A World Cruise Dispatch, By Joe Kita
Remember when you were a kid lying on a summer lawn looking for shapes in the clouds? Well, it’s possible to play the same game with icebergs. That one off the bow looks like a giant boot. The one over there resembles a cupcake with whipped vanilla frosting. And that one way out sea reminds me of a VW Beetle, or maybe an AMC Pacer.
As you watch all these icebergs glide by with their azure undersides, if you’re out on deck and listening real close you also realize they’re making music. As the wake of the ship washes against them, the ice pops and snaps and tinkles and slurps. It’s subtle, and it’s the only sound in the Great White Silence that is Antarctica.
Crystal Serenity is in the midst of three days of scenic cruising at the bottom of the world. After leaving Cape Horn, we sailed 659 miles across the Drake Passage, which is notorious among sailors for having some of the roughest seas in the world. It’s where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans collide. As you proceed south, you pass through the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties, all referring to degrees of south latitude. As storms circle the huge Antarctic continent (the U.S., Mexico and Alaska could all fit inside it), the Antarctic Peninsula, which juts off the top, funnels the roiling water into the Passage. If you’re unlucky enough to get caught there in any size ship, you’ll know what your socks feel like in the washer.
Fortunately for Crystal Serenity, which is nearing the halfway point of its annual World Cruise, the Drake Passage was Lake Drake, with calm seas, very little wind and partly cloudy skies. Even Captain Egil Giske admitted these conditions are rare.
Our first and only stop in the Antarctic (although guests did not disembark) was Palmer Station, one of three U.S. research bases down here. It’s located on Anvers Island (just above 65 degrees south latitude) and is part of the Antarctic Peninsula. Sixteen scientists and staff from the Station visited the ship via Zodiac to deliver lectures and mingle with guests. Under sunny skies and almost-balmy 35-degree temperatures, the day and our subsequent cruising of the Neumayer Channel (nicknamed Kodak Alley for its photo potential) were glorious.
Here are some of the most fascinating things I’ve learned so far down here from such experts as scientific lecturer Michael DiSpezio and Palmer Station scientists:
1) The record low temperature, recorded in Antarctica in 1983, is minus 128 degrees F.
2) Antarctica is the driest (less than 6 inches of precipitation annually), windiest (hurricane-strength gales over 125 mph), highest (average 8,000 feet above sea level) and brightest (reflects the most light back to the atmosphere) continent on earth.
3) Fossils of a tree fern common to South Africa, India and South America have been found in Antarctica, suggesting that at one time they were all a connected landmass.
4) Antarctica is mostly below sea level. All the ice on top of the continent, which averages one-mile thick but in places can be up to three miles thick, weighs it down. What we see is like the frosting on a submerged cake.
5) Under all that ice are hundreds of liquid rivers and lakes. That’s right, liquid. Lake Vostok, for example, is two miles beneath the ice but is not frozen. There’s so much pressure on the water that it doesn’t behave normally. Scientists even found what they believe to be microbes living in the lake. The movement of these rivers and lakes may also affect the flow of the glaciers and ice sheets “floating” on top.
6) According to Palmer Station Manager Bob Farrell, visiting a luxury cruise ship is always “surreal.” So what do men and women living in the Antarctic for months and sometimes years at a time look forward to most when coming aboard for a few hours? Believe it or not, it’s haircuts. “We have great food, great showers and comfortable living conditions at the Station, but no one who cuts hair,” said Haley, a Hawaii resident who is spending her first summer in Antarctic. So, if time permits, they always make spa appointments. “Oh, and thanks for the mangoes,” she adds.
7) Lots of fascinating research is happening at the Station, including collecting slow-moving, bottom-dwelling organisms that have unique chemical defense mechanisms. Some of these compounds have been found to have anti-malarial, anti-cancer, and anti-viral qualities. Also under investigation is the Antarctic ice fish, which has a decalcified skeleton and no hemoglobin (i.e., white gills and clear/cloudy blood). It may provide insight into anemia and osteoporosis. And then there’s the wingless fly, a tiny midge the size of a fingernail clipping, that somehow survives for two years in the ice as a larvae only to die after laying its eggs and spending two weeks as an adult. How its physiology adapts to such extreme conditions might hold secrets for our species’ survival.
Finally, as the day ended, after the Palmer scientists had left (all with great hair, by the way), and we were exiting the Neumayer Channel, a pod of 15 to 20 humpback whales, identifiable by their white flippers, appeared just off the bow of the ship. The 50-foot mammals, which are starting their long journey north to Alaska, appeared fat and lazy from a summer of feeding in these rich waters. They lolled on the surface, rolled on their sides, and didn’t seem to mind this biggest of all whales, the white Crystal Serenity, in their midst.
It was 7 p.m. Dancing had just finished in the Palm Court and guests were sipping their drinks before dinner. It had been a long and exhausting day. But the whale show brought everyone to their feet and produced nearly as much applause as a production show. And then, as their final bow, a few tales waved goodbye – an incredible end to an incredible day.