Puny Humans: A Brief Field Study of the Species in the Wild

You may have noticed that, while I do go on and on about ice and volcanoes and benthic biology, I have said very little about the people here at McMurdo.

Well, that is about to change.

Werner Herzog did a movie a few years ago about life here, and people down here seem to love it or hate it. (The opinions are either “he captured what a crazy place this is” or “he spent two hours mocking good people.”) I haven’t seen it, and don’t intend to, because I’m living it… why bother seeing it through the eyes of a stranger who, at the end of the day, has made his movie to make money and advance his own standing? Werner is not thinking about my needs.

Anyway… I can’t comment on the film, but I can say that the Antarctic human community is one of the most interesting I’ve experienced. A lot of people work the Antarctic summer, kick around Vietnam or Bhutan or some random island in the Pacific after they get off the ice and then head up to Alaska or Greenland to work the Artic summer before returning to here the following season, usually by way of Australia or Chile or some other exotic locale.

Even the first-timers like me have seen a chunk of the world, or done some pretty interesting things before they get here. One guy taught himself Ancient Greek (how well is another matter… who is there to call him out on incorrect grammar?). One woman was the first to travel across the US on a unicycle. Another did the notoriously difficult Pacific Coast Trail on her own, as well as the Appalachian Trail.

It’s the kind of place where you can walk around in your pajamas, or shorts, or fantastically mismatched clothing and no one raises an eyebrow. People shave their heads (or some part thereof), color their hair fluorescent or grow tremendous bushy beards and don’t even get a second glance. Heading to the bathroom for my shower, I am as likely to see a guy in full Extreme Cold Weather gear, stomping down the hall in his boots, as I am to see a guy in nothing but a towel, clutching a bar of soap, flip-flops slapping as he makes his way towards his daily ablutions.

In short, it is the kind of place where you can take up the width of a hallway working on a pair of wings and no one thinks this odd.

I have always wanted wings. Not the kind that a certain popular energy drink allegedly gives you (though the one time I tried it all I got was nausea). Not frilly, fluffy angel wings. Certainly not lame glittery Mariah Carey-esque butterfly wings. I always wanted enormous bat wings. Big, taloned, frightful wings. Like the fell beasts in Lord of the Rings. Like a dragon. Like Chernabog.

I never thought I’d get them in Antarctica.

The Halloween party at McMurdo is reportedly the event of the year. In our orientation papers, bringing a Halloween costume was number two on the “don’t forget” list, ahead of bringing sunscreen and a way to contact your loved ones back in the States (“don’t forget your passport” was the only thing that trumped it). As the days ticked down to my most favoritest day of the year, people worked frantically in the craft room, scoured Skua* and plotted the finer points of their costume.

*”Skua” is the name of a very large, notoriously aggressive scavenger bird in these parts. It’s like an albatross gone bad. It’s also the name of the random buckets, barrels and a ragged room up on the hill where people leave stuff they don’t want anymore for others to take as needed.

I had brought my costume with me, but decided last week that I needed bat wings. I didn’t just want them. I needed them. One black plastic garbage bag, seven wire hangers, half a roll of electrical tape, a bit of hand sewing and one Skua’ed elastic exercise band later, I had my dream.

Bat Girl/Devil/Vampire/Succubus/Butterfly from Hell takes flight... 11 pm local time

The party itself was very McMurdo, capturing the free-wheeling strangeness of it all in a way that I dare Mr. Herzog to better. My friend Larry came as Lady Gaga in one of her more notorious costumes (the one that’s “caution” tape… and nothing else). Another guy I know came dressed in safety gear (and nothing else… do you see a theme?). My buddy Richard came as Skua Man, creating his entire ensemble out of stuff he found in Skua.

Behold, Skua Man!

The music was good, a lot of people were into dancing, the decorations were fun and the costumes creative… there were even special effects, Antarctica-style.

When I walked in, I said loud enough for the firefighters stationed near the door to hear “wow, they have a dry ice machine?” They gave me a look that said “Aw, FNGy”* and one explained “No. The hot, moist air inside meeting the cold, dry air outside is creating the fog.”

Oh. Human swamp meets subzero Antarctic outdoors. I get it.

(*FNGy, pronounced “FIN-gee”, is short for F’ing New Guy/Girl down here.)

Dry Ice Machine, McMurdo style (note fog... it was hard to capture in a photo)

The actual space (it was held in our “big gym,” about the size of a modest high school gym) was getting pretty hot and crowded, so I found an empty corner where I could dance and people watch as I pleased.

A few action shots:

My favorite costume of the evening... Wesley won for "best Antarctic theme"... he is dressed as Ob Hill, complete with the switchbacked trail to the summit and, difficult to see in this photo, the summit cross (on his head)

Two more great costumes... the chick on the left is a jellyfish. The paper lantern on her head blinked on and off, simulating biolumenscence. The guy in the middle is a pee bottle. When you're out and about in the field and nature calls, you must answer that call in an environmentally sensitive manner.

Gavin showed up as PPE man (Personal Protective Equipment) wearing safety gear and nothing else. Well, he did sport a pair of underwear, which I suppose is it's own kind of PPE.

Larry was not wearing PPE.

Larry and I strike a pose, Lady Gaga-style

Then there was… The Wall.

The gym is rectangular. The entrance is on a short wall, and the cash bar is on the opposite short wall. The DJ and stage took up one of the long walls, and the center was filled with people dancing. So to get to the bar, or even from one side of the dance area to the other, you had to walk along the other long wall.

And that was where they stood.

About 40 of them. Men. Nearly all in their 40s and 50s. None of them in costume. None of them dancing or even toe-tapping. All of them in jeans, usually with a needlessly large belt buckle, and a Manly Logo t-shirt advertising MARINES, Harley-Davidson or something to do with bowhunting or fishing. All of them standing with one hand in their pocket or fingers tucked into their belt, the other holding a beer. All of them with the same unsmiling, vaguely predatory expression. Not predatory in a truly scary way, but more like a rat dog straining at its leash and barking at you, one that makes you want to say “really?”

I thought, for a moment, well, maybe they are in costume. Maybe one of them rounded up his buddies and said “Dudes, let’s go as a Gauntlet of Uninspired, Slightly Creepy but Ultimately Insipid Middle-Aged Dudes.”

Nah, I’m overthinking it.

I found The Wall fascinating in the same way I found my visits to strip clubs in Vegas fascinating. Girls, if you want some insightful people-watching, go to a strip club. Guys, I’d tell you the same thing but suspect most of you would be easily distracted, and your wallets quickly emptied.

In fact, the guys in The Wall had the same look and body language as the guys in the strip club, standing with chests puffed out, trying to make their jaws look as square as possible, keeping their affect as flat as a sociopath on Law and Order, all in some kind of weird “I’m a hunter. Really. Seriously. Don’t I look like a hunter?” kind of way.

Some women who noticed them found them “intimidating.” One used the word “sad.” I dunno. They certainly weren’t intimidating (after all, I could kill any of them with my thumb, let us not forget). And I wouldn’t say “sad,” since that implies a level of emotional investment on my part. I was trying to think of the word… “pathetic” again seems too strong. Ridiculous? Nah. They were too uninteresting to rise to the level of being ridicule-worthy.

Whatever word means “I looked at them and shrugged and thought ‘really? Is that the best you could come up with?'” yeah, that’s the word I mean.


Because I had pulled away from the herd (I needed space to dance, which is probably what the poor wildebeest is thinking moments before the pride of lions sets upon it), a few of them identified me as prey.

Never before have I felt more like a Seal Cam Decoy.

Wait, let me explain.

My thoughts strayed to Shark Week. (This should come as no surprise, since, regardless of topic, my thoughts eventually stray to Shark Week.) One of my favorite shows was a few years ago, when researchers built a foam seal decoy and installed a camera that faced down. Towing the decoy on the surface at seal speed, they were able to film the approach of Great White Sharks (the results were particularly fantastic because these were the Great Whites off the coast of Capetown, South Africa, that breach the water). Every single shark hit the decoy the same way, like a rocket from directly below.

And every single dude from The Wall had the same approach, either coming up from the 4 o’clock/5 o’clock or 7 o’clock/8 o’clock angle, putting his hand on the small of my back just as he came into my peripheral vision and leaning in to murmur Something Lame.

As in:

“Hey, little devil, dancing all alone… you need a partner.”

“You look like a hell of a good time.”

And so on.

Interestingly, in my field study in Vegas, I noticed the men there approached the dancers the same way, from the same angle, with the same body language.

Again, I just wanted to say “Really? Is that your best?”

It reminded me of my Irish flatmate, when I lived in Newfoundland, going to the pub with me and, after surveying the men around us, slamming the table and exclaiming “where’s the talent? Where’s the talent?!?”


Anyway, I tried to be polite because this is a small community and you never know who will be the guy who is the only mechanic who knows how to fix a crucial piece of workplace equipment. So I took my leave mostly gently, saying “I need to go to the bathroom,” “I want to look at the dry ice machine,” or “I think that’s my roommate vomiting in the corner, I should help her” – except for one particularly odious guy whom I told “I’m going to talk to someone I like now” – and I walked away.

Perhaps this is why I am still single.

I didn’t drink at all, and left around midnight because I had to work early the next morning. It was certainly a fun and interesting night and I’m glad I went. The highlight, aside from my wings (which did not, alas, survive, crippled by the dance floor crush), was talking to an astronomer who launches telescopes by balloons that rise to 120,000 feet above the earth, above 99.8% of the atmosphere, to search for stars being born.

He wasn’t in costume, either. In fact, he was wearing jeans, one hand holding a beer and the other in his pocket. He had a logo t-shirt on, too, though in his case it showed the progression of a Tyrannosaurus Rex to the smaller but still vicious velociraptor to the dinosaur-bird link Archeopteryx to a bird to a Thanksgiving turkey on a platter, underneath all of which was printed “Evolution Kills.”

He approached me from the front. His ice breaker, deadpanned, was “So… you’re supposed to be a butterfly, right?”

That, gentlemen, is how it’s done.

(Postscript for those of you hopeful about my social life… I saw him the next night at the science lecture – more on that hour of awesomeness in a future post – and, taking in my appearance without makeup or red wig, he ran away, though it’s all good… he was too young for me anyway.)


6 thoughts on “Puny Humans: A Brief Field Study of the Species in the Wild

  1. G, I adore you! You look badass in that costume. Party looks and sounds fun, except for the Wall. Fabulous costume (love the pee bottle). And erm, Gavin looks yummy scrumboes.

  2. OK, I *must* see that Herzog movie now! What’s it called? (btw, I think any given Herzog movie inspires either love or hate from anyone, and nothing in between. He’s a madman, but sometimes he’s brilliant. And that voice!)

    More important, you look *fabulous*!! love the wings!

    • thanks! The Herzog film is something like “At the Bottom of the World” or “End of the World”… and I disagree with you about loving or hating his stuff. I recommend “Grizzly Man” to a lot of people with the caveat “I can’t say I liked it, but I think it’s worth seeing.” Let me know what you think of it if you do see it!

      • Just coming back to this to get that title, and I have to say you surprised me about Grizzly Man. You’re about the only person I know who didn’t either love or hate it (although the “love” comes in the intellectualized form of “this is fascinating and I can’t stop thinking about it and you should see it,” which is a little closer to your response, rather than “this film fills me with joy,” which is the more common kind of “I loved that movie” kind of love). But the haters are fierce. And sometimes they’re the same people who loved other Herzog films.

        Btw, have you seen that YouTube video of a very good Herzog impersonator reading Curious George? Hilarious!

  3. I love your costume! and I have to say…I’m really excited that you have a craft room there. Does Antarctica need an art therapist?

    how much longer are you there?

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