I am writing this Blog on board of a Safair L-100 that is taking us on a 7.5 hour flight from the Pegasus Ice runway (10 miles from McMurdo and about to be decommissioned as the new Phoenix runway is activated) to Christchurch, New Zealand.
Leaving the ice this year was complicated. We were originally scheduled to fly out on November 29th. On the 28th, just hours before we were supposed to “bag drag” (dropping off all luggage so the load planners can palletize the cargo, weighing in, passport check), we received word that the Kiwi C-130 Herc was stuck in Christchurch for repairs, resulting in a 48 hour mechanical delay.
To complicate matters more, a med-evac from South Pole delayed other flights scheduled to leave Antarctica (so no chance of catching another flight). Next, there was a weather delay (wind and low clouds), resulting in the cancellation of the incoming Kiwi flight from Christchurch that would fly us to Christchurch.
So by the 30th, we were scheduled to bag drag at 8pm on December 1st. But then the South Africans came to the rescue and we were “rebooked” on the Safair L-100 for December 1st; so bag drag was moved up again to the 30th (yikes, we had to pack quickly!). Then on the 1st, we were scheduled for transport out of McMurdo to Pegasus at 4pm.
By the time we walked up to the pick-up location, transport time had been pushed back, first to 4:30pm and then to 6:30pm due to yet another med-evac from South Pole. Our flight would wait for the South Pole flight to come in and take the patient to Christchurch. We eventually made it to the ice runway in the big-wheeled Kress by 7:30pm; only to be told that we would be delayed further.
A little bit after 8pm, an ambulance arrived with the patient (turned out to be Buzz Aldrin; I briefly saw him as I entered the plane but we all respected his privacy and did not bother him). Once he was on board, the rest of us were allowed onto the plane and we finally were wheels up by 9:10pm for a long, cold, noisy flight. I forgot to bring extra drinks and got really thirsty; luckily Luis had an extra apple. Best apple ever! We landed in Christchurch (in the dark and in the rain, both for the first time in 40 days) at 4:40am. Immigration and the biosecurity check lines (bringing an apple would result in a $400 fine) luckily were short so we were in our hotel by 5:30am. Only 32 more travel hours and ~11500 more miles to fly (CHC-SYD-DFW-BOS) before we get home.
Our troubles getting out of McMurdo are in sharp contrast to the success of our second (and last) field season. As a more experienced crew (Kaitlin and I were rookies no more), we were firing on all cylinders. Conditions were perfect too: we were only “weathered in” (when weather is too poor/dangerous to venture out onto the sea ice) for a couple of days (last year, the weather and the wind were working against us the entire season). In all, we managed to collect and process 14 very fresh placentas, collect biopsies/draw blood from 6 adults and 6 pups, and necropsy 2 adults and 5 pups.
Our samples are of even better quality than last year, and we are confident that we will be able to address our hypothesis once we get the samples back to Boston for processing. We already had great success growing endothelial cells, smooth muscle cells, skeletal muscle cells, skin fibroblasts, and some keratinocytes. During the last week of our deployment, we kept roaming the different seal colonies to find more dead animals. We had our eyes (and those of our friends from B-292 and B-009) on a couple of abandoned seal pups but they either disappeared (likely fell into a crack while looking for mom) or found an adoptive mom (very unusual and often resulting in both mom, pup, and adopted pup dying; a mom spends incredible amounts of energy feeding her pup; pups grow quickly over the course of 3-4 weeks due to mom’s high fat content milk; one mom usually only has enough milk for one pup).
My favorite success story was the little seal pup we initially found abandoned at Turtle Rock early November (tag# Charlie 6004). For the next couple of days, the pup’s condition was deteriorating; until he found a new mom. He did fine for a few days but then disappeared; only to reappear at Hutton Cliffs (a couple of miles away; he must have “walked”) with a different mom 2 weeks later. Curious to see whether he survives.
The last couple of days in McM were spent preparing to send samples home, arranging science cargo, returning field gear to the Berg Field Center or “BFC”, cleaning up the lab and saying goodbye to the wonderful people we got to know so well over the course of 6 weeks in McM. There are some things that I will not miss: putting the cover over skidoos when parking them at the VXE6 sea ice transition; static electricity (we all got zapped so many times I started to develop PTSD every time I needed to touch a doorknob or faucet); putting on all the ECW when getting ready to go out on the sea ice; galley food (the cooks, some of which we became friends with, do a magnificent job with what is available but there is only so much they can do; Thanksgiving dinner was incredible; 24/7 pizza was awesome too).
There is so much more that I will miss though: first and foremost, McM is populated with incredible people, both grantees and contractors/support staff. We had so much fun with so many of them (both out in the field and in town; you know who you are!!); skidooing on the frozen sea ice (we did 1800 km this season) is as wicked cool as it sounds; working with Weddell seals was a privilege; visiting the huts from the early discoverers (Shackleton and Scott) was humbling; encountering penguins on the sea ice and seeing/smelling/hearing them in their Cape Royds colony was other-worldly; just being able to see the amazing landscapes would have been worth the long trip.
I kept asking myself (and others): who gets to do this? And lastly, I will miss working with the incredible team that is B-267. We worked hard but also had a lot of laughs. As Allyson said, after some field seasons, you can’t wait to get away from the people you were cooped up with (both at work and during free time). This was not that season.
So there you have it. I have had the amazing privilege to spend 17 weeks in Antarctica over the past 14 months. The next chapter in this project will be written in the lab back in Boston. I am not sure that I will ever make it back to the ice, so I left McM with mixed feelings: happy to head home, sad to leave that magical place behind. But I am grateful to have had the opportunity to join the ranks of the Antarctic explorers, even if our “expedition” was infinitely more comfortable than Scott’s coldest march: I often wondered what he would think were he to stumble into the current-day McMurdo.
We will keep blogging about our Antarctic adventures; in the next blog, I’ll touch upon the visit to McM of Secretary of State John Kerry.
Don’t forget to follow us on Luis’s blog and our Instagram. Also: check out the blog of Maris, a Boston-based writer and illustrator of science comics who is visiting McM to work on her nonfiction comic book about Antarctica (and who happened to have been sitting right next to us at the world oceans day event at the NeAq last May; it’s a small world!!)
Manu for Team B267
NMFS permit 19439; ACA permit 2016-005
Photo’s by Manu Buys, Jenny Cunningham, Danny Uhlmann