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Drake’s Dance: Unraveling Antarctic Realities and the Enigma of Penguins

(This is a multi-part article. Be sure to read the entire series of 2023 Antarctic Journal from the beginning of my adventure!)

Crossing the Drake Passage between the Palmer Peninsula and Cape Horn can be both exhilarating and terrifying. The last time I crossed it, 10-meter swells tossed our ship all night. Eating supper was out of the question. Just getting back to the cabin required a firm grip on every handrail in sight. We all clung to the sides of our bunks all night to keep from being pitched onto the floor. This time? Smooth. None of the seasoned Antarctic travelers had ever seen the Drake so gentle.

So, our ship decided to liven things up. At 1 am fire sirens blared. This is when you realize you can’t remember how to find your assigned muster station. An engine had popped an oil leak and only the quick actions of the engine room staff kept a fire from exploding. We came back to Ushuaia with one engine down but all safe.

Here are a few realities about Antarctica that the guidebooks don’t mention:

(a) Seabird numbers are dwindling. South Georgia-bound ships now black out their lights to reduce the chance of birds being attracted and crashing into the ship. Procedures are posted on what to do if a passenger finds a stunned bird on deck.

(b) Invasive species threaten ecosystems everywhere. Before landings we all gripped a toothpick, paperclip or penknife to remove specks of sand, dirt, seeds and other bits of vegetation from boot treads, jacket snaps, Velcro, seams and so on. Before boarding a Zodiac, each passenger got a second check by a flashlight-wielding expedition member. Sadly, microplastic pollution continues to rise in this ecosystem.

(c) To give visitors a sense of isolation, expedition ships avoid each other. While basking in the presence of elephant seals with no one else in sight, another ship may be hiding just on the other side of an island or iceberg.

The Ocean Diamond vessel anchored in the water
The Ocean Diamond

(d) Rogue ships visit Antarctica while evading the rules set down by cooperative international treaties. They pose a threat to habitats and wildlife. Though rogues are rare, stopping them is hard because no single nation controls Antarctica. One day, our team thought they spotted a rogue in the distance.

(e) Please spread the word about krill oil and the harm being done by the krill oil industry. Once the krill is gone, so too will be the whales and penguins. With penguins gone, the seals will disappear. A massive ecosystem depends on those little organisms.

King penguins and Gentoo penguins standing near the water
King and Gentoo penguins

But take heart. Even with these cautions, Antarctica remains stunning, remote and peaceful. Also, I can’t describe it, but there’s something about a penguin.

King penguins standing on shore
A day at the beach