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


  1. I concur.
    An exact description of our day at Palmer.

  2. I love traversing a whole day! how deep can you see into the water? how deep is the water at its deepest? what are tides like there? if it's summer, does it ever get completely dark? is there anything like northern lights in antarctica? is there insect life there? you don't have to answer all these. what is the rock made of? why is there a continent at the pole? I just realized I know nothing about antarctica.