Pamelia and I were heading for one of the wildest and most astounding places on the planet, an island "smack in the middle of nowhere," in the words of our Antarctic expedition organizer, the esteemed British zoologist, conservationist and wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine.
He was speaking not of Antarctica—though he could have been—but of South Georgia Island, the breathtaking Serengeti of Antarctic wildlife. Small (100 miles long), rugged (11 mountains more than 6,500 feet tall, plus glaciers) and uninhabited (except for staff at two small science stations and a post office/museum/British government office located near an abandoned whaling station), South Georgia sits 750 miles from the nearest speck of civilization, the Falkland Islands and more than 1,000 miles from any continent.
To reach South Georgia Island, our Russian oceanographic ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, would travel through 30-foot waves and cross one of the most distinct geographic and climatic boundaries on Earth, the Antarctic convergence. That's where warm ocean waters from the north collide with frigid waters from the bottom of the planet. Weather, animal life and scenery (here come the icebergs!) all abruptly change. It's where the Antarctic truly begins.
But we would not see South Georgia's snowy peaks and many thousands of penguins and seals for two to three days. What would we and our 90-odd fellow expeditioners do while our ship powered its way through roller-coaster seas? A whole lot, as it turned out. I've summed a few in my Top Eight Things to Do in 30-Foot Waves:
1) Photograph the waves to try to show their size. Photos rarely do justice to massive ocean-open swells, but below are a few of our attempts. (Unbeknownst to us, we would be seeing waves almost twice this big—50-footers—later in the trip.)
2) Try not to fall off your bed. When a huge wave smacked and heaved the side of the Sergey Vavilov—which is a remarkably stable ship, I should point out, specially designed for polar travel and rough oceans—I would sometimes start to roll off my narrow bunk. I learned to sleep with my arms out as cross-braces, my legs spread wide and my toes hooked over an edge of the bed.
3) Laugh at the adventure. Glasses and bottles tipped over and slid off tables in the dining room. As recounted to us by Roz Kidman Cox, the longtime editor of BBC Wildlife magazine who was on board and writing a diary of the journey, two of our shipmates had their mini-fridge fly out of its cubby and dump milk and red wine throughout their cabin. Another passenger was flung out of the shower while not hanging onto the hand rail. Another was emphatically hand-signaled off the bow of the ship by a Russian crew member who was worried that the next big wave might wash him overboard. Two others failed to fully screw-tighten their cabin porthole and got a cold-water bath. Another, as a solution to the roll-off-the-bed problem, put her mattress on the floor and slept on it there.
I loved the tale told to us by Richard and Sue, a delightful couple from England, of a previous voyage they had taken through rough seas. Richard was tossed across the ship's bar and cut his forehead so severely that it needed stitches. He refused to let Sue, a nurse, do the stitching because he didn't want to yell at his wife if the procedure hurt too much. Instead he recruited a crew member, who stayed up all night practicing his stitch work on a banana—and ultimately handled the procedure so well that Richard doesn't even have a scar.
4) Defy seasickness. Having suffered my whole life from wretched bouts of motion sickness, I prepared for our voyage through the world's most turbulent ocean by bringing an arsenal of anti-sickness weaponry: Bonine tablets; a wristwatch-style device that, when strapped on, shot pulses of electricity into the underside of my wrist; anti-nausea gum; a queasiness-preventing inhaler; and stomach-settling candied ginger. All of those, and my decision to be extra cautious and lie down at the hint of a whisper of approaching nausea, worked.
Bottom line: Never rule out a trip to the Antarctic because you think you'll get seasick. You very well may not. And trust me, the voyage will be worth it even if you do.
5) Try to ignore the waves and attend lectures on the wildlife and places you're about to see. Pamelia and I had been studying the Antarctic for weeks before the trip, but on board we also soaked up the knowledge not only of the renowned Mark Carwardine, who had been to the Antarctic an astounding 23 times, but also of the likes of ornithologist Simon Boyes, entomologist and ecologist Mark Thatchell and award-winning wildlife filmmaker Peter Bassett, who as one of David Attenborough's BBC producers has ended up spending months at a time at places like South Georgia dealing with things like a tent-flooding river of penguin guano and a diet of dried mutton granules (tales he recounts hilariously).
And so en route to South Georgia, even as the ship swayed, we learned about everything from Antarctic photography (much more on that later) to sea birds to the natural history of South Georgia to the story of the ill-fated Endurance voyage led by Ernest Shackleton (whose grave we would visit on South Georgia) to the seal species we would soon encounter to the biology and Earth science of the 20- to 30-mile-wide Antarctic convergence zone, which we slowly angled across.
We couldn't see the warm and cold waters meeting at the convergence, of course, but beneath us the colliding waters were churning up nutrients that would feed countless billions (trillions?) of tiny, shrimp-like krill, on which Antarctic's larger ocean mammals and birds directly or indirectly feast. The water temperature, which had been about 43 degrees Fahrenheit in the Falklands, dropped by 11 degrees F to 32. (Around Antarctica proper, the water is 28 degrees, a sub-freezing temperature it can reach because of its saltiness.)
6) Act like a real sailor and scrub your gear. In our case, we had no choice. One Oceans Expeditions is a stickler for "bio-securing" the boots and outer clothing of its voyagers to avoid spreading invasive diseases, plants or animals to any of its Antarctic destinations. We had been scrubbing off anyway before and after each trip ashore, but the time at sea was a good opportunity to bring out not just brushes and disinfectant but also vacuum cleaners, to suck up any stray seeds that might be hiding in the velcro strips on our jacket and pant straps.
7) Be creative. Pamelia takes risks as an artist. Despite the rough seas, she flung our cabin window open, kneeled on my bed and, grabbing materials she had handy, attempted to do some small indigo ink paintings of waves while trying not to fall over. She said they were quick studies (indigo wouldn't have been her color of choice to represent the water) to try to grasp, interact with and record an impression of the incredible ocean moment—AND it was great fun. That was a lesson: When the giant waves come, have fun and get to know them!
"I was aware of what a rare experience this was and wanted to try to know it more," she said afterward. "It was challenging to paint while being jolted by wave action. Sometimes the brushstroke was made by the wave—my hand would involuntarily be jerked and the brush would make marks that I didn't control. I loved the process. Now every time I look at this little painting I'll be brought back to this moment."
8) Think of the amazing sights ahead. "Ships run on two things: diesel fuel and rumors," Boris Wise, the day-to-day expedition leader, told us all during one of our meals at sea. He knew that we adventurers were all speculating on when we might set foot on South Georgia, given the rough ocean conditions and strong winds. We were beyond eager.
And then the sightings began: the first snow petrel, named for its pure whiteness. The first wandering albatrosses, the first gray-headed albatrosses, the first chunks of sea ice and glowing blue icebergs. And then...
...land. The first rocky, snow-capped islands we laid our eyes upon were the Willis Islands, just west of the main island of South Georgia. Then came South Georgia itself, forbidding and gorgeous, its white peaks rising as high as 9,600 feet. Seeing it, even from a distance, while standing in the biting cold wind on a viewing wing off the bridge, we were in awe. South Georgia was spectacular. And we were going to explore it.
At dinner that night, Boris gave us the good news. Tomorrow there would be a 4 a.m. wakeup call, followed by a quick 4:30 breakfast and a 5:30 departure on Zodiac rafts for South Georgia—specifically the beach at St. Andrews Bay, home to more than 100,000 king penguins, many thousands of elephant seals and the retreating Ross glacier.
We were, to borrow assistant expedition leader Nate Small's phrase from a few days earlier, about to have our minds blown.—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood
Coming next: Can you imagine a landscape of penguins and seals as far as you can see?