David Helvarg

I’ve noticed that there are no vapor trails in the sky since we left Punta Arenas, Chile. Commercial airlines just don’t fly this far south. Despite the 240 foot Laurence M. Gould’s small gym and video screen in the 01 deck lounge (last night’s choices included Das Boot and Hunt for Red October), you only have to look at the endlessly changing southern ocean around us to understand that we’re going somewhere that’s still unpredictably wild and well off the beaten path.

I was on the Gould on New Year’s Eve when the Chilean navy frigates docked behind us welcomed 1999 with loud blasts from their air horns. In the chill austral summer sky above town a dozen red/pink rescue flares exploded and then drifted in the air. It felt like a new beginning.

The next day we went to the Antarctic Support Associates warehouse just inside the port gates and tried on our ECW (extreme cold weather) gear. A safety video explained how layering can prevent hypothermia on the ice but didn’t mention heat stroke from trying on layers of capilene, PVC rain pants, quallofill vests, Gore-Tex parkas, giant Sorel boots, and the like in a heated warehouse dressing room.

Clothing also seems to mark class in Antarctica. Scientists (and visiting reporters) get red parkas, while guys like Mike, Steve, and Don, who are going to help clean up the old landfill at Palmer Station, are also given tan and corduroy collared Carrhardtt work coats.

We finally cleared port on the 2nd for the 900 plus mile trip to Palmer Station on the Antarctic peninsula, but not before I rubbed the toe of the sculpted Indian (bronze indigenous person?) who sits below the statue of Magellan in the town square. He’s supposed to bring a safe, calm passage, at least through the straits, a common hope among sailors, judging by the high-shine luster of his toe.

And perhaps it’s worked, since our sea conditions have proved pretty good so far, no roaring 40s or screaming 50s but rather a regular 10-12 foot sea that puts the Gould into a lullaby rock of about 15 degrees port and 15 degrees starboard every 10 seconds or so. Sit in a chair facing either direction and you feel a sudden heaviness in your back followed by a lightness in your stomach. Even the computer monitor in front of me is bungie corded to deep-set table screws. I’ll actually be glad to be getting off at Palmer; most of the people on board are just beginning a six week transom of the southern ocean to study phytoplankton and tiny shrimp such as krill, the most abundant animal on earth. Tracy, who’s spent seven years working on krill in Antarctica, tells me more than I want to know about krill sex lives under the ice and under the dissecting scope (Jesse Helms take note, this is tax-funded research). Last night–10 o’clock but still bright as day–I also watched the test casting of a rosette from the “Balkan Room.” The rosette is a longish array of pipes and fittings holding CDT (conductivity, temperature, and depth) instruments. It was craned out over the water through an open two-deck-high, storm-proof door that has to weigh at least six tons. If they ever discover a stray dinosaur or giant ape on the ice, they’ll probably ship it back to the States in the Balkan Room (a terrible mistake; I’m warning them now, before the movie comes out).

The ship’s crew consists of a Cajun captain and first mate (who listens to Judas Priest on the bridge); the ship’s owner, who for his own reasons has decided to double as the galley chef; and a number of Filipino crewmen.

All 30 of us passengers also got to try on our waterproof Mustang survival suits and climb into an enclosed lifeboat that seats 44 uncomfortably. When the test alarm went off at lunch yesterday everyone moved quickly to the 01 deck lounge with gear in hand. People understand that if you fall into the sea around us without a survival suit you’ll go numb in three minutes and be dead in 15.

But out on the stern deck today I enjoyed the balmy 40 degree temperature and occasional rain. Mostly there’s just the glaring bright sky and azure water. Wandering albatrosses and dusky giant petrels fly by occasionally on their sail-glider wings. Tomorrow between 1600 and 1800 hours we should dock at Palmer, where I’ll spend the next 45 days with 29 scientists and technicians and a neighboring colony of 10,000 Adélie penguins.