After a smooth as butter crossing across the Drake Passage and the most scenic views I’d ever seen (read and see them HERE) in my life, we arrived at Palmer Station, Antarctica which is located on the Southern tip of Anvers Island. The first thing we were greeted with after leaving the Neumayer Channel and entered into the realm of Palmer was the smell. Some complained, but others like me relished in the smell of hundreds of penguins perched upon high rocks in the heat of breeding season. Although not visible, proud parents stood guard of tiny penguin chicks on several of these rocks surrounding station. We watched a few awkward Gentoo’s and Adelie’s slide and waddle around on the rocks.
As we approached the station, we were greeted with two VERY large icebergs that were taller than the ship. In order to dock we even had to sail right next to one. We were so close you could feel the cold coming off the berg. If you had a broomstick, you could have touched it. Don’t worry – since I’m here writing this…we didn’t share the same fate as the Titanic.
Folks at Palmer Station all walked out of the station to greet us with waves, excited to meet new people and receive a shipment of goods (and freshies! Remember talking about the freshies HERE?). We arrived at station a whole half a day early which was amazing because we had more time to explore and get to know the scientists living and working there.
Palmer Station itself sits at the bottom of a very large glacier, and for those willing to make the climb – it offers the most breathtaking views of the station, Arthur Harbor, and the back side of the mountains lining the Neumayer Channel.
My inner Texan panicked at the words “glacier hike”. I’ll just preface this with the fact that everyone around me is either East Coast or used to the snow or has been coming to Antarctica for years. Then you’ve got me. Little Texas girl who has maybe seen snow three times in her life and walked in ankle deep snow once. Yet I was brave enough to go along with this glacier hiking. After asking around and gathering as much advice from the rest of the scientists on board I finally figured out what to wear, bring, etc. Dressing in a single layer of long underwear with short sleeves and yoga pants on top I was ready (it’s really not THAT cold here guys). I layered two pairs of wool socks under the world’s largest and clunkiest “hiking boots” that I obtained from gear issue back in South America. Remember the last post where we talked about gear issue being completely cleaned out by the folks on the other research vessel (if not read it HERE)? That was the case here. These boots were HUGE and HEAVY. You’ll see where this ends up in a bit.
Grabbing sunglasses and my Mahi buff (I refused to leave that at home!) I was out the door, across the gangway, and joining my lab group to go on a hike. The first portion of the hike is through what is called the “backyard” behind Palmer Station. It is a very rocky pit underneath the glacier, which can get quite slippery when covered in snow and ice. A flock of Skua (really ugly and vicious brown birds, like angry ravens) settled in the rock a few hundred feet away from us. I made sure to keep my distance because they are notorious for attacking anything in their path.
After making it out of the backyard, that is where the climb began. First we climbed over dense ice that had been carved by melting snow (remember it is summer time here). After making it through this portion of the hike, came the hard part: the white fluffy shit. As a native Texan, it is engrained in my DNA to hate the white fluffy shit that is referred to as snow. Very pretty to look at, but we are not physically adapted to handle it.
My first step into the white fluffy shit landed me knee deep. It was at this moment in time that I began to think about all those skipped gym days and how actually pushing myself on the elliptical would have been a good idea. The initial hike through this white fluffy shit was not as bad as I thought. I kept pace with my group. Then came the fall.
Those damn clunky boots, like extra lead weights strapped to my feet betrayed me on this uphill hike. I felt my ankle twist below me and then searing pain. I said a few choice words and continued to try and keep pace with my group. The effort was in vain as I was left alone to enjoy the view and endure the white fluffy shit. Mind you, this is a glacier, a nearly vertical climb upward. The promise of the view kept me going as I struggled to drag my bum ankle through the snow. With the sun shining brightly above me, I wanted to strip down to shorts and a t-shirt. I began feeling like Chevy Chase in that scene from National Lampoon’s Vacation after they had been stranded in the desert.
After arriving at the top of this glacier looking like a war torn victim with even more hate for snow…it was worth it. In combination with being out of shape and making this climb…the view completely took my breath away.
Silence. You could hear nothing. No cars, no planes above, no chatter of other human beings. Just silence until the loud rumble of thunder in the background broke this silence. We listened as we heard the wind blow around us and glaciers cave into the sea below. I have a really hard time conveying to my readers just how pristine and beautiful this place truly is. Being off of the grid for the most part has been an amazing experience. You have a lot of time to just sit back, relax, and enjoy how great life truly is.
While others hiked down the other side of the glacier (and had to eventually come back up). I opted out with my bum ankle. I also wanted a few moments alone at the top of this glacier to just sit and reflect and not think about papers, deadlines, bills to be paid, and any other daily worries. This was probably one of the healthiest moments I’ve had lately with the amount of stress I had been under the months leading up to this voyage. I was truly grateful for it and I hope that by sharing my pictures and stories that my readers can draw off some of that positive energy.
After spending some time on top of the glacier, it was time to make my way back down which was a MUCH more enjoyable experience as my back was no longer turned to the view and that I did not have to struggle through thigh deep snow on an upward incline.
Once I returned to the ship….I showered and slept because it had been quite the day. Tomorrow’s adventure? A game of speed dating (David approved).
The next morning after sleeping in (until 10 AM!) I had a late breakfast with my favorite bearded sailor and we made plans to go walk around the station for a bit and hopefully get a tour. One of my lab mates showed us around. We explored the lab areas, galley, and then were taken to the recreational building. There was a fully stocked gym, cabins where scientists stayed, a lounge with a big tv, movies, etc., a bar (woohoo!) and a deck located on the other side of the bar (with amazing views of the harbor, of course!).
The best part was a tall, slightly rickety ladder that led to a crow’s nest on top of the rec building and guess what was at the top…..EVEN MORE AMAZING VIEWS!
The folks at Palmer are truly blessed to live in such a beautiful, ever changing environment. We were showed where the store was afterwards (it only opens for a half hour at a time and usually only when there are guests in town) and a really neat closet called “SKUA” but unlike the bird, there were no surprise attacks. It is simply a closet where station off-going occupants can donate items like clothes, costumes, etc. for others to take. There is no shortage of crazy costumes in the closet. We found a mullet wig, a flamingo hat (which I took as my lucky MOCNESS costume), a mermaid tail, and a whole stack full of sweaters fit for the rack at your local Goodwill.
After a tour, we were left to explore the station on our own, which resulted in some heavy penguin stalking. Yes readers, I did squeal in delight as I saw my first Gentoo penguin up close. There was even more shrieking as I watched it awkwardly slip and fall into the ice cold water. These awkward little tuxedo chickens will quickly work their way into the hearts of whoever is watching.
For those asking me for feathers, rocks, whole penguins (greedy bunch you are) it is strictly forbidden! In order to keep this continent pristine and healthy, the Antarctic Treaty states that you’re not allowed to bring any part of it back and you’re only allowed to be within 5 meters of any animal, or farther away if their behavior becomes altered due to your presence.
A quick lunch followed, and reading a book while sitting on the deck and basking in the sunshine. We got word that the station store was set to open at 5PM for thirty minutes. Everyone impatiently waited outside as this is the one chance in the cruise to buy alcohol since we have a dry ship (all alcohol gets labeled with your name and left at the Palmer Station bar). Oh and t-shirts and all that good crap for your family, of course. Spoiler alert: You’re all getting stickers!
At 6PM we suited up to go for a zodiac (smaller, raft looking boats) ride in Arthur Harbor. Donning a couple base layers, float coat, hat, gloves, water proof pants, and boots feeling much like Ralphie’s brother from A Christmas story, we hobbled into zodiacs from the floating dock next to the ship.
Brash ice (really flaky, thinner ice) from the two icebergs that greeted us when we docked at station now littered the waters around the ship and dock. Our zodiac tore through it easily as we made our way into Arthur Harbor. We got a close up view of two different penguin colonies (and smell). After checking the penguins out and watching them awkwardly hobble and slide into the water, we cruised over to some really cool icebergs. There’s something really special about the beautiful, turquoise blue ones that just captivate everyone who visits. Iceberg blue, as I have been calling it, is one of my new favorite colors.
We were able to see a few elephant seals snoozing lazily in the late afternoon sun on some of the bergs. Our zodiac captain even brought us next to a small, rocky piece of land (located right between the two penguin colonies of course) called “Seal Island” where most of the Palmer seals could be found.
We ventured a little further into the harbor checking out some icebergs when another scientist pointed out seeing a whale surface in the distance. Excitedly we began heading towards the whale. We must have found the most curious whale in the harbor because as we headed towards him, he decided to surface within feet of our zodiac. We all screamed, some out of excitement because whales are awesome, but in my case because A) I thought that whale was going to flip our zodiac B) The water is cold as a witch’s titty and C) For the second time in the past six months, I didn’t want to pee my pants again.
Luckily another passenger in the zodiac was quick enough to take some amazing pictures of the Humpback whale, so what I’m sharing on this blog is his work, thank you to Tyler from the Ducklow lab for sharing your pictures with the rest of us and catching that beautiful moment in time!
Sorry readers, I was not brave enough to bring my camera into the zodiac (I did have my phone though). We slowly puttered around this whale for at least 30 minutes as he put on a show for us, surfacing, waving, spewing water from his blowhole. I will say it again…I am not a mammals person, but realizing how small you are next to a creature that large and beautiful…it is really a humbling experience.
We rushed back to station to change and get ready for speed dating. David approved, of course! The game was much more like speed friending, it was a great opportunity to spend 4 minutes getting to know each of the scientists and what brought them to Palmer Station. There were no fellow Texans, sadly. We had score cards to score each of our dates, either you loved them, wanted to get to know them better, meh, or disliked them. Everyone was pretty interesting and only two people got dislikes. One was a crotchety old man, and the other was a lady who said she hated all Texans and donkeys. I can’t be friends with anyone who dislikes donkeys. That’s just a deal breaker. By far my favorite “date” of the night was a guy about a foot shorter than me whose name was “Hot Mike”. Anyone who shares whiskey with me out of a nalgene sample bottle gets a heart on the speed dating score sheet.
After spending some time getting to know the Palmer Station folks, we all took our purchased booze from the Palmer Station store (they had a REALLY extensive selection) and headed to the bar. Tonight was DANCE PARTY NIGHT!
On the porch of the bar was a large block of glacier ice older than your great grandparents. Probably sounds like some fancy city slicker bar, but it was just collected from the harbor via zodiac. We all spent some time socializing and asking about research, and how the hell did you get to Antarctica and then when everyone began feeling it…the dance party began.
To be in the Steinberg Zooplankton Lab…it is a requirement that you like to dance. Our advisor, Debbie was front and center on the floor. The party continued until 12:30 when the station bar shuts down. We all walked back to the ship, admiring penguins and seals along the way. There’s something to be said about having so much fun in the most desolate place on Earth.
The next day we spent some time on deck building our MOCNESS net. MOCNESS for all my non-fisheries folk stands for multiple opening and closing net and environmental sensing system. Pretty much it’s 9 nets that are strung on a frame and a scientist at a computer tells the net when to open and close each one. It allows us to sample and catch critters at different depths. This is really useful since we usually see quite a bit of diversity between the ranges of depths. The net will also give us a read out of environmental data such as temperature and salinity (how salty the water is).
We spent our morning adding the nets to the frames and what we call the “cod” ends. It’s a PVC pipe with mesh covered holes that all the animals get collected in as we pull the net through the water. They have to be fastened to the net with clips and then…duct taped for extra security. Duct tape is a staple in our lab!
After building the MOCNESS we spent some time discussing how all of the lab work and deck work would be done and did a few mock run throughs. Believe it or not…studying the zooplankton is so much more than just putting nets in the water. It takes a team to ensure that there is a successful net tow. We have an MT (marine technician) and another lab member on deck who are responsible for putting the net in the water, making sure flowmeters (they record the total volume of water that has gone through the net) are attached, communicating with the winch operator, bridge (where the captain and mates drive the ship from), and the lab. Inside the lab is another person who must record data pertaining to the net tow such as water temperature, salinity, wind speed and direction, sea ice coverage and wave height, GPS coordinates, time, specific tow and event numbers, and much more. Communication between all the parties via ship radio is key in this whole process! Not to mention in the rolling seas the deck is a VERY dangerous place. It can be slippery, objects such as weights, nets, frames, etc. can cause operators to trip. The ship has a large gate at the stern which opens up so nets can be deployed. A steep drop leads to the abyss below which on average is about 3000 feet deep (Usually it ranges from 600-9000 feet deep). A fall into this water would kill you within minutes as hypothermia and shock set in. However, if you’re working deploying nets (which I do most of the time!) you have to be tethered to the ship with a safety line that prevents you from falling overboard. The part that concerns me the most is that the nets are made with large, steel frames. A simple miscalculation by the winch operator or shift in the wind could cause the net to knock out or crush a person to death. A hydraulic A-frame at the stern aids the winch in lowering these nets into the water. You’re probably realizing by now just how large they are….they have radii of ~3 feet and ~6 feet and are probably about 30-50 feet long. I’ll stop here with describing the logistics…for more info you’ll have to read my next few posts about life on the ship and doing science at sea!
After building nets and getting some lab work done before leaving port (guys I actually science-d INSIDE the Palmer Station lab!) I decided to take a much needed nap after dinner. When I woke up, I realized I had missed trivia night at the station. I did happen to catch a great photo of an oddly shaped iceberg.
Early the next morning we pulled away from the station. I was nervous at the fact that the real deal was about to begin. I had already shared a week’s worth of time with all the experts on this boat…and now it was time to perform.
Keep it classy, friends. Until next time.
–The Girl with the Big Bass