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  • Pru Warren

Drake's (Mild) Passage

Thursday, November 11—6:55 AM


I am flush with virtue. It’s not even 7am and I’m already ensconsed in the library, a nicely-brewed mug of tea at hand. I’m clean as a whistle (not only bathed but also dressed in freshly-laundered clothing), and hanging in my tidy, tiny bathroom are my waterproof pants, which I have rinsed thoroughly in the shower with me. We are told that there are protocols for going to Antarctica which include keeping the mud of Patagonia to yourself, thank you very much.


So I’ve washed my pants. And then I washed my boots. I’m mildly concerned that I got water into the Herman Munsters, but I’ll turn them upside down and dry them that way for a while later this afternoon.


My issue is the tip of the walking stick; I can see ground-up bits of detritus jammed into the housing where the spike emerges. I shall require assistance. I don’t want to be the reason the pristine beauty of Antarctica becomes overwhelmed by the southern beech, or whatever.


We’ve left Patagonia and are sailing across The Big Deep. So far the ocean is being quite (ho, ho) pacific. Long, gentle swells emerge from nowhere, and we cross them at a slight angle. Feels like a slow-motion, excessively gentle canter. First I get quite heavy in my seat as we are pushed up by the wave, and them I’m quite light and have just a hint of the over-the-top-of-the-roller-coaster fizz as we descend the other side. It’s a lovely, gentle rocking. The famous Drake’s Passage has let me down for crashing-wave excitement.


There are a few whitecaps, and each long wave of energy in the water is covered in little wavelets, making dark triangles against the grey waters. Look! A fin! No, sorry—it’s a wave. Look! That one is a fin! No, nope. Wrong again. Wave. Hey—is that?! No. No, it’s not. Santi the bird guy is standing a lonely vigil at the bow in his green puffy coat (the only reason I know it’s Santi) with a telephoto’ed camera at his feet. There are no acolytes (yet) clustered around him, hopefully pointing out the waves that look like fins…but they’ll be there soon. I took the outside path to the Chart Room for my tea, and the day is soft. The air is not yet Arctic (we haven’t passed that point yet) and the breeze isn’t up to Patagonian standards. If I was going to STAY out there, I too would put on a large puffy coat and a hat and mittens and what-have-you, but for a brief stroll along deck (after being sweated up by the humidity in my bathroom closet, what with its dripping-wet waterproof pants on the clothesline), it was delicious.


We’re supposed to get to Antarctica tomorrow around 1 PM—no one will be more specific because the weather here is full of mischief and tricks so the “play it by ear” concept is a life philosophy. Today we have a series of presentations; two on sea birds, one on Shackleton, and one on—I dunno. I wouldn’t mind a little info on Drake of Drake’s Passage. Was that the Sir Francis Drake, who so entertained Eliz 1? Seems unlikely; that was the 1500s and this area seems to have a lot of 1700s and 1800s Europeans.


Hm. Perhaps I should be paying more attention to these presentations…


The word “wave” is aptly named. I can see the waves of—energy? Power? Determination? roll toward the boat. The water it passes through doesn’t really move; a whitecap at the top of the wave does not ride the wave forward. Like the ship, it passes up and over and ends up in roughly the same spot. A floating piece of driftwood—an albatross taking a break—wouldn’t go anywhere, except up and then down. It’s the wave of energy that is moving, and the water just accepts the movement and stays where it is. The ship is rising and falling because of waves of energy.


That’s cool.


But where does the energy come from? Why are there waves? I feel that perhaps I was sneaking a novel under my desk during fifth grade geography and now there are rather obvious and glaring gaps in my understanding…


So far I’ve seen a large, soaring black bird. A sooty grey bird that I think is NOT the same as the black bird, but who can say? A handsome cinnamon brown beauty. And TWO kinds of white birds, the smaller of which has handsome black borders on the undersides of its wings like an old-fashioned mourning card. And thus is a legendary birder born-what keen observations I make! This is a great place to sit and watch the birds soar past; I can see their backs, and I can see their undersides as they turn and swoop. I know they rarely come to land…but if I was one of these open-ocean soaring birds and a big old National Geographic ship puttered past, I’d figure that orange lifeboat would look pretty good for a little sit-down. Rest those wings a minute. Flight requires such a huge expenditure of energy; such a viciously rapid metabolism that I don’t see why they don’t all take advantage of the occasional perch and ride the Explorer like commuters on a San Francisco trolley car. Hey—quit that shoving, you. Sorry, Bob—didn’t see you there.


Oooh, laws—a little bird just flew past with white spots on its black wings. Or rather, white patches. Big enough even for me to see. Maybe that’s the mourning card bird…or it’s something else. Santi will know, and will tell me during his presentation, I’m sure.


The featureless void really does seem to be quite crowded.



Thursday, November 11—8:52 PM


Having alertly attended an hour-long presentation on the birds flying past the ship in effortless swoops and dives, I have determined with perfect authority how to identify these creatures:


They are all a stormy petrel.


If someone questions my confidence, I shall say “No, that one is a juvenile; they look different.”


I don’t actually remember what a stormy petrel looks like and in fact, statistically, it’s probably a black-browed albatross, but I don’t like that name nearly as much. Albatross, shearwater, frigate bird, tern, gull—all of those names pale before the “pay me or I go to the press” panache of STORMY PETREL.


So that’s what I’ve learned today.


I had breakfast with Grant. He’s a mechanical engineer. He was as fascinated by the creative process of writing romance novels as I was by the problem-solving mindset of engineering. We interviewed each other with increasing entertainment, enjoying just how diametrically oppositely our brains worked. He was fascinating, and made me feel like I was fascinating, too. There are more than a few people on this ship who I have REALLY enjoyed getting to know.


Santi spoke about a multi-decade project to save a grebe with an extremely-limited geographic range and Tommy told us more about climbing mountains most definitely designed to discourage climbing. Eduardo went well over his appointed time to tell us the story of the explorer Shackleton, and he’s a chatty, gossipy storyteller so it was a good yarn.


But at the end I leaned over to Scottish Bryan with Rachel His Lovely Lassie and said “Once again—I think the Shackleton story is proof that the male of the species is perhaps a little reckless.” (I actually said something involving the word “penis” but what is the good of writing a blog post later if I can’t make myself sound a little more erudite?)


And Scottish Bryan shut me down in about six well-chosen sentences. Damn! Turns out he didn’t just work for Exxon-Mobil; he was one of the executive officers, and led leadership training programs that sounded fucking AWESOME. He’s why Exxon Mobil is so damned effective at what they do; they’re grooming people to actually lead as opposed to obediently following orders. And he says they use Shackleton as an example of how to lead. Humor, hard decisions, judgment, balancing short-term gains with long-term goals, staying focused, inspiring profound loyalty, choosing the right people, emphasizing the ability to communicate… Damn. Within one short conversation, I was no longer rolling my eyes—and I think Eduardo missed a hell of an opportunity to make some of Scottish Bryan’s points in what I now am forced to admit was a pretty fascinating tale.


But the REASON Shackleton decided he needed to be the first person to walk across Antarctica? Man, that was all penis. Just saying.


Tomorrow is decontamination day; I have apparently been scrubbing my boots and pants untimely. Never mind; I still need to soak the crap out of my walking stick. We are told that the entire morning (while we’re still traveling across the rocking cradle that is Drake’s Passage) will be spent on mandatory briefings concerning not importing any hidden seeds or spores into Antarctica, followed by the examination of our equipment. We’re a ship full of people who chose an environmentally-conscious cruise; we are obedient to the decontamination process.


No whales so far. The water has several times utterly mesmerized me; I was looking through my binoculars at the waves, attempting to parse out in words what the water looked like (the mental conversation of which sounded like “plastic? No, plastic is too negative a word. Frosting? It’s wetter than that. Flexible. Yes, flexible. Like you could stand on the surface and it would bend under you as if it were an amusement park trick; how long can you stay on your feet?”). This line of thought was ultimately fruitless as everyone knows what a wave looks like anyway, and by the time I realized I was yammering to myself uselessly, I was half asleep. So I took a video; I shall loop it. When next I am lying awake at 4 in the morning, calculating hours of sleep and knowing I was going to come up short, I shall play myself those waves rolling—rolling—rolling—rolling…rolling… rolling. . . rolllll…Zzzzzzzz


I’ve taken many pictures of stormy petrels. All of them suck. I’ve also taken more portraits of guests—and some crew, too—and they are MUCH better. This portrait feature on the iPhone; I dig it big-big. But for illustration in this post, I’ll use a generic shot of the Southern Ocean that is at least lacking a blurred and too-distant image of a stormy petrel. What’s that you say? That’s not a stormy petrel? Sure, it is—it’s just a juvenile. (See how well this works?)


No--no photo. The internet connection is too weak; I'll lose the post if I try. Sorry. You'll have to use your imagination!

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