Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Jumping off from Patagonia

My first post from Antarctica! My ship arrived on Sunday at Palmer Station after completing the Drake Passage. I know you want to hear all about Antarctica now that I'm here but before I do that, I want to describe the very beginning of my trip and our preparations in port in Punta Arenas, Chile. So for now it's enough just to say that I am safe and sound on the Frozen Continent.

I could spot Antarctic bound passengers on my flights to Dallas and then Santiago de Chile by their beards and general scruffiness. A tall, thin, taciturn man who reminded me a bit of the man in the painting “American Gothic” turns out to study penguins. Another with long curly hair is more like an overgrown kid – loud, happy-go-lucky and hard drinking. He also happens to be the leader of the group studying zooplankton.

We were in port for two nights and parts of three days. Aside from being fitted out with “Extreme Cold Weather” gear, I was free to explore Punta Arenas. The city is made up of mostly one-story houses with gabled roofs and brightly painted walls and corrugated metal roofs although the buildings bordering the central square are in a grand colonial style. From a hill behind the city you can see a panorama of the colored roofs and the Strait of Magellan. Apparently Punta Arenas was one of the most important ports in South America before the Panama Canal was built; ships from all over the world stopped here on their way through the Strait of Magellan, passing from one ocean to another. Now, Punta Arenas is not a sleepy town even though it has been marginalized by the building of the canal and it is thousands of miles from Santiago, the capital of Chile, and not even connected to rest of country by road. The sidewalks are busy with well-dressed pedestrians, numerous taxis clog the streets, and there are significant public buildings – a post office, city hall, military headquarters.

Rather than the language, I found that the biggest difference between Punta Arenas and the United States was that the days were 20 hours long. The sun rose before 4am, and the sky was light until almost midnight. It was quite strange coming from winter in the United States, when I come home from work in the dark. Almost as much as the length of daylight, I noticed a difference in the quality and the rate of change. It felt like midday from 9am – 5pm, and the fast-changing morning and late afternoon light was missing. This difference is because the sun's trajectory is oblique relative to the horizon line. At the latitude of the United States, the sun rises in a line almost perpendicular to the horizon, so it gets high more quickly, and then sinks more quickly. But at high latitudes like Patagonia and Antarctica (and Alaska in the northern hemisphere), the sun's path is at a low angle to the horizon and it takes a long time to rise and to set (and sometimes it never sets!).

Coming soon: the Drake Passage crossing!

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