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A Sickening Scientific Study

Updated: Jun 19

By: Ray Zhao

Being seasick for weeks on end is already terrible. But being seasick on a ship for weeks on end to conduct a scientific study is truly terrifying. But alas, that was the predicament I found myself in as we readied to cross the windy and turbulent Strait of Magellan.

It had been 25 days since my fellow scientists and I, a small group selected by the Society of Scientists in Greater London left that big city to conduct a study about the penguins that lived on the islands near the Strait of Magellan. The ship we were using, the H.M.S. Blue Jay, was an old cargo ship built 20 years ago. After some hasty repairs were completed, my colleagues and I packed our belongings and headed for the dock. Hundreds of people were scurrying around, and it was only at 2:30 PM did the ship finally start speeding south towards our destination. Standing from the wooden dock and leaning on the rails, the more homesick scientists watched London disappear from the horizon and the French coast come into view. The next day, in the Bay of Biscay, the overcast skies turned to clouds. I recount the captain saying that we could go fast enough to avoid that storm, and while we did, the humid air and the scare made some of my weaker colleagues seasick.

It was 16 days ago - March 7, 1890 - that something of interest to maritime scholars happened. Since the Blue Jay was usually loaded with goods from Argentina and Chile, having a dozen scientists onboard made her much lighter. The ship’s captain said that that would help us get there a few days earlier than expected, and so we would have some time to explore the mountains of Chile. I was excited, but that soon gave way to disappointment. This time, the captain was wrong. The strong waves sent the ship wildly off course, and Blue Jay ended up in Freetown, a city in Africa, and the captain decided to stay for a day there to restock on supplies. That was eight days of traveling wasted. A close friend, the famous Walter Heape, was very excited to be on land after so many days at sea. His routine had been much like that of the others: reading in the morning and lying in bed due to seasickness in the afternoon. I must say that I fared better than the others. I sometimes watched the dolphins on the deck in the evening.

When we arrived at the strait, one of my fellow scientists named Peter, a chubby fellow, remarked that the penguins looked thin and sickly. Walter, who was very thin and sickly himself from the seasickness, said that the penguins looked fat and healthy. I remarked that the penguins looked normal, but they were lazy at times. How wrong I was! The mass of gray looked sluggish and slow, but every time I focused on a particular penguin, it was always doing something important. Walter Heape had said previously that the baby penguins sometimes stayed in pouches for much longer than usual. One such penguin’s father was having a difficult time moving around. Privately, Walter said that that penguin moved about like Peter: slow, obese, pompous, and clumsy. In defense of the penguins (and of Peter), I will say that when the penguins want food, they will move as fast as lightning. The same applies to Peter.

Our study of penguins was very short-lived. Because of the detour, we only had four days to conduct scientific studies. My colleagues and I used the 96 hours wisely. The penguins were not afraid of us; they didn’t even bother to look our way. I observed the feeding times of penguins. I found that earlier scientists had been wrong on the subject! Meanwhile, Peter, who was studying the penguin’s poo. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t have much luck in finding anything that he could report to the society. Walter had some success in studying the breeding habitats of penguins, confirming what some other scientists had conjectured. My colleagues and I were constantly buffeted by the strong winds that blew about the island. I observed, to my astonishment, that the penguins didn’t mind the wind or the cold, as we did. Walter was fairly blown off his feet once, and Peter wasn’t spared either. I was the most unfortunate; while studying the waters surrounding the island, a strong gust of wind blew me into the ocean. Afterward, Walter had a field day laughing at me.

After the study, it was such a joy to be back in the streets of London, so near society. There were no wind nor freezing temperatures, and, most importantly, no waves that made me seasick. Instead, a warm cup of tea and a warm fire.

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