Well, okay. Just a little. Nothing quite Nobel-worthy, but still.
I got to go out on a field trip to Cape Evans, a historic cape about 12 historic miles north of McMurdo with another of Scott’s historic huts which is probably filled with all sorts of historical stuff.
Alas, this was not a historical expedition. Plus, there was a BBC film crew milling all about there so we couldn’t check out the hut enroute to our destination. The best I could do was a single photograph from some distance.
Yet I bear this burden gladly in the name of SCIENCE.
I was offered the opportunity to accompany one of the marine biologists (he’s actually a marine ecologist) to the cape to get a daily water sample and also to retrieve some sea urchins that divers who’d been there earlier in the day had netted for us and left in the water.
As we left the base, we had to check out by radio. I love that here you have to say the number in your party as “souls on board,” as in, “three souls on board.” There is something deliciously old-timey about that. It makes me feel, in a corny way, closer to Shackleton and Scott and other men who didn’t wash much because they were too busy discovering stuff and being all historical.
It’s a bumpy hour-plus trip from the base to the dive hut at the cape on a good day. And today was not a good day.
This being my day off, the weather was surly. It was cloudy to start with, but once we got out on the sea ice the gloom drew closer and the wind really picked up.
Yes. Sea ice. The road to Cape Evans is seasonal, open only during a brief window of time between winter’s ferocity and summer’s thaw, and it runs entirely on sea ice. I asked Paul the marine ecologist how thick the ice was, expecting him to say several meters, because whenever the ice drilling scientists do a presentation they do go on and on about all the meters they had to bore through and the drill bits required, etc.
“Oh, it’s pretty thick out here,” he said. “Maybe 20, 30 inches.”
Okay, turns out that’s thick enough for airplanes to land on, and there were just three of us in a wee Piston Bully, but still. It doesn’t sound like much when it’s all that’s separating you from fathoms of below-freezing sea water.
The weather was truly angry for much of the trip out there, with such bad visibility that Paul had to drive from flag to flag along the route. Unfortunately, we missed most of the spectacular scenery, including views of Mt. Erebus and the Erebus Ice Tongue, a glacier-like flow of ice that snakes down the volcano’s side and extends a long ways into the water.
We also, alas, did not see any penguins. Though we did see, from a distance, several Weddell seals, most likely females who are waiting to pup.
The blowing snow calmed down a bit as we neared the cape. We saw two black flags crossed by the side of the road about then, and I asked Paul if it was a crevasse… at the Outdoor Safety Lecture I had to attend way back in August, they told us black flags meant dangerdangerdanger, usually a crevasse.
In this case, however, the flags marked a breathing hole carved out and maintained, for the exclusive use of himself and his harem, by a rather feisty male seal. While we peered into the hole from as near as we dare get, I noticed lots of blood on the snow nearby, most likely the aftermath of a territorial spat with another seal.
Big Daddy Seal never showed his face, or even his snout, so we continued onward, past Tent Island and Inaccessible Island, which I think would make an excellent lair for an evil genius mastermind. I’m just sayin’. Here and there we saw tiny warming huts and tents, field camps for the scientists who catch fish or tag seal pups. We passed the seal pup taggers who were out and about on their snowmobiles, but otherwise saw no one.
I know I’ve gone on and on about the vastness of the place, the beautiful emptiness, the sense that it will never be anything but wild and undeveloped and inhospitable (please let that be so). Today offered more of the same feeling, though every day is different and lovely in its own bleak, special way.
We made a brief detour so the two non-scientist souls on board (that would be me and a co-worker, Jessica) could take pictures of a giant iceberg that ran aground last summer and was then iced-in over the winter. The sky to the north was distinctly darker, but no real cause for worry. Paul explained that a dark sky just meant open water… the sky around McMurdo, when it’s cloudy, is almost always a bright white because the little light that does filter through reflects off the sea ice and Ross Ice Shelf.
We bumped over an alarmingly wide crack in the sea ice (about a foot wide and stretching all the way from the Barne Glacier to the horizon) that Paul said was okay because “we knew about it. It’s the ones we don’t know about that are a concern.” Then we puttered past Scott’s hut and the yellow tents of the BBC film crew before arriving at the dive hut, similar to an icefishing shack.
The divers were just leaving, heading to their next site. As Jessica and I entered the tiny space, Paul told us whatever we did, do not jump or step over the dive hole. And there it was.
An enormous gaping hole in the ice, open to the sea water, the sea floor bottom, some 80 feet down, clearly visible. Wow.
Paul prepped his water sample kit, which allows him to take water from a specific level of the sound. Someone from his team troops out every day in the Piston Bully, a four-hour round-trip, just to do this. They’re doing an experiment that involves capturing, fertilizing sea urchins and raising the larva in water controlled for different levels of both carbon dioxide and acidity. The idea is to be able to figure out how sea urchins, on one of the lower rungs of the marine food chain, might handle the growing acidification of the oceans. Sampling the water in which the urchins are captured is important for control group purposes.
Jessica got to help Paul lower and then pull up the water sampler. And then it was my turn to Officially Advance Science. When Paul pulled up the netted bags full of sea urchins and unclipped the carabiners from the dive line, I got to reach for them and put them gently in a large cooler he’d just filled with sea water.
I am proud to say I didn’t drop the netted bags into the dive hole, which would have upset me greatly and set Science back at least half a nanosecond.
Jessica and I also helped Paul carry the coolers full of sea urchins and water samples back to the Piston Bully (cutest extreme weather vehicle ever) and then from there, once back at McMurdo, to the lab and the tank of sea water waiting for them.
Of course, immediately after arriving back at base, the skies cleared and it became unbearably nice out, with fantastic visibility.
Yeah, well, maybe I didn’t get great postcard-worthy photos, but I did take an active (if small) part in helping scientists figure out what climate change may mean to the oceans and the creatures that live there.
Fare thee well, little sea urchins. Go forth and multiply.