Sunday, December 18, 2011

Drake Passage (December 8-10, 2011)

I boarded the Akademik Ioffe in Ushuaia on December 8; the weather was beautiful, bright sun, light wind, and clear skies.  All promises of a smooth passage through the Drake.  We all stood on the deck as the ship passed through the Beagle Channel on our way out into the open ocean.  

We sailed into the Drake around mid-night that day, hoping not to wake a sleeping giant.  Lucky for us the seas maxed out at about 3 meters during our crossing so sea-sickness was minimal.  My Oceanites partner Paula and I spent most of the day sleeping in our cabin, as did most of the other passengers.  The first day in the Drake is often a day to rest up for the excitement that lies ahead.  The second day in the Drake was far calmer and I ventured out on the stern of the ship to do some birding.  The Drake Passage is home to some of my favorite birds—the albatross.  I borrowed a camera out of our gear bag, grabbed my binoculars, bundled up, and headed out to greet these awesome seabirds.  The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan on any bird in the world, over 12 feet!  (To understand how large this is, try this:  your own “wingspan” is the same as your height, so if 2 six-foot tall people stand together with arms wide, that will equal the wingspan of one wandering albatross!)  Albatross can spend years at sea, never touching land; they use wind currents to glide over the ocean, rarely flapping their long wings.  Seabirds such as albatross and petrels are among the few groups of birds that have an excellent sense of smell and can detect the chemical signature of food (plankton and zooplankton) from miles away in the open ocean.

On the evening of December 10 we finally crossed onto the continental shelf of Antarctica.  We were greeted by weather typical of the Peninsula: wind, choppy waves, and blowing, wet snow/sleet.  Tomorrow will be our first landing in the Antarctic Peninsula and I am hopeful that the weather will clear up just a bit.  My gear is organized, backpack is packed, and I am ready to get to work counting penguins!

Sooty albatross

Black-browed albatross

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