This Eclipse Cruise was the maiden voyage of the Ocean Victory. There are a few people who believe that the Total Solar Eclipse of 1912 on April 17 is responsible for sinking the Titanic. Or was it the partial total lunar eclipse of April 2nd? Or was it the Titanic just hitting an iceberg because some egotistic people wanted to break the record for the Blue Ribbon and threw caution in the wind while sailing through iceberg-infested waters on a moonless night? Opinion cannot be tested. Hypothesis can. Luckily, there are several versions of the Ocean Victory vessel, just in case…
The Ocean Victory is a polar qualified vessel that is suitable for roughly 200 passengers and 100 crew. The gross tonnage is 8,181 tons and its bow design is x-shaped (or inverted), intended to allow for better handling in rough seas, especially the sometimes treacherous waves in the Antarctic waters. The vessel is also designed with horizontal stabilizers that protrude from the side of the hull further providing an engineered feature to modulate the rough seas. It reminded me more of an aerodynamic luxury car than a “boat”. It looked safe anchored in the harbor, but a boat is built for the seas.
Our cabin was roughly 11 sq meters and I shared it with my eclipse buddy, Guillermo from Argentina. The cabin is a royal improvement over Shackleton’s quarters from 100 years ago with a vacuum toilet (think “swoooosh” sound) and is also equipped with a TV that connects to the meeting room where presentations were held so that you could watch them from the comfort of your bed if you are seasick (and plenty of passengers took advantage of this feature).
The crew of a hundred includes the expedition team (22) with crew of various backgrounds that have expert knowledge in a variety of topics: Antarctic birds, penguins, plants, geology, law, and many others. The expedition crew are also trained in driving the brand-new zodiacs, the inflatable boats consisting of buoyancy tubes that are intended to be unsinkable. A total of 180 passengers were on board with several guests from Virgin Galactic that signed up to fly to “space.” Yes, there was considerable discussion during one of the meetups where some scientists challenged the definition of “space” for marketing purposes.
Getting to Antarctica is a trek especially from Southern Utah. First, I needed to drive (to Las Vegas) then fly to Buenos Aires via Houston and then take a domestic flight to Ushuaia. This Southernmost city on South America is the starting point of many adventures going North on the Pan-American Highway by motorcycle (watch the Netflix show Long Way Up), RV, or bicycle (I met a German in Ushuaia at the laundromat who will take two years to ride approximately 30,000 miles).
But alas, I wanted to venture South. Ushuaia is a picturesque and colorful town on the Tierra del Fuego, a name given by Ferdinand Magellan on his circumnavigation of the Earth, seeing fires on the coast while sailing past these strange lands.
The sailing journey lasted 14 days, and the various locations are listed below in the summary table:
Locations are far apart sailing through the Southern Oceans. Our intended route led us from Ushuaia to the South George Islands, then to a location in the Scotia Sea into the path of totality, further to Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands, to the Danger Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula and then Brown Bluff, on the Antarctic continent. Landings and routes are always subject to change due to weather in these unpredictable waters.
Different Places – Different Magic
I have learned and read about fantastic places and planets, in real and fantasy, but Antarctica was the most alien and strangely beautiful place I have ever seen. There are no comparisons for what I have seen and stories and pictures, albeit helpful, lack the present moment emotional responses I experienced (apart from seasickness). Here is a non-complete list of some of the many beautiful moments:
- the resonant sound of thousands of penguins using their “double throat” as beacons of home to find their mate.
- the floating iceberg structures that make our vessel look like a toy.
- the green and lush moss on the South Georgia Islands.
- the whimsical cloud structures that seemed to have been airbrushed and indicate katabatic winds and forbear stormy weather.
- the ridiculous never-ending waves pounding the hull and seemingly my stomach.
- the longest, cloudiest total solar eclipse ever.
- the longest fiery sunset lasting 50 minutes for the sun to seemingly move parallel to the horizon only to barely dip below the horizon.
- Location: 63° S, 56° W
- Sunset: 10:40 PM
- Sunrise: 2:40 AM
- Lowest altitude of Sun below horizon: ~ 4 degrees
An Eclipse in the Scotia Sea
The historical weather data for the Scotia Sea for December is poor. But if you want to experience an eclipse you have to be in the proper location. Jamie Carter from www.whenisthenexteclipse.com and our captain worked out a route and location in the Scotia Sea given daily weather forecast. The forecast from 18 hours previous showed a sliver of low cloud probability which guided our path and everyone else’s!
The location of all the vessels with the objective to be in the path of totality is seen below:
But all this planning and the historically bad weather over Scotia Sea lead to 1 minute and 32 seconds of totality, behind clouds. It was a breathtaking spectacle, nonetheless. People were excited. The clouds went completely dark. And then they went white again. There was cheering and champagne. My friend Guillermo, as predicted by his other two eclipses, just like clockwork, had to hurl. I am not sure about the scientific validity of his response and correlation does not mean causation, but we all are energized by eclipses to a varying degree. I was disappointed to not have seen the corona, for sure, but rule #1 for total eclipses is that you have to be in a position to experience it and give up any expectations for an ecliptic outcome. Now I can check a cloudy eclipse off my list.
Of the vessels in Map 3 the only one that actually did see the eclipse was the National Geographic Endurance. It was directly in the center line at sunrise for totality, meaning the sun was barely above the horizon line when totality happened.
There was a camp on mainland Antarctica called Union Glacier. NASA scientists recorded the image of the solar corona for a continued experiment series. You can read more about that project here. The cost for viewing the solar eclipse at Union Glacier was approximately $50,000. It included a transfer by plane from Ushuaia and a 6-day camp and no opportunity for seasickness.
The Science of the Solar Corona
This Corona is not biologically contagious! Our cruise had a contingent of scientists led by Shadia Habbal from the University of Hawaii exploring the Sun’s corona. This project was started in 2006 and has continued to monitor and record the coronal shape and composition during total eclipses in multiwavelength observations. One of the continued questions around the corona is the dramatic difference in the temperature of the photosphere (around 6000 Kelvin) and the temperature of the corona (over 1 million Kelvin) as well as the connection between the corona and solar wind and the composition of the solar wind permeating the solar system. The connection of the coronal structures to solar wind streams sheds light on various astrophysical processes as a result of total solar eclipses and rather cost-effective science budgets. The article is available on OpenAccess here.
Shadia Habbal was joined by Lika Guhathakurta , a heliophysicist at NASA headquarter in Washington. They are scientific pillars of the study of the Sun and call themselves “Sheliophycisists.”
Sailing: The Drake Passage
Barf. Actually, I never barfed. But I wanted to barf soooooo badly.
There is something comforting about having scientists on board that can help visual natural phenomena. Bill Diamond, CEO of the SETI Institute, provided the hard data to describe the g-forces experienced during the stormy part of the sailing:
Life On Board
On a vessel to Antarctica, long stretches of sailing through rough water can be very mundane. The days just seem to blend especially when cloudy skies greet you in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The expedition team had put together a full schedule of talks, briefings, and fun evenings with movies, entertainment, or trivia games. The view can be “boring” on end without seeing any land. I have never been on a cruise, but now I understand why there is so much booze available on a ship.
You were free to attend any lecture but sometimes safety briefings were mandatory, e.g., biosecurity check where crew checked your gear for seeds so as not to contaminate the pristine environment of Antarctica. Invasive non-native species can overpower native plants or wildlife as with the example of rats introduced by ships, unknowingly on South Georgia. They’re gone now.
The Endurance was crushed in pack ice, but all 28 men survived in a gripping story about leadership and the fight to face deep human emotions. A great book to learn about that story is by Alfred Lansing.
Once we got closer to the Antarctic circle and the Peninsula, icebergs one morning appeared seemingly out of nowhere. They were GIGANTIC. They broke off from glaciers or ice shelves on the peninsula and started floating through the water. Approximately 1/9th of an iceberg can be seen above the water line. In material preparing for the journey the analog was for “cathedral-size icebergs.” The ones I saw were more like football stadium size. The light that is refracted through the different layers of icebergs gives a spectrum of different colors depending on age and the inclusion of organisms or other material.
Most icebergs appear to be white due to the compression of snow, but they appear to be blue and translucent for most of our journey as the lower layers of icebergs are compressed and contain fewer air bubbles. The blue spectrum of visible light is scattered more than other colors hence the various shades of blue.
Leave No Trace
How does it feel stepping foot on this continent? Solid. It is the culmination of an adventure that led me to physically connect with this fantastic place. I wanted to soak it all in. Just sitting there for a moment on a rock on the beach, closing eyes, hearing penguins and the hushed voices of my travel mates. I wanted to pick up a rock so badly (I have a secret rock collection) but in the end, I wanted to change my behavior and follow the creed “Leave Nothing but Footprints – Take Nothing but Memories.”
Of course, not all traces can be taken with you (added line). Global Climate Change and the dramatic rise in CO2 in the atmosphere has been caused by anthropogenic sources over the last 150 years, undoubtedly. The CO2 equivalent emissions for my trip were approximated using various sources. I purchased carbon footprint offsetting credits valued at $70.31 through Terra Pass to attempt alleviating my contribution to global climate change.
Antarctica is the seventh continent and the coldest place on Earth. In 1982, the lowest temperature ever was recorded at Vostok Station with −89.2 °C (−128.6 °F). It is also one of the most desiccated places with an average snowfall of 6.5 inches of precipitation annually. Snow doesn’t melt but turns into pack ice. Luckily, we only landed on the Northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula where temperatures were around balmy 32 F and it was the beginning of summer. The coastlines there remain ice free during that time of the year, while the rest of the continent is covered under eternal ice and snow. My parents exclaimed on seeing some of the pictures of my journey exclaimed: why is it so green? Where is all the ice? It’s there. Just not where I was.
Antarctica is governed by a complex set of rules and regulations for tourists but also for and by countries. The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 attempted to regulate sovereignty – no country owns Antarctica, but several have made claims – a purely man-made construct. The simplest form to lay a potential claim is the establishment of a government service, in this case, a simple post office which tourists use for entertainment reasons. To learn more about the treaty system you can explore here.
The journey to Antarctica was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for me. It is only fitting that astronomy has led me to the most alien place I have ever learned about in my studies.
...And Back Again
After getting back, I posted something in the Flat Earth Society Facebook Group that got me banned – yet again:
Me: Hi guys; I was in Antarctica and didn’t find the ice wall that you claim exists and NASA defends to keep us from falling off Earth.
FES: How far did you go?
Me: All the way to the edge.