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.

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