Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Final Day at Sea: Crossing the Antarctic Circle

I was roused form my bed at eight o'clock by my roommate informing me that breakfast was served. Clearly the wake up call P.A. in our room was failing.

Quickly throwing my clothes on I made a dash up the stairs to the breakfast hall. Once more I chowed down on a fantastic meal, and then quickly headed outside to look at the waters. Two icebergs had been spotted early this morning. I, of course, missed them all. Of course I did. But I suspected that there should be more, that there would be more. As far as the morning went, this was not to be.

I saw today, for the first time in months, snow falling from the sky. I'd missed it so, and watching the large flakes make their way to the deck, the railings, my face and hands, it was fantastic.

Up on the main deck I stood, dressed properly for the winter, as well as a Canadian can be expected to. I rolled down the sleeves of my shirt. After all, isn't that all one needs to do to prepare for the cold? I mean, sure, I was still wearing my shorts – but it was snowing after all. Had it been too cold there wouldn't have been any precipitation falling to the ground. I did have only one regret – and that was the lack of gloves. I'll need to hunt those down for the next time I head outside. The railings? Quite cold – imagine that, metal in the Antarctic Sea being cold. Who could have possibly assumed such a thing would come to pass?

Now if only I can spot an iceberg.

I made my way to the bridge for another look at all the pretty flashy lighty beacony things, and it was there that I discovered the secret to spotting icebergs. Obviously, when one thinks about it, these objects show up on the Captain's radar screen. All one needs to do is stand inside the warm enclosure and watch his screen until enough little green blips formed together. These concentrated splotches would be grouped together and given a number (21 in this instance). Once a target had been identified as an iceberg, all I needed to do was wait until we came close to it. When it was no longer just a theoretical patch of electrons displayed in green on black, but rather something that could be visually spotted, I left the bridge and climbed up to the top deck. It was there that I took my first pictures of the floating behemoths.

They were grey, on a dark sea, floating against a grey sky. The pictures may not have been the best ever taken – blue skies and sun would have made for a much more starking image, still – I had seen an iceberg, and I have proof of it. And it was really quite the thing.

During lunch we cruised past another one, this one having a far sharper peek. Of course I left the table, to run onto the deck and snap some more pictures. When I returned snow had amassed in my beard, slowly to melt from the warmth inside.

After lunch I asked a fellow traveller to snap a few pictures of me outside on the deck, wearing my shorts, short sleeved (I had rolled my sleeves back up by this point, as it wasn't quite as windy as before), sandals, toque, and gloves. You see – I wore a toque and gloves, I was totally prepared for winter.

As we tried to exit onto the deck for the picture taking, one of the staff members looked at me and said that I couldn't go out there. It as snowing! Oh it was? Really? I'd not noticed. I thought, perhaps, a great alien spaceship had burned up in orbit and what I was really seeing was falling ash. How silly of me.

We quickly made our way around him and exited out the other side. There pictures proving that cold really isn't such a big deal to me, were taken.

During the half hour I was standing on the top deck I had a number of people ask if I was alright, and some offered to lend me their thermals, or coats. I tried to explain to them that I did, indeed, have my own pants, sweaters, and thermals – I just didn't feel as if I needed them yet. There was no way to make them understand this. I was just seen as crazy. Perhaps that's the case – but I do believe that overcoming the cold is something I inherited on a deep genetic level. My father had spent many winters in nothing but shorts. Strangely he claims to hate the cold – and yet he never did anything to dress for it.

As for myself? Seeing the snow blowing, and standing outside as the ice pellets blew across my cheeks, leaving red marks in their wake, I felt at home. I felt comfortable. Put me in a hot environment, and I'll quickly adapt to it – but it's in the cold where I feel most as ease.

In all fairness it was still four degrees above zero. I mean, come on, it's not even freeing yet. I look at these people with big puffy pants, and huge fur-lined parkas, and I think the same of them, as they do of me – what type of crazy person dresses like that in this weather?

If not for the grey skies, this would have been a most beautiful day. As it stood it was still quite lovely.

There were two points of order on todays schedule. One, a meeting explaining how we were going to get to short and that, yes, we would get wet. Apparently many people hated to get their rain pants wet, but that this is what they were for after all. We were then instructed to take all of our outer clothing down to the mudroom and vacuum it to prevent us from bringing any foreign substances to the continent.

Between those two moment it was announced that the gift shop would be opening for the first time. You've never seen so many people move quite so fast. I'm sure I would have been one of them, was the shop not just next door to me. But it was a rather lackluster shop. It had some t-shirts, stuffed seals, and playing cards. There were also chocolates, which I'm sure were first amongst the things to be bought up – though I can't imagine why, it seems like all we do on this boat is eat. Not that I'm complaining, but why would one need more food?

Ohh – and on that note, it's 4:30. Time for tea and sandwiches! And just three hours from now – dinner. Fantastic.

DO Eat, read, eat, read, eat, read, eat, read, sleep;
UNTIL Antarctica = here;

Every moment is filled with one of a small number of tasks. And, honestly, it's not that bad. The sea started to pick up again after dinner. During the meal time the captain changed course to give us smoother sailing, less broken dishes, and less clothes covered in swordfish – which is delicious, by the way. With dinner over at 9:00pm, we all knew we were approaching the Antarctic circle. There was some excitement, but mainly people shrugging and going off to sleep so they could be fully rested for the Zodiac cruise, and landing tomorrow.

The Antarctic circle is located at 66“33.369. When I had given up on reading, and could no longer handle to pressure of walking back and forth to check the GPS flatscreen display, I simply pulled up a chair and watched as the numbers ticked away. My circle watch began at 66”02.000. There were only thirty one navigational minutes until we crossed over. It was 9:50p.

I had pledged to stay awake for the crossing no matter how long it took – others said they'd catch it on the way back. As if that was close to being the same thing. Crossing into a foreign country is much more impressive than leaving it – and after already being beyond the line for so long, is leaving the line really all that big of a deal? No – I would force myself awake.

I was joined by a few others, as well as a photographer from National Geographic, Jason. He wanted to stay awake, but decided that sleep would be a much better option. After some half-hearted convincing (how many times do you get to cross that Antarctic Circle?) he stayed the course.

It's 11:50p. We are at 66”20.435. Really? Is that all? Somehow conversation, and laying down on the rocking ship's floor, managed to keep us entertained. That and complaining about how slow we were moving to our desired destination. Surely this ship could do more than the 11knots it was travelling at. And, yeah, there was probably a great number of icebergs, and potential sheet ice, in front of us – safety first and all that – but come on... Let's move!

12:10p. 66”23.021.

“TEN!” I shouted out, back to the conversation. A GAP employee was with us as well, and we asked him about the new Canadian Goose trips that were being planned for the upcoming season. As well more conversations were held about GAPs move to making a number of their trips “39 and under.” I still have a problem with this, and a problem believing it will be more profitable, but apparently people have canceled when they learned the age of their fellow travelers – so the statistics do seem to back up the choices being made. Still – exclusion is never that fun, yeah?

“NINE!” Every six and a half minutes, no matter what was going on – silence, laughter, talking, the sharing of wine that had been liberated for our celebratory moment – I would should out the next in the count down.

“EIGHT!” It was discovered early on that every nautical navigational GPSable minute corresponded to about six and a half real world minutes at our present speed provided we stayed on course. “SEVEN!” A few more heads popped up. Clearly they'd been sneaking around the corners waiting for this moment to arrive. “SIX!” “FIVE!” “FOUR!”

We rolled over to 66”30.000 “THREE!” And now, at 12:50a you could really feel the intensity of the moment. It was far more exciting than New Years Eve – that, after all, comes every year. “TWO!” Nat. Geo. Photographer Jason got up off the floor, and had me hold his 1080p HD video camera for him, as he talked about the crossing we were about to embark on. Yeah - I totally filmed something for NatGeo. I mean, sure, odds are it won't be used – but when was the last time that you played camera man for a professional photographer? “ONE!”

With only six minutes left we ran up to the bridge, with only one person getting lost along the way. From inside we watched the screens, lit up in reds and greens against the world of surrounded black. It was like a nineteen eighties missile command, complete with Russians in control. The bridge has always felt like a video game from two decades past, with all number of screens and instruments feeding much needed data to those who have been trained to understand it.

All I could see was the coordinates ticking away, and the twenty or so icebergs that were ahead of us, looming menacingly on the radar screen.


We had hit the Antarctic Circle! I don't know what we expected, something going bump in the night, a glowing red line stretched across the sky, green dotted lines in the water to correspond with the maps. But it didn't matter. In that moment we had completed something quite amazing, and something that not all that many people will ever get the chance to do. This was time for celebration and jubilation! More pictures, without flash, were taken. The spotlights pointing ever forward illuminated to strong blizzard. And some other people cheered off to the side.

This cheering led to the Russians promptly kicking us off the bridge. Very well. We saw what we wanted to see.

Back at the GPS flatscreen Jason had us all pose in excitement to recreate the moment of the crossing in a location where he could take pictures without angering those who were keeping us safely on course. And with that done, the moment ended. Much like new years, it's a slow burn to a rapid approach, and then an anticlimactic retreat back to where you first began.

It was 1:10a, and getting later. Wake up would be at 7. Certainly it was time for some sleep. Laying in bed, looking out the window, trying to calm myself to sleep I had just one thought running through my mind: “We crossed the Antarctic Circle. Woo!”

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