Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Heading Home

On February 9th my adventures in the south and this research phase of my project came to an end. From the Punta Arenas airport I flew north: Punta Arenas to Santiago, Santiago to Dallas/Fort Worth, Dallas/Fort Worth to San Francisco, aka home.

Now it's time to begin digesting all that I have gathered and learned so that I can make music out of it. What an amazing trip it has been!
Patagonian glaciers enroute from Punta Arenas to Santiago

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Chilean Pinguinos

It had not even been a week since my departure from Palmer, and only a day had passed since I disembarked from the Gould, but I had to admit that I already missed being out in a Zodiac, and I missed seeing penguins. So, as my Palmer friends departed Punta Arenas one by one, I decided to book a little tourist trip out to see some Chilean Magellanic Penguins.

Early in the morning, along with an international collection of tourists, I boarded a covered Zodiac that held around 20 people. It was quite a windy day in this part of Chilean Patagonia. Summer winds here can be so strong (often up to 60 knots!) that they will knock you over as you try to walk, and in Punta Arenas some intersections even have chains installed to keep pedestrians from being blown into the streets. And so, the tour guides explained that our boat ride out to Isla Magdalena would be a bit choppy today and they advised the weak of stomach to sit in the rear of the Zodiac. Proud to now be a bit of a boating expert, I gleefully positioned myself in the front, and smiled as the boat smacked against the wind-driven waves.
After a thrilling, butt-bruising ride we arrived at Isla Magdalena, which is part of Los Ping├╝inos Natural Monument. Here a large colony of over 60,000 pairs of Magellanic Penguins were breeding. As I stepped off the pier onto the island my first thought was "Wow, they smell so much better than the Adelies!" This is probably not what goes through most people's minds when they first arrive at Isla Madalena but, having never been a smoker, I possess a very sensitive nose and to me the difference in fragrance was striking (and much appreciated)!

The Magellanic Penguins were about the size of the Antarctic Adelies, and their chicks were at approximately the same adolescent stage of development as Torgersen's Adelies had been at the end of my stay at Palmer: molting off their fluffy chick coats and starting to fledge.
Instead of building a nest of stones, the Magellanic Penguins lay their eggs in underground burrows, and the island is literally covered with them.While strolling along the fenced-off pathways that lead around the island, I let the other tourists go on ahead of me, hoping for a chance to record these new penguins. Though I suspected the winds might be too strong for even my mighty Sennheiser windscreen, I pulled out my recording gear and searched for a sheltered place on this barren island where I could set up my microphones. Turns out there was no good wind shelter to be had. I tried to use my body to shield the mics, but those crafty Patagonian winds just wove their way around me. Here's a sample of the best recording I could make in these conditions.
Our next destination was Isla Marta, home to more Magellanic Penguins, cormorants (who nest in the island's cliffs), and a large colony of sea lions. As we approached the island in our boat a raucous din of sea lions groans and howls greeted us. The beach was covered with the squirming brown shapes of hundreds of sea lions and curious heads popped up out of the water next to us.

You are not allowed to land on Isla Marta (it's protected), so we hovered just offshore in our boat for a while: the tourists gawking at the sea lions and the sea lions gawking at the tourists. It must have looked pretty hilarious, as we humans took turns sticking our heads out of the open areas at the bow and the stern of the boat, and the sea lions took turns sticking their heads out of the sea, both species wondering what the other was up to.

And then it was time for the bumpy return to the mainland, followed by a van ride through wind-scoured landscapes and back into the city of Punta Arenas.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Viva la Oona!

It was the morning after our arrival in port and nearly time for Oona to head to the airport and begin the series of flights that would bring her home to Brooklyn, NY. The two of us took a final stroll together through the streets of Punta Arenas, enjoying the strange mix of architectural materials and styles (including some very elegant uses of corrugated sheet metal), the abundance of unusually attractive and healthy-looking stray dogs, the now-familiar scrambled mess of overhead wiring, and other quirks and details of the city.
Even though we had been a team for the last 6 weeks, and I had lots of photos of Oona and she had plenty of me, we realized that no pictures existed of the two intrepid Artboat #66 Co-Captains together. When you consider that we had just shared an entire Antarctic adventure, this was quite ironic, and needed to be remedied before we flew off to opposite sides of North America. So, up on a hill overlooking Punta Arenas we asked a stranger to take our photo.

Oona Stern and I had been thrown together by the logistical considerations of the United States Antarctic Program. Before our arrival on station it had been decided that we would be both boating partners and roommates at Palmer, which meant that we would be spending almost all day, every day together. One Palmerite is said to have remarked: "I hope they get along, because they're really stuck with each other." It could have been a complete disaster, but instead I found that I couldn't have asked for a better adventure buddy, boating cohort, artistic accomplice, and friend. And she sure can kick my butt when it comes to throwing snowballs!

Together at Palmer we had learned to drive Zodiacs through the brash, tie up to an island, set a stern anchor, remove ice from the underside of the boat, and judge when the weather was turning. We had been honked at by penguins, squeaked at by terns, and dive-bombed by skuas; pursued by Leopard Seals, huffed at by Fur Seals, and snored at by Elephant Seals. We had descended into crevasses, circumnavigated icebergs, and gasped as ice calving from the glacier produced a wave we were certain would flip our boat (I am happy to say that it didn't. By the time the wave reached us out in deep water it just made the Zodiac bob up and down gently. Pheww!). Inside the station we had struggled to make it to the galley before hot breakfast ended, scrawled many a silly callsign on the blackboard, wondered how best to interpret all the weather charts and graphs, learned how to House Mouse and GASH, and Oona even mastered some of the finer points of Palmer's preferred card game: Australian 500. And through all this we had not just managed to get along, but been incredibly productive and rustled up a lot of fun along the way.

Thanks Captain! I hope we get to adventure together again soon...

Be sure to check out Oona's blog http://www.antarcticice.blogspot.com/ and keep an eye out for her work.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Back on Land in Punta Arenas

On the morning of February 6th, having completed her passage through the Strait of Magellan, the Laurence M. Gould approached Punta Arenas. Eager to set foot on land again after 4 1/2 days at sea, many of us (especially those who had suffered from seasickness) were once more outside on the decks. I marveled at the rich green hills in the distance, the chaotic jumble of colors and forms that comprised the city, and the fact that we were no longer alone. There were many other ships in the water around us now and a whole urban world awaited onshore. What a change this would be after living in the small, vivid communities of ship and station. I wasn't sure if I was quite ready to be back in the "real world" again, but it was upon me.

Although many people describe their time on the Gould as a kind of grueling purgatory that must be endured in order to get to/from the Antarctic Peninsula, I was happy to have had shipboard segues bookending my time on the Ice. Heading south, these days in transit let me fully relish the unknown, to deliciously wonder what lay in store for me at the bottom of the world. Northbound the Gould granted me precious time in which to savor my experiences before plunging back into regular life. I almost felt sorry for people who travel to McMurdo. These folks access Antarctica from New Zealand via a military cargo plane in a matter of hours. What a rude shock it must be to drop abruptly into such drastically different environments and cultures.
As Oona and I watched, the pier grew closer and closer and then the Gould turned and slowly backed into place alongside the dock. We had finally arrived, and despite my mixed feelings about the impending end of my great Antarctic adventure, I found I really was excited about going ashore.

However, we had to wait just a little longer before we could cross the gangplank, as were not allowed to leave the ship until it was safely tied up and the Chilean immigration agents arrived onboard to stamp our passports and officially grant us reentry into their country. In the meantime I amused myself by peering out the galley portholes at Punta Arenas,
and adding a Laurence M. Gould stamp to my passport alongside the ones I got at Palmer Station. I'm not entirely sure why we are allowed to have stamps from Antarctica and Antarctic research vessels, and they hold no legal significance (remember Antarctica is a whole continent ostensibly not owned by anyone). Still, I am delighted to have passport evidence of my journey.
And then, after an hour or so, we were gleefully strolling down the pier. It was time to set foot on verdant land once again and, perhaps more importantly, to get some fresh lunch!
Stepping back onto land in the midst of "The Most Austral City in the World" my first impressions were of how busy and messy everything was: visually, sonically, aromatically. After the austere, relatively spare world of Palmer Station, and the contained realm of the ship, I was suddenly affronted by too many options. Everything seemed to mirror the confused tangle of cables suspended above our heads as my friends and I wandered up Punta Arenas' sidewalks. Whereas at Palmer there had been one bumpy, gravel "road" that ran for only a couple hundred feet, here a maze of interlaced streets stretched out before me. The city's brightly painted buildings and corrugated rooftops came from a color palate that had expanded exponentially from the whites, grays and blues that dominate Antarctic landscapes. The scents of penguins and elephant seals wafting across the water from nearby islands had been replaced by diesel and gasoline fumes, scrambled restaurant food odors, and the earthy smells of things growing in dirt and a profusion of human and animal life.

As for the soundscape: well cacophony really is the appropriate word. Engines and motors of all kinds surrounded us. Everywhere I looked the world was overrun by people: chatting, arguing, laughing, coughing, and clomping. This incredible layer of "background" noise was punctuated by the occasional doorslam, tolling churchbell, or altercation between street dogs. Even after living with the blaring drone of the ship's engines for days on end this was quite overwhelming at first. Since Punta Arenas is not even all that big of a city (around 130,000 people), I wondered how I was ever going to adapt to hearing San Francisco when I arrived home.

Luckily yummy food awaited us, and the growling of my stomach soon overrode my other senses. Even though I was a vegetarian in a place where people seem to eat a lot of meat, it was thrilling to have so many food options again. And after a month away from freshies, the fact that there were whole stores full of ripe fruit and vegetables seemed nothing short of miraculous!

In the evening, after settling into our hotels, and strolling and eating our way around town (One of my friends had 3 or 4 different lunches. All afternoon he just kept moving from one excellent restaurant to the next.), Oona and I gathered for a beer with some of the researchers from the LTER cruise. Then it was off to a final dinner with our fellow Palmerites. Tomorrow many of them, including my amazing Artboat co-captain Oona, would be jetting north or heading off to other South American adventures. I, on the other hand, would be staying in town for a couple more decompression days before flying home.

I was so excited about our desserts that I couldn't resist photographing them.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Evening in the Strait of Magellan

I was thoroughly ensnared in a leather sofa and "The Lord of the Rings" when one of my birder friends rushed in the back door and excitedly announced that there was a rainbow outside. Happy to have an incentive to escape the clutches of the Gould's lounge I wrestled myself out of the sofa and climbed out onto the back deck of the ship.And there it was: a complete 180 degrees of vivid double rainbow that straddled our wake and stretched all the way across the horizon from port to starboard. We had entered the Strait of Magellan and now in the evening light I could see low-lying land on either side of us. The waters were calm and it was actually warm outside. The air was decidedly humid, something I had not experienced in 6 weeks (even right next to the sea the air in Antarctica is quite dry due to the cold temperatures), and smelled faintly of land and vegetation. We had arrived back in Patagonian summer and boy was it lovely!

As news of the rainbow traveled throughout the ship, one by one folks gathered outside on the Gould's many decks. Hermits I had not seen for days (hibernation seems to be a popular strategy for dealing with crossing the Drake) emerged and started chatting happily with their shipmates. Many of us had cameras out to photograph the rainbow, but you could only capture short segments. It was far too immense to fit even in a wide angle lens.There was a festive mood onboard and everywhere I looked people were just beaming. And why not? It was our last night on the Gould and tomorrow morning we would arrive back in port at Punta Arenas. There we would have solid ground again, beds instead of bunks, plenty of excellent restaurants to choose from (the Gould had last been supplied with fresh fruits and vegetables 6 weeks ago, and although the food onboard was OK, the vegetarian options had been less than exciting of late), and for those who like to drink, bars aplenty (the Gould is a dry ship so many folks were really looking forward to this). Some people were happy to be heading home to their families and lives in the Northern Latitudes, while others were eagerly planning adventures in Cerro Torre or other parts of Patagonia. Many of the crew would be heading back out on the Gould's next Antarctic cruise, but they were looking forward to nearly a week in port first.

To me the rainbow was a giant smile from the world. It was the perfect punctuation to mark the end of a benign crossing of the Drake, a successful journey, and a wondrous stay in Antarctica. I lingered outside, savoring the evening, as the rainbow slowly faded and a brilliant sunset took over.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Blue Skies Across the Drake

After my last glimpses of Antarctica the previous night I awoke to find that we were already in the Drake Passage. But the waters were calm, and we could see blue sky! Not wanting to jinx our crossing most folks did their best to avoid saying it out loud, but I'm sure we all thought: "boy are we lucky!" Sure, the ship still swayed and bobbed to some extent, but according to Drake veterans this was incredible. The largest swells we encountered on our journey were only about 8 feet tall. As we progressed in continued extremely fair conditions, some members of the crew began to express real concern about their next voyage. At this point they had experienced 4 or 5 benign Drake crossings in a row, so surely they were due for a really nasty one...

Emboldened by the (relatively) flat water I decided to try traveling unmedicated. On the journey down I had used a Scopolamine patch but did not like how groggy it made me. It also made it difficult to focus my eyes on a computer screen. I was hoping to work a bit on the ship on my way north so this time I opted for pressure point wrist bands instead. I admit to a few instances of queasiness: there was one meal I didn't really eat (I think I tried a little bit of rice and soy sauce, then gave up and went to lie down in my bunk. This was partially a reflection of the range of vegetarian food available at this point in the cruise. The Gould hadn't been resupplied in around 6 weeks so, aside from a few withering apples, there were no fresh vegetables or fruit to be had.) and once, with some desperation I rushed to the back deck in search of a horizon line to orient myself to and, after distancing myself from the guy who was smoking out there, I did succeed in fighting back my mild nausea. Overall, however, I am pleased to report that my inner ear did fine.

As for getting work done onboard, well, I still found it difficult. The ship's engines were too loud for me to listen back to any of my recordings. Here's what they sounded like in my sleeping quarters, and in the cargo hold (turn down your volume, this one's loud!). Furthermore, the incessent mild swaying motions of the boat were better for inducing drowsiness and lethargy than inspiring intellectual brilliance. So, like many other folks onboard, I often found myself lured into the decadent leather couches of the lounge and the seemingly endless procession of DVD movies. When I got bored with Hollywood I joined Oona on the bridge, checked out our location on the nautical chart, and chatted with whatever crew member was on watch; or I went outside on the back deck and observed the retinue of albatrosses and petrels that were escorting us north.

This time Oona and I were both quartered in a berthing van down in the cargo hold. This is literally a shipping container that has been converted into living quarters for four people. It sounds like it would be an unpleasant place to call home for five days but actually it was fine, and even had a few advantages. For example, being lower and closer to the center of the ship meant we moved around less with the waves, which was a great boon if you were feeling woozy.

The berthing van, with it's metal lockers, florescent lights and curtained bunks felt very militaristic overall, but it also had some quirky details that made me laugh. First of all, the sound of the water pump was hilarious. Every time you generated enough wastewater in the bathroom the pump would kick in, making a wah-wah sound that was the perfect response to a bad joke. This never stopped amusing me.

Instead of a porthole, we had a tv monitor that let us see what was going on in several locations outside the ship. But perhaps the most amusing feature was the emergency exit, which was in the shower!

Monday, February 2, 2009

North Through the Neumayer

After a late night of packing, moving, hot tubbing, and snowball-throwing contests I awoke in my bunk on the Gould at 6-something AM and climbed up onto the ship's decks to witness our departure from the station. Despite the early hour many of our Palmer friends were up to see the ship off and an impressive number of them jumped from the pier into the freezing cold ocean as the Gould pulled away ("Plunging" upon the Gould's departure, especially when she is traveling north, is a long-standing Palmer tradition).As we headed away from Anvers Island and the brash ice closed back in behind the ship, I silently said my goodbyes: first to the remaining Palmerites, then to the station itself, to all my favorite local islands and the creatures and sounds they hosted, to the Palmer Safe Boating Area, and finally,to the last vistas of this small piece of Antarctica I had called home.People who have spent significant time in Antarctica often say they leave a part of themselves on The Ice (which goes a long way towards explaining why so many staff, scientists, and explorers seek to return year after year). I think that you leave a part of yourself behind at the conclusion of any great adventure. For me this is usually somewhat melancholy but I am often able to temper my sadness with thoughts of visiting again someday, or dreams of my next big endeavor. Neither of these tactics were working for me now. I knew how very unlikely it was that I would ever see Palmer Station again. It's just such a remote place, with so few ways to get there. It was easy to list them all off in my head and see how implausible they were for me: cruise ship, private yacht, another grant, or a support job. Furthermore I had no idea what my next adventure would be. And even if I had had something in mind, how could I possibly top a month in Antarctica?! So it was with a real sense of loss that I stood on deck and watched this small, but incredibly rich, part of my life recede into the distance.

Fortunately it was turning out to be a beautiful fair-weather day and we were about to sail through the Neumayer, a narrow channel framed on either side by rugged peaks and glaciers. Thus it was simply not possible to remain mournful for very long. The view just became too stunning, and Antarctica herself cheered me right up with an amazing display of icy and mountainous delights.A couple of hours later we left the channel and the waters opened up into the wider Gerlache Strait, but all day long the panoramas remained phenomenal.
Sometimes in the distance it was hard to tell the difference between giant icebergs and islands.
(left big bump= iceberg, right three bumps= islands)

Eventually we left the mainland behind and aimed towards the South Shetland Islands. There, in the wee hours of the night, the Gould would be stopping to pick up some Polish geologists from Arctowski Station on King George Island. I debated whether or not I should get up at 2 AM to see this, but several jam-packed days in a row had left me completely exhausted and I concluded that a good night's sleep was more important. We'd be starting across the Drake Passage tomorrow and who knew what it might have in store for us.Before I wandered off to bed I watched my last Antarctic sunset... at least on this trip.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Closing Adventure

It was my last day at Palmer Station. I awoke to find the Laurence M. Gould tied up once again at Palmer's pier and the transfer of cargo and people already in full swing. The ship and her scientists and crew had just spent the last month cruising around the Western Antarctic Peninsula conducting research for the Long Term Ecological Research Network. You can read about their trip here. It was fun to meet up again with the ship people, who I had traveled down with, and trade our tales of adventure. I was a bit jealous when I heard how much of the peninsula they had seen and how far south the ship had ventured, but in the end I was glad to have spent my time in Antarctica getting to know one area more in depth.

Of course I had ambitious ideas about what to do with my final day on station. I dreamt of one last grand boating tour with Oona: a sunshiny beautiful day in which we would visit all our favorite islands, happen upon a large group of Humpback Whales, find E Seals vocalizing underwater, end up in just the right place to view a very large section of ice calving from the glacier, and get chased by one more Leopard Seal. But first I had a million chores to do. I needed to pack up all my gear and "samples" (the penguin bones, limpet shells and rocks I had collected to use as instruments back home), clean out my lab space and dorm room, and move all my things onto the ship. In sympathy with the tasks ahead of me, the day began snowy and windy. This was bad for my fantasy, but made the reality of working inside a little less painful.

Unfortunately packing and cleaning consumed all of my morning and most of the afternoon. In fact I was still not finished when, late in the afternoon, Oona came up to me and suggested we take a walk in the Backyard before it was time for the big pig roast/Super Bowl party scheduled to take place that evening (Being a vegetarian and not into football, on the surface I could have cared less about the party. I did, however, want the chance to hang out with my Palmer friends one last time, so I was planning on attending at least some of it.). The weather was still not great for boating so I let the last tattered remnants of my zodiac fantasy go and we headed up the rocky edge of Hero Inlet on foot.
Oona wanted to go take a closer look at the glacier arch near the head of Hero Inlet. Suddenly I realized I had not seen the arch since my very first walk in the Backyard, the day I arrived at Palmer. How was this possible? It was only a 10 minute walk away. Of course the answer was that, even within the limited area which one is allowed to explore around Palmer Station, there were still just way too many things to see, and hear, and experience, and ponder. This is even more the case once you start attending to any of the millions of minute details: the tiny crystalline fractures within a piece of melting glacier firn, changes in the sound of penguin footsteps, how the shapes of the brash ice and the rocks along the shore parallel each other, what 20-knot winds feel like against your face, and all the other particulars that define this place at this point in time.

One month was not enough. You could spend a whole lifetime here and still not really understand this tiny corner of Antarctica. I desperately wanted more time: another month, another week, even just one more sunny day. But my time was nearly up. Tonight I was going to have to cross the gangway onto the Gould and go to sleep in my new shipboard bunk. And early tomorrow morning we would pull away from the station, and begin our journey north: along the Antarctic Peninsula, across the Drake Passage and then back to Punta Arenas, Chile.

It was still grey and snowing intermittently, which echoed my melancholy mood. Oona and I scrambled along the rocks at the edge of the water: one last Palmer adventure for the two Captains (as teammates on our zodiac we had decided that we were both Captain of our little boat). The waters of the inlet were very calm, and were it not for the hum of the Gould's engines in the background, it would have been unusually quiet in this sheltered area. Across the water a couple of seals slept on granite slabs, and a cormorant wandered across our path. Near the arch several small icebergs (I think technically I should call them bergy bits) floated: crackling, clinking and clunking in the shallow, still water. The ship sounds were too loud to record anything in the air, so I dropped my hydrophones into the inlet. Here's a sample of what I heard.

Oona moved closer to examine the deep azure scallops and curves on the underside of the arch. The cormorant flew across in front of my face and splashed down into the inlet a few feet away from me. Water dripped and dribbled from the melting blue arch. And I sat and savored every last minute.