Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017
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I prescribe a trip to... Antarctica

An FM and her husband take an adventurous cruise to the bottom of the world

“Antarctica? Why?” “Antarctica? Wow!” Those were the two most common responses from friends and patients when they learned I was off to the frozen continent. I was the lucky winner of last year’s doctor’s review Win a Cruise to Antarctica contest, but some people didn’t consider me lucky.

Thankfully my husband Court was not among them. He was bursting with enthusiasm, which helped counter my fretting about sea sickness. If you’ve read anything about travel to Antarctica, you’ll be familiar with tales of crossing the iconic Drake Passage, which separates South America from Antarctica. Suffice to say it’s 1000 kilometres of storm-prone sea. “You’re a doctor,” he said. “You know all about drugs. And besides, the MS Fram is a brand new ship specifically designed for this kind of adventure.”

So we found ourselves in balmy Buenos Aires in late November, bags filled with merino wool and Gore-Tex layers, toques, ski gloves and other paraphernalia designed to keep us warm and dry in sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds. We loved Buenos Aires with its streets of colonial buildings lined by flowering jacaranda trees, its parks and squares shaded by vast canopies of ancient gum trees and its many museums, not to mention its fabulous café culture.

But Antarctica was calling. We flew to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the southern hemisphere, and the embarkation point for our cruise. It sits at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, on the Beagle Channel (named after Darwin’s boat), surrounded by the towering glaciers of southern Argentina and Chile.

A couple of hours later, we were giggling like teenagers, unable to believe our luck, as we lounged aboard the MS Fram. We had been upgraded to the Oscar Wisting cabin, complete with a celebratory bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne. It was a lovely spacious room with queen-sized bed, chesterfield and chairs, satellite TV and a large square window with no obstructions. We dined on a fabulous smorgasbord and chatted excitedly with fellow passengers about the week ahead.

The dreaded crossing

We slept well that night, perhaps partly due to the scopolamine patches, but when I awoke in the middle of the night I realized why the bed sheets were made of a textured material: it was to keep me from sliding out of the bed when the boat pitched and rolled its way across the Drake Passage!

All night the boat shuddered as waves slammed the reinforced hull and the wind blew. Imagine my surprise when the morning announcement stated that our luck had held, and that instead of experiencing the Drake Shake, we were on the Drake Lake. My vestibular system didn’t believe any of it. Thankfully, by early afternoon, with the addition of sea bands and ginger capsules to my medication regime, I was ready for Antarctica.

However, it takes two days of full of sailing to reach the Antarctic archipelago, so for those who weren’t out on deck soaking up the wind and fresh air, or watching the waves from the comfort of the observation lounge, or even exercising in the on-board gym, there were lectures on natural history.

Late in the afternoon of our second day we arrived at Deception Island with its natural harbour contained within the collapsed caldera of a volcano. MS Fram nosed its way through Neptune’s Bellows, the harbour’s narrow entrance, bringing into view Whaler’s Bay. The hills looked like scoops of vanilla ice cream covered with chocolate cookie crumbs trickling down the sides in delicate trails.

We boarded the Polarcirkel boats, which look like large row boats with benches for four on each side, for the trip to a beach of black volcanic sand. Abandoned whaling equipment lay like sculptural installations along the beach, and in the distance stood two weather-beaten wooden crosses atop piles of grey, black and red rock.

Two chinstrap penguins formed a welcoming committee while Adelie and king penguins looked on. A juvenile elephant seal napped on the beach, ignoring us. Mounds of whalebone stood at one end of the beach, a grisly reminder of the island’s history. A few brave souls dug a small pool in the sand warmed by the volcanic heat, using it as a hot tub after a dash into the Antarctic waters.

24-hour party people

This taste of Antarctica whetted our appetite for more and we spent hours out on deck as the ship passed through the Gerlache Strait, offering our first views of the Antarctic peninsula. I’m not sure it ever really got dark, with sunset after 11pm, and sunrise around 2:30am.

We woke early the next morning to the ethereal light of icebergs all around. We were in Neko Harbour. We watched chunks of ice falling from icebergs, causing mini tidal waves, and gazed at the spectacular glaciers all around.

The force-11 winds of the night before had settled, but not enough to allow a safe landing on the Antarctic mainland. The stormy weather continued all day, as we cruised on to Paradise Harbour. Icebergs are simply amazing, coming in all shapes and sizes, coloured every shade of white and grey, some with glowing innards of blue and pink. Scale was almost impossible to assess, with nothing for comparison.

Disappointed that our planned landing was impossible, the crew turned the boat towards Port Lockroy, originally a British WWII military outpost to keep German submarines from disrupting shipping in the Southern oceans. It is now a museum/post office.

We must have been getting used to the virtual 24 hours of daylight because it didn’t seem unusual to be in a Polarcirkel boat at midnight, heading towards a rocky outcropping with a few wooden buildings surrounded by nesting penguins. Nestled in a sheltered spot, a three-masted schooner was riding out the stormy weather.

Port Lockroy is a popular tourist site in Antarctica. Half of the island is open to tourists, while the other half is reserved for penguins. So far the results show, if anything, that tourism benefits penguins — probably because the human traffic keeps away the skuas, large birds that prey on penguin eggs and chicks.

Despite the late-night excursion we were out on deck by 7am to gawk at the Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage only 1.6-kilometres wide at one point. We were surrounded by glaciers which seemed to erupt from the ocean, and mountain peaks and karst-like projections covered with ice and snow.

Seeing penguins torpedo effortlessly through the water confirms they can “fly” — just in water rather than air.

We didn’t see any glaciers calving, but the evidence was everywhere. The water was full of bergie bits (floating-house-size chunks of ice) and growlers (VW Beetle size) with sinuous columns of ice that looked like floating mosaic tiles.

Penguins under attack

We went ashore at Petermann Island and hiked across the island for a view of Iceberg Alley, a bay teeming with icebergs. At the other end of the island was a large colony of nesting birds — clusters of intermingled gentoo and Adelie penguins atop their nests of ringed rocks, next to blue-eyed shags (imperial cormorants) sitting on elaborate built-up nests of rock, moss and grasses.

It was an amazing sight to see the ecstatic displays (this is the scientific term and very apt) of the penguins as they threw their heads back and yodelled, an activity which apparently encourages the synchronisation of egg laying and incubation.

We spotted a downy soft grey chick huddled under the sheltering body of a parent — penguins share parenting duties equally it seems. There were loving displays of preening, which looked like make-out sessions. Suddenly a large skua, the scourge of nesting penguins, swooped low, grabbed an egg right out from under its brooding parent, and flew off with the prize.

Later in the afternoon we paid a visit to Vernadsky station, a Ukrainian research base, masquerading as a frat house. The recreation room’s bar was festooned with an eclectic assortment of bras of varying sizes, shapes and colours, exchanged by visiting tourists for a shot of the house-made vodka.

Weather records from the station show that the mean annual temperatures along the west coast of the Antarctic peninsula have risen by 2.5°C since 1947. Surprisingly, one of the effects of climate change has been an increase in snow, which means it takes longer before the rocks that the penguins need for their nests are exposed in the spring, which leaves less time for successful reproduction.

The boat ride back to the main ship included entertainment from two leopard seals frolicking in the water while two penguins standing like sentinels floated past aboard a small iceberg. The day finished off with an evening reading from Shackleton’s diary, a reminder of the hardships faced by the early Antarctic explorers.

So close, yet so far

We hadn’t given up hope of a landing on the continent, so we headed back to Neko Harbour. But the next morning, nature had a surprise for us: the harbour was full of icebergs and the beach was hidden from view by bergie bits, growlers and brash ice. A towering grey iceberg looked like a battleship barring our landing. Our first visit to Neko Harbour had been scuppered by wind, the second by ice.

We turned north towards Cuverville Island as the boat shuddered its way through the floating ice. Once again, it was too stormy to land, but we were surrounded by marvellous ocean and icebergs glimpsed between sea fog and cloud. We became skilled at picking out penguins from a distance, recognizing the tell-tale marks of their favoured routes from ocean to rock, and the snow discoloured by their guano.

Our trip culminated with two days of extreme weather as the ship fought its way north back to Ushuaia. The wind was so fierce that doors on the windward side simply could not be opened. I had to pull myself around the deck by gripping the rail before being flung forward and almost lifted off my feet when the wind was at my back.

We woke early in the morning, to the sounds of dock workers unloading the ship. Ushuaia may call itself the End of the World, but we knew better. There’s a whole continent at the bottom of the world, and we’d just been there. Although I didn’t set foot on the Antarctic continent, my journey through ice, wind and stormy weather was a glorious one. John Steinbeck said it best: “…we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Jean Clarke works as a family physician in Vancouver. This was her and her husband’s first cruise as well as their first trip to South America — but it won’t be their last. Their next trip will be in November to Beijing, Xian and Shanghai.
Dr Clarke’s husband is an engineer currently working half an hour from Nanjing.

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