Albatross charts Drake Passage

STEPHEN SCOURFIELD celebrates a good omen at sea

The first iceberg appears ahead of the ship at 7am on Sunday.

An enormous sugar cube with sheered-off sides and a domed top made ragged by the wind on one edge, it rises pink-white from the steel grey Southern Ocean.

It’s a textbook iceberg... six storeys tall, bulky, shapely... a cluster made up of a tower block, turret and pillar, with pools of turquoise around its base.

It looms from the milky haze as a light snowstorm flutters through.

We pass close by, and then it recedes at the end of the ship’s wake.

And we shouldn’t even be here, close to the South Shetland Islands, just off the Antarctic Peninsula. It is, after all, only 7am on Sunday.

National Graphic Explorer left Ushuaia, on the southern tip of South America at 6pm on Friday, and we have covered the 800km of the Drake Passage on bizarrely calm seas.

The dreaded Drake Passage laid impotent.

The Drake Lake.

Passengers who might have been anxious about seasickness (the Drake Shake) have been choosing off the menu, dining in style and hoeing into big breakfasts.

But this easy weather, often with only 1m of swell, has also meant the ship has maintained a steady 14 to 15 knots and made a fast crossing. Rough weather and big seas slow. The last time I crossed the Drake Passage, there were 130km/h winds and the crossing took much longer.

But throughout a benign Saturday, with little wind, pitch, yaw or roll, I’ve been out on the back deck photographing Cape petrels (also called painted petrels, for their black and white patchwork backs) and Wilson’s storm petrels, which enjoy the lift they get from the ship’s turbulence.

Many of these southern seabirds, which make their living at sea, evolved about 50 million years ago, and their basic structure hasn’t changed much since then.

To be entering the South Shetlands, these fingernails of islands north of the Antarctic Peninsula at what is now 8am on the Sunday feels peculiar and is, of course, a big bonus for us travellers.

For we will make two Zodiac landings today — first on little Barrientos Islands, with its gentoo penguin colony and then, after lunch, on Half Moon Island, with its Camara Base. They feel like a real bonus.

The Drake has been kind...

This is an edited version of the original, full-length story, which you can read here.

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