Preparing for the Passage South: a day in Punta Arenas

The Chilean Andies as we leave Santiago toward Punta Arenas.


We arrived to Santiago in a darkness that presaged our upcoming Antarctic winter. Out the windows, only the snow-capped peaks of the Andies were faintly visible.


Jimmy's office in Santiago houses the USAP participants heading south.

Disembarking, we met with Jimmy – a Chilean who has been guiding American scientists (and their cargo) through the Santiago airport for 35 years. His experience was easy to see as he deftly navigated security checkpoints and immigration stations, leading us to our temporary home: the Office of the US Antarctic Program (USAP)


Through this office, Jimmy has guided countless scientists and crew on their way to the southernmost continent. In a different setting, you might think it were a small museum rather than a room at an airport. Memorabilia from all the American Antarctic stations decorate the walls and shelves: pennants with the USAP logo, scale models of the icebreakers Gould and Palmer, even a five foot stuffed penguin holding a Chilean flag.


The United States has three stations in the Antarctic. McMurdo Station, on the shores of the Eastern Ross Sea, houses up to 1200 inhabitants in what’s more of a small town than a field station while the Amundsen South Pole Station keeps about 200 at its maximum. On the more moderate, maritime West Antarctic Peninsula, Palmer Station (our destination) holds less than 100.


In Santiago, we meet our cohort for the next six weeks, the people we’ll spend hours with on a ship and at the station. Our areas of interest span across multiple trophic levels, from bacteriologists to ichthyologists (who study fish), with plenty of algologists (who study algae) and others filling in the ranks. In the whole, we’re seventeen: fifteen students (graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members), a TA, and our instructor, Dr. Deneb Karentz from the University of San Francisco.





A colonialist statue to Magellan and the native peoples of Southern Chile, with a good-luck toe rubbed to a bronze hue.

One more flight brought us to a port town at the southern tip of Chile – Punta Arenas. This town is full of Antarctic history. At 53 degrees south, Punta Arenas (or, if you want to sound in the know – “PA”), is the largest city south of the 46th parallel, and a major port for shipping of the Southern Ocean. Statues of Ferdinand Magellan, the famed Portuguese explorer known to be the first Westerner to circumnavigate the globe, speckle the city. Among these, a great obelisk bears imagery of the native population of Tierra del Fuego, a point of interest for superstitious sailors who rub the toe of the figure for safe transit through the Drake Passage. Perhaps less hopefully, the city is also home to a bar which gave Ernest Shackleton a much-needed drink after his fateful trans-Antarctic expedition. But we'll learn more about that later.


Fashion in Antarctica modeled for participants. 

Punta Arenas is also a fortification of the US Antarctic Program, the USAP. Private logistics contractors run the day-to-day details in PA, aboard the ships, and at the stations, but all American activity on the continent is dictated by the National Science Foundation (the NSF). These contractors provide warm clothing for scientists headed south in the form of Extreme Cold Weather gear, or ECW. At a warehouse near the dock, our crew spent two hours yesterday pulling on parkas and squeezing into boots, trying on hat after hat to get the perfect set of gear to bring with us.


The R/V Laurence M Gould  in port in Punta Arenas.

We will make the 5-6 day transit to Palmer Station aboard the R/V Laurence M Gould. The Gould, named for the American polar explorer and scientists Laurence McKinley Gould, is a 230 ft long ship capable of breaking 1 foot of new ice in a continuous steam; it’s an “ice-strengthened” ship rather than a true ice breaker. Supplies, contract workers, and scientists are brought from Punta Arenas to Palmer Station on the Gould, which regularly crosses the Drake Passage to Antarctica.


The berthing van, my home for the next 5-6 days.

This ship is our home for the next several days. We boarded the boat on Friday, taking our cabins (rooms) and claiming our berths (beds). The Gould supplements its berthing capacity with two specially modified shipping containers in the lower hold, known as the berthing vans ( a term which I have giggling opinions about). I have been assigned to the berthing van, which sits incidentally right near the engines – quiet for now, but underway … well, we’ll see how she sleeps.


Today, we’ll being steaming from Punta Arenas to Palmer Station, taking water samples on our way through the Drake Passage. This could be marked as the true start of trip – the beginning of the science mission, the point of true embarking. Over the next several weeks, I plan to introduce you to the crew of the Gould and Palmer Station and the science team as we sally forth towards the edge of the Earth and into the polar night. Interviews, pictures, informational posts – I hope to capture the stories, science, and sounds (yes, sounds!) of the trip south as we set sail for the Antarctica.


As for now, it’s time to set sail into one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world: the Drake Passage. We’ll see who took their sea sickness pills…


Punta Arenas is the gateway to the Western Antarctic.