night’s game. How fragile our lives are and how we must appreciate even the small things we take for granted. Thank you for sharing the good and sad of this journey.
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I have been reflecting on your comment for the last few days. In light of how Damar Hamlin has shown remarkable improvement, not only should we appreciate the small things we take for granted, but celebrate resiliency in the face of human adversity.
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Amazing tale. I had no idea this happened on your journey. I am so sorry. I was thinking of the tragedy on the football field last night when it appeared in your next paragraph. We are all so close to life and death. I hope we will all be around to appreciate what an amazing world we live in for quite some time. Thank you for your writing about tough stuff. Its important and you have a gift! Sue
Realizing that we all have an expiration date helps us to appreciate and value the times that we do have. Thanks for your feedback and I look forward to the next time we can take a walk together and discuss this amazing world that we are in.
Thanks for sharing this. Life is important and I could not imagine having the experience of loss of life on one of my trips.
Thanks for reading and for your comment. About the same time as our mishap, a large rogue wave hit a much larger ship off the peninsula, killing one and severely injuring four others. It was even on the national news. Had we headed further south, we would have been heading straight into that storm too.
Very much enjoyed your post Mike, and agree wholeheartedly with your decision and your perspective. I can also, however, appreciate the disappointment everyone must have felt at having lost such a precious travel opportunity. My husband and I have traveled much of the world, including some very remote places and have often commented on how fortunate we’ve been in our journeys, never having experienced any serious difficulties along the way. (well we did have an earthquake while in China and had to reschedule several stops but ended up not missing anything!) I understand completely about your decision not to return and why, having had similar thoughts myself. Based on the rogue wave (which I remember reading about) and the football episode (which we’ve followed along with most everyone else, and which seems to be moving in the right direction) we have indeed received some strong messages about perspective. May we keep them in mind as we move into this New Year we’ve been granted. All the best to you and yours, and Happy Travels!
Thanks for your comments. Yes, we need to listen to the universe when it speaks. Sometimes, when a dream doesn’t come to fruition, it is often followed up by an unforeseen opportunity. My next post on the return to the Falklands will be about that. I am going to take a while before I post it, as there is so much to unpack about that experience and I want to get it right.