Thursday, January 14, 2010

On the Ice

I finally made it to the ice! After an exhausting few days of traveling, biding time and being rushed and frustrated, I truly made it. Yesterday was one of the craziest days I've probably ever had. It started at my 4:30 am wake-up call in Christchurch. But alas, our plane was delayed a couple hours so I managed some more real sleep. When it came time to get to the airport, everything went smoothly, but it still took a couple hours to check-in, load our luggage and board the plane. The ride was 5 hours in a C-17, but what an experience. All of our luggage and cargo was palleted and bolted to the center floor... the passengers were just a second thought. And it was so loud that we had to wear earplugs. At least it was heated! And we got a cute little bag lunch from the army guys. Once arriving, we were herded off the plane and kinda just all stood around amazed at the whiteness and beauty. Well, that's what I did for sure. There was a nice view of Mt. Erebus from the Pegasus runway where we landed. Standing off to the side was a huge orange track vehicle called "Ivan the terror bus," though it looked a good deal more like a tank than a bus. We all climbed aboard and started the 45 minute ride to the station. And something unbelievable happened! We saw a group of Emperor penguins huddled by the road!! The driver slowed but kept going, since we're not supposed to disturb the wildlife. First stop was Scott station where we let all the Kiwis off. This is one of New Zealand's bases. Then we reached McMurdo! It's nestled right in the cliffs of a big hill of black volcanic rock. This being summer, all the roads up there are bare, crushed rock - no snow. I got a briefing, picked up sheets and got my room assignment. I was first assigned to what I soon realized was a boy's room - oh no! But then I got it straightened out, and ended up being with four other very nice ladies. I hung out with one of them at dinner (more about the bad food later) and then we decided to head out on a mini-hike. We had spotted a point out past the base that looked like it had a good view, so we headed over. It turned out to be Hut Point, named after the hut nearby that Robert Scott and his team built when he came here exploring in 1901, pushing to make it to the South Pole. He and his men later disappeared and there is a cross on the highest part of the point to commemorate their fate. Guess what we saw from the peak? More penguins! This time they were Adelie penguins, which are much smaller than Emperors but very cute and playful. There were two of them and they were frolicking around on some ice chunks, diving and then popping up on the ice again. So cute! We also spotted a seal way off, bobbing his head up and down. Maybe he was stuck and couldn't find a way back out to sea, since most of the place was solid ice, with only patches of water here and there.

Place where the seal was hanging out

Exhausted & exhilarated, I fell into bed at 11pm with the sunshine at full speed outside. Good thing my room doesn't have any windows! It's pure pitch dark in there. The next day, my colleague and I went around doing errands like getting HF radios and checking in with our Point of Contact guy. Later in the morning, we arranged a ride out to the LDB (long duration balloon) site where our instrument building is located. We don't actually have anything to do with balloons. Our observatory is strictly to study magnetic and auroral data, but it's out at the same site. After a quick lunch at the galley out there (which has waaaay better food than the main station, so I'm glad we'll be out there most days!), we decided to tag along as some of the guys took a truck out to see the nesting Emperors that we saw on the way from the plane the day before. When we found them, we got out and the four of us got within just a few meters before they started reacting to us. That's the sign you should back off.

Penguins seem like little people in penguin suits!

Penguins are really quite amiable about humans gawking. Sometimes they even try to come over and investigate because they're so curious. No wonder they and the seals and the whales were all hunted like crazy! Poor things. They were pretty magnificent. I never thought I would actually get that close to an Emperor penguin. It's stupid, but I felt like I was in March of the Penguins, seeing these amazing guys up so close.

I like how the penguins look like explorers claiming the land

Enough excitement for my first 24 hours in Antarctica? I think so. Tonight I'm truly, utterly exhausted. I really need sleep & rest or I'm gonna drive myself into the ground. I'm just waiting for a free dryer and when that's done... off to sleep!

{actual posting date: Thursday, January 14th}

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