Thursday, January 8, 2009

Getting Oriented in Antarctica

Today is my fifth day here at Palmer Station and in some ways I feel I have now been here for a very long time. Time has been flying by impossibly fast, each day jam-packed with a dizzying array of new experiences, all of them intense. Up until today the weather has been pretty benevolent, but right now a storm is raging outside my window with winds gusting up to 50 mph. And only now, in the midst of this howling greyness, does it finally sink in that I am really here in Antarctica.

Oona and I arrived at Palmer on Sunday, still woozy from 4+ days on the Gould, and were immediately thrown into a plethora of orientations: station orientation, lab orientation (where our "studio" spaces are), kitchen orientation (there is amazing food here!), and even waste orientation (pretty much everything is packed up and removed from the continent, but first it must be sorted and prepared properly). Meanwhile, there is a festive mood in the station because, not only are there new folks joining the Palmer community, but there's also all the people from the ship to party with and there are "freshies" (fresh fruit and vegetables) again for the first time since the last resupply ship in October. Anyhow, there is a big party with the boat people and the station people, but Oona and I are too exhausted and busy getting set up to make it over to the bar.

The next day we start exploring our new world. I spend the morning making my first attempts at recording the brash ice that is floating in the ocean all around the station. I have rigged two underwater mics to hang down from an 8-foot boom pole which I try extending out from the shoreline. I am literally fishing for sounds, which I find endlessly amusing. I am sure I look ridiculous, but I really don't care because the ice sounds so darn interesting. I will post some samples next time for you to hear.

Oona and I haven't been cleared to go out in the Zodiacs yet, so we head out to "the Backyard," the rocky glacial moraine behind the station, and up onto a small part of the glacier that covers Anvers Island. The station GSAR (Glacier Search and Rescue) team has marked off an area on the glacier that is free of crevasses and safe to go hiking on. Here's Rebecca (Palmer Area Manager), Oona, and myself doing our imitation of a band photo up on the glacier.

Early Tuesday morning, the Gould left Palmer to commence a 3+ week science cruise down the Antarctic Peninsula as part of the LTER (Long Term Ecological Research Network) Project. Everyone gathered at the dock to see them off. Apparently there is a tradition here of jumping off the pier (yeah, that means swimming in the ocean!) to wish departing ships good luck. This time we only had one intrepid jumper, but he had a very enthusiastic audience, both on the ship and onshore.

Then it was time for Oona and myself to take our Boating 2 course. This class is required before anyone can check out a Zodiac and travel around to the nearby islands, which is what we will be doing pretty much daily to work on our projects. First, our boating Sensei, John Fonseca, taught us how to tie up a boat, throw a line to a person overboard and gave us an overview of the Palmer Safe Boating Area and the emergency safety caches that are on each island. Then, after lunch, Oona, Tawna and I got our hands-on training. We learned how to operate the motor, safely pilot a boat through brash ice, and land on an island. Next up: Antarctic boating self rescue. This was when we got to jump into the ocean in our bright orange Mustang survival suits (they are insulated, float, and are theoretically waterproof- mine leaked a little, but still kept me nice and toasty) and practice hauling each other back into the boat. When properly equipped, swimming in the Antarctic ocean is actually quite comfortable, and in the midst of all this a humpback whale surfaces nearby and a few little Adelie penguins whiz past us. Nice. Most Boating 2 students don't have to do self rescue, but since Oona and I will be boating on our own a lot they want us to know it. Tawna, as one of the birders, will be out on the sea everyday and traveling to more remote islands than the rest of us, so she needs to know it as well.

Since becoming Boating 2 certified, over the last few days I have made several short excursions out in the Zodiacs: to visit a few of the islands, and to whale watch, which seems to be the most popular recreation activity among the staff here at Palmer. Here are some photos:

View of the continent from DeLaca Island

Adelie Penguins on Torgersen Island

On a Zodiac near Old Palmer Island

Brash ice and the edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont, Anvers Island

Now that I'm getting the hang of how things work here at Palmer, it's time to start recording some sounds...


  1. Thank you for documenting your travels -- I have been really enjoying reading your blog!

  2. Wow, those pictures are making me really crave a slushy. Do you think you could bring one back for me?

  3. wow, cheryl, this sounds entirely scary. i can't wait to hear the sounds!

  4. Hi Cheryl,this is Olivia.
    I have a few questions. 1) How many kinds of penguins have you seen? 2) Did you see any leopard seals? 3) Was the first iceberg you saw solid, or melty? I miss you and guess what? I got a Christmas piano book for Christmas.

  5. oooo can't wait to hear the sounds, yeah! the photos are amaaaaazing.

  6. How close can you safely get to that piedmont?