Outbound from South America to Antarctica with Students On Ice
With another full day behind us, the now-familiar voice of Students On Ice’s Geoff Green crackled over the intercom of the M/V Ushuaia last night: to starboard we could see the southernmost town in the world, Chile’s Puerto Williams; to port a huge, spectacular moon; to one o’clock, the Southern Cross. I stepped out of my cabin onto the deck of this ship that is taking us to Antarctica, watching Puerto Williams approach. Beneath the silhouettes of the mountains ranging to either side, the town appeared a single glimmering line of orange lights along the coast, a last thread of civilization hanging at the threshold of the very different world into which we are headed.
Between the last couple of days in the hotel’s conference room, and today in the Ushuaia’s rather more tilty lecture space (by the oscillations of dangling cords and strings, I guess that we have been rolling through 15–30˚ waves for hours), we passengers have been given a number of introductory talks by the trip’s enthusiastic, international team of professors, each explaining the relation of Antarctica to their field of expertise. One recurring theme is the continent’s incredible isolation, and the unique geological, climatic, and ecological features this has given it.
A couple of hundred million years ago, Antarctica was a lush chunk of land nestled in between what are now South America and Africa in the supercontinent Gondwana. Continental drift dragged it to the south, at last separating it from the rest of the continents. It now sits frozen over the South Pole, on its own tectonic plate, encircled completely by the Southern Ocean, in which the world’s strongest currents flow constantly from the west without obstruction. This racetrack of wind and water delineates the continent from the world: it keeps the Southern Ocean cold, changes its chemical composition and complement of animals (both large and microscopic), and it supplies the relentless westerly currents that have been stumbling (and sickening) us throughout the Passage.
We who were well enough to get out of our rooms appreciated our teachers’ standing/staggering to give us lectures, and the crew’s awe-inspiring talent for carrying trays of plates across the absurdly listing meal room. The fun has just begun: we will cross the 60˚S parallel into Antarctic territory tomorrow, and reach our first piece of Antarctic land by late in the day.