On December 30th, 2016 (Day #5), we set sail on the final leg of our journey to Antarctica. I stood on the icebreaker’s deck and watched the city of Punta Arenas, Chile fade into the sunset. The Laurence M. Gould (LMG), a 230-foot long research vessel (R/V), would be my floating home for the next several days until we reach land again at Palmer Station. Unlike the wooden ships of past polar explorers, the LMG has an ice-enforced hull that can handle one foot level of ice with continuous forward motion in polar seas.
As we made our way through the Straights of Magellan to the east, then south along the coast of Argentina and then onward toward Cape Horn, I couldn’t help but to take in the remarkable scenery from the bow.
Pictured: The LMG’s bow is the most forward part of the ship.
On day #7, we left the protective shores of South America and headed south into the infamous Drake Passage. This section of water extends about 1,000 km (600 miles) between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands. Here, the unimpeded flow of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current carries a huge volume of water through the Passage and around the continent of Antarctica.
The Antarctic Circumpolar Current flows clockwise with a force approximately 600 times the flow of the Amazon River! This, coupled with the propensity for high winds in the region, can cause rough seas, and conditions sometimes referred to as the “Drake Shake.” Conversely, the “Drake Lake” is occasionally encountered when the passage is calm.
Considered a “rite of passage” for voyagers to the Antarctic, it takes approximately two days (Day #7-Day #8) to make the crossing, pending weather conditions. Check out highlights of my journey across the Drake Passage below. Was it a Lake or Shake?
Polar Ponder: Identify these main parts of a ship. Why would it be important to learn ship terminology for an Antarctic Expedition?
The Laurence M. Gould (LMG) Research Vessel at the Pier in Punta Arenas, Chile
On Friday December 30, 2016, I officially moved aboard the Laurence M. Gould (LMG) icebreaker ship for the final leg of my journey to Antarctica. My heart felt heavy saying goodbye to my husband, since we would be apart for six weeks, including New Years, my birthday, and Valentines Day. I am also leaving behind our two dogs, and I know they will be missing the extra belly rubs and long walks while I’m away. Here’s a big THANK YOU to my husband for taking care of our furry family in my absence.
Saying goodbye to my husband
On the other hand, I also felt nervous and exhilarated. The LMG would be at sea for about five days. Two of these days will be spent crossing the roughest waters in the world. The Drake Passage is a body of water between Cape Horn, Chile and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica.
Image Credit: www.euroargo-edu.org
The Drake Passage is where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern oceans converge, creating a roaring mix of currents – similar to a washing machine. This means that 30 foot waves are not uncommon in the Drake Passage.The intensity of the Drake Passage depends on the variable conditions at sea.
Check out the video below of a Russian vessel crossing the Drake Passage between Ushuaia (Argentina) and the Antarctic Peninsula. The vessel was hit by a storm sailing north that lasted two days with 14m waves! This extreme example is known as the “Drake Shake.” However, this passenger (yours truly) is hoping for a much smoother crossing, similarly called a “Drake Lake.”
Day #4: Preparations for my final leg of travel to Palmer Station, Antarctica were in full swing. I felt relieved that I had made it this far (7,333 miles!) with no major delays or complications. However, I still had the most daunting part of the trip still ahead of me: the voyage across the Southern Ocean to reach our final polar destination.
As a port city on the southernmost tip of Chile, Punta Arenas is a prime location for accessing Antarctica. Known as “the Antarctic Gate,” a number of organizations, including the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), rely on the town’s ocean access to support their operations.
The Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP) at the port in Punta Arenas.
The USAP brings two of its ice-capable research vessels, the Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP) and the Laurence M. Gould (LMG), to Punta Arenas. From there they carry out research cruises and transport people and cargo to and from Palmer Station, the U.S. research base on the Antarctic Peninsula.
View of the pier and warehouse.
Earlier in the day, I got fitted for extreme weather clothes (EWC) and accessories at the pier’s warehouse. This gear is provided by the National Science Foundation to prepare participants for the Antarctic climate. Since Palmer Station is a mild region of the Antarctic, I chose a variety of waterproof layers to keep warm and dry for the Antarctic fieldwork ahead.
Later in the evening, I moved on board the final mode of transportation: an icebreaker research vessel. The Laurence M. Gould (LMG) is a 240 foot ship that works primarily in the Antarctic Peninsula region, transporting support and science personnel and cargo to and from Palmer Station and supporting research throughout the peninsula area. Check out these ship highlights below!
This school-wide project challenges elementary students to read books or do physical activity that equates to the 8,000 mile (12,900 km) journey to the bottom of the world. Not only do students strengthen their bodies, but also their understanding of science, geography, technology, and healthy living.
Here’s how it works:
STEP 1: From January to March 2017, students dedicate time to “reading” and “moving” in support of the Antarctic Research Team’s incredible journey to the bottom of the world. Teachers send home the Read and Walk Letter and Footprints(stapled together) with students to officially launch the project.
Read and Walk Letter
Read and Walk Footprints
STEP #2: Continue to follow A Fly on the Pole’s blog to learn about the research team’s travels and polar adventures.
STEP #3: Collect the students’ footprints to track their progress.
Crestwood Primary School created a wall display in the cafeteria.
Waypoints such as Dallas and Santiago help students track their progress.
STEP #4: When you reach your final goal (Palmer Station, Antarctica), REPLY to this blog post! Schools will receive special recognition from the Antarctic Research Team for their 8,00 mile accomplishment. We look forward to hearing from you!
For more details on the project, check out this feature article in NSTA’s Science and Children.
Here I am pointing “due south” from a scenic overlook in Punta Arenas, Chile.
Two days, three flights, and 7,333 miles later – I finally arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile. Located on the Strait of Magellan -which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – Punta Arenas (PA) is a charming port city that has a rich history in trade and exploration. PA also serves as a base for excursions to the surrounding Patagonian region.
My husband and I arrived in Punta Arenas late in the evening on December 28th (Day #3). Being in the southern portion of the southern hemisphere, we had plenty of daylight to explore the city during our two night stay. Check out some of the highlights below!
We also explored the cuisine of Punta Arenas. Being the height of summer in the southern hemisphere, the food was plentiful, flavorful and fresh. The hardest decision was deciding where to eat! Lively with vendors and visitors, we also enjoyed shopping at the town square’s mercado for souvenirs.
So much to see and do!
Check out the flora and fauna we discovered while touring Punta Arenas by foot.
I made my final flight just in time. You could probably hear my sigh of relief around the globe. Now on the 3rd leg of my trip (still day #2), my travel itinerary was back on schedule. And, I had a window seat to witness the spectacular transformation of the Chilean landscape below me.
My “Spanish teacher” on the final leg of my flights.
I also had wonderful company on the flight. I sat next to a Chilean mother and her eight-year-old daughter. The little girl seemed intrigued by my blonde hair and poor ability to speak Spanish. We both giggled as we tried to communicate with one another. Even with our language barrier, she persistently pointed to objects around us, pronounced their Spanish names deliberately, and waited until I repeated them back correctly.
I would then repeat the same gesture to her in English. Within our 4 1/2 hour flight, we learned to communicate with one another and share our travel stories. The girl and her mother were traveling to the southernmost city in Chile to celebrate New Year’s Eve with their family. I would only spend a couple of nights in the same city before departing on the last leg of my journey to Palmer Station, Antarctica. Any ideas where our flight landed? Here’s a hint… this port city is considered a Gateway to the Antarctic.
Check out the video to learn where our flight landed.
What geological features are found near the flight path? How did they form?
As I settled into my airplane seat, I was so relieved to finally be internationally bound. This was going to be a long flight and I was ready to get some sleep. Eight hours and 15 minutes later, the airplane landed at my next waypoint. Any ideas where? I’ll give you a hint, I could see the Andes Mountains out my airplane window.
Check out this video to see where I landed.
Since my next connecting flight was already boarding, I had to quickly get off the airplane, go through customs, and head to my next departing gate. If I were to miss this flight, I would be delayed for at least 2 days here because all other flights were full. Therefore, missing this flight could compromise my trip to the Antarctic.
Fortunately, I was wearing my new running shoes. Although I’m no a marathon runner like my husband David (he has more medals than I can count), I sprinted to the finish line as fast as I could.
Not only was the lack of time a barrier, but so was my limited knowledge of the Spanish language. Although many airport signs were bilingual, I should have practiced some simple phrases beforehand. I kept thinking… Yo necesito my hermana, Senora Soos. ¡Habla espanol muy bien! Yo hablo espanol un poco.
When I reached my assigned gate, my heart sank. My flight number was not listed on the screen. Although the flight attendant patiently tried to explain the issue, I could only understand bits and pieces of the information. Fortunately, she wrote down a gate number and pointed the direction I had came. Now I understood… My gate had changed but I still had hope of getting onboard the airplane. So, off I sprinted again.
Waypoint #3: How many miles have I traveled? How many more must I still go?
As I approached the gate to my flight, I began recounting the extensive preparations leading up to this pivotal moment.
Indeed, traveling to Antarctica is no easy feat. In addition to the sheer logistics of getting there to do scientific research, my teammates and I also had to pass rigorous medical and dental examinations to ensure our “physical readiness” for the harsh Antarctic environment. Although this step can be tedious and time consuming, it is also very necessary for an expedition of this nature. With limited access to medical facilities in the Antarctic, it can take days to receive help for medical emergencies.
With the physical qualification (PQ) process now behind me, it’s time to deploy for the ice continent. It typically takes 8-10 days to travel to Palmer Station, Antarctica. You can check out my initial waypoints in this 20 second video below. Any guesses where I’ll be off to next?
Polar Ponder #3: How many modes of transportation will I need to get to Palmer Station, Antarctica? Check out the map below.
I felt excited that the countdown was finally over, but felt sadto say goodbye to my family over the holidays. On the other hand, I was thrilled that my husband would be joining me for part of the trip. With so many waypoints between my place of departure and the final destination, I couldn’t help but to feel anxious about my extensive travel schedule. Most of all, I felt raw excitement for the adventure ahead of me.
Believe it or not, it takes less time to travel to the moon than it does to Palmer Station, Antarctica. Remarkably, I will transcend countries, continents, cultures, and time zones to finally reach the underbelly of our planet. Ready, set, go… Let our polar adventures begin!