Friday, January 12, 2007

Midnight Penguins

The sense of anticipation as the C17 prepared for landing near McMurdo base was palpable. It wasn't possible to see outside the plane, or to tell exactly how close we were to the ice. For those of us visiting Antarctica for the first time, our descent to the ice was illustrated purely in imagination. I had no idea what the ice landscape would be like. Would there be rocks? Buildings? Animals? What would the weather be like? Would the cold be immediately overwhelming?

We landed after a long descent at the Pegasus ice runway, a good ways from McMurdo base. Stepping out of the C17, I barely noticed the cold. But I was almost paralyzed by how beautiful it was. The weather was cloudy, and there were mountains in the distance that were covered in snow. Everything glowed with soft blue light, and the vast expanses of ice stretching into the distance were otherworldly and awesome.

The McMurdo team meeting our arrival barked to us to get into a vehicle to be transported to the base. I needed the reminder, or I would have stood there, awe-struck, until the cold
started to sink in. We crowded into an array of transport vehicles with huge wheels and took off for the station. The ride was at least a half of an hour, and I could barely see where we were going for all the fog and ice on the windows. Finally, we arrived at McMurdo station.

The local time was close to Midnight, although it was still bright outside. Because our flight was delayed so late, the McMurdo crew greeted us in the galley with a specially prepared meal ("Midrats" - the midnight meal for a station operating on 24 hours), which was very welcome. By the time we had eaten and settled into our rooms, it was past 1 in the morning. I felt exhausted and disoriented by the bright sun outside. But sometime during the meal, we'd caught a rumor that there might be some penguins close to Hut Point, which is where the original hut used by Antarctic Explorer Robert Scott still stands. Curiosity easily won over exhaustion,and I was giddy to go explore. John Carlstrom agreed to show me where to go, so we set out to walk to the point to visit the penguins. It was extremely quiet, except for the hum of the McMurdo generators and the sound of the icebreaker out in the bay, steadily crushing the ice to prepare a passageway for two large cargo ships that arrive every Summer. And it was stunningly gorgeous.

When we got to hut point and walked over to the other side, facing out in the direction of the open sea, we were indeed rewarded with penguins. There was just a small group of them, resting on the ice in the distance, joined by a few fat seals not far away. Even though they were tiny (barely visible as black dots in the photo), they were unmistakeable. In the far distance, wecould see a second icebreaker also working through the night. I felt profoundly fortunate to
be there. Penguins, within my first few hours on the ice!
Before heading back to the station, John and I and our colleagues Erik Leitch and Martin Leuker stood on the point for a long time and watched the icebreaker Odin performing its slow labors in the bay. First it would back up, then it would ram itself up and onto a patch of ice, lubricating its way with a spray of water. Then the weight of the ship would crush the ice with a muted but sustained chorus of crunches. It was windy and cold and bright, and in the far distance we could just make out the shape of the C17 on the Pegasus runway across the ice. John was especially fascinated, and I think he could have stood there the entire night just watching the icebreaker make its way. I felt exhilerated but also humbled somehow.



Blogger D said...

It all looks so awesome. Thanks for the blog journal and for taking us along on this wonderful adventure. We feel like we're there with you. D.

12:38 PM  
Blogger D said...

As I read your accounts I am so riveted that I am mentally transported from my warm spot in the USA to the magical frontier of the SP. M

2:57 PM  
Blogger cristi said...

residential stair lift

4:11 PM  
Blogger ANDREL said...

I read the article and remembered my ice trips 30 years ago. Only it was on the other side of the globe, the Arctic. I was a apprentice on the icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsin. The same Sun that did not disappear for weeks. Only instead of penguins, polar bears were. Unforgetable memories!!

3:28 AM  
Blogger Nsways said...

Wow!! it looks amazing there. It must have been so sereal being in an atmosphear like that. The pictures look cool, looking forward to some more of your posts but I might stay away from the cold my self =P

- Nick

7:27 PM  
Blogger freesat_news said...

glorious pictures - looks absolutely stunning out there! Thanks

1:16 AM  

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