Letters from Antarctica

Diary excerpts by Jessica Cheam
Part I

27 February

We arrive in Ushuaia, Argentina – known as the southernmost city in the world – after a marathon 45-hour journey on planes from Singapore, Dubai, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and changing airports to get a domestic flight to our final destination. Fraser and I are both exhausted from the long journey, lugging around nine pieces of luggage weighing 100kg with all our camera and expedition gear. But as soon as we exited the airport, the sight of majestic mountains all around us gave us a sorely-needed shot of adrenaline.

Image: Jessica Cheam

We travel to Arakur hotel, a lovely hotel with a bird’s eye view of Ushuaia. It is here we officially begin our ClimateForce: Antarctica 2018 expedition with our first briefing led by Robert Swan, founder of 2041, and his claim to fame is he’s the only man to have walked to both the North and South poles.

His opening story of how his South Pole expedition — which took him more than three years from 1984–1987 —  is nothing short of incredible. His tale of somehow scraping enough money to buy a ship, then having to endure the disastrous launch of the expedition at Tower Bridge in London in which his ship managed to tear into a few public bridges in front of British royalty were part hilarious and part inspiring. He makes everyone feel at ease with his dry, deprecating sense of humour.

After a series of safety briefings, we go back to our rooms to pack and get organized for tomorrow. We leave for Antarctica tomorrow. I can’t quite believe it. But for now, I’m so tired I can hardly keep my eyes open.

28 February

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Image: Trenton Branson

More briefings. Exploring downtown Ushuaia. Eating churros. Sunny weather. Getting our passports adorned with Ushuaia and Antarctica stamps. Group photographs. We whizz through these activities like a blur and before we know it, we are walking up the stairs at the Ushuaia port to embark the Ocean Endeavour for Antarctica.

It is a surreal experience going on board, being greeted by the lovely Quark staff on the ship and checking out the cabin that would be home for the next 12 days. Finally, the ship sounds its horn and slowly, we depart from Ushuaia with the sun beating down on the back deck. Everyone is so excited, people are cheering, taking photographs, waving to people at the dock. We still have our phone signal. Everyone is sending last minute messages to their loved ones as we’ve been told there is little internet connection while on the expedition. We have our first dinner on the ship and everyone’s starting to talk about seasickness pills. We are sailing into a storm and are being chased by another. We have been warned that it might get rough.

1 March

This day is almost a total write-off because of the rough seas. People have been throwing up and feeling sick. Hardly anyone is around on the decks. While I initially felt okay, my sea legs are obviously not seasoned enough for the mighty Drake Passage. I take a pill and spend most of the day sleeping. Drifting in and out of sleep, I hear the sounds of furniture, cutlery, and miscellaneous items being tossed about in cabins, in drawers and around the ship.

I cling on to my mattress – the rolling of the ship is making me slide from left to right, then right to left. It’s not easy to sleep but to be awake is worse.

(The Drake Passage is a body of water between South America's Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It connects the southwestern part of the Atlantic Ocean (Scotia Sea) with the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean and extends into the Southern Ocean.

The passage receives its English-language name from the 16th-century English privateer Sir Francis Drake. Drake's only remaining ship, after having passed through the Strait of Magellan, was blown far south in September 1578. This incident implied an open connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The 800-kilometre wide passage between Cape Horn and Livingston Island is the shortest crossing from Antarctica to any other landmass. There is no significant land anywhere around the world at the latitudes of Drake Passage which results in an unobstructed flow of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The current is circumpolar as the name implies, carries a massive volume of water (about 600 times the flow of the Amazon River) through the Passage and around Antarctica, and keeps warm ocean waters away from Antarctica. The ACC has been known to sailors for centuries; it greatly speeds up any travel from west to east but makes sailing extremely difficult from east to west; although this is mostly due to the prevailing westerly winds. Source: Quark expeditions)

2 March

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Image: Trenton Branson

We cross that imaginary line in the sea that marks the Antarctic Circle today – far further south than most people would ever go.

The Antarctic Circle is the most southerly of the five major circles of latitude that mark the maps of the Earth. The region south of this circle is known as the Antarctic; it runs 66°33′47.1″ south of the Equator.

At a small ceremony to mark the crossing, Solan the Quark expedition leader calls on us to celebrate and to reflect on the moment.

James Cook, in 1774, was the first human being known to have crossed the Antarctic circle, and it is “on the shoulders of these explorers” whom contributed geographical knowledge and the spirit of adventure that we discover this place for ourselves for the first time today.

Robert addresses us after, reminding us only a small, exclusive group of people in history have ventured where we are. And with this privilege, comes a responsibility and a question – what does it mean to be an ambassador of the place? What does it mean to care for a place?

One of the expedition leaders sings a melodious Spanish song for us; which is carried by the winds into the Antarctic landscape. I think it’s at this moment everyone realizes the gravity of this moment. Around me, people were quiet, visible moved. One of our expedition members from Vietnam starts crying. I don’t know if it’s tears of joy or sorrow, but perhaps it’s just a natural response to the entire experience.

Later, I read that in the old days that crossing the Antarctic Circle was such a momentous occasion that there used to be an initiation ceremony for sailors crossing the Antarctic Circle which typically involved compulsory haircuts, random shavings or ceremonial dumping into vats of rubbish.

I guess we should be lucky for having escaped being born in that era or I’d be trying to wash my hair out right now.