Wednesday, February 07, 2007

News From the North

Well, as everyone knows I am back in the US, and I must say enjoying life here. I still plan/hope to continue with a few more Antarctic blogs, but in the meantime, I thought I should pass on my most recent "life update."

Katie and I got engaged last night....

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Dead Seal

******Warning, this post contains graphic, and somewhat disturbing photographs*******

Antarctica, for all its beauty is far from an easy place, and even harsher for the wildlife. We have been in the Hutton Cliffs seal colony for over two months now, and watched some pups die, and some adults die. We have seen severely scarred males, who are constantly fighting under the water, and skuas who are here primarily for carrion. Everyone knows that nature is rough, and even though these look like cute, cuddly animals, their lives are far from. Several weeks ago, Rich and I were out on a walk through the colony when we saw a gathering of skuas. This typically means one of two things, first a pup has just been born and they are awaiting the afterbirth, or two; some animal is dead, or about to die. As it is beyond normal birthing season, we expected the later, and that is what we found.

Although we have seen dead seals being fed on by skuas, this was a particularly fascinating, but morbid event. The mom had by all appearances only recently died. The skuas were just starting to peck at her when we arrived. The first thing skuas go for are the eyes. They are soft, and easy to get into, unlike the thick hide which the birds have trouble tearing through.

skua beginning to take out the eyes:

After some time, more and more skuas began to circle the carcass, hoping for their chance at a meal.

In very little time, the eyes were entirely devoid of edible flesh, and the skuas began to search for other opportunities.

It was at this point that Rich and I realized the most horrifying part of what was happening. The mother, though obviously dead, still had a pup lying next to her, who was alive, and oblivious to what was happening all around it. The pup was in fact still attempting to suckle the mother, while the skuas were having their way with her.

Pup attempting to suckle while skuas feed:

Skuas moving on to other opportunities:

Skuas bathing post feast:

Freshly bathed skua in search of more food:Although this was a grizzly reminder of how tough nature can be, it is a fact of life, and one we are confronted with more than one would like in this environment.

Friday, December 08, 2006


No use skirting the subject! We finally saw penguins, and not just one or two, HUNDREDS! After two months here, our PIs were finally convinced that it was a good idea to have a day off, and take a nice little trip. We headed out towards Cape Royds, home to an Adelie Penguin Rookery, and the trip was going well, though the road was bumpy and caused my back to ache. After several miles we saw what looked to be four black rocks on the side of the "road."

Four Little Black Rocks:
Low and behold we had come upon four Emperor Penguins, out for a nice leisurely stroll. We stopped our skidoos and hopped off, and the ever curious penguins came to investigate!

Coming to investigate these odd Red things:

Dan enamored with the Penguins:

2 Emperor's viewing their world:

Penguin feet:

2 Emperor's vocalizing:

2 Emperor's displaying:

Bird brains at work:

And then they'd finally had enough, with one choosing to tabagon away!:

We spent some time watching them waddle, and vocalize, and then were off again on our way to the rookery. When we got there it smelled of penguin! Anyone who has ever spent time around any penguin species know they have a very potent odor, and even in these cold conditions they smell. We walked over the hill, and there before us was a real penguin rookery, alive and boisterous. Before we could really go explore we were allowed to view Shackleton's Hut, but more on that later, for now we'll talk about penguins!

Although the Emperor’s were truly majestic, the little Adelies were much more interesting. They are full of energy, and always seem to be interacting with each other.

2 Adelie Penguins sizing each other up:

Many of them were on their nests, which are essentially small mounds of rock which they very lovingly gather and use in order to gain copulations with the females. Some were lucky, and their rocks were good enough, and some were not. One of the more fascinating aspects of the day was the skua/penguin interactions. I have already mentioned my love of skuas, I find them fascinating, but here they were definitely playing the bad guy. I watched two skuas slowly walk around the colony, frequently being chased off, until they found one semi isolated nest. One skua then lured the nesting Adelie off the rock mound, and the other promptly stole the egg and carried it off. The two then reconvened and had themselves a nice lunch. After several mournful cries, the had-been nest sitter trotted off into the colony, presumably looking for another partner.

While some of the penguins were incubating their eggs, others were marching towards open water, and the opportunity to feed. The open ocean was only 4 or 5 miles from the colony, just on the horizon and many penguins were eagerly heading in that direction. It was quite a treat to watch them come upon a crack in the ice and try to negotiate it. Some would jump, and some would walk around the impediment, though all were able to cross safely, as best I could tell. They small bands would reunite on the other side of the obstruction, and continue their march.
This trip really was a treat, and undoubtedly one of the highlights of this trip!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Its Finally Happened!

Right now it is warmer in Antarctica than it is in Washington DC! I've been waiting with baited breath for this to happen, and I'm almost giddy that I am in such a warm weather local!

Current Conditions
Partly Cloudy
29F / -2C
21F / -7
8 mph NNW

Where as in balmy Antarctica

Hey, down here you take what you can get, and I'll take this!!!!!!!!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving Thoughts

The crew eating dinner

Thanksgiving in Antarctica, not a place I can say I’d ever spend this day! My previous abroad “Turkey-Days” have occurred in Namibia and Italy, and both were significantly warmer than here! Although it is November 23, 2006 here, the Thanksgiving celebration in McMurdo will not occur until this Saturday, the 25th. In fact, apart from the warm weather, Thanksgiving here is no different than any other day. Regina will be doing the dinner tonight, and we were able to dig up some foods which at least in name will replicate a traditional Thanksgiving meal.
Things get a bit crazy out here:

We were able to dig up six 5 ounce cans of Hormel Chunk Turkey in 33% broth, dehydrated mashed potatoes, dehydrated potato slices, canned yams, Craisins® and Cranberry concentrate.

Regina outdid herself with the delectable chocolate cake she made, which included all manner of nuts and very alcoholic cranberries! Although it may not be what one would think of as a traditional Thanksgiving feast, we are quite happy with what we came up with, and as usual the food was prepared exceedingly well, and after a day out in the cold anything tastes good!

As I am the offspring of an Abraham Lincoln scholar, Thanksgiving it’s a very patriotic day. In 1863 Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a national day of celebration in hopes to give people something to rejoice over during the long Civil War. To celebrate I took an American flag out into the field with us and flew it in the colony. Out here we find little diversions such as this to humor us and pass the time.

Down here perspective is a bit different, and you are thankful for some very basic things. Today I am thankful for the ability to check the internet, no matter how slow, and realize that there are people back home who are thinking of us. I am thankful for the relatively warm weather, in the positive 20s! I am thankful for the opportunity to be in this beautiful land, though harsh and tiring it truly an amazing place. Each morning walking out and seeing nothing but snow and ice for miles, with Mt. Erebus to the North and Mt. Discovery to the South reminds us how majestic this setting is. I am thankful for my wool socks, which have done an incredible job keeping my feet warm, despite the blasting wind and frigid air. I am thankful for the skua which flew into camp today and humored me with its antics for several minutes, before flying of in search of more productive feeding grounds.

One thing I am not thankful for was a second oppurtunity to taste seal milk. The only way I can describe this fould substance, is to say it tastes like rotten milk mixed with cod liver oil. Children, do not try this at home!

As our November 23, 2006 drew to an end, I was content, and warm, and thankful for that, though I must say I missed some of the comforts of home, and the people who were celebrating back in the states.

Unlike most people, here in Antarctica, we get to celebrate Thanksgiving twice, and this one is a bit more of your typical Thanksgiving meal. We worked a day in the field, but the seals were not particularly cooperative, in fact most of the seals we had hoped to process spent most of their time in the water. This is becoming more and more of a problem as the pups are fast approaching their weaning weights, and moms are becoming more and more undernourished. We were able to bleed and weigh one mom/pup pair, but that was all. It was a particularly warm day, possibly passing the freezing point, though it was cloudy with lots of wind, so it in fact felt cooler than the last few days. We then packed up and headed for town. It was an easy ride, despite the sore backs which are now prevailing throughout the group.
As we approached McMurdo it was an amazing sight. With the increasing temperatures, the ice conditions are becoming less ideal, and there were slushy ridges, making snow-mobile travel a bit bumpier. As we walked up the transition from the sea ice onto land we saw a site I have not seen for some months, flowing water! The land here is very dark, all black, red and brown rocks, and that absorbs the heat from the sun, which is truly quite intense down here. This heat absorption, coupled with the increasing temperatures, creates faster than expected melt of the snow. I was shocked how dark the hills surrounding McMurdo have become, as only a few weeks ago they were still entirely covered with snow and ice. The running water caused by snow melt, was in fact a quickly flowing stream, which was a wonder for me to behold. After prying myself away from the sight of moving water, I headed to our storage, where if memory served, I had a clean shirt, and a pair of jeans. Luckily memory was correct in this case.
I headed to our dorm room, took a nice long, hot shower, and changed into clean clothes, quite a treat, and something else which I am thankful for! We then headed to the Galley (dining hall) and were in for quite a treat, after the initial wait in a line! The food was AMAZING, I must give it to the kitchen staff here, and they know how to make a meal. It is quite possibly the best Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever had, rivaled only by Thanksgiving in Florence at Aqua al Due, which was helped with many liters of wine. The dinner in Antarctica had everything one could hope for, including fresh vegetables, a rarity in these parts! In fact, we surmised these vegetables must have been shipped down in the last 24 hours, as the lettuce was not even wilted! My dinner consisted of healthy portions of Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, salad, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, bread, roast beef, mixed roots, shrimp, fruit and was finished of with two pieces of pie, one pumpkin and one pecan! As I tend to do on days like this, I gorged myself, spending the next half hour complaining about my stomach, though I must say, this time it was well worth it. The kitchen staff made and appearance, and were quickly greeted with a standing ovation, and one I must say, which was well deserved.
After we let dinner stew for a bit in our bellies, Mike, Darryl and I headed over to the bar for a nightcap of whiskies and beer, before retiring to bed, full and quite content. Tonight we will sleep with our showered selves, on clean sheets, in complete darkness, some more small things I am quite thankful for.