At the start of December, I traveled to Buenos Aires to begin the first leg of a journey following Arizona State University’s Origins Project on a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula. I had booked the trip in order to participate in their event “Science and Adventure in Antarctica“, and ended up dragging my dad with me for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Origins Project group for this cruise was led by Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss, a world-renowned theoretical physicist who is the founder and director of the program. The nineteen of us in the group were to be attending lectures, given by Lawrence onboard the ship, with wide-ranging topics from cosmology to climate change.
I first met up with the group on a chartered flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world and the capital of the Argentinean province of Tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia is a charming city surrounded by a forest that yields to the jagged, beautiful Andes peaks.
After we got our luggage, the group was directed to several buses that would take us to a restaurant in Ushuaia and then to our ship. Lunch was a nice opportunity to meet the other participants, and it was clear that we were a diverse group who had traveled from all around the world in order to share this adventure with one another. After we ate, we were taken to our ship, the Silver Explorer. It was a small ship (122 passengers, 121 crew) with a cozy feel.
Once settled in, the passengers and crew gathered on the rear deck for drinks and Hors-d’oeuvre. As the engines fired up we looked out at Ushuiaia while the cruise prepared to sail through the Beagle Channel before hitting the notoriously rough waters of the six hundred miles of open ocean called the Drake Passage. That night, the Expedition Leader announced during our nightly briefing in the theater that the forecast for the Drake Passage was “Good, not great”—six-meter swells were expected.
We awoke in the morning, excited about the possibilities of seeing exotic wildlife, such as the Wandering Albatross. The sea was angry that day and we all did our best to adjust to the side-to-side rocking of the ship. Soon, the air temperature noticeably dropped by several degrees as we crossed the Antarctic Convergence and we started seeing an increasing number of birds, as the cold Southern Ocean mixed with the warmer Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, pushing nutrients closer to the sea surface. We realized that it was worth the rough water, as soon as we spotted our first iceberg:
While the cruise got further south, the icebergs became much more abundant, until it was impossible to look in any direction without seeing dozens of them. It was even more impressive to realize that 90% of the mass of every iceberg is underwater. We were already seeing staggeringly beautiful scenery, and still had another day in the Drake Passage before we would even reach Antarctica.
After a second full day in the Drake, the ship arrived at our first stop: Brown Bluff. The area is dominated by a million year-old basalt tuya, a volcano formed when lava erupts through a glacier. Before we disembarked the ship, our clothing underwent a “seed check” to make sure that we were not carrying anything that might contaminate the pristine continent that we were about to set foot on. As we prepared to get into one of the inflatable rubber Zodiacs that would take us ashore, we were required to step into a chemical footbath in order to further ensure that we would not inadvertently pollute Antarctica.
Brown Bluff is home to roughly 20,000 pairs of Adélie penguins and 500 pairs of Gentoo penguins. When I stepped off the Zodiac, I was surprised to see that the penguins didn’t seem to care about our presence. We had been instructed to remain at least five meters from all wildlife during the cruise, but the penguins often walked right past us. About twenty inches tall, the Adélies and Gentoos looked comically awkward on land. However, I spoke with Danae, an ornithologist who was part of the expedition crew. She told me that in water, penguins can accelerate to fifteen miles per hour in less than a second, and that they can perform a 180° turn in only a fifth of a second.
After we spent a while onshore, it was time to get back onto the Zodiacs and head towards the ship. After we had a chance to shower and change our clothes, our group met in the ship’s theater at 10:15 am for the first of Lawrence’s lectures, titled “The Accelerating Universe: A Story of the Development of Cosmology”. As we trickled into the theater, Monty Python’s Galaxy Song played over the speakers.
The lecture covered topics ranging from the history of modern cosmology, to the mysterious “Dark Energy” and “Dark Matter” that are so important to the evolution of our Universe. Lawrence spoke about the experiments that have dramatically expanded our knowledge of our Universe. Especially when onstage, his energy and enthusiasm are infectious as he talks about complex subjects (and without the use of any notes).
After the lecture ended, the remaining Zodiac groups returned to the ship and we set sail for our second destination of the day: Hope Bay, further south down the Antarctic Peninsula. In the afternoon, the ship anchored at Hope Bay and we waited for our Zodiac group to be called (only a hundred people are allowed onshore at any given time, so there were four Zodiac groups). When it was our turn, we were taken on a 90-minute cruise around Hope Bay and its incredibly calm waters. One thing that is difficult to describe is the fact that everything in Antarctica is huge. When looking at sheer glacier faces that are miles wide, there’s nothing to give a sense of scale. There are no trees, buildings, or anything else to help our brains put the scale of the scenery into perspective.
We were driven around Hope Bay for an hour and a half, and we saw the diversity of wildlife in Antarctica. We saw a Weddell seal taking a nap on top of an ice floe, Giant Southern Petrels, and more Adélie penguins.
In addition to the wildlife, calm water, and enormous glaciers, we got our first close look at a spectacularly gorgeous blue iceberg.
After our Zodiac ride ended, we returned to our ship and prepared for the next day’s stops: Cuverville Island and Paradise Bay.
Click here to read Part 2, with more on the next destinations—including a twenty-mile long tabular iceberg.