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.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The vicinity

Although Antarctica is not the easiest place to travel around, we as a science grantee group are quite privileged in our ability to move about the general area of Hutton Cliffs, where we are camped.

Map of Hutton Cliffs area (with snow-mobile route in blue):

The other day, Rich and I went for a 3 hour walk and climb, from our camp to Turtle Rock, about two miles It was a beautiful day, so the walk was quite enjoyable, little wind and temperatures around 10 degrees. On the way we saw dead seals frozen into the ice, they must have been there for some time as they were partially decayed. Due to the cold temperatures, and lack of humidity, thinks tend to mummify down here. As we got closer to Turtle Rock, it seemed to shrink, though the pressure ridges around it grew, making the approach a bit of an ordeal, we had to constantly probe the snow for hidden cracks.

Turtle Rock from approximately 1/2 km:

As we got closer we realized there were quite a few seals at this colony. Though there were many moms and pups, there appeared to be quite a few males, unlike our Hutton Cliffs colony which is predominately females with pups. One other interesting aspect of this colony was the difference in holes to the water. Whereas at our study sight the holes are quite shallow, and easy for the pups to get in and out of, these holes were quite vertically deep, much more like the hole of a woodchuck.
When Rich and I arrived at the foot of Turtle Rock, we decided it would be worth a climb, and hoped it would not be too hard.

Standing at foot of Turtle Rock:

Luckily the climb was quite easy, even in our cold-weather boots, with stable-icers we were able to make the summit in about ten minutes. The climb was a bit difficult as the "mountain" was all scree, and for every step forward you took, you'd slide back half a step, but we made it. Sitting atop was amazing, with really beautiful views of Mt. Erebus and Castle Rock.

Rich and I on top of Turtle Rock:

Me admiring the views:

The rocks were also amazing, as it is all volcanic there were some amazing mineral formations scattered throughout, which we admired before beginning our decent. The walk back was quite cold, as the wind had picked up, and the sun was radiating less heat due to the later hour. We arrived hungry and ready for dinner!

The next day, our trip had inspired the group to head out on snow-mobiles to view the other colonies in the vicinity. After finishing our day in the field we started up snow-mobiles and headed out to three other colonies, Turtle Rock, Big Razorback and Turk's Head.

We began our trip heading to Turtle Rock, where Rich and I had gone the day before. The road was quite bumpy, and some of the group was none to happy with the rough ride. After some time exploring again, we hopped back on our ski-doos and backtracked to the Hutton Cliffs road, and proceeded to the Cape-Evans road where we turned North/North-West. After several kilometers we were forced detour due to open water at the tip of the Erebus Glacier Tongue. From there we turned East toward Big Razorback

Big Razorback:

where one the only other sea-ice camp is located. Walking around Razorback was fascinating, yet again a very different make up to the colony. Along the north tip of Razorback the wind was blowing so hard we could barely stand up, but the formations were breathtaking.

North end of Big Razorback:
Self portrait in front of Razorback pressure ridges:

There were many more dead seal pups at this colony, a so far unexplained phenomenon. On average about 15% of Weddell Seal pups die before they are weaned, so maybe our colony is an exceptionally low mortality rate. The Razorback colony was large, likely numbering around 75 individuals, many with pups, though again more single adults than we have at Hutton Cliffs.

Mom and Pup at South end of Big Razorback:

From Big Razorback we headed out in a North-easterly direction towards Mt. Erebus, where we would arrive at Turks Head, the most stunning of the formations. The rock towered above us, and had a particularly interesting ice-ridge at the base. The rock was amazingly colored, once I remembered to take of my snow-mobile goggles, and I spent some time staring in awe at the surrounding. After spending so much time surrounded by white snow and ice, these black, brown and red colors were almost a sensory overload!

Turks Head:

Self portrait in Morten's snow-mobile/chainsaw murderer mask:

Pressure ridges at base of Turks Head:

Seals in front of Turks Head:

Laying down on the job:

Avalanche coming down from Erebus:

After some time exploring the colony, we hopped back on our snow-mobiles and headed back to Hutton Cliffs, an enjoyable, though slightly windy ride.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Riding Seals

So I've finally got a few pictures of us working on the seals. It’s been LONG days, and hard work, but we are finally getting the hang of it. They are big, strong animals, but for the most part incredibly docile. With well over 80% of these seals you can walk within a few meters and they will merely raise their heads and see what is going on. One of the interesting things about these guys is they have really horrible vision above water, and probably do not see us clearly. This is especially apparent in the pups which will crawl up to you, taste your boot before they realize you are not their mother. But I digress. We have processed animals weighing over 500 kilos, that is well over 1200 pounds of muscle, fat and teeth. So, even though these guys are quite calm, they have the potential to be really dangerous. I was thrown through the air a few days ago when one of them got hold of my boot. Luckily I was wearing my huge, thick rubber boots, and the teeth did not penetrate to the flesh. Regardless, it was eye opening to see that with the flick of their neck these moms can toss me like a rag doll. So, to "process" a seal we first capture them using a head-bag and pole net. Much of the time I have been a "head-bagger" meaning I run up and place a bag over the head of the animal, then hop on its back and strap two ropes around the flippers to secure the bag. This works amazingly well, and it is somewhat like riding a bucking bronco when they get going. Once the animal has calmed down we bleed them and inject them with various isotopes. We then pull them up with a tripod and winch to get a weight and release them. On successive recaptures we will milk them and bleed them to measure isotope levels as well as various other indicators, but enough of the science that is not interesting. So here are the pics with brief descriptions of what is happening.
Here Bjorn and I are headbagging a mom, she was a two person job, quite a biter as I recall

once we got her in the bag, it time to strap her flippers down

Trying to contol the seal, easier said than done with a 1100 pound angery mom
Seal in the pole net, getting ready to weigh

seal being winched up, my arm got tired here!

somtimes you just want to do a bit of see-sawing