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Antarctic Journal

February 14, 2003

Back to "Civilization"

Giant petrel
An iceberg that Dan encounters displays brilliant shades of green and blue.
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I'm standing in the bridge of the research vessel L.M. Gould, steaming home. There's only one chair here, a bucket seat located exactly in the middle, for the mate, who operates the ship. Anyone else who wants to sit has to be satisfied perching on a counter, legs dangling down. Most visitors to the wheelhouse, as the bridge is called here, find the view through the dozen or so picture windows too riveting to stay seated for long anyway.

Before us we have four full days of travel. Its about 900 miles from Palmer Station to Punta Arenas and the ship only goes about ten miles an hour, no faster than a sprinter. If you could pedal on water and didn't stop for sleep, you could beat the 3,000 ton vessel on a bicycle (though you'd have trouble fitting all the cargo in saddlebags). Fortunately, there are distractions. In the lounge there's a large-screen TV and a decent collection of videos and DVDs, including some recent releases. There are computer terminals for sending email and a foosball set in the hold (a tournament was recently completed but the game is a perennial pastime on the Gould).

Despite the length of the trip and the availability of diversions, I spend most of my time sightseeing from the wheelhouse. I lean against the blond-wood window sill on the starboard side and scan the sparkling water with a pair of binoculars. Then I cross the room and continue watching from the port. The first day animal life and strangely sculptured icebergs are plentiful. Seals nap serenely on floes, apparently uninterested in our presence. There's a big black rock sitting on one iceberg. I wonder how it got there. A pod of several humpback whales intersects our path and briefly trails the ship. Another pod of humpbacks breaches, something I've never seen before. Off our starboard side, they shoot straight up out of the water until they appear completely suspended in the air. Then, they crash down on their backs with a huge splash. Why a 40 foot animal weighing upwards of 25 tons would leap into the air is almost beyond comprehension, though they appear to be having a good time.

As the sun sets we approach the Drake Passage, passing the last land we'll see for two days. The swell picks up and the ship begins to rock, but fortunately the barometer is rising and our crossing is blessed with good weather. Sea birds accompany us much of the way, including a huge shimmering white wandering albatross with wings that could be eleven feet from tip to tip. The majestic glider dips and climbs just above the waves, hardly ever flapping its huge wings.

On the third day we sight land again, steam around the perimeter of Tierra del Fuego and enter the Strait of Magellan. "Civilization" makes its appearance in the form of dozens of oil rigs, some spouting flames, between the shores lining this famous waterway. Jim From, a mate who has spent years tending oil rigs with special tugs, says the world's most productive offshore well is somewhere nearby. A Chilean pilot joins the ship near midnight on the final leg of our journey. He takes charge of the boat until sunrise, when we arrive once more at Punta Arenas.

It's been five weeks since I've seen a road, a car, a restaurant or even a new face. Before the onslaught of family life, chores and all news all the time envelops me, I wonder what I've learned at the bottom of the Earth. Despite a new communications system at Palmer Station, making phone calls cheap and easy and permitting the internet pipeline to pour into the Antarctic, the research base is strangely cut off from the outside. Condensed editions of the Christian Science Monitor and a news digest called the Daily Snooze circulate in the dining lounge, but they generate less interest than the New York Times crossword puzzle. I, too, have ignored the news and I wonder what I've missed. While my friends have been transfixed by urgent reports of war and disasters, I've been steeped in details of the diet of giant petrels and the breeding habits of Adelie penguins. Penguin researcher Bill Fraser thinks he's found a link between global warming and a 30-year decline in Adelies. If he's right, he may have discovered the most conclusive proof so far that climate change could sever threads in the food webs that link living things around the world together. Thirty years from now, what passes for news today may appear to be a footnote compared to these results.

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