Tuesday, October 31, 2006


So first and foremost I am a bird guy. I came to Antarctica on this amazing project not for the seals, but for the chance to do some real science and see this continent, and hopefully see some birds. Finally I have seen a bird, not a penguin, but still a bird. I had been in such bird withdrawal that I was in fact dreaming about them at night, weird, I know. Our days have been long, but we are now well past the half way point for original captures of seal pairs, and hopefully the pace will slow a bit so we can breathe. The weather has been great, for the most part, cold, as Antarctica tends to be, but with very little wind. We've shifted our work day to the later part of the day, starting in the field around 2 PM, and finishing around 10 or a bit later. This has been an effort to minimize the wind, and so far seems to be working. But, back to the birds. There is not much bird life on the continent, and where we are, at best I can hope to see only four to five species. The bird I saw soaring on the horizon was a South Polar Skua, (Catharacta maccormicki), essentially a seagull on steroids. For much of the year they roam over the oceans, often close to the coasts catching small fish and scavenging whenever something edible is available. They come to nest on the cliffs of Antarctica, where there is plenty of food during this time of year. Seals are pupping and penguins are hatching.
The scuas eat all manner of afterbirth and such from the seals, and may actually kill a weakened and dying pup, but this is rare. The penguin rookeries are a bonanza of food, and this is where many of them will set up shop. But without further adieu, here are two pictures of the south polar skua, a rather bland bird, which nonetheless made me jump for joy when I saw it!

Monday, October 23, 2006

ok, so I'm very excited that we are now working in the seal colony. These creatures are amazing, and as they have no natural predators on land, you are able to walk around them with very little notice on their part, at least until you find the rare angry seal. These guys can weigh up to 1100 pounds no problem, in fact today, the first seal we weighed, tipped the scales at 550 kg, or 1220 pounds. We were forced to wrestle this angry mother into a "pole-net" and then tie her down, all the while she was fighting and biting back at us. Really amazing, we'll see how she reacts next time we run into her! The pup, who is only a few days old, was so baffled by the whole situation it just crawled around in circles, trying to figure out where its source of food had gone. Luckily for us the weather was nice, so we weren't cold, and the pup had no problem keeping warm, even without his mom. In fact, as we sat on the snow catching our breath, the pup would crawl up to us, thinking maybe we'd give him food, before realizing we were in fact the "enemy." He would then slip off, and return every few minutes, hoping to find some food. Anyway, it was quite a learning curve, and as we get better I will be able to take pictures of the how we actually do the procedures, for now it will have to suffice just to have some cute pictures of moms and pups. Each day we perform a census on the colony, and this is where these pictures are from. We walk through, checking id tags on each animal, recording its location via GPS, and noting anything interesting about the animal, ie: bloody, pregnant etc. We have found several dead pups, a natural occurrence, something like 17% die before weaning, so I'm sure we'll find several more. So without further delay, here are some pictures of the seals....
Below: is an icy male, the snow's been blowing today
A protective mom and her pup
A pup without a care in the world
A male peering up at us from the water below, these seals keep holes in the ice open with their teeth, allowing them to access the fast ice, far from the open water
at the bottom of the world, everything is upside down
Erebus at midnight, the sun is no longer setting here, so this is as dark as it gets
another sunset with a beautiful sky

Monday, October 16, 2006

Drilling Holes and Placing flags

Antarctica is almost entirely white, meaning there is very little to break up the landscape and help with depth perception. Distances are extremely deceiving. On a clear day you can look at something ten miles away, and think it is a short walk. For this reason we've been flagging all our routes. While it seems a bit excessive to place a red flag in the snow/ice every 150 feet, it has already come in handy; when the snow blows you can't see where you're going, so the flags are nice.
We worked out a handy system, where one person would drive the ski-doo (snow-mobile) while another person would sit on the back trailer with all the flags. A 150 foot rope was tied to the back of the trailer, and dragged behind us. Each time the end of the rope, which is green and red for visual contrast, reached the last flag; another one was thrown to the snow.
When this was finished we would back track, and either stick the flagdirectly into the snow, or drill a hole if it was too hard and slip the flag into it, packing the opening with loose snow. While this was tedious, and tiring, it was effective, and we have now flagged some ten miles of routes quite well, and GPSed them into our database for blind navigation, if it comes to such.
Drilling holes was a bit more interesting. We have several holes in various places, for various reasons. The first and most important is our "toilet." A bit hole in the ice which goes down some ten feet, kind of a frozen porta-potty. Not the nicest facilities on earth, but they will do, I hope! We then have another hole for waste water, dish water and such. These holes freeze up and are then dug out with heavy equipment at the end of the season and disposed of in the appropriate way.

the drilling machine

more drilling machines, these things are huge, you can see the slushy water coming up in this one, the ice was 6.5 meters thick

The more interesting holes are the fishing holes. We have two, one some 100 meters from camp, and one approximately 7 miles from camp. These holes are to be kept open, manually, in hopes of catching fish. The oceans below us are very rich in fish life, and we hope to catch much of the fish the seals are eating to aide our study. Unfortunately even sea water readily freezes at these temperatures, and we are forced to chip out the holes on a daily basis. To do this we use a huge ice chipper (sharp, heavy pole), shovel and strainer on a stick. When we have thoroughly cleaned out the hole we cover it with a Styrofoam/wood "man-hole cover" and bury it with snow, all for insulation. These fishing holes have a secondary purpose, seal pull out holes. As these open, we hope the seals will begin to use them as a means of getting to the surface, giving us readily accessible specimens. The downside of this is our fish supplies will dwindle as the seals will be preying upon them, but for seals I think we can sacrifice some fish. As we are moving out to the ice these questions will become clearer, or so I hope!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Seals Have Been Found

I got my first look at our colony of Weddells seals today, and they are something! Big, fat, lazy and quite cute. We've been spending the last few days doing all number of tasks, setting up camp, flagging safe routes through the snow and finding seals.

Below: Angry Mother

Below: Regina walking up to a male Weddell

Below: New born pup and mother, with blood and placenta behind

Below: Bloody MaleOur camp is in a stunning location, as I'm sure I've mentioned, andonce we are out there for good, hopefully tomorrow, it will be quite a relief, though the easy food will disappear, as will the showers. Our camp consists of several trailers, 4 Scott tents for sleeping/storage and one Scott tent for a toilet. We will have electricity and heat in the trailers, quite nice and all the snow and ice you could ask for. The camp is approximately 15 miles by snowmobile route from McMurdo, 30 minutes if you drive quickly. I'm starting to get used to snowmobiles, and it is something to zip along the ice at 100 km/hr. A bit unnerving at first, but I'm becoming more and more comfortable on them, and except for the occasional bump which sends you flying through the air, the ride is quite smooth. You feel unbelievably free here, zipping along without a care in the world, except for the bitter winds, but the gear is doing a nice job keeping that away. The last few days have been superb weather, very little wind, and temperatures hovering around 0, perfect for October in Antarctica. The team has had some tensions, but hopefully when we get out on the ice and really start to do some work that will all slip away.

Today the wind picked back up. We did some work, finishing up the camp setup, storing some sledges and equipment, and opening up fishing holes. Luckily there wasn't a whole lot to do as the wind was blowing and it was cold. As best we could estimate, winds were blowing in the vicinity of 40 miles per hour in gusts, and 20 mph sustained, on top of -15 t0 -20 degree temperatures, and snowmobiles going along at 50 mph equals a very cold time. My balaclava actually froze solid from my breath adding moisture. That is one of the most bizarre things here, your breath freezes to your facial hair and equipment in a matter of seconds, something I'd never really experienced before. It is also amazing how quickly you adapt to the cold temperatures. Two months ago, the thought of walking outside in just a t-shirt and jeans when the temps hovered around zero would seem ludicrous, but now it feels downright tropical. When we are out working at camp you get so sweaty you need to remove layers, which can be tricky because as soon as the windproof layers are removed you are open to serious cold. We spend so much time removing layers, and digging through pockets, but these things come with the territory. Well I apologize for the rambling blog entry. I am delirious from snowmobile fumes, and tired from a long cold day. Tomorrow we are off to the ice camp, and with that, I hope, will come some very interesting entries.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Learning the Ice

Today was without a doubt the most exciting day we've had yet! As with many of our days we were extremely busy, no time to call home or lay around, but at least it was interesting, relevant training, not beaurocratic BS. Today we learned about sea ice, and how to differentiate dangerous formations. One big problem with working on the ice is the ever present danger of falling "into the drink." Now water with ice is always cold, but here the water temperature averages about 26 degrees, and if you get wet in the field you're in for a rough go! At 830 we hopped into the piston bullies, a popular mover here, and drove for about an hour to reach the general location of where we'll be working. I think it is fair to say these vehicles were not designed with passenger comfort in mind! As we bounced along the ice and snow I frequently smacked my head, and bruised my backside, but all in the name of science. The route is roughly marked with flags, showing "safe" ice, and when we arrived it was breathtaking, both in beauty and temperature.
The site we picked has plenty of beautiful ice formations, as pressure ridges abound, causing the sea ice to fracture and rise up. While it is beautiful, it is also quite dangerous, but I'll get to that in a bit. We chose this location as it is where Weddell seals have historically congregated. As they are mammals, they need oxygen, yet they feed in the water, so they must find locations where they have access to both. Pressure ridges provide excellent opportunities as the ice has frequent openings which allow the seals to hull out, and get back to the water. These seals then keep the holes open by chewing the ice with their large teeth.

Getting out of the piston bully the landscape was stunning, and the clear sky allowed us to see all the mountains in the distance, as well as Mt. Erebus, which will dominate my landscape for the next several months. The second thing I noticed was the cold. It was approximately -50 with wind chill, and even with all the gear we wear you could feel it in your bones. Several people got very minor frostbite, and all of us had frozen eye lashes and facial hair. Within seconds of removing my mittens to take pictures I lost all sensation in my fingers, just a normal day here.

The sea ice can be treacherous, and to the untrained eye, quite dangerous. As the ice cracks, water can come to the surface, but due to the extreme temperatures it quickly freezes over, though often only a very thin layer. The gusts of wind caused the snow to drift into the cracks, filling these crevasses to the eye, but if you step into them, or drive over them, you risk a fall. We learned how to identify these hidden dangers, and how to detect just how dangerous they are. We did quite a bit of shoveling and drilling to determine the thickness, and also marked those areas we found which were quite dangerous.
In some places the ice was over 10 feet thick, a very safe and healthy depth. It is on this thickness where we will set up camp. In the pressure ridges however, we found open holes, or more accurately I found an open hole. We found the ridge, and were in the process of shoveling it out for depth drilling when my foot fell in!
It was a bit of a shock to see the open ocean below, and luckily I did not go in past my ankle, but it was a great reminder of where we are. After we finished shoveling out that area of the crack, we realized this pressure ridge ran a very long distance, possibly all the way to the Erebus glacier tongue. While it is still very early in the season and the ice is somewhat stable, later in the summer the decay of the ice will speed up rapidly, and caution will become more and more important. Caution as many of you know is not always my strong suit, but I think these conditions warrant me to really slow down, but enough of the scary part.

The great excitement of the day came when we heard our seals below the ice. Weddell's are very vocal, and we heard one, a male presumably, calling from the icy waters below. The call is quite an eerie noise, but it proved we were in face in seal country. We presume the seal was excited by the light coming through the newly excavated hole, and may have been calling to others. We now know our camp is in the right place, and hopefully seals will begin to pull out in short order and give birth to their pups.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Taste of History

Today we had the opportunity to visit Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Hut, just outside of McMurdo Station. Though it was just over a 15 minute walk, it was a whole new world. The wind was amazing out there, somewhere in the realm of 35-40 mile/hour as best we could guess. In addition to the wind, it was a chilly day, and with wind chill the temp at Hut Point was probably around -60 Fahrenheit, real Antarctica! To enter the hut you must have a member of the staff open the doors, and then only a limited number of people are allowed in the hut, 8 is the maximum. As we are a science group, with only a limited amount of time at base, they made a special appointment for us, and it was well worth the time. The hut was built in 1902, though proved hard to heat, and was therefore not used as living quarters; instead it was a staging area. The hut was made entirely of Douglas Fir and Scotts Pine from Australia, and has stood the test of time, which in this place is quite impressive!
The winds beat it constantly, but due to the cold, dry conditions things to not rot and deteriorate as they would in other climates, hence there are still many artifacts from the original expeditions remaining in the hut, though they have been logged and are monitored for conservation. Stepping into the hut was like stepping into history. The food in the hut is the actual food these men took when they were trying to open the continent.
There still remain animal carcass from the early 1900's, as well as goats brought from the north, and seals killed for food.
The original clothing these men wore still hangs from lines, making us very thankful for the advances in cold weather gear!
The ceiling is constantly covered in a thin layer of snow and ice, reminding you of the cold just outside! Though the hut was not as warm as the ship, it does a remarkable job of shielding you from the wind, which in our case was quite a pleasant. We took pictures, signed the guest book, and all were mesmerized by the conditions these men faced. We are here during the "nice" season, and I find the conditions at times unbearable. We have advanced gear, and plenty of food, good maps and internet, they had none of these commodities. I find it amazing these guys were able to persevere through the Antarctic weather, with no knowledge of the surroundings, or what they would find, truly amazing! After about thirty minutes, we exited the hut and made the short walk to hut point, the location of the cross honoring George Vince, one of the many men who died during the expeditions to the south.
The gusts of wind on the point were amazing, and at times I felt like I would be blown out onto the frozen ocean below! To take a few pictures I removed my mittens, and within seconds my hands were numb! It will be interesting to see how we deal with the wind and cold while performing intricate operations, though I think that will have to wait for another day.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Happy Camper

It has been a busy few days here in Antarctica. The beautiful weather has continued, enabling us to spend a fair bit of time outside. One problem with this "beautiful" weather is we were able to have emergency camping class, which though useful is not necessarily the most enjoyable experience! First I should explain the three weather levels here, Condition 3, Condition 2 and Condition 1. Condition 3, which it has been most of my time here so far, is by far the nicest; there are no restrictions on outdoor activities at this point. It means there is no severe wind, more than 30 mph and good visibility. That being said, in a matter of minutes it can go from beautiful to deadly, so we have taken condition 3 with a grain of salt. Condition 2 means excessively cold, below -30 Fahrenheit and or strong sustained winds, under this you can not go on walks and are encouraged to stay inside, though you can walk from building to building. Condition 1 mean stop whatever you're doing, wherever you are, and don't move. If you are in the field this means build a shelter and don't move until the condition has lessened. This is where Happy Camper comes in. For anyone who will leave the confines of McMurdo for more than a just a short hike, you are required to go through this. So on to Happy Camper!

After some rather long briefings, we were loaded into big Antarctic movers, essentially tanks with bench seating and driven out onto the Ross Ice Shelf. This is the ice just off the "actual continent" but for all intensive purposes it is solid. I believe they said it was some 700 feet thick, I guess we won't fall through that! We were driven for about twenty minutes or so to the site, which is probably about 2 miles from McMurdo as the skua, the native seagull steroids, flies. As there are no crows, skuas seem to be the default, though they have not arrived for the summer yet. Apparently the birds are smart enough to stay out of here until it warms a bit, only we are dumb enough to show up in early October! Enough with the tangent, back to happy camper. So armed with only our sleeping bags, two thin sleeping mats and our extreme weather gear we were dropped in the shadow of Mt. Erebus, the most active volcano of the region, and also the most common point of reference on the skyline.

We then had our tents, ice axes, saws and shovels given to us and we were told to build camp. The tents unfortunately are not what you want in these conditions. They are essentially the kind of tent I would use to camp in the north-east US during late fall/early winter! Not warm, not big, and not particularly good, but they are what are placed in survival bags, so they were what we used! After setting up the tents, we began to build our ice wall, in hopes of shielding our tents from the cold winds. This as it turned out was quite fun, though a lot of work. While we were quarrying the snow blocks the wind picked up quite a bit. While the temperature was around -20 Celsius, the wind is what really gets you. The clothing keeps you quite warm, even to the point of sweating, but the second the wind hits you all your heat is stolen! This is why layers are so important, you are constantly dressing and undressing to keep the proper temperature, quite a feat in these conditions! To build the ice wall, we quarried large blocks of snow from the ground. The snow here is permanently packed, and though very dry, it holds together if taken out properly. To get it out you cut a rectangle in the snow about 2.5 feet long and 1.5 feet wide, and then with a shovel pried it out of the ground. The first few blocks were a bit hard, but after that they came up quite easily. After several hours of cutting, digging and placing we had a very substantial ice wall built and we took a break.

You are working so hard to keep your body warm in these temperatures that food is a constant concern. We had plenty of chocolate, nuts and slim jims, calories are important down here! Water is also vital, you must drink approximately 1 gallon water each day to keep properly hydrated, and I am finding this a bit tough as the water tends to freeze in the water bottle before you can drink a liter! But these are all minor problems and the longer we're here, the easier it will become. So with camp built we ate our dinner, dehydrated food which you pour two cups of boiling water into, not 5 star, but good enough. In fact I was so hungry I quite enjoyed it!

After dinner we went for a walk, more of a run and then retired into our tents for the evening. I am still having some trouble acclimating to the permanent light, sleeping during the day has never been my cup of tea, but again, here it is a way of life! Just before getting into bed and ran a few sprints to get my blood pumping and create some heat. I then popped into my tent, stripped off all my clothes, quite cold, and changed into dry layers before slipping into my bag. I unfortunately shared a tent with a smoker, and the smell inside then tent took some getting used to, a mixture of body odor, old smoke and cold! None the less, it was quite exhilarating so spend our first night in the elements. Sleep came quickly and I actually slept through the "night" I think. When I awoke I was in for a surprise! I was just tall enough that my feet and head touched the walls of the tent. Under normal circumstances this is no problem, but here it created some issues. It was so cold in the night that our breathing had created a layer of snow on the inside of the tent! This snow had in turn melted due to our body heat and soaked the two end of my bag which had been touching the walls. To make matters worse I had not properly stored my clothing inside my bag to keep in warm, and my layers, which were wet with sweat the night before, were now frozen stiff! To remedy this I slid into the stiff, cold clothing and ran in circles to thaw them! With my newly thawed clothes, and still somewhat frozen boots, I began to break down camp with the rest of the team. Although the night was not exactly the Ritz Carlton, the views from the tent made it all worth while, and proved that we would in fact be able to survive in this amazing, yet harsh environment!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Thumb

So, the thumb must now be discussed. Essentially, this stupid little infection almost prevented me from havign the experience of a lifetime! Katie, I think I owe you a special thanks for keeping me calm, and getting me to call doctors in the morning so I could get a specialists opinion! So, back to the thumb! Essentially what happened is I cut my thumb at work approximately a week before I was to leave and thought nothing of it. It began to swell and develop small white pustules about two days before I was to leave! After visiting Smithsonian doctors, I was informed my departure was in doubt, as they were unsure what exactly was happening. Needless to say I spent a sleepless night on the 27th worrying about my dilemma. When I awoke on the morning of the 28th, I called some thirty infectious disease specialists in the DC-metro area, and after several hours of begging was able to convince one to see me on exceptionally short notice. He and his colleague looked over my thumb and prescribed a second antibiotic, but were kind enough to clear me for departure, and Raytheon, the organization who has final say in our medical fitness agreed, so we were off.
Upon my arrival in New Zealand, I was informed I was to see yet another doctor, an infectious disease specialist in Christ Church. On Monday October 2nd I headed out to meet with the Raytheon scheduled doctor. After a pleasant 1.5 hour walk I arrived at the clinic, and was quickly taken to the doctor. After explaining my dilemma he inspected my finger, and sent me off to a hospital where a lab tech would further investigate the cause of the infection. The nurse looked at the thumb, and within seconds asked me if I’d been handling goannas, an Australian lizard, notorious for the problems they cause people who handle them, or so I’m told. She then told me; from the looks of it the infection was fungal, and not bacterial, meaning I was treating the wrong problem! She scraped a bit of skin from the thumb, and drew some puss from the pustules, and sent me on my way, telling me to finish off the antibiotics and apply some anti-fungal cream to the thumb, along with tea tree oil! The bottom line, she didn’t think the problem should prevent me from heading to Antarctica! So finally, with a clean bill of health, some 8918 miles from where my dilemma began, I was finally received a clean bill of health to travel to Antarctica!
And now the thumb

First Day in McMurdo

Well we arrived in Antarctica today!
It was somewhat surreal, flying inside a huge military cargo plane, with no windows, knowing we were over a horribly turbulent ocean, and planning to fly 2500 miles to land on a sheet of ice! We woke at 4 AM New Zealand time and headed to the airport, where we were outfitted in all of our cold weather gear. We were given so much gear i had to pack two extra bags wtih it! Because we will be using slightly radioactive isotopes on the seals, we need a spare set of clothing, all outerwear, to wear into areas which must remain contaminate free! So, back to the airplane! We got to the airport at around 445 and began to get dressed. We then went through the weighing of our bags and cleared security, before having an hour or so to hang out before our brief film, and then loading up! It was cold and rainy in Christ Church as we boarded a C-17.
Surprisingly the plane was quite comfortable, though the difference in temperatures between the front and back was amazing! The front was quite warm and the back quite cold. As I was one of the first on the plane, I picked a seat towards the back! People sitting up front were dripping sweat on themselves by the first hour of the flight! A secondary problem was the bathroom situation! There was one bathroom on the entire plane for 150 odd passengers and 15 or so crew people! Needless to say, I did not drink much on the plane in hopes of avoiding the cesspool, which I did! The flight was remarkably smooth, actually much better than the other 3 flights I've taken in the past few days, and the leg room was far superior to any coach class plane I've ever been on! I guess they figure we're going to have a tough enough time, might as well make our flight as nice as possible! At one point they allowed passengers into the cockpit where we got the opportunity to view the ice from the airplane, it was quite amazing. The scariest part of the whole ordeal was landing with no visibility for us. We were essentially sitting in a dark box, which was landing on a strip of ice, and we were the first plane of the summer season!
Essentially we land on a two mile long ice runway and as soon as you touch down you turn the engines onto full reverse and hope you stop! Luckily we did! We then got off the plane, and set foot on the Antarctic continent! It was amazing, and the place is stunningly beautiful! Luckily it is unseasonably warm, around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, with almost no wind, the best conditions imaginable! We then went to the base and had several more briefings before gathering all our luggage and eating dinner. I am now delirious with exhaustion and about to go to bed! Feel free to ask questions and I'll answer them as best I can. I will give an update on the thumb tomorrow. Right now its raw and bloody, but I believe the issue is in decline, as the pustules have faded quite a bit! Cheers from the coldest place on earth!