It’s a three-day journey sailing across the Drake Passage from Tierra del Fuego to the Antarctic Peninsula. These legendary waters have earned the reputation of being the roughest in the world. Southern currents squeezed between two continents cause even the largest of vessels to rock and roll. Crew and passengers reluctantly prepare for the long haul. They “drake-proof” their cabin, securing all loose items to prevent them from being tossed around from the relentless swells.
I on the other hand, see great opportunity – a chance to study graceful seabirds effortlessly riding the wind. The strategy is simple – find a dry place on the bow or the stern and wait. Eventually, they come. At first they appear as small specs on the horizon. Tiny shapes with long slender wings, growing larger as they approach. Closer and closer, like an airliner coming in for a landing. Yet, they twist and turn in the wind, their eyes always level with the horizon, never beating a wing, their tails steering them towards you. The perfect moment comes when they glide overhead, occasionally close enough to touch. As suddenly as they appear, they’re gone. With luck, they return out of the mist for a few more passes. Many of these long-winged birds are large – Giant Petrel, Black-browed Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross, Royal Albatross, and the bird with the world’s longest wingspan (4 metres) – The Wandering Albatross. Perfectly adapted to a life over open ocean, they endlessly search the surface for small invertebrates.
Rarely are they alone. I’m equally as excited when their smaller cousins show up. Petrels, shearwaters, prions and skuas can come out of nowhere, occasionally in large numbers. One of my favourites is the Pintado Petrel, an energetic seabird with an odd plumage that looks like a chunky bowl-full of Oreo Cookie ice cream. At first there is only one, low on the water, repeatedly circling the ship. It’s then joined by another, then several more until the flock grows to about forty or more. They follow us for hours, dipping, diving and dancing in an aerial ballet, almost always together as a unified group.
Antarctic Waters can be unforgiving. But, in the bleak emptiness of the endless ocean, seabirds sparkle like gems in the wind.
April 11, 2011