The Adventures of Dr. Emelia DeForce: The Drake Passage

The Drake Passage

By Emelia DeForce

Jan 4, 2013
64°46.50S X 64°03.00W
sunrise: 2:58am
sunset: 11:42pm
United States Antarctic Program Palmer Station, Antarctica

Honestly, I slept through leaving the dock at Punta Arenas as we forged South towards Antarctica.  The travel, preparations, and constant sunlight have left my body exhausted.  I vividly remember waking up on the ship after leaving and immediately saying to myself, “there is no way we are underway, the ship is hardly rolling!”  It turns out this was a foreshadow of our crossing of the Drake Passage.

As we chugged along at about 10 knots per hour through the Tierra del Fuego, the land that we were seeing on either side of the ship was flat, brown, and wind stripped.  Nothing much to write home about (except for the birders and whalers of course!)  Birders, by the way, tallied 36 hours of observation, 29 species, and 11,634 individuals.  Whalers spotted Commerson’s Dolphin, a small breed with black and white spots oddly resembling a cow floating in the water.  I bear all due respect….  The eerie sight of natural gas platforms dominated the scenery until we got to the open ocean where they petered out.  I was up on the bridge when all of a sudden, the 1st mate said “OK, we just hit it!”  “Hit what?” “The Drake!” We had traveled south beyond Cape Horn...we were in the region of water that bears the bad reputation for sailors. Two days through the Drake and not a white water wave to be seen, we were getting off easy and preparing for New Years Eve.  2013 came whipping in and yes sir, we did it up in style.  We ended the night through the Drake up on the bridge, pots and pans in hand, masks from Santiago bleeding sparkles, and the true to the moment song of  “I’m on a boat” blasting in the background.

Yeah, won’t forget this one! Eventually, we hit Smith Island and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (known as the ACC) where all of a sudden, we transitioned into a “new world.” One filled with dramatic mountain scapes, glaciers, icebergs, whales, penguins, seals, and just a simple and magical feel in the air.  We had arrived at the Southern most continent laden with its glory!  With the ACC and glacier runoff, comes plenty of nutrients and hence, a plethora of wildlife.  We were all down right giddy!

The Laurence M. Gould gracefully knocked through areas of sea ice that hit the hull of the ship following along the Antarctic Peninsula until the United States Antarctic Program’s Palmer Station finally emerged in the distance.  We docked at the station to drop off and take on new sailors, provision the ship with research equipment, and prepare the labs on board for our 28 day LTER cruise.  During “turn around,” I sampled for my own research project.  Just behind Palmer Station is the receding glacier Marr Ice Piedmont.

The Adventures of Dr. Emelia DeForce: The Drake PassageI am a soil microbial ecologist interested in how receding glaciers are affecting the microbial life in the soil.  I simply took soil samples along a 300m line from the glacier to the station, an area that spans 50 years of de-glaciation.  When Palmer Station was built in 1965, the glacier butted up to the station, now it has melted back over 400m.  For now, the samples are frozen awaiting my attention back in the US at the lab where I will determine the microbial composition using molecular techniques. I best stop this entry for now or I will lose one of my last chances to enjoy a beer over looking the splendor of Antarctica (soon it will be time for "sea-hab" the ship is dry!).  Its 10pm and the sun still shining high above, the bar is stocked with 10,000 year old glacier ice that we will use for our cocktails.  I am hoping that it will ooze into my bloodstream to make me wiser than my 33 years thus far, Cheers!

The Adventures of Dr. Emelia DeForce: The Drake Passage