I arrived in the Dry Valleys on Dec 16th with mountaineer Forrest McCarthy. We were dropped off at Blood Falls, a spectacular site (and sight) with a glacier stained orange from iron in the soil. I’ll post those photos another time, as well as photos I took on a hike at the top of a steep ridge where there are ventifacts — large granite boulders carved by the wind into surreal shapes. But today I’ll just post a few photos of the site and the limnology team of the Dry Valleys LTER (long-term ecological research site) at work. Limnology is the study of inland waters as ecological systems interacting with their drainage basins and the atmosphere. The Dry Valleys limnology team takes water samples from the various lakes in the area, all of which are mostly ice covered: including Lake Bonney, Lake Hoare and Lake Fryxell. They move from one to the other throughout the season.
The limnology team consists of research leader Amy and three grad students, Jeff, Maddie and Noelle. On collection days they work long days, getting up at 4 a.m. to collect samples at specific times and filtering them into the evening. The first two days I was there, they had a lot of work to do. When I wasn’t out hiking and photographing, I watched them collect samples.
Amy also showed me an instrument that is lowered by a cable into a hole in the ice to take measurements at various depths of the water. She tested it first and made some adjustments to make sure it was pumping properly. This instrument has been around for at least a couple of decades.
My last day there, Forrest and I took down my tent and packed up our stuff. We were scheduled to get a helicopter ride to a different camp in the Dry Valleys this afternoon, at Lake Hoare, where I’ll spend the next four days. We were going to hike to another ventifact spot but decided against it when a sudden shower of an unusually large amount of unusually wet snow just wouldn’t quit. It was the limnology team’s day off from sampling, and on the spur of the moment they decided to build a snowman with snow collected from the helo pad, which they dressed in a regulation USAP “little red” jacket. Naturally, a snowball fight followed.
The weather cleared and the helicopter pilot arrived with two grad students from a different water-sampling research project, on their way to a site on the other lobe of the lake. Forrest and I boarded the helo and rode to Lake Hoare. As we landed, it started snowing hard there, fog rolled in and pilot ended up waiting in the Lake Hoare hut for about three hours before deciding it was clear enough to take off again. Fortunately, they had a tent set up that nobody is using so I didn’t have to pitch mine on snowy ground!
I can’t believe my luck. I mean, really. December 13th was my last full day at Cape Royds. It was overcast and the coldest day since I’d been at Royds and I had to keep stopping to warm up my hands. Not to sound melodramatic or anything, but I also had a cold and wasn’t feeling 100 percent. But I went out for a couple of afternoon walks with my camera and tripod anyway — one in the direction of the volcanic landscape, then after a pit stop at the field camp tent to warm up, one to the penguin colony. I have been told by the research team here that this is the time of year they typically see the first chicks. Nobody saw them yesterday, but Katie thought she heard a faint peeping and that there might have been some pecking their way out of their shells. Since I knew I would be getting picked up late morning the next day, I knew this would be my last chance to see chicks and I was on the alert for sounds. It started getting windy and I thought I heard something a couple of times but when I went over to investigate didn’t see anything. I wasn’t sure if it was my camera bag strap squeaking in the wind, which it does sometimes. After watching a colony that sounded like the direction it was coming from, I did catch a glimpse of an egg with a hole in it when a penguin stood up briefly and then settled back on top of it. But after waiting several minutes in the cold, I decided it wasn’t happening, my fingers were frozen and started walking in the direction of the path to the campsite. As I passed the neighboring subcolony, I heard an unmistakable peeping sound, looked to my left and saw this scene. It only lasted about 2 minutes — I took a few stills, turned on the video, and watched the penguin feed the chick and settle back down on it. You can see the video on YouTube.
Mostly what I saw while I was here were behaviors related to nesting. All the penguins who will breed this year have paired up, created little stone nests in their subcolony groups, and laid the eggs. The male does most of the nest-building, but once the female lays the eggs, they trade places sitting on the eggs. One goes down to the water to forage for food while the other sits on the eggs. When the foraging penguin returns, they great each other with a little dance where they swoop their necks up and down in unison and call out loudly. Then they switch places and the other parent goes off to feed.
I was hanging out on the bluff overlooking the water watching the penguins form little groups to go in the water. They just go down there and join with others who happen to be on their way, and walk more or less single file.
They’re fast swimmers and sometimes leap in and out of the water like a dolphin. I fired away with my camera and got some shots of wet, fast moving penguins that make them look like rubber dolls:
The pack ice floated at a good clip. Every day it looked different. On the 12th this iceberg showed up:
I tracked a penguin with my camera as he ran up a steep hill with a rock in his beak, which he presented to his mate in the subcolony at the top of the hill. There was an enthusiastic greeting between them. The landscape is rocky, he’s carrying a rock and something about the whole triumphant climb reminded me of the scene in the movie “Rocky” where Sylvester Stallone runs to the top of the long flight of steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So I titled the video “Rocky.” Watch it on YouTube.
Young penguins three to five years old play at nest building, picking up stones and dropping them in a pile. Sometimes they even pair up, and do the whole greeting and changing places routine, but they are too young to breed and don’t lay eggs. Sometimes they make a nuisance of themselves and other penguins chase them away. I saw one in that situation running away who stumbled and slid about 8 feet down a slope on its belly.
Most of the penguins had one egg, many had two, and the one in the photo at left has three. I asked David Ainley and Katie Dugger, lead researchers on the penguin study who were there, how that happened. They said that either the male had had a mate that left and then a new mate that between them had laid three eggs, or one rolled down an incline from another nest. But the prognosis for three eggs is not good. Even if they all hatch, they won’t be able to care for three chicks and they will likely die. [Note: In early January, David Ainley, told me that the penguin couple with three eggs had, against the odds, managed to successfully hatch and care for two chicks.]
The only predator the penguins have to watch out for at Cape Royds, aside from orcas in the water, are skuas, who look for an opportune moment to steal eggs. I saw skuas swoop down and harass the penguins numerous times, but most of the time, the penguins are onto them, and squawk and lean toward them menacingly. The skuas may stand there for a while, but once they know they can’t catch the penguins unaware they tend to fly off.
The penguins are unconcerned about the presence of people, however. Sometimes when I was standing in one place for a while, one or two would wander over to check me out. At one point I suddenly looked down to find I had company:
While I was there, Katie was making rounds every other day to check on the banded birds, making notes on the which ones were nesting and how many eggs they had. She has found that although the colony population hasn’t changed since last year, there are fewer nests and fewer eggs. Some nests were created but abandoned. Some pairs made nests but didn’t produce eggs and are just “playing house” as Katie put it. The scientists don’t know the cause of the lack of breeders, but one hypothesis is that something happened during the wintering over period that is making them struggle now.
The colony at Royds took a major hit when an immense iceberg named B-15 broke off the Ross Ice Shelf and essentially iced in a huge area of McMurdo Sound year round, preventing the sea ice from breaking up in the Antarctic summer. After it broke up in 2005, the colony began to slowly recover, but it has still not achieved its original size, even though there should be enough krill and silverfish for them to eat. You can see that when you look at an overview of the colony and see all the empty spaces that are tan in color where penguins used to nest. More research is needed to understand what is happening in the wintering over period and to look at some of the environmental variables that could be affecting their ability to survive and breed.
It’s my third day at the Cape Royds penguin colony, which consists of Adelie penguins. It’s a relatively small colony, with the larger ones at Cape Crozier and Cape Byrd, and Beaufort Island, which are all less severe environments than Cape Royds, which is basically further south. Katie Dugger, who has been keeping track of the banded birds this season and their nesting activity, estimates that there are a little less than 2,000 breeding pairs, i.e. 4,000 penguins. The ones that haven’t bred go out to sea, but will come back after the chicks have hatched. Right now, at any given time, about half of the birds are on land and their mates are in the water. The eggs have been laid, so they’re swapping places sitting on the nest about every other day. Katie knows this from keeping track of the banded birds. Chicks are banded at the end of each season.
To get to the colony, you walk about 5 to 10 minutes down a trail past one of the historic huts used by Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions. Like other historic huts in the area, the hut and the artifacts and supplies left behind by those early explorers some 100 years ago are maintained and conserved by New Zealanders. The huts are kept locked, and you may only enter with a trained hut guide, who could be a New Zealander or an American. I didn’t come with someone who had the training, so I haven’t been in, but if you’re curious, another photographer with the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, Shaun O’Boyle, did a lot of shooting in there. I highly recommend his blog Portraits of Place in Antarctica. He got here in October and just left. His project involved the architecture and manmade structures here, and he does beautiful work.
It’s a protected area, so not anyone can enter. Right now if you watch the penguins, their activities revolve around nesting. They’re either sitting on a nest, occasionally standing up to shift position and settle back down. Or they are picking up rocks in their beaks to add to their mate’s nest. Or they are in the water or coming and going from the water to eat krill and silverfish, their main diet.
When they go in the water, they tend to form little groups, then walk to the ice edge together and enter together. They just join whatever other penguins happen to be on their way down the slope to swim.
It’s entertaining to watch them dive into the water. They gather at the edge, mill around a bit, and then they dive in. Here are a couple where I’ve stopped the action:
So, friends and blog followers, yesterday I figured out how to shoot video with my Nikon SLR. I’m getting better at it as I go along, so I have some good footage already, but the Internet upload speeds are sloooowwww, so I can’t just put them all up at once. My first effort is admittedly not in as good focus as the ones I made today, but it gives you a look at penguins in action nonetheless, and they are, frankly, adorable. You can find the video on YouTube here. As I get them online, I’ll note them in this blog, or just subscribe to my YouTube channel. And of course, Jean Pennycook has posted a lot of photos and videos of this colony at PenguinScience.com.
On Dec. 9th, I went via helicopter with Evan Miller (the mountaineer you met in previous blog posts) to the Adelie penguin colony at Cape Royds. At the Royds field camp, you are between Mt. Erebus and the Ross Sea. It’s a short hop via helicopter from McMurdo, about 15 minutes, but a completely different landscape. For one thing, McMurdo is still iced in with a thick layer of sea ice but Royds is beyond the sea ice edge, so there’s open water (which is typical for this time of year, though the sea ice broke out here before mid-November, which is on the early side). Erebus still looms in the distance, and you have more the feeling of being on the lower slopes of a volcano, since there are hills covered with black gravel and rounded stone formations they call volcanic pillows. The “pillows” have rounded protrusions so uniform in size it looks like an archaeological site where some ancient civilization had built stone walls by piling stones, but of course that’s not the case at all. Some of the structures that look like a wall made of a pile of stones are in face, one big rock.
Evan was sent to accompany me for the first 24 hours to explore the site so I knew where I could orient myself so I could walk safely on my own for the rest of my stay. So on that very windy afternoon when we arrived, after lunch we set off on a walk toward the small lakes to the north and then looped back along a ridge that overlooks the coastline. The penguin colony itself we decided to save for the next day, since that’s terrain that I would not need the know-how of an experienced mountaineer to explore.
Right now there are two women working here, field camp manager and outreach educator Jean Pennycook and wildlife biologist Katie Dugger. Katie is leaving in the next few days, and her colleague David Ainley, the scientist who established this study, will take over her daily monitoring of the penguins. Jean makes sure the camp is supplied and is busy with outreach activities, making Skype calls to classrooms all over the world from the colony via her iPad, communicating with schoolteachers and updating the Cape Royds penguin project’s fabulous web site at penguinscience.com, which I highly recommend if you have any interest in learning more about penguins. There is information there for any level of education, from kindergarten to college. If you have kids, show them the site and tell their teacher about it! You’re probably saying, all right already, enough with the exposition, let’s see some penguins! So, even though this is out of order, here’s a quick peek. I promise more penguins up close and personal in the next post.
Evan and I found the larger lakes:
…and smaller ponds:
And volcanic rocks worn by the wind, called ventifacts:
As we walked, Evan and I happened upon a nesting skua, sitting on an egg. She hyah-hyah-hyahed at us to warn us off for a while, and then stepped off the nest and took a few steps toward us as if to say, “Hey, I mean it, get the hell out!” So we made a big circle and ended up at a distance from the other side of the nest. Evidently that was good enough for her, and she walked back to her nest and settled back in, but we got a quick glimpse of the egg (photos below).
We had, it turns out, inadvertently walked into a major skua nesting area. We kept seeing nesting pairs. Most either ignored us or squawked a little as we walked by but suddenly Evan was being dive bombed by a skua, who kept swooping down within a few feet of his head. Why it went after him and not me, who knows? Maybe because he was taller? But we walked faster and got out of there.
Coming over the ridge we saw the sea. The open water was a contrast to the unending vista of flat sea ice from McMurdo:
The winds were blowing stiffly from the south all day. We kept waiting for them to calm down in order to set up my tent, but that wasn’t happening. So I got a one-on-one lesson from a certified National Outdoor Leadership instructor on best practices for setting it up in the wind.
However, Katie assured us that the forecast called for the winds to die down and shift direction after midnight. The next day we were surprised to see that indeed they had, and the sound had filled with sea ice blown in by the winds coming from the north. Giant slabs of ice were moving briskly along.
Earlier on the second day that we were here, when the above photo was taken, I also took one looking south. It was a nice sunny day and you could see the sea ice edge, and the very same iceberg I photographed on the excursion several days ago that I spoke about in an earlier post:
On that second day’s walk, we also walked down the steep slope to a black sand beach. We encountered the lone penguin you see in the first picture in this blog post. Walking along the beach are interesting snow and ice formations, big and small. I’ll end this post with a couple more:
On December 1st, before visiting the Erebus ice cave, Evan and I went to see some icebergs that are stuck in the sea ice near the Dellbridge Islands. The Dellbridge Islands include Tent Island, Big Razorback and Little Razorback. The iceberg I photographed first is nearest to the island in the group with my favorite name, Inaccessible Island, named by the famous British Antarctic explorer Robert F. Scott because it was hard to reach. Of course, he didn’t have a Haagland tractor, which made the trip much easier. Not that a Haagland is a luxury vehicle by any means, but it’s great for traveling on ice and it gets warm inside. Big Red (as everyone calls the heavy parkas we were issued) comes off when you get in a Haagland. You’ll see the islands in the background of some of these photos. Also nearby was Mt. Erebus, but it’s so huge (over 13,000 ft.) that Erebus seems nearby wherever you go around here. The angle of the sun showed up the large crevasses on its lower slopes.
The plan was for me to circle the iceberg nearest Inaccessible Island, to take photos for a 3D file, which I did. I selected 162 to process and since there were so many, I carefully masked them in the software, which took several hours, and I’m processing the file as I type this. I’m optimistic it’ll come out, because the first stage of processing where I aligned the photos showed a generally recognizable shape, and the second stage, under way now, originally showed it would take a total of 12 hours, but it is now almost 60% finished and the estimated total is down to 7 1/2, so the fact that it’s going faster than the original estimate is a good sign. Stay tuned for the next post…
In the meantime, I’ll share with you photos I took after we left that iceberg and stopped at a spot where we could walk around a couple of smaller ones. One in particular had a lot of drifted snow around it, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get a 3D file of the whole thing, but it sure had a wide variety of ice formation and profiles that changed as you walked around it. The photos here show some of my favorite views.
Tuesday I went out with Evan, one of the mountaineers on staff here, whose assignment for the day was to take me to any icebergs frozen in the sea ice that interested me and back to the ice cave in the Erebus Ice Tongue. We went in Gretel, the same Haagland tractor featured in my sea ice training blog post, so it was lot easier riding around than driving a snowmobile. Snowmobiles are fun, but they get somewhat less fun when you have to travel for an hour on one — your right hand gets tired from being on the throttle, and it’s obviously colder, too, though aside from inside the cave, it was a nice day with little wind. I photographed three icebergs that are frozen in the ice, so you can walk right up to and around them, certainly impossible when they’re floating because it’s too dangerous — a floating iceberg can flip unexpectedly. I’ll post those photos another time, because I haven’t really had time to go through them yet, but I’m certain I’ll get some 3D files from them. Also got to see Mt. Erebus with no clouds and little wind, so you could see a puff of smoke rising above it.
Then we went back to the ice cave, and this time, it was just me and him instead of a group of 15 people, and he brought a couple of good lights, which helped me get some better results. It also was a few hours earlier in the day, and it seemed to me there was more light coming through the small opening (very small — you have to crawl through it on your belly). I had learned from the first visit that the flash lit things too evenly. They were nice exposures, but you couldn’t see the depth. Even when I tried notching the flash down, it didn’t look so great. So, we experimented with having him point the lights he’d brought in different places to see what would work best for photography, and I discovered that indirect light worked the best — bouncing it off a wall, backlighting formations, or aiming it so the center of the beam was hidden behind a feature. Aiming the lights in that manner, we lit up some crystalline formations that I hadn’t even noticed the last time I was there, including some very large hexagonal crystals, an inch or more across! This is Evan’s first season here in Antarctica, but he leads winter mountaineering and backcountry ski camping trips in Idaho and Wyoming, and though he was familiar with hexagonal ice crystals he was astonished by the size of these.
Being inside the cave was literally being inside a walk-in freezer so I had to pause periodically to warm up my hands — my glove liners are usually pretty good for photographing but it was very cold in there after a while. Evan showed me some tricks that helped — swinging arms or pumping your hands up and down with your palms facing down. But after we’d been in there for a little over an hour, my fingers and toes had had enough, so it was time to go. But I left with some magical and strange images. They did remind me of some of the photographs I’ve made of cloud formations:
This week the mountaineers investigated the ice cave in the Erebus ice tongue, a glacier coming off Mt. Erebus, and declared it safe to visit, so the Recreation Department here began offering group trips there. Mt. Erebus is the southernmost active volcano, and despite the boiling lava inside it, the outside is ice covered. (See an aerial shot of the ice tongue.)
On the night of Nov. 27, 14 people who had signed up for the trip plus a mountaineer boarded a transport vehicle with huge tires called a Delta, driven by a woman named Serena over the sea ice to the cave. We were instructed to bring full ECW (extreme cold weather gear), which turned out to be a good thing, because when we got there, a stiff breeze added significant wind chill, and once at our destination, we had to walk about a half mile from the vehicle to the cave entrance.
Our instructions were to stick strictly to the flagged path across the sea ice on the way there and back, and make sure not to brush up against any of the delicate formations on the cave walls once inside, as well as to watch our footing in case it was slippery in spots. I was assisted in the latter by a great accessory for walking on ice called Yaktrax — they are stretchy plastic straps with wire springs wrapped around them that slip over the soles of your hiking boots and give you considerably more traction. They’d be useful for those winter days in the Northeast when you have to traverse an icy parking lot with bags full of groceries. Hey, holidays are coming up — looking for a good stocking stuffer?
Once at the entrance we divided into two groups so there wouldn’t be too many people inside at a time. Each group was inside for about 25 minutes. Serena was stationed by the entrance and summoned us one at a time to slide on our bellies through a small opening and down a slight incline for about 8 feet into the first “room” of the cave. It’s a cave, so once you get further from the entrance it’s dark inside, but the mountaineer and Serena had lamps they could aim around to provide some light. Inside were a remarkable variety of ice and snow formations.
It had never occurred to me that you could ever walk inside a portion of a glacier, or that there would be soaring open spaces that you could stand in. Indeed, from the small outside entrance, there’s no clue that anything like this awaits. The photos with people in them give you a sense of the scale. Those photos that are evenly lit were taken with a flash, the others with just the light from the head lamps, which give you a more accurate picture of the lighting inside, but are a little grainy because of the dim light.
The mountaineer stood at the far end of where we could safely go, which was just before a suspended “bridge” of ice. “You have to stay on this side of the bridge,” he told each of us as we approached. “That’s okay,” I told him, “I don’t want to be under that thing if it chooses that moment to come crashing to the ground.” “You have good survival instincts,” he replied.
Here are some other nooks and crannies:
I emerged at around 9:15 p.m. The sun was shining brightly. I took a few photos of the brilliantly lit windswept forms around the entrance and of the stark expanse of sea ice on the walk back to the Delta. The next sundown at McMurdo will be February 21, 2016, but the light does change in a 24-hour period, and at this time of night forms had more depth than they do at other times of day. Here are photos from the walk back:
ESPN isn’t here, but luckily for you, I am, to give you the latest Antarctic sports news. Last night was the annual tug-of-war competition between McMurdo Station and our New Zealand neighbors (aka the Kiwis) at Scott Base, which is a short drive away. Apparently New Zealand always wins. Could the Americans break their losing streak?
It was a total bro fest, at least on the American side, with much boisterous pre-game banter. There was a lengthy weigh-in before the competition, to make sure the teams were each 115 stone — New Zealand originally set up the competition, so that’s a British measurement. (“What’s a stone?!” someone called out during that announcement. Answer: 14 lbs.)
To make weight, or maybe just because bros will be bros, some of our guys stripped down to short pants and tanks or t-shirts, while the New Zealand team members were low-key in demeanor and stayed sensibly dressed for the 20-degree weather in long pants and jackets. Our biggest guy weighed in at 303 lbs. (A New Zealand guy standing nearby remarked, “Wow, that’s two of me.”)
There were three pulls, so whichever team won two out of three would win. We definitely had the burlier team, with seven Americans facing off against eight Kiwis. Either they had better technique, or maybe distribution of weight between more guys gives the group better traction, because they won the first pull fairly quickly. And during the second pull the American team was on the verge of winning, until one of the Americans lost his footing and the Kiwis hauled it in. So New Zealand took home the trophy for yet another season.
Sam Bowser and his team of five other people at New Harbor camp are getting ready to wrap up their season after almost 7 weeks on the ice. So what occupied them all that time you might ask? While I was there, they were kept busy all day and into the evening with tasks related to Sam’s research on one-celled marine organisms called foraminifera (which they call “forams” for short) as well as the daily chores of living at an Antarctic field camp.
Science-related tasks include diving beneath the sea ice to collect samples of forams from the upper centimeter of mud on the ocean floor, sieving the samples to find the forams, and then sorting them beneath a microscope into the different types they find there. When camp is closed up, they bring the specimens back to McMurdo where some are preserved and others are prepared to be shipped back live to the lab in Albany, NY, where Sam and two of the team members, Mike and Amanda work. Amanda worked with Laura and Sam in the lab, sorting specimens. They sometimes also note and take a look at other creatures that turn up in the collection bucket, such as scallops. Like a lot of ocean creatures in Antarctica, such as sea spiders, Antarctic forams are larger than elsewhere in the world, which is a major advantage if you want to study a one-celled organism. Amazingly enough, you don’t even need a microscope to see them, once they’re sorted. Some of them look like little white beads, and are rounded and smooth. Others, and these are the ones Sam’s particularly interested in, secrete an adhesive with which they manage to glue together grains of sand to form little shells for themselves — a remarkable enough feat, but they do this in icy ocean water. (That’s what I mean by “tiny stonemasons of the deep.”) Sam is working to figure out how. Laura laid some out for me to look at in a tray, picking them up with tweezers (they’re also surprisingly sturdy and don’t break when handled carefully). Different species can be identified by their characteristic shells — some only use very fine grains of sand, some use larger ones, some are rounded, some are branch-shaped, and one is sort of star-shaped. As you can see in these photos, you don’t need any special magnification to see them, although the microscope helps to see the structures in detail — above is a photo I took of the tray (click to enlarge all the smaller photos) and below is a close-up.
Camp chores include fixing meals and cleaning up, waste disposal, getting chunks of sea ice to melt for washing hands and dishes (bleach solution is added to disinfect it for that purpose), and meeting the helicopters that periodically deliver supplies and take away waste, because no waste, including used washing water, pee, poop, or trash that can or cannot be recycled is left anywhere in Antarctica. (That goes for McMurdo, too, with the exception that the station has a water treatment plant so the water and sewage isn’t shipped off site, but all other waste is ultimately sent off in container ships to California for processing.) All seven of us slept, cooked and ate in a pair of connected Jamesway huts. There is a separate structure that houses the outhouse on one side and the lab on the other. There is also a Jamesway on the ice that serves as the dive hut (it will be brought ashore when they close up the camp) and has all the diving equipment, as well as a hole in the floor where they can dive. But sometimes the divers travel to other dive holes they made elsewhere in the sea ice. I was surprised to hear that the ocean depth at the dive hut is 80 feet, because you can walk there in about 10 minutes from the shore. I also watched them dive from a hole they called the “tile hole” that is over water 40 feet in depth and those are the pictures you see here.
If the weather is “Condition 3” (i.e. good enough weather to safely go outdoors) the divers typically make two dives a day to collect samples. There were three divers this season who took turns diving, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Two dive and one stays above ground to set up and help them in and out of the water. On my last day at the camp, Sam wanted some more samples from the area near what they referred to as the “tile hole,” so they brought their gear over the sea ice from the dive hut via sleds attached to snowmobiles. I walked over there along the shoreline and then carefully shuffled across the sea ice to the dive hole because there are lots of cracks you don’t want to get your foot stuck in, ice is slippery, and the surface is tilted and uneven in places. That day, Henry stood watch and Mike and Paul dove.
Now, I snorkeled once in a cenote (underground cavern) in the Riviera Maya in Mexico where we wore wet suits because the water temperature was in the 60s. And that was fun. But putting on a dry suit and entering 28.5 degree F water under a few meters of ice when the air temperature is in the upper teens sounds daunting, like the kind of thing you do because you have to as part of your job, not because you want to. But these guys live for it. I saw them come up from two different dives, and both times the divers came out saying, “That was great! I didn’t want to get out!” The dive durations are limited by the amount of air the tanks hold. After they came up and Henry helped them get the tanks off their backs, they hung out for a couple of minutes in the dive hole, as if they were sitting in a hot tub, and chatted about the octopus they’d seen in the same spot it had been several days ago. “It’s alive, it waved one tentacle,” one of them said.
Laura has been posting photos of the camp’s activities all season on Facebook under their National Science Foundation as “Bravo! 043” (Bravo 043 being their radio handle when they communicate with the base camp.) See them here.
I’m back from Sam Bowser’s camp — helicopter picked me up at 5 p.m. yesterday. Sam, his wife Laura and the rest of the team were really welcoming and fun to be with, and took me to a couple of fantastic places. I’ve already posted the trip Laura and I made in the previous blog entry.
The next day Sam, Laura and I went by snowmobile to a fascinating scenic spot that doesn’t really have an official name, but unofficially they call it “the road to Double Curtain Glacier.” Comic relief near the beginning of our trip was provided by a pair of nesting skuas standing on a rock. We stopped the snowmobiles and I got out the telephoto lens. They looked at us, and we looked at them, and then another skua flew a few feet above them, to which they responded by cawing loudly, “Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw!” as if to say, “Don’t even THINK about landing here while we’re on this rock.” Then they calmed down, then they started up again. It sounds like someone laughing sarcastically.
What we traveled on was not really a road, of course, it’s a flat area of coastline around New Harbor that this time of year is covered with snow and ice, and it looks like someone plowed a flat area of snow for vehicles and left the piles of snow and ice in a very even line on the sea ice side of the lane. What those piles really are is a pressure ridge, which is a ridge of ice pushed up by the movement of the sea ice. I saw such ridges on the McMurdo Sound sea ice when I was doing my training, but they were only a few inches high. I saw them by the New Harbor camp but they were a few feet high. But as we got closer to the Double Curtain Glacier, the lane got narrower and the wall got higher, forming a crazy Baroque facade that I’m guessing was 20 feet high in places! At some point, the road became so narrowed and slanted we parked the snowmobiles and continued on foot.
The ice has begun to melt and form weird shapes of unending variety. You don’t want to walk too close to one of those towers in case it becomes unstable and collapses. The pressure ridges have carried along numerous scallop shells which are scattered in the ice.
We eventually came to a place totally blocked off with ice. We climbed a little ways up the hill under the Double Curtain Glacier, and saw a mummified seal skeleton and some moss — the first plant life I’ve seen here.
Many of the photos shown here were from that slightly elevated vantage point on the side of the hill. It was a clear day and we could see the Herbertson Glacier (which was directly across the sea ice) and the Ferrar Glacier (to our right from that spot). As we were leaving, we also drove onto the sea ice about halfway between the Herbertson and the Double Curtain and I got another nice photo of the Ferrar.
I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to visit this place, which one of Sam’s team told me very few people have gotten to see. Unless you are staying at the New Harbor camp, it is relatively inaccessible. I am working right now on processing some of the 3D captures I made there so I can bring back a little bit of the place for others to see. Once I clean up these files I’ll be able to fabricate them as sculptures with a 3D printer or router. I’ve got one capture processed already. Here are a couple of screenshots of it from the 3D file creation program: