by Joan Larsen
As we approach midlife, I think most of us have to acknowledge that life itself has given us endless surprises, large and small . . . surprises we had never dreamed of. Vacations of any sort usually seem equated with pleasant “escapes”. And for most, some of their happiest moments have been spent on getaways from the “real world”.
However, in a lifetime of faraway trips to strange-sounding places, we acknowledge that there can be an element of excitement and daring as we travel to places few people have been before us.
And, again, so it was on this expedition . . .
Bahia Paraiso, the largest Argentine polar supply ship – my home away from home while it supplied the Argentine research bases in Antarctica – had already given me a lifetime’s worth of excitement before we even had gotten to the continent itself.
The Argentine navy, needing money, had agreed to take on passengers from around the world, great companions who spoke more than 6 different languages – none of them Spanish. The level of excitement we had for the opportunities ahead of us was extremely high. We would be having opportunities on shore that never – before or since – have been offered cruise ship passengers. We were the fortunate ones.
The Argentine navy ship stood waiting in the harbor. This was in no way a cruise ship. It was obvious it was a working vessel supplying bases in Antarctica, helicopters and all. We looked forward to a new experience like none we had experienced, ever before. Embarking at the southernmost town in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, we headed east on what is called the Beagle Channel, before heading southward on the infamous rough Drake Passage to this beautiful land.
But before we even got to the edge of that last spit of land called Cape Horn, the ship slowed and then stopped. . . and we stared. A smaller missionary ship – one that had held a very large number of men and women – had hit an underwater reef the day before. Today, all that remained above water was the lighted bridge. . . looking like a small box floating on water, the shadow of a man pacing inside. The passengers had made it to shore, but one very brave soul had to remain on the ship to claim ownership, thus allowing no salvage operations for those who had that inclination. (And they did!)
No photos were needed to remember that sight. Our imaginations took over as we thought of the missionary ship possibly going down, full of passengers. But these things didn’t happen to large ships, ships equipped with the latest sonar. The Bahia Paraiso (“Paradise Bay” in English) was as good as its name, for two weeks providing us with the fun, excitement, and glimpses of heaven we had come to see.
Spirits were high as the Americans gathered together for a last lunch – raving about a sea of icebergs floating past – not that far from the only United States research base in that part of the continent, called “the Palmer Station”. All at once there was a sudden jolt, as if we had hit something large. And sharp! The loudspeaker blared in Spanish only, a language not one of us could understand. I am guessing the voice said “abandon ship” as it was the waiters only who ran for the lifeboats – or so we heard later.
With the language problems and the emergency, there were few instructions but it was evident that passengers were to report to their lifeboats. Those who could and would dare to ran to their cabins for their heavy parkas and perhaps a few valuables.
With the ship already listing, the lifeboats were just dropped into the sea. Climbing down a ladder, passengers could see the boats were already partially filled with water from the long drop, but it was the only escape . . . so we jumped. Sitting in freezing water seemed quite agreeable when we could see land.
The U.S. Palmer Station was – well – they were really not equipped for a large number of passengers and crew from a ship that was rapidly sinking within view. But all pitched in and did their best. Passengers begged to go back to the ship long enough to get their passports, money, and valuables. This was not allowed. Members of the crew agreed to go back to the cabins for those who needed medications only, finding furniture and mattresses floating around. During this time, nobody saw the captain – which is getting to sound pretty normal. Under his instruction, a reef had been hit and he was responsible.
I have found in Antarctica that it is rather rare to see another ship. I always felt we had the continent to ourselves. But the Society Explorer (which also sank there in 2007) came to the rescue, spending 18 hours finding their own passengers’ offering of spare clothing — and lodging (on the floor) for the latest passengers, taking them to a Chilean base with an air strip. One last experience that was “neat” and unusual: a Chilean cargo plane flew in and took the passengers to the mainland (HOW exciting is THAT?!). . . and then the dash to find clothes, go to embassies to acquire new passports, being interviewed on TV (even the ends of the earth seems to have numbers of reporters at the ready), and then home.
After our ship going down in icy waters as it did, would this journey to Antarctica absolutely be our last? Over the years in many remote places, there have been what most would consider to be “close calls”. Of course, we will always be able to call up those moments for a lifetime. Accidents can and do happen . . . but the following year we had returned on an icebreaker for a semi-circumnavigation of the Antarctic continent, too wonderful to be believed. “We only go around in this life once”, my husband often has said, “so we certainly don’t want to miss anything!”
I have to echo his words.
A few times since in Antarctica, we have been able to see tiny glimpses of the drowned Bahia Paraiso – ever after considered to be “our ship” – and floods of memories return.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”