by Luke Urso
The stretch of water between southern tip of South America and northern most point on the Antarctic peninsula is called the Drake Passage. Some facts about the Drake. It’s home to many species of sea birds. Among them is the Wandering Albatross. With a wingspan of up to twelve feet, it is the largest flying bird on the planet. It flies alongside the tiny Storm Petrel, which is among the smallest of sea birds. The Storm Petrel weighs the same amount as 30 paper clips and is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
Watching from the stern, I saw them in flight together. The albatross making the waves seem as hills and the Storm Petrel making them seem as mountains to climb, sheer and wind-blown and frosted with spray at their peaks.
Another fact about the drake is that it’s the roughest stretch of open water on the planet. With devastating regularity, the drake is torn by Antarctic cyclones. Blowing with hurricane force, the winds stir up waves so massive and prolific that sailors have given them a name of their own: Cape Horn Rollers.
A final fact about the Drake is perhaps obvious. When you start on south ward you are in one place, a place of familiarity, of roads and restaurants, of jobs and school, of email and news and Facebook, and when you reach the other side you find that you have entered another place entirely, a place of ice and rock and water and silence. There’s a point in the Drake, between the peak of one roller and the trough of another where you make the transition. Though it’s not a border you can see, it is perceptible, nonetheless in the plummeting temperature outside. It is called the polar front and it is defined as the point where warmer sub-Antarctic seas converge with the frigid surface water of the Antarctic circumpolar current. For myself, it was upon crossing this point while heading southward that I felt I had entered another world.
On the 14th of March we crossed the polar front for a second time, this time heading north, and once again entered a new world. COVID-19 had been at work around the globe, spreading out of control, and rising to pandemic levels in our home countries. At breakfast the previous day, Colin informed us that Quest would be moving all classes online and evacuating campus. Graduation was to be canceled as well, along with keystone symposiums.
Later that evening, we learned that Argentina would be canceling flights starting on the 17th and our trip would be cut short as the ship made for Ushuaia in all haste, to make it back in time. We departed from the frozen continent that night and made good speed through calm seas off the west coast of the sheltering Antarctic peninsula. The conditions inside the ship were more confused than anything else. Internet connection was poor and intermittent at best so communication with the outside world was limited. Colin purchased time on the ships satellite phone connection and through that we were able to talk to our parents and loved ones.
We awoke on the morning of 14th having left the shadow of the peninsula well behind us and could feel the rocking of the ship as it was jostled by the Drake. The seas, light as they were for the Drake, were still strong enough to be felt by most that morning. Those who made it to breakfast came somewhat bedraggled with mild to moderate sea sickness, made worse perhaps by the general feeling of weariness imparted by the confusion of the previous day.
The dining hall, located well forward of midships, amplified the rise and fall of the ship as it climbed and fell across with waves, so that every so often a collective groan would sound as passengers dropped their forks to brace themselves against a particularly heavy swell.
For most, the day was spent alternating between lying sea sick in bed to short burst of energy on the phone or our computers working out airline tickets. By the afternoon, most of us had reached some sort of stability with travel plans or at the least had been able to contact our families and let them know what was happening. Throughout the morning, the swells had mounted in size and by lunch the seas were “exceptional”, as the shipboard director put it. Despite the high seas and driving wind, the atmosphere over lunch was light and happy. We joked about holding our own graduation on board, shared our favorite memories of the trip and thanked Colin for all his effort on our behalf. After lunch, most of us returned to our cabins to wait out the high seas in the comfort of our warm bunks.
It was later in the afternoon, closer to dinner, when an announcement of an important update from the shipboard director came over the intercom. My roommate, Tristan, and I were watching a movie in our cabin when we heard the announcement. We flicked through the channels on our cabins small TV to find the one with that showed a feed of the briefing room. We flicked passed the channel that played Seinfeld re-runs on repeat, to find the screen filled with a picture of the shipboard director, Laurie, in the briefing room addressing the assembled passengers in front of a power point. Tristan and I watched for moment.
Then, suddenly, we sprang out of bed in unison and rushed towards the TV, falling over an open backpacks and loose computer cord as we moved, while the ship hurled itself up and down. We had both seen the words scrawled on the projection behind Laurie: “Quarantine” and “March 22nd”. There was moment of stunned silence between us while Tristan and I both starred uncomprehendingly at the fuzzy screen before we both turned to each other with baffled looks. Was this real?
Short answer, yes. We learned that we were to be held in quarantine on board the ship by the Argentinian government. At that point, we knew little else. Where we were going to disembark, whether flights would be running, which boarders would be closing – we had no answers.
That night we crossed the invisible line between the Antarctic and the rest of the world. While the ship crashed over and through the rolling sea, we all huddled around phones and computers navigating the equally perilous sea of uncertainty that we were now forced to cross.
If the world hadn’t gone crazy, and we hadn’t been occupied with canceling flights and communicating to loved ones, we might have looked outside. We might have seen the Wandering Albatross, commanding a graceful control despite the gale, soaring up and over the mountainous waves, confident and searching and unassailable. Or if chance would have it, we might have sighted the tiny storm petrel, fluttering perilously, blown about, and dwarfed by the winds and waves and sky. Which were we? Certainly, entering the Antarctic a week earlier I felt more akin to the Albatross – but now?
The Storm Petrel gets its name from riding wind-wrought seas, defying fate and sense. It’s reassuring that the Storm Petrel calls the drake passage it’s home. It’s smaller than a door mouse yet lives among giants. The sea must seem daunting at times, but the drake isn’t always rough. Between cyclones the winds die down, the waves still and the sea becomes tranquil. What of the storm petrel then? It’s so weightless and agile that it can alight upon the surface, fluttering its wings and dancing its feet across the water while it snatches mouthfuls of krill. It dances and dives and rides gentle thermals. And when the wind rises to 100 miles an hour, and the waves tower 15 meters high and certainty is blow away? The Storm Petrel flies on.