Children's author finds adventure and rough seas during Antarctic science voyage
Posted October 10, 2008
By definition, an adventure involves the unexpected. I knew without doubt that I was signing up for an adventure when I agreed to join a group of oceanographers studying icebergs in the Southern Ocean. Of course, I was only brave enough to consider it because I thought I had a pretty good handle on the sorts of unexpected things I could expect. Sweet hubris. I was soon to discover that if there's one thing the Antarctic teaches, it is humility.
The invitation I received was blunt about the rigors of the trip. We would be at sea on an icebreaker for 30 days on a National Science Foundation -funded science cruise, and would not touch land at all during that time. The trip would take place during the month of June — Antarctic winter. Conditions would be cold, dark, and probably stormy.
I had never been to sea before. I was only invited because I write professionally for children, and the researchers wanted me to write a book about their expedition. Normally, my tastes run toward quiet rooms, a fire in the hearth, and a pleasant drink with family and friends. I like sunshine, or the lights on, because light leaves less to the imagination. I wake up with bad dreams. I get seasick.
But the research sounded exciting. The ice shelves were breaking up, turning into megatons of icebergs. Rich concentrations of marine life in the surrounding water — sometimes called “halos” — indicated that these new icebergs might be releasing nutrients as they melted, fertilizing the sea much as rivers do in warmer climates. [See related story: The hotspot.]
No one knew how quickly the icebergs were melting or exactly what or how much they were adding to the ocean. No one knew what life forms might be found in the halos, or what lurked beneath the ice, where no one had taken a good look before.
I had long wished to visit Antarctica — the emptiest, strangest place on Earth. I love any opportunity to get kids excited about science. And I had read somewhere that adventure is its own reward. So I promptly said yes.
I needed to keep a journal in order to write the book later on. After a little thought, I decided to make it a live journal by putting it on the Web as two blogs, one for teens (Rime of the Ancient Mariner ) and one for younger kids (Unantarctica ). This would create immediacy and suspense, and allow children to ask questions and receive answers while the voyage was still underway.
I knew two blogs would be a lot of work, but I expected plenty of time, and no distractions. So I set up a Google ad campaign to spread the word among kids, teachers and homeschooled groups. Then, armed with scopolamine (for motion sickness), a laptop, a camera, woolen underwear, and a month's supply of deluxe gummi worms, I set off for Punta Arenas, Chile, where the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer waited.
The first few days were busy, as we moved into our dorm-like cabins and the researchers unpacked and arranged tons of supplies and equipment in the ship’s lab areas. As we headed into the Strait of Magellan, the water stayed fairly calm.
The researchers, about to spend a month doing what they live for, were in high spirits and their mood was infectious. Since there was no science to report on yet, and the temperature was just above freezing, I enjoyed hours on deck photographing sunbows (an arc of prismatic colors, like a rainbow, appearing in the spray of water) and birds. I scarfed down large portions of the high-carb buffet in the galley. Just before we entered the open sea, I stuck a scopolamine patch behind my ear and crossed my fingers.
Enter the unexpected. Scopolamine had worked well for me on buses and small boats. But on the top-heavy icebreaker, in swells that regularly washed onto the deck, it was worse than useless. Shipmates with experience at sea laughed, claimed this was pretty calm, and suggested that I swear off drugs and tough it out. My sea legs would arrive in three days tops.
But a week passed, and still I was green at the gills. Deeper into the Southern Ocean we sailed. The decks grew white and hoary with ice and the nights grew longer. During each short period of daylight, I donned my severe weather gear and dragged myself outside in search of photos for the blogs and the later book.
In the wind, temperatures fell to minus 20 centigrade or lower and ungloved fingertips stiffened on the camera’s knobs and dials. The fresh air put color in my cheeks, though, and the icebergs, taller than skyscrapers, broader than cities, and weirdly sculpted by the elements, were a sight I couldn't get enough of. Afterward, I would return to my cabin where, bilious and gagging, I wrote a thousand words for my readers.
Two weeks passed. Some days, the sea was smooth and I felt well enough to rush around interviewing and photographing scientists and crewmembers and devouring gummi worms. (Hey, calorie-dense and totally addictive.) Then the wind and waves picked up again, and I was forced back to my bunk. Eventually I realized my sea legs were never going to come. I thought often of Charles Darwin. Though he was seasick for the entire five-year voyage of the HMS Beagle, he got a world-changing book out of it.
A little past the midpoint of our journey, I went to the ship’s medic and begged him for anything that might help. Bless him; he placed a bottle of meclizine in my shaking hand. After two days of experimenting, I found a dosage that made me functional but not too drowsy to write.
Would I do it again? You bet! (Though I'd start the meclazine sooner.) Antarctic voyages are like gummi worms. One is never enough.
Nancy Etchemendy lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area where she is an award-winning author of children’s books. For further details, see her web site at http://etchemendy.com .