Location: The Weddell Sea | - 63 30.232 S, -55 30.738 W | Temperature: -10°C/14°F
Human effort is not futile, but man fights against the giant forces of nature in a spirit of humility. – Ernest Shackleton
KC is staring out the porthole window in the gym when I pose an annoying question.
“Wanna hear something depressing?”
He turns away from the window and removes his earbuds. “What’s that?”
I point to the mileage number on the treadmill where I’m currently walking. “I’ve gone farther on this treadmill in the past 30 minutes than the ship has gone in the past 30 hours.”
He laughs, and I laugh with him. We have to laugh so we don’t go insane.
Widely regarded by scientists as one of the iciest places on the planet, the Weddell Sea is perhaps best known for trapping Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, in 1914. When I read Alfred Lansing's book about that doomed expedition, and the incredible fight for survival that followed, I loved the gripping details and vivid descriptions.
But I have an entirely newfound appreciation for that epic story now. No wonder they got stuck here.
Staring at the thick, unforgiving masses of ice, my mind wrestles with the rate at which conditions can change at the bottom of the world. Just two weeks ago, we stood on the bow, marveling at the ease with which the LMG cracked into the white drifts, easily forging a path through semi-frozen water. Now the ice is so thick it looks like solid land. It almost appears as though we could walk to our destination faster than the ship can move through it.
That destination is Joinville Island—the barren, windswept strip of land where we dropped off the geology team 14 days ago. Right now we're about nine miles away, the mountains of the island just barely visible through a layer of low-lying clouds. Nine miles doesn't seem that far, until Dave Johnston tells me we have covered just over mile in the past five hours.
"Pray for a change in winds," he says. "Otherwise we're going to be here for a while."
Every so often we hear harsh grinding noises emanating from the metal hull of the ship, usually followed by a sudden, awkward lean. At lunchtime in the galley, Jeremy opens an app on his phone to measure the tilt of the ship. Dave Johnston places his salad bowl at the far end of the table and chuckles as it slides down.
All afternoon the ship rams forward, then jerks into reverse. In the evening, just before the sun begins to set, a thick fog descends. The ship finally stops moving, and I head to the bow with my camera.
On the plane from Santiago to Punta Arenas, I read David Grann's piece in the the New Yorker about Henry Worsley, a modern-day Antarctic explorer. Peering into the dense fog, my mind plays Grann's apt description on repeat: they were enveloped in the white darkness.
There is no other word for it—we are in a void.
Later in the evening, when the white darkness gives way to actual darkness, I sit in the lounge chatting with Crysta and TR, two of our marine technicians.
"What's the longest amount of time y'all have been stuck somewhere?" I ask.
“Oh we’re not stuck,” Krista says casually. “We’re just moving really slow.”
Having skipped dinner, I head down to the galley to grab a bowl of cereal, and bump into Ryan, the second mate. “How are things up top?”
“Good!” he says automatically. Then he catches himself. “Well, actually we’re not really doing much. We have to wait for this fog to pass before we can move again.”
As he finishes piling salad onto his plate, I can’t help but notice his relaxed demeanor. The ship hasn’t moved at all in hours, yet he doesn’t appear frustrated or stressed.
Every crew member on the LMG is like this. Instead of demonstrating some sort of dejected resignation or hyper-sensitivity about the situation, they simply shrug their shoulders as if to say just another day at sea at the bottom of the world. It is what it is.
The fog persists through the following day and the ship doesn't move. It's been three days since we entered the Weddell Sea and we have made it a grand total of four miles. On the whiteboard where daily plans and updates get posted, Ari has written stay sane and maintain.
So we stay busy. While the scientists crunch their data and begin working on reports, I edit photos and write drafts of blog posts. We also spend a lot of time in the gym. I make it a point to spend at least an hour on the treadmill every day.
"Won't it be nice when we can walk somewhere again?" Jeremy says at dinner.
"Like where?" Dave Johnston asks.
"Down the street? A nice little stroll to the coffee shop? Or a walk down the beach." At this, Jeremy's eyes seem to twinkle. "You can just go forever," he says dreamily.
We may be contained to a 220 foot vessel, but we're comfortable—we have plenty of food, hot showers, internet, and a non-stop marathon of bad action movies playing in the lounge.
The same can't be said for the geology team of course. "I bet they're dying to get off that island," I tell KC.
By day four, it is apparent to everyone that we aren't going to make it to Joinville Island. Fortunately, at the bottom of the world, the immense forces of nature are matched by human generosity, often in the form of a helping hand from complete strangers.
Sitting in the lab on Sunday morning, I listen to the communications crackling over the radio. I recognize the voice of George, our third mate, then several quick phrases in Spanish, then in heavily-accented English, an unknown voice says "we should have everything in two more trips."
The Argentinian navy has mobilized two helicopters to evacuate the geology team from the island. By 9am, our five colleagues and all their gear, have made it safely to the Argentinian vessel, Almirante Irizar. We will rendezvous with the Argentinians to pick them up.
As soon as we get out of the ice.
Check out the rest of The Pago Files.
Curious about the blog title? A pagophile is any living organism that thrives in ice. Pago is a word of Greek origin, meaning cold, frost, freezing; fixed or hardened.