Greetings from Antarctica!
The last several weeks have been filled with lots of work, several small adventures and lots of good-byes. The summer season is now underway and the planes are bringing more and more people every day – McMurdo’s population is around 1000 now and more will be showing up soon. It has been a lot of fun having the runway so close to town, because the planes can be clearly seen landing and taking off. Most of the winter-over crew has gone north with only a few of us remaining. I have said good-bye to most of my friends from the winter and I am making new friends everyday. The crowds don’t bother me now like they did when the winfly people arrived. The field camps are opening at a rapid pace and the science groups are being quite active. I have attended several science lectures on things ranging from emperor penguins and one-celled organisms called foraminifera to super-pressure balloons that are being use to study the polar vortex. There have been several reports of emperor penguins being spotted out on the sea ice (I have even seen pictures), but I have not had the luck of spotting one yet – I have two and a half days left before my chance is gone and I leave this great place.
I have had the good fortune to be able to get out to Cape Evans every Sunday over the last several weeks on fish collecting expeditions – I owe a big Thank-You to the scientists that have kindly allowed me to tag along. In order to preserve a healthy population of Bernacchii, which is the type of fish the scientists are looking for, the fish huts are moved on a regular basis, providing a change in scenery every weekend. Most of the hut locations have provided excellent views of the ocean floor, which has made catching the fish a lot of fun – Being able to see the fish take the bait makes it a lot easier to catch them. The second time I went out fishing, there was a large fish (by Bernacchii standards) that everyone was trying to catch – We named the fish Big Al. Throughout the day several people came close to catching Big Al – Three different times someone had him on their line and almost out of the water, but he managed to escape in the nick of time. Finally, towards the end of the day I hooked him and the ensuing battle was just short of epic – He darted under the ice and threw in several twists and turns doing everything in his power to spit the hook out and regain his freedom. The battle raged on and on, but in the end I stood victorious over the hole in the ice – I had captured Big Al! Big Al weighed in at about 200 pound, he was just over six feet long and he had giant triangular teeth (OK, maybe I exaggerated a bit, Big Al was actually less than a foot long and the battle only lasted ten seconds – It is a fishing story after all). That day was my best fishing day – I managed to pull up at least ten fish including the largest, Big Al, and the smallest (we threw him back). I have been branded with the nickname ‘Ninja’ by the other fishermen, because of the black hat and neck gator I wear in the field, which, coupled with my black ECW gear, makes me look like a ninja (wearing blue clown boots).
On one of the fishing trips I checked out the key for the Cape Evans Hut and a small group of us went in to take a look around. While we were crossing the tidal cracks, which separate the sea ice from the land and are formed by the undulating motion of the ocean tide, I discovered the skeleton of a penguin. The part of the skeleton that was exposed was bleached white, but it still had a few feathers (or whatever the penguin’s equivalent is) clinging to it in places. The sea ice around Cape Evans is first year ice, so the penguin must have died sometime over the winter – I wonder if that is the final resting place of the little adelie penguin that brought great joy to town when it visited us in McMurdo over the winter? Before we got to the hut we found the anchor from the Aurora. The Aurora was the boat that Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party used to set the depots for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914-1917. The Aurora was anchored near the Cape Evans Hut when a large gale came in. After the storm, the Aurora was gone, blown out to sea, and all that remained at Cape Evans were the Anchors. The members of the expedition that were stranded there were eventually rescued when the Aurora returned in 1917, with Shackleton on board. The outside door took us into the enclosed entryway of the hut, which was very dark and cold. The entryway is full of tools and other interesting artifacts like a box full of penguin eggs and an old bicycle looking device. There are two doorways off of the entryway – One enters into the stables and the other into the interior of the hut. The stables are illuminated by a single iced-over window at the end of the corridor, which shrouded the interior in a mysterious darkness and there was a lot of ice built up on the floor. There were piles of stores and hay and other equine paraphernalia lying around in the pony stalls. It is necessary to tread carefully in the stable area since anthrax, in its natural form, is present in the hut and is most concentrated in the stables. After taking great care to clean any debris from our shoes, we entered through the sturdy door that leads into the interior of the main part of the hut. I was not prepared for what awaited us in there. The sunlight was poring into the hut through the many windows shedding an intense light on the past. The shelves were fully stocked with food – There was even a Heinz ketchup bottle, still full, sitting on the shelf. The beds were piled with fur bedding and the expedition clothing was neatly laid out and ready to be worn. The furniture was all in place including the famous table that has hosted some of the greatest explorers mankind has produced. The desk in Captain Scott’s quarters had a copy of the 1908 edition of ‘The Illustrated London News’ and a stuffed emperor penguin – It appears that the only emperor penguin I will get to see here will be one that died nearly 100 years ago! Everything in the hut from the dark room, the laboratory, the kitchen and living quarters is organized in a manor that suggests that the occupants of the hut have just stepped outside and will be returning shortly – In fact, the only thing that would suggest otherwise is the lack of heat and the small ice crystals that coat a large part of the interior. The Terra Nova hut is a well-preserved window to the past and to the heroic age of exploration on the Antarctic continent. It is a museum and a monument that is still fighting to survive in this unforgiving environment well after the last of the great explorers has gone. It turns out that I was the last person to be allowed to check out the key to the hut for the time being – Apparently the Antarctic Heritage Trust, which is the organization that is in charge of maintaining and preserving all of the huts in the Ross Sea, has made it a requirement to have a trained ‘guide’ accompany anyone entering any of the huts. I suppose the new rule is a good thing, because all of the huts are preserved how they were, without the loathsome glass boundaries and barricades that are present in most museums today, and there are those greedy souls who will take advantage of that aspect by taking ‘souvenirs’ home with them – I do feel fortunate that I was able to see the interior of the hut and I hope that others will have the same opportunity soon.
As I work my last days in this job that I tried to get for three years, the excitement is building for the new adventures to come. The water plant construction has taken a turn for the worst with some major soil issues that have caused one of the generator support pads to sink into the thawing ground. This issue, coupled with some major existing issues with the original water plant structure, that have just been noticed, have prompted the powers at be to put a temporary hold on construction until the soil issues can be figured out – It is a fitting end to my time with this project. Next time I write should be from New Zealand.