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Drake Passage

Crossing borders. Nice and easier sailing. The first icebergs in sight, 143 nautical miles away from our goal in the South Shetland Islands. 

Crossing Parallel and Antarctic Convergence Area. Entering the Antarctic system with a first sight of icebergs. A couple of days in the ocean, a threshold into forgetting the seasickness. It helps that the Rolling in the big swells has evolved on calmer conditions and smoother seas.  

1911, was a fateful year to remember both for ourselves and for the significant historical Antarctic events that took place. It was during this year that the Europa was launched and started her long career as a lightship in the River Elbe before becoming the Ocean Wanderer that she is nowadays. It was then as well when the British and Norwegian expeditions that succeeded in reaching the South Pole were set up. Less known but not of less importance, the German scientific expedition led by Wilhelm Filchner on board the ship “Deutschland” dared to sail deeper into the Weddell Sea than anybody before. New lands were found, and important meteorological, geological, and oceanographical observations were made. Amongst them, Brennecke, the oceanographer on board described the four isolated water masses in the Southern Ocean, including the realization of a sudden change in the salinity of surface waters flowing north, and an associated steep temperature plunge. 113 years ago, he found a consistent boundary between the Subantarctic and Antarctic systems. 

6º, 4.2º, 2.8º C. The water temperature has been quickly dropping for just a few hours between last night and the morning. We set more canvas on the winds from the NW, then Westerly, veering after to a good WNW. Sailing now Beam Reach instead of rolling downwind, her swaying eases making for a more comfortable ride. The fair wind blows on the 20s with some gusts of about 30 kn as she finds herself in the meeting area connecting the cold and dense waters from the Southern Continent and the Subantarctic warmer and lighter ones. The so-called Polar Front. 

And then, far in the horizon, a shiny white floating object is sighted by the lookouts. We just came across the first iceberg of our trip. Not much later comes the second one. This time a tabular of considerable size, probably a couple of miles in length. Still sailing at the southern limit of the 50s latitudes, it is an unusual encounter so far north into the Drake Passage. Their presence here may indicate an increase in the activity of the ice shelves in the Weddell Sea, breaking off large pieces that drift with the currents eventually wandering into the open ocean and following the clockwise current around Antarctica. 

Icebergs, Antarctic Convergence, a slight change in the birdlife flying around the ship with an increasing number of Prions and the small but brave Wilson Storm Petrels. It all tells us too that we are gaining ground Southwards. Yet another border was crossed. From the latitude of the 50’s now the ship ventures into the Shrieking 60’s. Not much of screaming winds and wild seas we find today there, but a bit of the opposite. The conditions abate and now a good breeze comes from the North. Europa is back again to downwind sailing over calmer seas. 

The overcast grey skies of yesterday, now and then with squalls sweeping over the Drake and crossing our course, had evolved on clearer and blue atmosphere, here and there peppered with clouds. An inviting setting to spend some more time outside, a chance for a walk around on deck to learn the ship’s ropes, their location on the pin rails, and their functions on the sails.  

The Poop Deck saw as well a group of people with binoculars at hand, cameras ready, and gazing to the horizon and the waters surrounding the ship. Guides were around as well with their papers and clipboards taking notes about the characteristics of the clouds and the diversity and number of seabirds spotted in a determined period of time just half an hour before the meals.  

Those observations are framed in the Citizen Science projects in which Europa is taking part. This collective is a community created to bring opportunities for research and public education by connecting scientists and research institutes with tour operators in the polar regions. 

The rapidly growing amount of vessels and tourists traveling and visiting the remoteness of the Antarctic seas and lands offer a great chance to engage as many people as possible in data collection to share with them. 

The light dims in the evening, it becomes more overcast. A look at Starboardside reveals another rare occurrence, a sort of round hole in the cloud cover showing the blue color of the sky above. Then, for a while, one of the most elegant flyers amongst the albatrosses shows up and follows the ship. A beautiful Light-mantled. With their black and grey suit and stylish soaring often they can be seen further south than other albatrosses, even some individuals now and then are spotted near the edge of the Antarctic pack ice. 

Written by:
Jordi Plana Morales | Expedition Leader

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