I’ve been aboard an expedition ship (don’t say “cruise ship”) for over a month. This ship takes guests (don’t say “tourists”) on voyages (don’t say “cruises”) to Antarctica. At first, I didn’t recognize the distinction, having never sailed on a cruise or expedition ship, but there is a difference. It’s difficult to describe without the proper experience to do so, but it basically boils down to flexibility. We are not bound to port calls or scheduled shore excursions. In fact, we don’t keep a schedule; Antarctica keeps it for us. We start with a plan, then inevitably break the plan when weather forces our hand or better opportunities arise. We linger with whales when they give us a show alongside the ship, or look for more sheltered landings when katabatic winds drive us out. We operate in bad conditions, stern-landing Zodiacs in meter surf and pressing them through choppy swell and 50-knot gusts that fling buckets of sea-spray, all while attempting to keep our guests dry—an often impossible task. It’s fun and exciting. I like telling my passengers that whitewater raft guides get better tips when they dump their guests in the river. My guests chuckle nervously as we ply Antarctica’s sub-zero (centigrade) waters.
The international aspect of this ship is outstanding. The captain is Croatian, the officers are largely Russian, the crew is mostly Filipino. Our expedition staff is continually rotating and has included people from the UK, Canada, Chile, Argentina, Germany, Norway, Italy, South Africa, Brazil, and the US—so far.
The passengers are from everywhere, Australia and the UK usually holding the highest percentages.
A Scotsman with a weathered face and a long grey beard was barely understandable. One day in my Zodiac, he asked what the pink coloration in the snow near a penguin colony was. I told him it was guano. Ten minutes later, the woman sitting next to him—who, in her defense, probably didn’t understand the question or the answer—asked: “Where are the iguanas?”
An Australian woman asked me to sign my book for her. She pronounced her name “Day.” I asked how to spell it and she said, “D-A.” So that’s what I wrote. “No no,” she said, “Day: D-A.” I was flummoxed. After some confusion, she repeated “D-A” while writing in the air with her finger: D-I. I wish I had asked how she pronounces an A.
Adding to the confusion, a ship is a labyrinth. In the first week I worked out all the passenger areas, plus the few crew-only areas I frequent. Still, it took three weeks to stop making wrong turns. By week four I discovered that the crew-only areas are extensive and mind-boggling. Even areas I thought I knew continue to surprise me. On New Year’s Eve, I followed a fellow staff member through a door from the bar—where an international conglomerate danced enthusiastically to overplayed, decade-spanning pop songs—to the crew mess—where Filipinos and a few staff wailed enthusiastically into a karaoke microphone. I was stunned, both culturally and spatially. I knew both these rooms well, yet had no idea they were connected so. My shipmates laughed.
A crew member approached me and wished me a happy new year. He knew me by name. I returned the sentiment and had a brief exchange, and only realized after that this was Allie, an AB (able-bodied seaman) whom I work with almost daily as we launch Zodiacs from the ship. I had never seen him without his goggles and helmet on.
The New Year’s celebration continued, and so did the intercultural experience. My Chilean roommate, Marcelo, pulled out a can of lentejas. Lentils. He ate twelve spoonfuls—one for each month of the coming year—straight from the can. In Chile, this tradition ensures prosperity and wealth for the new year. I joined him, and kept losing track of the months as people asked what the hell we were doing. I ate well into 2020, just to be sure.
Claudia sat down and explained her traditions from Brazil, where she usually spends her New Year’s celebration partying on the beach and swimming in the ocean. I had to adjust my idea of this wintertime—for me—holiday before she even started on the traditions. They jump seven waves, eat seven grapes, take seven sips of drink, and make seven wishes. There was symbolism, but Claudia couldn’t remember it.
Well after midnight, a few of us retired for a night cap in one of the bigger staff cabins, a reprieve from being constantly “on” around the guests. Marcelo poured piscolas—pisco, a South American liquor, mixed with coke—for Shawn, Brian and me. “I am now part of a very special group of people,” Marcelo explained. “Today I heard a leopard seal fart.”