In the Drake Passage, approaching the Antarctic Convergence

17 Feb 2011

The albatross has the largest wingspan of any bird on the planet. They soar around the ship, rising and swooping on the wind that buffets us. Albatrosses spend most of their lives on the ocean. Their only time on land is used to rear the next Albatross generation. To support their young, male and female albatrosses (they mate for life) will take turns and fly out over the sea for up to two weeks, gathering food. During this time they cover thousands of kilometres and never touch land.

"I now belong to the higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the Albatross…"
Robert Cushman Murphy

They are mystical birds and are said to carry the souls of sailors on their wings. For hundreds of years, there was a taboo against killing them. Now they fall victim by the thousands to the Antarctic toothfish industry.

Toothfish is a highly prized commodity and several countries take them using long lines of hooks baited with squid, the favoured food of the Albatross. The lines can stretch 10 kilometres with a hook every 20 metres. The birds dive into the water to try to seize the bait squid as the lines are rolled out from the trawler. This “by-catch” has caused the Albatross populations to crash. There are simple solutions to the problem, like running bait lines out through a 10-metre metal tube that would hide the squid from the sharp eyes of the birds. But little is being done about the problem.

The danger in which the Albatross live, the product of the industrialization of the Antarctic fishery, is a sharp contrast to the freedom and grace one sees as they soar around the ship, wings locked in place. Up close they manage to be large and sleek, a marvel of natural design and adaptation to this harsh environment.

The Drake is a rite of passage. All day we have been rolling as the winds picked up speed. “It’s an angry sea,” said one staff member as he braced against the ship’s rail, camera and telephoto lens pointed towards a soaring Albatross.

This morning began with sunshine and the ship rocking gently as we moved into the passage. The wind rose quickly and we have been in the swell all day. At one moment the window shows sky and water, then water, then water and sky, and then sky. It’s quite a roll. One minute you are standing, stable, the next you are lurching across the cabin trying to recapture your balance. We will all get sea legs in the next couple of days. It’s a rite of passage.

Just like the sea sickness which now afflicts a portion of the staff and students, even some who have made this crossing before.

“Sometimes to get there, you have to pay a bit of a price,” explained expedition leader Geoff Green. Antarctica takes work. “You can’t just turn a key and you get there.”

However we are anticipating being there. According to the charts and weather reports (high winds continuing with accompanying ocean swell), we should arrive at King George Island, in the South Shetlands archipelago off the Antarctic coast sometime late tomorrow. We will round the northeast portion of the chain and head for a small volcanic outcrop called Penguin Island. If there’s time, we’ll get out into the zodiacs and land. After that, we head towards the great Western Antarctic Peninsula and “ice berg alley”.

Sometime tonight we will cross the Antarctic Convergence, also known as the Polar Front, the dividing line between the warmer northern waters and colder southern waters. The water and air temperature will drop when we cross this point, which is possible to see encircling the continent through satellite images.

There won’t be a bump when we hit the convergence, but there might be a roll. Or two.



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