Antarctic expedition day 2: Crossing the world’s roughest sea…

Saturday 3 March 2012, the Drake Passage.

Crossing the world’s roughest sea from Southern Argentina to Antarctica, can cause consternation.

Travellers on the Drake Passage quickly learn that this notorious body of water can be the ‘Drake Lake’ or the ‘Drake Shake’. So far, for the IAE 2012 aboard the Sea Spirit, it has been more lake than shake. It’s not all smooth riding. Swell is perhaps four metres but on this notorious stretch of ocean, that is considered calm.

The journey from southern Argentina out of the Beagle Channel in the early hours of Friday morning, and into open sea to round the dreaded Cape Horn, was for a few hours rough, but this was soon replaced by a relative calm. Now the Sea Spirit’s crew inform the expedition there is a storm somewhere over the horizon to the south, which means this hardy ice-strengthened vessel is tacking south to head for the sanctity of the Melchior Islands  on the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. The team has been warned of the potential of rough seas ahead but, all being well, it will arrive on the Melchiors sometime on late Saturday afternoon.

Aboard, despite the swell, the mood remains good and spirits are very high. The team is an incredibly diverse mix and the majority are female and include women from Oman (the first Omani ever to go to Antarctica) and Saudi Arabia. Also on the team are wounded warriors, including soldiers from the US Army’s Airborne Division injured in Afghanistan, university students from India and China, and corporate heads, NGO representatives and environmentalists from across our planet.

As the team crosses the Drake, it has been addressed by a number of the expedition specialists. At the top of the bill after leaving Ushuaia on Thursday evening was, of course, Robert Swan, founder of the 2041 environmental group who is the expedition organiser. The name ‘2041’ comes from the date when the United Nations treaty that protects Antarctica will expire. Robert’s life-long mission is to ensure this date is as widely known as possible and that his work on Antarctica – in one of the toughest environments on earth – with renewable energy systems proves that these systems can be used anywhere.

Robert is an in-demand speaker on the global motivational speaker circuit and he captivated his crowd by talking through his trips to the South and North pole (he is the only person to have ever walked to both unaided).

The next morning two expert naturalists, Jamie Watts and Berna Urtubey took to the ship’s small stage. Jamie’s talk was of special interest to LRQA-British Council E-Idea finalist, Stephen Mushin.

“Today was day is filled with a mixture of impassioned conversations in the lounge” says Stephen, “that include communicating climate change to the scientifically literate masses, taxing the rich to fund the kickstarting of green economies and oil money funding university posts, with walks around the deck, endless cups of tea,  biscuits and club sandwiches (we are advised to maintain a ‘full belly’ at all times to help avoid sea sickness) and are punctuated with meals which are announced seemingly every five minutes. There is also a regular schedule of excellent talks which are put on by the resident scientists.

“Today we have learned about albatrosses, penguins, petrils, the Antarctic food web and a topic which has fascinated me for a long time, Antarctic krill. These tiny zoo plankton represents the third largest biomass in the world and are the largest untapped source of protein in the world. They are also the target of ‘krill hoovers’ – floating fishing, freezing and processing plants which threaten not only the survival of krill but 95% of the Southern Ocean’s ecosystem which is directly or indirectly dependent of krill.”

Richard Smith with climate change team on board Sea Spirit

This has been the first full day of sailing on the Sea Spirit and we are heading directly south. From the bow, stern, port and starboard sides of the boat the horizon is all sea; sea and about three albatrosses, sweeping and gliding just above the water. An interesting comment from Robert Swan while we are standing and looking out to sea from the starboard side: “Out there (pointing straight out east) there is nothing in-between us and ourselves again.” Now, once again, I’m off to try and spot some of the eight albatross that I’ve just learned to identify.

The rest of the Lloyd’s Register team have been doing the same as Stephen – eating to ward off the seasickness, keeping a weary eye on the weather forecasts and watching the amazing soaring albatrosses as they glide – using their incredible three-metre wingspans – round and round the ship.

Richard Smith from LRQA Australia continues to prepare the expedition’s sustainability programme with the other climate change specialists aboard the vessel.

“Yesterday,” writes Richard, “we had the first opportunity to hear Robert Swan talk about his Antarctic adventures – his first lecture of his ‘Leadership on the Edge’ series. After hearing his trials and tribulations, and of his drive to achieve his dream over the course of almost a decade, it also made me half glad of our own difficulties in getting here (Richard and Stephen took three days to arrive in Argentina from Sydney).”

The Sea Spirit passed convergence – where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet the cold waters of Antarctica late on Friday afternoon – and continues south. Next stop the Antarctic Peninsula.

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