Going Gently Into That Good Night: Summer Wrap-Up

Yes, I’ve been neglecting the blog, but in my defense there’s been a lot going on here. Tomorrow morning, weather permitting, the final flight of the season will touch down from Christchurch, drop off our last mail delivery until August and pick up a couple folks, then take off again. Once it leaves, that’s that. The skies will be silent for more than five months.

A shot of our annual vessel delivery, which happened in mid-February

The skua have already left town. The penguins are returning to the water and heading to rookeries north of here as soon as they’re done molting. About 150 of us puny humans are staying.

No one else will arrive. None of us will leave. We’re all hunkering down for the long winter ahead.

The last “official” flight was at the end of February. Tomorrow’s flight is for the fuelies, who have spent the last week picking up the fuel line that, in summer, runs about 14 miles from McMurdo out to Pegasus runway, built on the Ross Ice Shelf. Already, mobile outbuildings, set on sledges, have been dragged back to town and put in winter storage, along with assorted snowmobiles and other vehicles.

I’ve been busy adjusting to a new schedule (the morning shift, 4:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.), a new job, several new co-workers and, most deliciously, quite frankly, a room all to myself. I stayed in my old room but broke down the other three beds once my roommates left and shoved all the pieces in a corner behind the wardrobes. It is fabulous to have enough room to do my Pilates in the morning. It is fabulous to turn on the light when I wake up or come home from work (when I had roommates, due to different shifts, one or more of us was always sleeping, or trying to, when others were stirring). And, not to overshare or anything, but it is beyond fabulous to be able to watch Anderson Cooper in my underwear.

Hey, don’t judge.

My new roommate! After the roommate I called The Unabomber had a bit of a breakdown and moved out, taking her humidifier with her (drat!), I ordered this guy from Amazon. I named him Smaug. You can't really see in the photo but yes, the mist comes out of his head like smoke. So cool. (Note: the booze all belongs to my favorite roommate Natalie, who gifted it to me when she left. And there it still sits.)

The light, by the way, has been fading with incredible speed. Our first sunset since October was on February 20 and lasted about 15 minutes. Since then, we have gained almost eight hours of darkness. Even at the height of day, the sun is low in the sky and the light is sharply angled. Not that we’ve seen that much light. After a few weeks of nearly all the sea ice melting away and McMurdo looking like a proper harbortown, winter weather returned. It’s cold, it’s windy, and every so often Mother Nature just dumps snow down on us.

McMurdo at noon or thereabouts, late February

The last few “official” flights were delayed, in fact, because just as Christchurch was getting rocked with an earthquake, we were getting slammed with a blizzard. It took us longer to dig out the runway than it took CHC airport to get operational.

Here’s a bit of footage of people bag-dragging. “Bag drag” happens the day before your flight, when you schlep your luggage up the hill to the ATO folks who palletize everything for loading on the C17s. You have to weigh your bags and then, embarrassingly, you have to get on the scale so they know exactly how much the plane’s load will be.

Usually people walk their stuff to bag-drag, as the building is up a hill but only a city block away. On this Condition 2 day, however, with near-zero visibility (the ATO building couldn’t be seen at all), most people opted to put their stuff on a shuttle van that drove them the couple hundred feet.

No one associated with the USAP (United States Antarctic Program) in Christchurch was injured or killed in the quake, by the way, but it doesn’t make the devastation any less horrible. In footage of the city’s central business district, I noticed the statue of Robert Falcon Scott, the one I found so evocative while on R&R in January, had toppled. It can be righted easily enough, but the people, livelihoods and entire neighborhoods lost, ah, not so much.

When I transit through Christchurch again, at the end of winter, I plan on doing what I can to help the city’s economic recovery. And if that means blowing my entire bonus at Lush, well, so be it. I’m willing to make that sacrifice.

But before then, as this post’s subject line suggests, I have some odds and ends to report:

– In the SCIENCE! category, a few of us nightworkers got a tour of some of the usually off-limits special areas around town where scientists are conducting an assortment of experiments, including one that measures lightning strikes all around the world (crazy to think it can be done from here, but it’s actually easier to do it from down here than from an urban area which has a lot more “noise” in every sense of the word.)

Science in action! The continent's oldest and longest-running science experiment is... uhm... a total snooze. Sensitive tubes inside the boxes are recording how much radiation hits them from the sun. Yeah. Through the building. It's been going on for more than 40 years and no one seems to know what to do with it.

A few weeks later, the Palmer research vessel pulled up to our ice pier which is, yes, an actual ice pier. It’s a giant floating ice cube. A few of us got to tour the Palmer, too, which was memorable to me mostly for its enormous bridge. You could have aerobics classes in there.

The Palmer at the ice pier

A somewhat artsier shot of the Palmer as we prepare to board. Arr!

They may not look like much, but the white tubes are water sample collectors dropped overboard at specific intervals as the Palmer covers the Southern Ocean in a grid-like pattern to measure changes in temperature, composition and other science-y stuff

The Palmer's spacious bridge

Sure, the sun's out, but note the thick ice clinging to the Palmer's deck

From the deck of the Palmer, open water and fog beyond it. Two months ago, that stretch of water was covered in sea ice and C17s were landing on it. No, really.

– Penguins!! Yes, there have been a ton of penguins about the past few weeks, molting all over the Hut Point area. All of them are Adelies. Like Emperors, when they molt, getting a shiny new set of feathers for the coming year, they have to stay on land because, for the molting period, they are not insulated and would freeze to death if they went in the water. This means they can’t hunt for fish. As penguins lack opposable thumbs, they are also not able to call for takeout on their mobile phones. So, before they molt, they fatten up, sometimes gaining as much as 60% more weight. Then they come ashore and look miserable for several days until the molting process is over.

These guys were right on the edge of the road. A day later, I walked back down to check out their progress and headed down nearer to the water’s edge, where I met some of their friends.

What stood out to me watching both the above video and the one below was how well it captured not just how gosh-darn adorable the Adelies are, but also how windy it was. Yeah, it was a bit brutal crouching down on the rough volcanic rock, feeling my fingers and nose going numb despite being dressed for the cold.

Hey, it’s a harsh continent.

Here’s a panorama of penguins and open water, and the Hut Point Ridge that you may recall from earlier photos…

Can you get enough of penguins? I can’t. (Ignore the puny human conversation between me and a woman who wandered up the trail behind me and wouldn’t stop talking):

And finally, a few more shots of penguins and open water, the last I’ll see of both for a good long while:

A few days after the Palmer left, the sea ice broke apart even more and chunks of it began floating past us like mini-icebergs

Looking north... look at all that water!! When I arrived in August the sea ice extended from the same point more than 500 miles northward.

Iceberg, dead ahead! Yes, in the above photos, the big things on the horizon are proper icebergs that have calved from any one of the many glaciers feeding into the Ross Sea.

Another shot of the sea ice that broke up a couple miles closer to the ice shelf and drifted out past us, northward.

Tracks of penguin and people outside Scott's Hut at Hut Point

Grumpy molting Adelie penguins

The day before, this water was crowded with the table-like chunks of sea ice. Two days after this photo was taken, it was iced over again. Probably till next summer.

Hut Point Ridge and open water... beautiful.

Mob of Molting Pengies

I love this photo because it shows tracks of penguins sliding on their bellies, looping around looking for a comfy spot to molt.

Scientists aren't sure if molting hurts, but they believe it is, at the very least, no fun at all. I feel for these guys, especially the one that buried its head in the snow. We all have bad hair days, little fella. It'll be okay.


2 thoughts on “Going Gently Into That Good Night: Summer Wrap-Up

  1. Thanks for the updates, Gemma. Love the penguin videos. I have been showing your blog posts to the kids. They love ’em. They did a unit on penguins at school, so this is really timely. Will wants to try to build one of the vehicles from your earlier posts out of Legos. Stay safe!

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