The other day a friend sent me a link to a colorful story about a ghost ship in the North Atlantic likely infested with rats which probably have no choice but to cannibalize each other. Fascinating and frightening, to be sure, since no one knows exactly where this ship is, or if it will eventually crash onto a shoreline and release said starving rats. It was a weird, fun thing to speculate about.
Then I realized: I’ve been on this ship.
Yes, this exact one, if the stories are legit. (At least the ghost ship aspect seems to be, as the same ship was reported on last year when, after already having been lost for a while, it was spotted near Irish waters. The rat part might be less reliable.) The ship, Lyubov Orlova, takes its unique name from a Russian actress and I instantly recognized it in the article. It was on this vessel that I traveled with amicable student comrades as part of a field trip through Iowa State University’s biology program in 2004-2005. Over the winter holiday, we departed from Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina, cruised across the rough Drake Passage, and explored land on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Those few hours each day exploring actual Antarctic terrain were terrific and supplied all the best photos, but a good chunk of my memories comes from time spent on the ship itself. Here we slapped on our anti-seasickness patches and tried to sleep through violent storms. Crew members did small presentations in a comfortable common room, while a delightful British cruise director announced that we should prepare to voyage to land in “ten minutes’ time.” I remember reading a Chuck Palahniuk in the small study and watching Napoleon Dynamite as a group one evening. I remember listening to Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica before climbing up to the deck to witness the waters at night.
During the day, we spent as much time on the deck as we pleased as long as the weather was mild. We were lucky enough to spot a few whales at a distance and marvel at the blue-white icebergs. The calendar caused us to celebrate New Year’s Eve in an excellent little corner of the earth called Paradise Bay, where the waters are ever still:
Me, fourth from the right, in my younger and more vulnerable years.
I turned 21 on this ship. Hostesses from the Russian crew brought a cake into the cramped but classy dining room at the end of dinner the evening of my birthday. Later, I had my first legal alcoholic beverage when Mssrs. Duquette and Swanson roused me from my quarters for a midnight drink of a gnarly blood-purple wine called El Gnomo. (For the rest of the trip I could order from a nifty little bar open a few hours a day, where they served specialty mixes like the Drake Shake.)
I’m sure we weren’t supposed to extract any flora and fauna from the continent. They didn’t say anything about water.
I never would have guessed our reliable icecutter would have the fate it does today. I hadn’t thought about the vessel often but it was the only real boat I’ve ever been on. That trip planted the seed for my future interests in things oceangoing and naturalistic: bands like Shearwater, books like Moby-Dick and In the Heart of the Sea, and of course the life and works of Charles Darwin. I will probably never make it back to Antarctica, but maybe I can see some other part of the same vast ocean. It’s strange to think this huge object floats out there while its location goes unknown, and there’s also a mysterious excitement to that idea.
There are a couple mementos from my time on the vessel: my dad has the piece of ice in the picture above, and in the back of my closet is the expedition company’s branded bathrobe I used after taking cramped showers on the ship. Just recently I had considered finally throwing it out, and now the time seems right. I’ll do so while wishing the best for the unlucky but stubborn Lyubov Orlova. If there are rats, may they starve or drown quickly. And then may the ship find a comfortable, permanent home on some undiscovered piece of ocean floor.