Southern Ocean Series, Chapter: 7
On the journey back north, to Mauritius – the worst and best weather of the trip, birthdays and the night the stars left me speechless.
After all the excitement amid the icebergs, we began the northward leg of our journey – one that would take us from oh-so-close-to-Antarctica, back to sunny, tropical Mauritius. This leg definitely started off with a bang – we ran into terrible weather right at the beginning, loosing 4 days of sampling. The sea was so rough, no one was allowed onto the decks. By ‘rough seas’ I mean the kinds you see on National Geographic shows about terrible weather.
Take a group of young scientists, put them in a ship that’s equipped to collect them some samples, set them off on a course to a relatively poorly studied area to collect data and samples, they’re likely to be a tired but happy lot. Now take the sampling out of the equation. There’s a lot of ways things could go (good and bad). In our case, it was overall – a good thing. We relaxed, watched movies (some good, some terrible), had a party or two and even had an impromptu Holi celebration.
Eventually, the seas calmed and we resumed our work. The weather was pleasant enough and it was safe enough and for us to spend our free time up on the monkey deck, often to watch the sun set and the stars steal the show. Usually we only needed a light jacket and a muffler, maybe. I remember a lot of those evenings up there, particularly those spent with just the girls; but there’s one that gets the distinction of a night I will never forget. It happened about halfway through our northward journey.
Having just stepped from a brightly lit passageway into an unlit upper deck, I didn’t realize what I was seeing at first. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark and all the same, wondered what the deal with the sky was. Then it hit me – the vaguely glowing streak of a ‘cloud’ across an otherwise moonless, almost starless sky was actually millions of stars themselves! Imagine a pale lustrous gossamer river meandering lazily through the middle of a brown-black sky, over an inky black sea. Imagine a child left with black felt paper and silver sparkle glue in a dark room. Imagine a rush of cold, crisp air going straight to your lungs. Imagine Van Gogh. What the storyteller in me describes so rhapsodically, the scientist in me will simply explain to be an arm of the milky way, blazing a jagged arc across the sky. The rush of realization and wonder, for all its intensity, lasted only a few minutes. Soon, the moon appeared and its second-hand glow, outshone the stars. And to think I went up there to watch the moon rise.
It was smooth sailing to Mauritius, with the air getting warmer each day. The albatrosses and petrels became rare sights and eventually disappeared. Our evenings out on the monkey deck were then spent in regular clothes, sans the jackets, sweaters and mufflers. There’s a set of pictures taken late on the night before we reached Port Louis – with everyone (and I mean everyone) relaxing and laughing up there. All eagerly but privately looking forward to setting foot on land after 45 days at sea.
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.“
– Douglas Adams
Title from the song “Vincent” by Don McLean & the painting “La noche estrellada/Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. Image: Milky Way Over the Sea. Credit: Jerónimo Jesús Losada