“Did you ever feel in danger?” friends asked after my trip to Antarctica.
“Not really,” I said, but my anxiety did go up when I heard a term I didn’t understand over the PA system (code blue) and a couple of other times as well. From the beginning, I was trying to size up just how safe, or unsafe, I was.
Not long after our ship left harbor, the passengers met in the 110-person auditorium for our first briefing. Our expedition leader stood in front of weather maps ominously full of orange and red and described the storm in our path.
“We expect huge swells,” she said, “as high as 45 feet.” She sounded pretty awed herself. In a safety move, she and the captain had decided to “shelter” behind an island.
For our entire first day, we circled on one side of the island while the storm raged, with winds up to 75 miles per hour, on the other.
Later, past midnight, we finally entered the open sea. The drawers of our cabin furniture started swinging open and shut, our bed rocked, and the boat groaned.
My anti-nausea pills kept me asleep through most of this, and when I awoke the next morning the storm was abating. Passengers compared notes. One reported that her single mattress slid right onto the floor.
Was this the worst Antarctica could throw at us? At the time I thought so, although only two weeks later, on the other side of the continent, a Russian vessel became trapped in ice.
Two days after the storm, I had a conversation with Marla, a staff member who I had already sized up as an adventurous person. During the off-season, she independently pilots tourist sailing vessels in British Colombia. I asked if there was anything about Antarctic travel that makes her nervous.
I knew she wouldn’t mention the storm. Something else?
“I worry,” she said, “about the health of the passengers.” My thoughts flashed to several older travelers, one who proudly told us she was 88, and a few others who looked almost that old.
“In emergencies,” Marla continued, “we can’t always get people out. It depends where we are. It depends on the weather. Usually people who are sick or injured have to stay with the ship. I worry about some of these older folks.”
Antarctic cruise companies require medical forms and tell passengers that they must be in good shape, mentally and physically. I signed a document saying I was “willingly and knowingly electing to participate in this tour in spite of the potential risk.” Everyone must have thought they were fit enough.
But how accurately can a traveler to a remote location assess potential danger? Before I got on board, I didn’t know that (a) I’d be using handrails all the time and (b) handrails can’t be everywhere. Sometimes 15 feet of rocking deck lay between one handrail and the next.
Our on-board doctor was vigilant. He stood at the head of the lunch line to make sure that everybody used hand cleanser. He checked the cinch on lifejackets. He reminded people to use the handrails.
Despite precautions, once we started making landings, I saw what I’ll call “incidents.” One passenger twisted her ankle. Another stepped into deep standing water and drowned her pricey camera equipment. A third stalled out on a slick trail, afraid she was going to slip.
When my sea kayak felt more tippy than I anticipated, I thought about what could happen if I overturned. I might pull off an eskimo roll, like at home, but if I failed, how quickly would hypothermia set in? A rescue boat was close, but not right next to me.
At 6:55 a.m. one morning, the public address system sounded “code blue.”
A passenger in his mid-sixties had fallen down a partial flight of stairs. At first, the doctor feared he had broken his neck. Fortunately, the man suffered only a muscle tear–a severe one–but he managed in a wheelchair for the rest of the trip. He was later flown home in a prone position.
“Code blue,” it turns out, summons the emergency team.
We could have used it for animals as well.
One day an albatross became trapped on our top deck. He landed by mistake and couldn’t fly off because these birds need an open water runway. The ship’s ornithologist took the giant bird in his arms and launched him off the side of the boat.
It was a happy moment when he landed in the sea, but he could also have hit the ship on his way down. Success in bird rescue, like success in human rescue, is not guaranteed.
After riding through the storm, listening to Marla’s concerns about passengers, and watching the albatross rescue, I wasn’t fearful, but accidents and illness in Antarctica remained something to think about.
Near the end of our voyage, my husband and I befriended one of the elderly couples, a long-retired doctor and his wife, who walked more slowly than most. I asked if they ever felt nervous about accidents on a trip. I was thinking of scrapes and falls, so their answer took me by surprise.
“We’ve talked about this,” said the husband. “We agree. If one of us doesn’t survive the trip, that’s OK. We like to travel. No hard feelings if something goes wrong.”