March 14, 2017:
Our return through the Drake Passage was not nearly as tranquil as the first pass. Waves crashed against the hull of our ship, as it rolled in every direction, the vector for a game of tug-of-war between all three dimensions. All day, numerous people did not even emerge from their cabins, unable to stomach the nausea that stemmed from riding a washing machine for 36 hours. It was an odd feeling to look out the window — one moment you would see nothing but the sky, and the next second you would be staring face down at the waves. At times, we weathered 20 foot swells, as the waves thundered across the bow.
We thought we were adventurers, enduring the elements and conquering the Drake Passage. How silly of us to think that. This was merely a taste of the passage — a 3 out of 10 in terms of intensity, according to Robert Swan — much to the disbelief of our team.
A massive storm stood in the middle of our original route, so the captain ordered a detour to ensure that we did not endure the worst of the Drake. Our ship took a slightly northwestern course, before we swung back east to get to the Beagle Channel. Our new course took us by the famed Cape Horn, the piece of land numerous explorers had hugged as they sought to navigate from the Pacific to the Atlantic. In the foggy distance, land appeared out of the mist — our first glimpses of vegetation in over a week.
We were later informed that we had “turned the Horn” — a distinction that apparently was of significance if you were a sailor. Over the course of history, thousands had perished trying to navigate around Cape Horn. The odds were so insurmountable that the ones that survived wore an earring in their left ear. This symbol historically garnered immense respect in the maritime community, as those sailors would be venerated (and treated to a free drink) in the bars and taverns that they stopped in. On the surface, this is just a fun tidbit, which gave us the opportunity to feel like we were part of our own Pirates of the Caribbean movie (who wants to help me pick out an earring?). But this fact truly underscores how fitting it is that the untameable, most extreme wilderness on Earth is surrounded by a ferocious moat.
Aside from its maritime significance, the Drake Passage is also responsible for the Antarctica we know today. Up until about 40 million years ago, the Drake passage was closed, fully separating the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The Antarctic continent was much warmer and did not have an ice cap. Once the passage opened, however, the joining of the oceans created the largest ocean current in the world — the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. This current is significant for two reasons: 1) the current keeps warm ocean current away from Antarctica, and thus led to the cooling of the continent which resulted in the ice sheets we know today and 2) the boundary where cold Antarctic waters meet warmer sub-Antarctic waters created the Antarctic Convergence — a zone of differentiated nutrients giving rise to high levels of phytoplankton and incredible biodiversity. The latter is why we had experienced such an abundance of wildlife throughout this expedition.
I made it a point to stand outside on the bridge, staring out for miles at the unobstructed horizon. Gale-force winds tore at the ship’s flag, as the giant waves crashed against the ship’s reinforced hull, spraying me with the salty ocean mist. Wandering albatrosses and giant petrels circled in the ship’s wake, their thick, iconic wings generating immense amounts of lift. The birds are marvels of nature’s engineering, with the largest wingspan of any species, which allows them to soar highly efficiently, gliding long distances while requiring minimal exertion.
I felt small. Not just the type of small you feel when you’re standing at the base of mountains or skyscrapers. This was one of the moments when you feel that your existence is so trivial as you float on a metal can, thousands of miles separating you from civilization on every side. Here, no attribute that society credits us with matters. What business was there to run? Which borrower to be microfinanced? What political issue to be debated or what music to be played? The abilities that our traditional society ascribes value to were of no use here.
I felt small.
Thus far in life, many of us have been fortunate to not have to contemplate finality. Our life feels like a continuous, infinite function. As optimistic creatures, we generally do not contemplate when we are doing something for the last time, leaving the tail possibility open that perhaps we will have another chance to feel or experience something. But here I stood, at 24 years of age, quite possibly having taken my last steps on an entire continent. I stood there, at my own convergence, head turned towards civilization, as the last pristine wilderness on Earth slowly slipped away beyond the horizon behind me.
In just a matter of days this place has turned my perspectives upside down, and as fast as it all happened, it is sobering to think that it may never happen again.