Encounters Waay Down Under (Antarctica)

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Southern Elephant Seal: Happy or mad to see me? 

An elephant seal sent me a signal with his own particular eloquence.


Hitchhiking Penguin

While we were out on a Zodiac earlier this week, a chinstrap decided he'd had enough swimming and wanted a free ride.

The video was shot by Chris Schvarcz, a doctoral student at the University of Hawaii who's here at Palmer Station researching the role viruses play in the marine ecosystem along the western peninsula.



Palmer Station: Swimming in Science, Mystery and Sleeplessness 

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!

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Palmer Research Station: Full of Cool Science, and Wicked Winds

Greetings from Palmer Research Station, where I arrived on the LM Gould Monday afternoon--in tact, without any signs of seasickness. Although I did wonder if the teeter-totter gyrations of the boat would hurl me and my bunkbed into the ocean.

The station is a nondescript (shall we say post-industrial construction site architecture?) cluster of functional buildings on a modest plot of rocky outcropping. But it boasts the most stunning backyard and frontyard views I've ever seen: icebergs and small rocky islands in the foreground, and the majestic Marr glacier towering behind the station. See the photo of Monday night's psychedelic sunset glow on the glacier. I gazed at the glacier from the deck of the one bar here while getting to know some of the members of this Palmer "family." At least it feels like they're all relatives. Many return year after year for months at a time.

It was a rare calm and semi-clear day and night. Tuesday was more typical. 45-mph gusts might whisk the white caps into my dorm room any minute. The snow petrels seems to love the gusts; they're dancing over the ocean offshore.

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Almost there!

I'm nearing the end of a four-day voyage across the Magellan Strait and through the tumultuous Drake Passage.  The old salts on board are telling us greenhorns that the Drake was a millpond compared to some trips they’ve been on.  I’m counting my lucky stars.  Now we’re slowly navigating the Gerlache Strait, with the Western Antarctic Peninsula on our left and outer islands on our right. We'll land on Anvers Island, the home of Palmer Research Station.  A couple of humpback whales were frolicking off the starboard bow a little while ago.

The land/seascape is stunning -- a continuous iceberg sculpture garden in front with some jagged mountains ripping into the horizon behind.  I'll update once we're situated at Palmer and I have Net access. It feels like I'm in a cathedral when standing on the deck soaking up the vastness, the white (there must be many shades of white; there sure are many names for different classifications of sea ice and icebergs, which I'll explore later). And the silence.  Except for the constant drone of the LM Gould's engine.  I expect I’ll be waddling like a penguin for the first few hours back on land as I lose my sea legs.

I wish you were here! I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving!