Saturday, January 31, 2009

Last Chance for E Seals

"E Seal" is Palmer slang for Southern Elephant Seal. In this part of Antarctica we also have "Leps" (Leopard Seals), "Chinnies" (Chinstrap Penguins), "S**t Chickens" (Sheathbills), and about a million acronyms (the USAP, United States Antarctic Program, just loves acronyms, plus Palmer has it's own station-specific collection). Of course I have developed my own affectionate terms for the local wildlife. These include: "Little Stinkers," (Adelie Penguins), "Big Stinkers" (E Seals), and some very impolite words for one particular Skua that dive-bombed my head every time I visited Old Palmer Island.

Anyhow, the E Seals seem to have a bit of a bad reputation. Some people even refer to them as filthy and disgusting. I admit, sometimes they do emanate a very unpleasant aroma (I'll refrain from detailing why, in case you were thinking about eating while reading this), and they do often snort and fart loudly while snoozing on the shore. On the other hand, E Seals can be very cute (just look at the picture of a young male above!), they have the most charming smiles - especially when resting, they are willing recording and photography subjects, and they make some truly outrageous sounds. From the very first time I encountered them I have been fascinated by the E Seals. Therfore this is a post in praise of Palmer's Southern Elephant Seals, and here are a few stories from my time with them...

1. First Encounters
My introduction to E Seals occurred on one of our early zodiac outings. Oona, Jon Brack and I motored over to "The Cove" (AKA "Lover's Lane," "Sheathbill Cove" or "Jeff's Unnatural Obsession") at Old Palmer Island, a hidden circle of sheltered water surrounded by two giant melting pieces of glacial ice which were once part of the Marr Ice Piedmont. As we turned off the zodiac's engine and slowly drifted across the water a glacier calved in the distance and deep alien bellows and cries began to emerge from the far end of the cove, echoing between the 30-foot tall walls of ice on either side of us. There, in the water, a couple of dark shapes tumbled and splashed. Several more large creatures lay side-by-side on the shore.
Ah, so these were E Seals... Their calls and interjections, so foreign from my own voice (and indeed most of the sounds I have ever worked with), instantly drew me to them. Quickly I pulled out my Edirol point-and-shoot recorder and started taping. After a few short minutes the mysterious sounds ended abruptly and much too soon to satisfy my now burning curiosity. Suddenly I wanted to learn all about these strange beasts, and I was desperate to hear more of their vocalizations.

Thus began my quest to record the E Seals, which I must admit became a bit of an obsession. Having captured a short sample of the seal's rowdy voices I was determined to record them again, and to get longer, better-quality audio of them with my fancy Sennheiser microphones. Plus, who knew what other weird and wondrous noises they might make... My mind reeled with the exciting possibilities.

I began making frequent trips out to Old Palmer Island, hoping to hear the raucous howling again, but to no avail. Each time I journeyed out to record the E Seals I found them fast asleep. It was miraculous how close I could get to the seals as they slumbered (this resulted in several fine recordings), and their snoring and deep-breathing were interesting noises in themselves, but these were not really the sounds I was searching for. To make matters worse, a friend at the station told me that E Seals vocalize underwater as well, when they are playing in the ocean. Now I was just dying to hear what that would sound like! During my first three weeks at Palmer Station again and again I returned to "The Cove," looking for E Seals swimming in the water, but I always found them piled up on the shore, totally conked out.

2. Night of the E Seals
During this time I had also been wanting to do some camping. After all, how could I go all the way to the bottom of the world and not sleep out, at least for one night? Also, I must admit, I've always possessed a secret desire to have my own island and now here was my big chance to be the only human on an island in Antarctica. But, being Antarctica, it was particularly important (and desirable, especially for recording) to have a good weather window in which to camp: two days in a row of no precipitation and calm winds. Even in the heart of Antarctica's summer this is not a common occurrence. Each morning I eagerly consulted the forecast, hoping for a friendly prediction. Finally the weather gods smiled and I saw my chance. So one balmy evening, a few hours before sunset, I was dropped off on Old Palmer Island.

Shortly after the zodiac's motor faded into the distance, and before I even had a chance to leave my drop off point and head across the island, I heard it: the faint bawls and bellows, splashes and sputters, of E Seals in the water! And this time it wasn't just a couple of them cavorting. I peered around the rocky outcropping and there they were: over a dozen Southern Elephant Seals, sparring in pairs in the shallow water. The combination of their playful martial dances and eerie roars was mesmerizing. I watched, and listened, and recorded their sounds for an hour or two. I could hear other seals farther away as well, both E Seals and some other kind that produced high-pitched barking sounds (it was probably a fur seal). Often a dialog seemed to be taking place between the different groups and I wondered what they were conversing about.

Now these seals I was observing were not the ones in "The Cove," which was all the way over on the other side of the island, and as time went by I got to wondering if my sleepy cove buddies might also be romping in the water. It was now getting rather late in the day, maybe around 10pm, and dusk was settling in. My camping gear lay, ignored and still in my pack, on the ground in front of me. I wanted to rush right over to "The Cove" but common sense kicked in and I forced myself to put up my tent first. From my campsite in the middle of the island I could hear the cove seals frolicking. "Oh please," I thought, "don't stop before I can get over there!" Twenty minutes later, my home-for-the-night in order, I ran across the darkening island.

There was still plenty of action going on in the cove. E Seal heads popped up and tails disappeared below the surface. Sounds of splashing and breathing traveled across the flat water to me and my microphones. Occasionally a pair of seals would face off, their torsos rising out of the water as they roared and wrestled. Others somersaulted and turned circles, while a few sleepyheads dozed upon the shore. All these sounds bounced off the ice cliffs, which amplified them in the still night. Wow. Here's a small sample of what I heard.

I didn't think the experience could get any better, until I noticed that once in a while strange gurgling tones were rising up from near my feet. I was standing next to one of the decaying ice cliffs and at first I thought these sounds were just some odd permutation of a glacier meltwater stream. However, they were occurring very infrequently. In fact I only heard them a handful of times during the several hours I stayed at the cove that night, and this made me wonder if perhaps they were not being generated by the glacier at all. After the third or fourth time the unusual burbling happened suddenly it dawned on me: these were the underwater vocalizations of the E Seals. They were traveling across the cove through the water to the ice, which was then reflecting them up into the air right next to me.

I stayed as long as I could, recording hours of audio, until at some point in the dead of night my toes felt like ice sculptures and I began to worry about frostbite. And then, the merriment still underway, I carefully made my way back to the tent and my not-so-warm sleeping bag. As it turned out, I needn't have been in such a hurry to reach the cove. The E Seals kept at it all night.

3. Last Chance Seals
I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me before I camped out that the E Seals might be nocturnal. Duh, of course they were! And now the fact that they slept all day made perfect sense. I'd be tired too after frolicking in the ocean all night long. I was very happy with the audio recordings I got that night. They just might be the best recordings of my entire trip and I can't wait to have the time to listen back to them all. I only had two regrets about that night: I was so transfixed with the sounds I had heard that I had taken no images (photo or video) at all of the E Seals playing in the water, and I had not been able to force myself to stop recording in the air and switch to recording with my hydrophones underwater (the air sounds were just too good, I didn't want to miss any of them). Thus, I wanted to go back to "The Cove" at night one more time and try to fill in these two small gaps.

Unfortunately I didn't have a lot of days left at Palmer. Suddenly time was short and there were so many things I wanted to record and experience before my stay came to an end. I searched in vain for another good weather window for camping. Today was my second-to-last day at the station and sadly now I know I will not be camping again here. The Gould is arriving tonight. I must pack and get ready to move onto the ship, and soon I will be heading home. Nevertheless I still thought it might be possible to catch the E Seals one final time, on an evening zodiac outing right at the very end of boating hours (9:45 pm these days).

So Louise (read her blog from Palmer Station here) and I set out after dinner. Our call name for the foray was "Last Chance Seals." It was a lovely, quiet evening. Normally in these conditions I would have expected to hear some noises coming from Elephant Seal Rocks as we loaded up the boat. Hmm, there was nothing. Maybe it was too early. No matter, we still had some time. First we cruised over to "The Cove" where it turned out that the waters were empty and the E Seals snored away onshore. Louise suggested we peek around the corner. We found no E Seals there, but a curious Leopard Seal swam right up to us and passed under our boat a few times. It was the closest I ever got to a Lep. Pretty amazing. Here's a short video clip of the Lep.

Next we motored over towards Humble Island where another group of E Seals usually congregates. They were strangely absent, but again we encountered other seals. This time two little fur seals came out to meet us and proceeded to flip and somersault a few feet from our boat. Yippee!
We tried a couple other E Seal haunts, but never found any in the sea. We didn't even see many on land, so I wonder where they all were. Maybe off eating somewhere? Still, the evening was beautiful, the company was great, and as the sun approached the horizon and Louise and I headed back to the station, I was glad I had gone out. I had my last chance seals, they were just not the ones I thought I was looking for that night.

And so I will have to be content with the recordings that I already have. This is fine, really, because they are very exciting and I am eager to work with them. Soon I will be leaving the realm of the E Seals, but I will always think fondly of them. Long may they sleep in piles upon the beach, gambol merrily in the sea, and grunt, howl, gurgle, belch and fart!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Antarctic Instruments

During my stay at Palmer Station I have gathered some natural objects to bring home with me (normally removing materials from Antarctica is prohibited but I have a permit from the NSF to take them as part of my project). I've packed a box full of my "scientific samples" and am shipping them back to California. Once I am back in my studio I will amplify these materials and experiment with playing them in various ways to see what kinds of musical voices they contain. Some of the objects will be played "as is" and some will be used as building materials for new instruments I will be constructing the months ahead.

Here's what I'm bringing back with me:

Limpet Shells

On my very first excursion out into Palmer's chaotic, rubble-strewn backyard I found a few scattered limpet shells amongst the rocks. I had wondered if I'd find any shells around Palmer and here were some already on my first day. What luck! Delighted, I grinned like a small child in a treasure hunt and greedily gathered up all the shells I could find, which was about 5 or 6. They clinked and jingled as I turned them over in my palms and wobbled them on a flat granite slab. "Ah ha," I thought, "and they are musical too!" I excitedly returned to the station to show off my find. Strangely folks did not seem all that impressed. I thought this a bit odd because I had walked all over the backyard and had only been able to find a few of the shells. Therefore, surely they must be a rare and glorious find.

Shortly thereafter I went on a boating excursion to DeLaca Island. As soon as I scrambled up onto the island's stony ramparts I was greeted with the motherlode of limpet shell collections: all over DeLaca's rocky ledges shells were piled up by the thousands. Suddenly I understood people's lack of enthusiam about limpets- they were everywhere.
As it turns out Antarctic limpets (Nacella concinna) are very common in the Antarctic Peninsula. They are found in shallow waters and are an important food source for gulls and sea stars. The giant piles of limpet shells that I saw were the remains of many, many Kelp Gull meals. Apparently the gulls swallow the limpets whole and then regurgitate the shells. Another cool limpet fact: if they don't end up as food, limpets can live to be a hundred years old. In contrast to other kinds of limpets, Nacella concinna grows very slowly and there is concern that as water temperatures rise in the region these limpets will have difficulty coping (Read more here). So, perhaps someday it really will be difficult to find limpet shells near Palmer, but for now, they are everywhere.

Nonetheless, I remain excited about the musical potential of the limpets. Their shells produce clear, ringing pitches and I look forward to playing with them. By the way, I did look long and hard for other kinds of shells, but even though I know there are other shelled critters living in this part of the Southern Ocean I never found any on land. Maybe I need to take up Antarctic diving...


I must admit that over the last few years I have become quite the rock collector. Often it's the color, an unusual pattern, polish or shape that attracts me. Other times a reflection of light or metallic glitter catches my eye. And sometimes it's the sound: the melodious clatter of a dislodged stone as it falls or a sonorous chiming underfoot as I walk across loose scree. I have gathered stones from two islands here in Antarctica, Torgersen and Breaker, both home to strikingly musical rocks.

Soon after my arrival on station Jon Brack (cargoperson and photographer- check out his photos of Palmer here.) told me about some pitched rocks he'd found on Breaker Island. He had discovered a stone wall with loose sections that could be rattled to make melodies. Of course I was intrigued and, eager to hear them myself, I planned a trip as soon as possible. Because the tie-up point on Breaker is often exposed to large ocean swells, it can be one of the more difficult islands to land on. It took a little while to find a day when visiting Breaker was possible but finally, one grey afternoon when it was threatening to rain, a small group of us made it out there.

Even in the misty, threatening weather this small island was fascinating. The boat tie-up point was on a nearly vertical wall that we had to climb up carefully, lest we slip and fall into the cold, deep waters below. We emerged onto Breaker's top between two Giant Petrel nests and then wandered off across the island to an area full of pools, whose intriguing angled shapes resulted from the way the island's rock fractured. This granitic rock tended to break off in plates which were often resonant and pitched, and there were many rock faces with loose pieces that made interesting sounds. Jon and I searched for the specific wall he had played previously, but it was not to be found. Perhaps the rock pieces had broken off since his earlier visit. Our trip was still a success though, because during our quest we came across a number of other locations that were playable and found many good-sounding loose rocks. I later went back to Breaker, did some improvising at some of these sites, and gathered a small set of pitched Breaker stones to bring home.

The other rocks I have are from Torgersen, site of several Adelie Penguin colonies and land of the musical penguin footsteps (see the January 23rd entry below). This island has the most interesting spiny-shaped rocky outcroppings. And it is full of wonderfully melodious stones.
The number of Adelies nesting on Torgersen each year has been decreasing rapidly (read more about it here and here) and it is easy to pick out the areas that used to house colonies. The Adelies build their nests out of small stones, so large piles of these polished, much-handled rocks indicate where a colony used to be. It is sad to look around the island and see so many of these abandoned sites and to know that most likely within the next 10 years Adelies will no longer be nesting on Torgersen or anywhere in the Palmer area.
I have a small handful of stones from one of these sites. They chime like little pieces of glass.

Adelie Penguin bones

Scattered among the rocks of many of the islands I often found small white bones, usually the remains of Adelie Penguins. On Torgerson, and other islands where Adelies nest, remains are readily found on the outskirts of colonies. Here skuas have staked out territory and are on the lookout for weak chicks or injured adults that they can attack and eat.

Being a bit squeamish about dead things I only collected bones that were already clean and mostly bleached by the sun. I have a lot of them, maybe close to 100 pieces. Once they arrive back in San Francisco I'll be building instruments out of them. Stay tuned in the coming months to see and hear what I construct.

Another Crevassing Day

“Let’s go crevassing again” (sung to the tune of “Let’s do the time warp again” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show) repeated merrily in my head as I hiked up the glacier one more time, excited to have a second opportunity to record inside an Antarctic crevasse. Having had some technical difficulties on our first expedition (see Crevassing Day January 27th below) due to an abundance of dripping icicles that made hanging inside the crevasse strongly resemble taking a shower, this time I was hoping to find a crack in the ice that might be a bit drier.

Theoretically such a crevasse would be wider and/or have walls that were less overhanging. Given that it was the middle of the Antarctic summer and we were headed up a melting glacier in a part of the world where the climate is getting markedly warmer and wetter, I knew it was a bit silly to hope for a dry crevasse. However, maybe we could find one in which the weather was more like intermittent sprinkles than a heavy downpour. On our previous trip I had heard some amazing sounds down inside the ice, but had been unable to record them properly. Now I had another chance, and I was thrilled.
Paul and Alden from Palmer’s Glacier Search and Rescue team accompanied Oona and myself, as we left the safe area of the glacier. Our path led out into a maze of giant cracks which terminate in a chaotic ice cliff where house-sized blocks of ice periodically fall off into the sea. Fortunately we were not going that far. The plan was to stay safely near the periphery of the maze and search for a nice wide crack into which Oona and I could descend.
As our route intersected with each new crevasse we cautiously probed it's edges. Often the real extent of a crevasse is concealed by snow on the glacier's surface and you cannot tell where the solid ice ends and a gaping maw begins without literally feeling the edge, by poking down into the snow with your ice ax. Once we ascertained where it was safe to step, we peered over the lip to see if it might be an inviting place in which to lower a composer and an artist. If it wasn't, then we carefully stepped or leaped across and continued on. After about half an hour we found a new crevasse that was big enough to explore.
This crack was about the same width as the one we had entered previously, but the walls were more parallel and it looked deeper, much deeper. Paul lowered me in first and as my descent sent snow and ice into the abyss I heard it bouncing and echoing for a surprisingly long time. Looking past my boots I could see down at least 50 feet, but I could hear that things were falling significantly further. Though there were some drops of water coming down inside this blue portal, it was much less drippy than our first crevasse. I maneuvered into a position that shielded my equipment from most of the wetness and settled in to listen and play.
First I just recorded the sound of the water drips. Then I started playing around with some nearby icicles. I had brought a pair of superball mallets down with me and as I cautiously tapped them against the icicles lovely clear pitches emerged. I was reminded of stories I had heard of people playing music on stalactites in limestone caves. Apparently in the past this has been quite a tourist attraction in some caves. However, sometimes the vibrations from the music caused the stalactites to break off. This was terrible because these mineral deposits take hundreds of years to form, and thus are virtually irreplaceable. Unfortunately I discovered that the same thing tended to happen with icicles (although they are a much more renewable resource). Just as I would start to get a nice resonant tone from one it tended to fracture and then fall, shattering in the icy depths beneath me (listen to an example here). This made me quite sad as, though I knew they would grow back in a few days, I hated the fact that I was destroying the icicles by playing them. Thus I soon gave up striking the icicles and tried a few experiments with hydrophones in the ice walls instead. The results, however, were not interesting, and then it was time for Oona to join me in the crevasse.

Oona was lowered down about 20 feet away from me. As she decended I recorded the falling snow and ice that accompanied her. I enjoyed the sounds so much that I then asked Paul to knock down some more for me to record (here is what it sounds like). Although this was also a destructive sound, it was fascinating, and chaotically musical. I soothed my slightly guilty conscience with thoughts of how quickly the hanging ice would be replaced, and the knowledge that this whole section of the glacier was melting away anyway.

It was great to look across within this beautiful, secret, cold, blue world and see my friend Oona. Most people will never experience the inside of a crevasse, or if they do it is alone and under much more dire circumstances. I felt very lucky to be there in pursuit of music and to be able to share the experience with another artist.

All of a sudden, after more than an hour inside the ice, I realized how cold and wet I had become. Despite my best efforts, my field recorder and camera had water pooling on them. Frankly I was amazed they were both still working and had not shorted out long ago. Also, an inconveniently placed drip had been slowly soaking my underwear for some time and now I really was quite chilled. It was time to ascend. With only a couple of days left at Palmer I knew this would be my last Antarctic crevassing foray, but I had managed to record some good sounds this time so I was content to go. I said a silent farewell to the icicles and mysterious depths and climbed to the surface.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Snowy Morning

Today I awoke to a landscape draped in white and large wet snowflakes drifting down from the sky. They thumped gently upon the corrugated metal roof below my window, and occasionally collided with the glass pane making soft plopping sounds. The world outside brought to mind some kind of Bing Crosby Christmas fantasy and, looking out at Palmer’s potpourri of shipping containers, exposed pipes and rubbly driveways, I was reminded of how a layer of fresh snow can make almost anything look beautiful.

By mid-morning the sun was starting to peek out and Oona and I decided to take our zodiac to Dead Seal Island, near the periphery of the Palmer Safe Boating Area. It was cold enough that the snow had actually accumulated and several inches of fluffy whiteness rested atop everything. A large amount of brash ice had made its way over towards Palmer and it too was covered. The water looked like someone had strewn giant puffballs of cotton across it. Midway through the ice, we stopped to take a closer look. In between the soft, white-clad pieces of ice was a layer of snow floating atop the salt water. We were surrounded by a giant ocean slushy.

I eagerly threw my hydrophones overboard to have a listen, while Oona made a drawing of the curious shapes. The floating snow and ice was creating a hypnotic rhythm as it rose and fell with the ocean swells (here's what it sounded like), and I could easily have spent several hours happily floating in its midst.

We had barely left the zodiac parking lot and yet here was something worthy of serious investigation. Abandoning our original plan we lingered in the brash ice, adrift with our engine turned off. Sometimes the greatest wonders can be found in your own front yard (or front ocean, as the case may be).

Fluffy, snow-covered pieces of brash ice in a slurry of floating snow

Later the floating snow morphed into these micro pancake-ice shapes

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Crevassing Day

Here at Palmer Station today was Crevassing Day. This is a special holiday in which artists are lowered inside an Antarctic crevasse in celebration of the internal sounds of glaciers and the deeper hues of blue. It is also traditional to mix in a little ice climbing and icicle banging to help cultivate a festive mood. Here’s how we observed Crevassing Day in our part of the world…

Oona and I had both wanted to descend into a crevasse as part of our projects here in Antarctica. I wanted to try recording literally inside the glacier and Oona was interested in seeing the shapes, layers and colors within the ice. A few days ago members of Palmer’s GSAR (Glacier Search and Rescue) team scouted out a likely crevasse for us to visit. When they returned from their foray wearing huge smiles, even though they had completely missed dinner, I knew we were in for something special.

This morning began like all others here: with a look out our bedroom window at current weather conditions, breakfast, and then the ritual reading of the day’s official forecast. The sun was shining, I could see the peaks on the horizon (always a good sign), and it wasn't supposed to rain until late afternoon. After monitoring the wind speed for a bit we got the go ahead from Paul, the head of GSAR. Crevassing Day was on.

Four of us hiked up the glacier to the edge of the flagged safe zone, and then donned our climbing harnesses and tied in as a rope team for the short trip out to the crevasse (you must travel roped together across any section of glacier that might contain hidden crevasses so that if someone falls in their teammates can catch them and help extricate them). Once in the safe zone, that had been probed and marked in advance by GSAR, we were free to unrope and prepare for the day's adventure. Andy set up anchors in the ice and cleared the lip of the crevasse of extra snow and ice that might fall on us, while Paul helped Oona get ready to be lowered inside her first crevasse.

Once she was a few feet down Oona kept mentioning how wet it was in there, and sure enough, as I peered over the lip, I could see hundreds of dripping icicles. This was not like any crevasse I had visited previously on mountaineering trips up frozen peaks. This was an ornate blue cavern with more than a passing resemblance to a limestone cave full of stalactites. Wow. And accompanying this elaborate visual display were the sounds of a multitude of water drops falling into the depths of the glacier. This crevasse didn't look like much from the outside, just a gap in the snow, but it contained a whole other world.

Oona shot photographs in the "rain" and attempted a drawing on waterproof paper. Then she was prussiking up the rope and it was my turn to descend.

First I thought I'd try recording the drips while hanging in my harness just over the lip of the crevasse, but above most of the deluge, so as to keep my equipment dry as long as possible. Then I asked Andy to try kicking some snow and ice over the edge. It was great to hear the echos and spatial movements of the falling matter and pieces of ice sounded like a xylophone as they bounced off giant icicles on the way down.

Emboldened by these experiments I decided to try recording deeper, even though the water was really coming down in there. I knew I'd be taking a risk pulling out several thousand dollars worth of recording equipment while hanging on a rope in the "rain", but I couldn't resist. At about 25 feet down I came to rest on a sloping ledge and put an ice screw into the wall on which to hang my backpack full of gear. I pulled out my condenser microphones (somewhat shielded from the water inside a windscreen), recorded more dripping, and then started tapping some of the giant icicles that surrounded me with my ice ax. Just as I was starting to get a feeling for how I might improvise something interesting on the icicles the melodic feed coming from my mics was overtaken by a horrible static. It turns out water had gotten inside my cable and shorted out the phantom power coming from my recorder. I quickly turned everything off and put my soggy mics back in the pack.

Word came down from above that the weather was worsening on the surface and it would soon be time to go. I was now really soaked, and pretty concerned about my equipment, but I thought I'd just try one more quick experiment before calling it quits. I wanted to embed my hydrophones in the ice walls and then try playing the ice. I made a few attempts to mount the hydrophones, but they just kept sliding out. Hmm, ice is really slippery. Meanwhile more and more water was coming down. Small streams of it were draining off my helmet and a few drops had made their way inside the bag holding my field recorder. It was clearly time to stop for the day, leave this azure wonderland, and return to the station where dry clothes, fresh cookies and hot drinks awaited us. Perhaps there will be a chance to visit the crevasse one more time before we leave and I can try recording again on a colder, drier day...
Thanks to Paul and Andy for facilitating Crevassing Day, and to Oona for the last three photos in this post.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Adelie Footsteps and Sleeping Seals

Here are a couple of sounds I mentioned earlier.

First, here is an Adelie Penguin's footsteps as he (or she) walks across the tinkly, chiming rocks of Torgersen Island. The island is covered in these unusually resonant stones. The Adelies build their nests out of Torgersen's smaller rocks, and the penguins have been using and reusing these for so many years that the stones are polished from wear. The larger rocks that lie along the penguin paths have also been worn down by the birds, their edges smoothed and rounded from all the foot traffic. I have gathered a few of these musical penguin path rocks to bring back with me to California (normally removing materials from Antarctica is not allowed, but I have permission to take a few objects for my project). Ultimately I'll be using these rocks as instruments in live performances of the music I create for this project.

To record the Adelie footsteps first I had to observe them for a while to figure out where they were going and realize that they have distinct routes they prefer to use between their colonies and the ocean. I tried to select a location that was on one of these paths, but not too close to either destination, as I wanted to minimize the background squawking and surf sounds in the recording. I staked out one of the paths, setting my mics up right next to it, and then positioned myself about 25 feet away so that my human presence wouldn't worry the Adelies and make them decide to choose a different route. My fake fur-covered microphone (aka Yeti) didn't seem to bother the penguins. Every so often one would amble right past it. Over the next few days I'm hoping to stake out the Adelie paths out some more, because I still don't quite have the footsteps recording I'm looking for.

Secondly, here is a recording of some Southern Elephant Seals over on Old Palmer Island. There are several groups of these seals that like to haul out and nap on Old Palmer. I've been spending the most time with the seals that haunt a cove known as Lover's Lane, Sheathbill Cove, or Jeff's Unnatural Obsession, depending on who you are talking to (Now I know the story behind the cove's multiple names... People at Palmer had been referring to the cove as Lover's Lane, but Jeff was displeased with this title. He rallied for there to be a vote to select a name for the cove. I think Sheathbill Cove won, or maybe that was the name Jeff preferred. Anyhow, because Jeff had made such a big deal out of the naming process, folks started referring to it as Jeff's Unnatural Obsession.).

This recording was made right at the edge of the cove. Behind me was a dripping, melting, orphaned remnant of glacier that used to be connected to the Marr Ice Piedmont. In front of me was a very large sleeping Elephant Seal. In fact, I had to tiptoe past him to get to my recording position next to the ice, which I was sure would shelter my microphones from the gusty winds that were blowing that day. Before I decided to sneak by the gargantuan seal I thought long and hard. I had heard that Elephant Seals weren't bothered much by the presence of humans. Supposedly you could walk right up to them and they would just continue sleeping. I'd never been this close to such a hefty creature though, and what might happen, should he suddenly awake, gave me pause. Plus, beyond the possibility of bodily harm, I wanted to honor the Antarctic Conservation Act - we are not supposed to get so close to the wildlife that we cause them to change their behavior. I weighed these considerations against my very strong desire to record the seals, which was only possible if I could make it past him and out of the wind. Finally, after working out an emergency exit strategy that involved running and scrambling over glacial moraine while carrying nearly $5000 of recording equipment, I held my breath and ninjaed past the slumbering beast.
Luckily he remained sound asleep, and you can hear his long, slow, deep breaths in the recording. The crazy sqwonking sounds that are also on there were produced by a couple of other Elephant Seals, farther away, that seemed to be having a small altercation, or maybe they were just pleasantly chatting about the weather. Sadly I do not speak Southern Elephant Seal. Though after listening to their strange alien voices for several weeks now, I really do wish I could understand them.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

More Questions Answered

Q: What is your call sign?
A: We have to pick a new call sign each time we go out in a Zodiac. This is often a challenge as it turns out that neither Oona nor I seem to be particularly good at coming up with these. Often we end up standing around the Mustang Jacket room all ready to go but lacking an appropriately pithy and witty name. A couple ones we have used so far are: Baby Steps (our first trip without a chaparone), Rerun (returning to Old Palmer Island), and 3 Musketeers (boating with Louise). Yesterday's call sign was Beach Bunnies. It was so sunny and warm that, as long as I stayed out of the wind, I could almost imagine being outdoors in a bathing suit. I did at one point actually get hot and took off two of my fleece jackets.

Q: How close can you get to the Piedmont?
A: It depends on where exactly. There is an area of the Marr Ice Piedmont (aka the glacier) behind the station that we are allowed to roam freely on which has been probed for crevasses and whose borders are marked by black flags. It is not safe to wander beyond the flags without being roped up and skilled in glacier travel and crevasse rescue. In a couple of days Oona and I will likely be hiking out onto the Piedmont beyond these boundaries with some members of Palmer's GSAR (Glacier Search and Rescue) team to do some recordings inside crevasses (me) and crevasse photography and sketching (Oona).

Much of the rest of the edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont is calving into the ocean in our area. Several times each day we hear loud pops, rumbles and booms as seawater undermines towering ice seracs and cliffs, and sections come crashing down. Here is a picture of some large ice chunks that fell earlier today. The cliff here is probably over 150 feet tall. As the ice melts back, bit by bit more rocky pieces of land are revealed. New edges of Anvers Island have emerged even over the 3 weeks that I have been here. Or, maybe it will turn out that these are not the shores of Anvers Island at all, but edges of new islands instead. Where Anvers is still covered in ice all the way down to the ocean, we don't yet know its true boundaries. The land that Palmer Station is built on may even turn out to be a smaller separate island. But, I digress, when we are boating around the edge of the glacier for safety reasons we are supposed to stay 300 meters from it.

Q: How deep can you see into the water? How deep is the water at its deepest?
A: The water here has a lot of glacial silt in it, which gives it that pretty turquoise blue color, but severely limits underwater visibility. I'd say maybe I can see down 10 feet. As for the depth of the ocean here, I just looked it up on a nautical chart downstairs. The deepest area I could find a sounding for within Palmer's safe boating limits is around 39 fathoms (234 feet).

Q: If it's summer, does it ever get completely dark? Is the sun spinning around you?
A: The sun does set here, but these days only for about 5 hours and then it comes up again. So, it never gets completely dark, just a murky twilight and then it starts getting light again. Last night I was up until 2am recording Elephant Seals and I didn't end up needing the headlamp I had brought with me. The sun doesn't spin around us like it would do at the South Pole, but it is in the north, which is weird for me.

This is moonrise last week at around 11:30pm

Q: Is there anything like northern lights in Antarctica?
A: Yes, the Aurora Australis, but we can't see them here now because it doesn't get dark enough.

Q: Are you the greatest martial arts master in all of Antarctica?
A: After watching the Southern Elephant Seals sparring in the water last night for about 5 hours I think not. What a strange and beautiful thing!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Questions Answered

I have a few questions to answer from my friend Olivia. Please feel free to ask questions about my Antarctic adventure, either in the comments area or via email and I will do my best to answer them when I get a chance.

Adelie Penguins on Torgersen Island
Q: How many kinds of penguins have you seen?

A: So far I have seen all three kinds of brush-tailed penguins. These are the smaller-sized penguins: Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo. Around the station we mostly run into Adelies because they are nesting nearby. However their numbers here are declining rapidly and it is likely that within the next 10 years Adelies will be extinct in the Palmer area. Scientists theorize this is happening because warming temperatures are decreasing the amount of sea ice that develops here. Less sea ice means less sea algae, which grows underneath the ice and is what krill eat. Krill is the Adelie's favorite food around the Antarctic Peninsula, so when there are fewer krill in an area the Adelies have less to eat and they either don't survive, or move to where krill is more plentiful. Right now they are moving further and further south, and penguins from the north who don't need the sea ice, the Gentoos and Chinstraps are moving in.

Gentoo penguin with chicks
A lone Chinstrap wandering around the Adelie colonies on Torgersen Island
Q: Did you see any Leopard Seals?

A: Yes, I see them all the time! I find them beautiful, powerful, and intriguing, but also really scary. There are many Leopard seals in our area and over the last week I have seen several of them each day. Just yesterday Oona and I were chased by one in our Zodiac. They look all innocent and smiley when they are asleep on an iceberg, but don't be fooled these guys are vicious. See those splotches on the ice behind this one? I'm pretty sure that's blood from the Leopard's latest snack, probably a penguin.
Napping Leopard Seal

Q: Was the first iceberg you saw solid, or melty?

A: It was solid, but definitely melting because it is summer down here and temperatures are often above freezing. Right now our temperatures here at Palmer Station hover around 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celcius), so we often get both rain and snow in the same day. Sometimes it's sunny though, and our last sunny day was in the 40s (Fahrenheit). Yippee! I got to wear only one pair of long underwear that day.

Here's the top of a very ornate iceberg we found yesterday aground next to Old Palmer Island

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Day in My Life at Palmer

I have been busy working at Palmer Station. My life here is so full that it often seems like a week's worth of excitement, activity, fun and hardship is crammed into each day. My typical Antarctic work day in decent weather (meaning anywhere from blue bird sunshiny beautiful to pretty crappy, but not with really strong winds) goes something like this:

7:45 am - Wake up and attempt to climb down from the top bunk without hitting my head on the ceiling tiles or lighting fixture. Conduct a preliminary assessment of the weather. Pretty much all my work is done outside here so weather defines much of what I can do each day. First, listen for precipitation and high winds. Next, open the window shade just a little bit and look out. Check the flags that mark some conduit running over the rocks for wind speed. This is very important when trying to record, or if you want to go boating- we are only allowed out in the Zodiacs if it's blowing 20 knots or less. Here's a sample of what winds strong enough to keep us on land sound like). Finally, note how grey the sky is and if any distant peaks are visible.

The view out our bedroom window on a good weather day
7:50 am- Try to get dressed and wake up enough to make it downstairs to breakfast before it officially ends at 8 am. I believe I have successfully attended breakfast once or twice in the last two weeks.

8 am - Hmm, missed hot breakfast again. Eat yogurt and cereal (available anytime) instead. Oona and I work on gaining full consciousness via black tea and enjoy the empty galley, as most folks have already gone off to work. Sometimes the birders, who are studying the local avian populations, join us, as they also work late and start late.

9 am - Having formulated a plan for the day's adventures, usually involving boating to one of the nearby islands, Oona and I commence packing up our gear for the day. For me this generally includes: 2 field recorders (Sound Devices 702, Edirol R-09HR), my Sennheiser mics (MKH 30 and MKH 40 in a blimp windscreen with a furry coat named "Yeti"), a pair of hydrophones (Aquarian Audio H2-XLRs), two pairs of headphones, a video camera, a still camera, one or two tripods (I mount my mics on these as well as my cameras), and spare batteries, tapes, CF and SD cards. Since we are usually dealing with rain, snow and/or boating, everything gets packed inside drybags and a waterproof backpack. Now that's just my technical gear. I also need extra layers of clothing, sunscreen, food, and water. Plus, when traveling by Zodiac, we are required to carry an additional drybag containing a full change of clothes, in case we fall overboard or otherwise manage to get wet.

9:45 am - I am running back upstairs to my room in order to change into my Antarctic adventure outfit. This is comprised of: Gore-tex pants over 2 pairs of long underwear on the bottom, and 2 long underwear shirts, a windproof softshell, a thick fleece jacket, and a Gore-tex shell on top. Plus mountaineering boots and assorted socks, hats, and gloves.

9:55 am - Quick stop on the 2nd floor to look at the official weather. The day's forecast, current conditions, and graphs of weather trends and tides are displayed continously on several computer monitors. Weather is that important here. Next we write ourselves on the chalkboard, where all trips leaving the station are posted. We write down who is in our party, where we are headed, the time we are leaving, expected time of return, and our callsign. One of the fun rules here is that each time you go out you must come up with a new callsign.

10 am - Oona and I have managed to pile up all our things on the bench in the vestibule near the front door. It is time to don our Mustang jackets: the orange, insulated, buoyant coats that we must wear while boating. Having wrangled it on, I struggle to clip on the "beavertail." This is a rubber flap that hangs down from the back of the jacket, wraps up between your legs, and then is clipped into the front of the Mustang. It holds you in the jacket if someone is trying to haul you out of the water by your coat. Now I feel penguinesque- bulky and a bit awkward on land, but at least I won't sink in the Southern Ocean.

Here I am, driving our Zodiac in my Mustang jacket

10:15 - Having hauled all our bags to the rocks at the edge of the Zodiac parking lot, we pull in our Zodiac, warm the engine up, check the boat, load our gear, and then radio to the station that we are departing. Adventure ho!

Adventure time - Now we are bound for one of the islands within the Palmer Safe Boating Limits. Since the Antarctic summer is nesting season for penguins, petrels, and shags, many of the islands are closed right now to protect them. Still, the remaining islands which we are allowed to land on and explore have plenty of variety to keep us busy. For safety reasons, every time we land on an island or leave an island we radio in to the station to let them know.

Melting glacier on Old Palmer Island

Old Palmer Island is one of my favorite places here. It's the largest island we can visit and is home to many Elephant Seals, who seem to do a lot of napping, both near our tie-up point and on the north side of the island where the retreating glacier has revealed a beautiful cove (This cove has been dubbed "Jeff's Unnatural Obcession" after one of our staff. Apparently there is a story behind the name, but I haven't heard it yet). The Elephant Seals haul out and caterpillar their massive bodies uphill to slumber in the sun nestled in between little hillocks. The cove often echos with their wild groans, grunts, and hurrumphs. As Murphy would have it, the one day I was on Old Palmer in good weather the Elephant Seals were fast asleep, so all I could record was a lot of deep breathing, punctuated by occasional snorts and snores. Still that was pretty fascinating. I'll post a sample of it here in a day or two when I get a chance to edit my Elephant Seal recordings. Also coming soon- sounds from a Fur Seal that was resting on Old Palmer yesterday. It seems to be a good place to sleep! Other things I still want to record on Old Palmer include: brash ice in the cove, the melting glacial remnants on the island, and the skuas and gulls that hang out and bath in a large pond in the middle of the island.

Antarctic Fur Seal napping on Old Palmer
On Torgersen Island

The other main island we have visited several times is Torgersen Island, home to a number of Adelie Penguin colonies. I was just there today and what a noisy, stinky (all that pink stuff you see in the pictures, that's penguin poop), but fun place it is! Half of the island is closed to visitors and half is open, as part of a study to monitor if/how human visitors affect Adelie colonies. Word is so far they have not noticed any major impacts. Interesting.

I think the penguins have chosen a very musical island, because Torgersen is covered in dense, fractured, pitched rocks. The Adelies gather the smallest of these stones to build their nests, but even the larger pieces are surprisingly resonant. One of my new favorite sounds is the tinkly music of penguin feet as the Adelies amble back and forth between the ocean and their colonies. I was trying to record their little footsteps today. I'll let you know if any of the the recordings come out good. Here's an example of what the Adelie Penguin voices sound like in a colony.

Recording the penguins

Sometimes Oona and I just go out and cruise around in our Zodiac, checking out the icebergs and brash ice, and keeping our eyes open for seals (Leopard, Crabeater, Southern Elephant, or Antarctic Fur Seals are around Palmer) or whales (Humpback). Here's an underwater recording of the brash ice chunks in the ocean.

Brash Ice. Yes, we boat through this every day.
Antarctic Terns

Then there are days, or evenings, when I just wander out into "The Backyard" (the exposed rocky area behind the station) and look for things to record there. This is an underwater recording of brash ice and waves at the shore just behind Palmer.

5 pm - Time to return to the station, radio ourselves back in, erase our names from the chalkboard, change out of salty, stinky clothes and get ready to eat dinner at 5:30.

7 pm to about midnight- Download sounds, images, and video into the computer, and back them up. Recharge batteries for all my electronic equipment. Begin sorting through recordings and photos, though there's never enough time to get to them all or watch my video footage. Write emails and blogs and then clamber up into the top bunk and get ready to start it all again tomorrow.

Edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont