The weather has not been cooperating (bad weather in the Antarctic: Who’d a thunk it?). But finally, a break, allowing the flight with the rest of our cargo (well, most of it anyways) and, more importantly, the rest of our B-267 team to fly in. Kaitlin (a rookie like me) and Luis (an expert seal wrangler on his 7th Antarctic deployment) will need to go through all the trainings Allyson and I already wrapped up. The better weather also allows us to go for a test-run on our skidoos. Great photo-op (Picture 1: Allyson on the sea ice with Erebus volcano in the background) but, for me at least, an important test for my ECW gear (as I would find out later, almost perfect doesn’t cut it). I also learn how to use the skidoo Premix fuel drum (nick-named “Juliette”; there also is a “Romeo”) located at the Land-to-Sea Ice Transition without spilling (it takes two people to do it right) and to hail McMurdo Communications Operations (MacOps) on my VHF radio.
Leaving town requires us to check-out, providing MacOps with the number of “souls” in the party, skidoo numbers, destination, a point of contact (POC) on the base, and our ETR (estimated time of return) back in town. Missing our ETR or failing to inform MacOps of our safe return would automatically and within minutes mobilize a massive rescue effort. Nice to know rescue teams would come looking for us but better not to activate the emergency plan needlessly. The next few days (sunny but with very windy with extreme wind chill factor) are spent completing the setup of our lab, and meetings with our team to fine-tune our plans to collect the samples we need.
Weddell seals, Emperor Penguins, and frost bite
We catch a glimpse of our first Weddell seal closer to “home” than I expected. On a Sunday afternoon stroll to Hut Point (Picture 2), we spot four large Weddell seals. Of the west side of Ross Island, the wind is whipping but the well-insulated seals are basking in the sun without a care in the world. Weddell seals (and penguins) don’t have to worry about predators (at least when they are on land or ice), and it shows.
Hut Point is the site of Robert Falcon Scott’s “Discovery Hut”. The structure (Picture 3, Discovery hut with McMurdo in the background) turned out to be too draughty and cold to be used as living quarters, so the explorers preferred to live and work aboard their ship, the Discovery, as it was frozen into the sea ice. Discovery Hut was used as a storehouse during Scotts 1901-1904 Discovery expedition), and also during subsequent expeditions, including Ernest Shackleton’s 1907–09 British Antarctic Expedition, the ill-fated 1910-13 Terra Nova Expedition (Scott and his team died on the return journey from South pole), and the 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
And then, finally, on Wednesday October 14th, the conditions are acceptable to go out for a more elaborate reconnaissance north of McMurdo to the Dellbridge Islands (Little Razorback, Big Razorback, Inaccessible Island and Tent Islands, where we eventually will have our camp). Getting out there is quite the undertaking (see Blog of Luis for details ). We also arrange to meet Ben from FS&T at the edge of the Sea ice to review safety concerns related to working closer to open water. That edge is ~2 miles further south than usual, and we are curious to see how that affects the location of the Weddell seals this season.
It takes ~30 min to skidoo from town to the Islands via the Cape Evans route past the EGT. Long enough, as it turns out, to cause frostnip, a mild form of frostbite, on my exposed cheek. I am wearing a full-face helmet, but felt a little bit of a draft driving out of town (with the winds coming off Arrival Heights on Hut Point Peninsula). The danger with freezing cold is that it numbs the part of your body that is actually freezing. Luckily, at out first stop close to the Tent-EGT crack, Kaitlin noticed on a noticeable white spot on my cheek. I could not feel myself touching it and quickly adjusted my headgear (added a balaclava that covered my cheeks) to prevent further freezing; we always carry survival bags with extra clothing as a precaution. Unlike frostbite, frostnip doesn’t permanently damage the skin. It does leave me with a noticeable blister on my face.
Cameras also don’t like the extreme cold temperatures. The only way to get them to work is to keep them warm: I ended up removing the battery from my camera and storing it in my glove and keeping the Go-Pro in the inside pocket of Big Red. Still, I could only take a few pictures or 4-second videos at a time before the cameras would power down again. Despite the discomforts associated with the cold, our 7-hour outing on the ice was incredible (I wish my family could see this). We ran into curious Emperor penguins (Picture 4, penguins checking out our skidoos), saw many Weddell seals (Picture 5, NMF permit #19439, ACA permit #2016-005), and visited the edge of the sea ice (Picture 6), Barne Glacier (Picture 7, Weddell seals resting at the foot of Barne glacier), and Scott’s “Terra Nova Hut” erected in 1911 at Cape Evans and home base to his fatal expedition to the Pole (Picture 8: Allyson, Kaitlin, and Luis at Scott’s hut with smoking Erebus in the background). In this case, pictures really are worth more than a thousand words.