It is a few minutes before midnight on December 21st – the solstice. I've just come in to my cabin from the deck and the last thing I saw was a humpback whale breaching off the starboard side of the Polar Pioneer. I'm trying to decide if I will sleep during this voyage. I am so stuffed with visual stimulation that I don't want to close my eyes. I know I'll be in for crazy dreams as my mind tries to process some of what it has taken in.
In the afternoon, after reports that many of the passages on the peninsula are still choked with ice, Gary Miller, our seasoned expedition leader, decided we should march down through the Bellinghausen Sea
toward Adelaide Island and the Antarctic Circle. If we can get through, we will be the first ship this season to cross the circle and one of our goals is to get at least that far south.
The horrors of the Drake didn't materialize. Once or twice a year, the passage sleeps and the water calms to glass. “Drake Lake” sailors call it, although there are those who have experienced its ravages who think this condition is a myth or, at best, exaggerated. I was on the bow just after lunch, the sun high in the sky and I was leaning against the bowstem like some passenger on the lido deck. All I needed was a rum drink in a coconut shell with an umbrella poking the top. But as I reclined facing sunward, I realized that, though we're headed due south, the sun was arching to the north—behind me in the sky. Right now, the sun is making a short dip down beneath the southern horizon. I want a globe and a flashlight so I can make a model of it. At this time of year in the north, the sun is always to the south and makes a low curve across the sky from about eight am to four pm.
There was another lecture, this time about brushtail penguins, and we had a kayak drill—getting into drysuits and making our way to the stern where we'll launch when we go out on the water.
There is a competition going on board to pinpoint the time and location of the sighting of the first iceberg. No one ever sees the Antarctic continent before they see icebergs. It will be a moment I have imagined since I was a child. The instant of seeing something after the vast passage we've come across. It won't be my imagination anymore. It won't be what I've read about. It won't be a picture of Antarctica or a dream or a mirage. We have crossed the Antarctic convergence, the spot where the cold water of the southern ocean sinks below the seas coming from the north. By the time I open my eyes in the morning, we'll be in Antarctica.