It would appear that I’ve been delinquent. I have no excuse, after all, for not writing since I arrived a week ago at Palmer Station, located toward the northern tip of the crooked finger of Antarctica’s western peninsula. After all, the sun hardly sets, so who needs to sleep? In fact, it’s damn hard to sleep, not only because you’re swathed in the most stunning sunsets most nights (officially it sets now at 11:20 p.m., but it really just dips coyly behind the mountainous Wauwermann Islands for a short while, offering a starless, pre-twilight hue until it pops back up again a few inches to the left).
In fact I got about two hours sleep last night/this morning, attempting to write a blog (for OnEarth magazine: www.onearth.org/author/smoran) and prerecord an interview for Tuesday’s (tomorrow) radio show in Boulder (tune in to KGNU's “How On Earth” science show, at 8:35 – 9:00 a.m. MT) to hear my interview with Alex Culley, a microbial oceanographer, who’ll intrigue you with tales of the mysterious and possibly critical role viruses play in the marine food web and the impact climate change is having on everything—from the invisible microbes to the charismatic Adelie penguins and giant humpback whales.
Also, follow my and two other journalists’ meanderings –- and fabulous bird and other photos--on the blog of Chris Neill, a senior scientist at Marine Biological Laboratory. He’s our principle investigator and science tutor (or task master) during this MBL-funded science journalism fellowship. (http://palmerstation.wordpress.com/)
The highlight of my week so far: rolling overboard from a Zodiac on Saturday to learn how to be rescued from the 32-degrees Fah (give or take a degree) Southern Ocean off of Palmer. I could feel coolness, but not the cold, of the frigid water that I bobbed in. But when water licked my ear and trickled down my neck thanks to having forgotten to tightly zip the face wrap, let’s say that was refreshing!
For this entry, I’ll mostly let the photos speak for themselves. They’re a collage of the serious and funny life I'm tasting here for 16 days. I'm stalking scientists as they conduct an audacious ocean acidification experiment. I'm studying how a warming climate is changing the composition of phytoplankton and other critical foodstuffs of the Southern Ocean. And I hope to soon count Adelie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins to look for evidence of change in their numbers (some on the decline, some on the rise--sort of) and eating habits.
Here are some photos taken today on Torgersen Island near Palmer. (Which could be the chinstrap?)
And here's the Adelie penguin, guarding its egg.
And a lumbering Southern elephant seal, seemingly oblivious of the human visitors.
The scatologist in me loved coming across Kaycee Ducklow in a bird lab as she was dissecting the poop of skua (a bully of a gull-like bird that steals and eats penguin eggs right from under nesting adults). She picked out fish ear bones, technically called an otoliths, which grow in onion-like layers. The bones are used like tree rings to decipher the age of fish.
And I can tell already that I’ll miss the people here perhaps as much as the Marr Ice Piedmont glacier in our backyard—the frequent roaring sound of its calving (it’s a bitter-sweet feelin, as the glacier has receded dramatically in the last couple decades), as well as it’s ever-changing hue. Only 40-plus people live here, in two buildings (though some folks camp on the glacier). It feels like co-housing, and makes me all the more tempted to live more like this (then again, I’m not living here for six months). It feels like my family vacation at Monterey Dunes over Thanksgiving: 25-ish of us packed into three condos on the beach for four days. At Palmer you can find grad students huddled in a lab downstairs at 4 a.m. filtering water, or running sample solutions. You’ll also find people letting loose in the bar, or the outside hottub, or in the lounge watching True Blood, a Kung Fu movie (a weekly Sunday afternoon tradition) or another movie while munching on home-made popcorn.
This beloved luxury, the hottub, somehow has escaped me. Not for long, I hope.
And then there’s the escape from lab and field work too—like the mustache party (some tradition, apparently) last Saturday. Researchers letting loose at the mustache party. You should see the warehouse here at Palmer-chock full of costume wigs, body paint, cowboy hats, pink lace bras, crayons--plenty to pick from.
And finally, something on the whiteboard in the vestibule downstairs. It illustrates the quirky-brainy-heartful spirit of Palmer. Or just spring-to-summer fever.
Stay tuned for more to come. But first, sleep. Note: As I write I'm looking out the window onto Arthur Harbor, which is filling up with elegant puzzle chunks of brash ice that's flowing with the current from Marr glacier. A Southern elephant seal has caught a free ride on one of the chunks and is slowly but steadily drifting westward...into the sunset.