Yesterday was a very exciting day – one of the highlights of this entire trip, and a new experience altogether! It was our highly-anticipated trip to Beaufort Island, which could only be reached by the Swedish icebreaker Oden. For our team, it was a chance to sample some very old penguin colonies. In fact, the oldest penguin molt layer was discovered there by Dr. Emslie 5 years ago. He collected feather and bone from this exposed layer on the northern end of the island, which turned out to be too old for radio-carbon dating – meaning that the remains were over 44,000 years old!
Beaufort Island was visible during our stay at Cape Bird. However, NSF helicopters cannot reach it because there is an expanse of open water, which they are not allowed to fly over (because in the case of an emergency, it would mean certain death). In 2005, when USAP had Coast Guard helicopters at McMurdo, flying to Beaufort Island was not a problem. But the Coast Guard helicopters are no longer coming down to McMurdo (they were extracted because they were needed for Iraq). So the only way to reach it now is by icebreaker, which limits field time severely (we were given a maximum of 3-4 hours on the island). It really is too bad, because Beaufort Island is a treasure-trove of paleoecological data, and has been studied very little to date.
So, Friday morning I woke up at 5 am to make it to the lab before our pick-up time of 5:45 am. The van came on time and delivered us, as well as Dr. Ainley’s team, and a couple of artists (a husband and wife) to the dock. There were 12 of us – 10 scientists and 2 artists. I was surprised, because I thought that many more scientists would be going. But it was only a select group. In fact, I almost wasn’t allowed to go – they would only allow 4 people from each team, and of course, I would have gotten left out. It might have had to do with the fact that Beaufort Island is another ASPA (Antarctic Specially Protected Area) and you need a permit to visit it (although every field site we visit is an ASPA because of the colonies). But Dr. Emslie wrote to the captain, asking that they allow me on as well. They said I could come along for the ride, with the exception that I would not be able to go out to the island (although once I was on the ship, they did agree to let me go…after all, how could they resist the charm of a young, aspiring scientist?)…I just am so happy that in the end, I got to participate despite the obstacles.
The trip out to Beaufort Island was about 5 hours. As we left McMurdo Sound, we travelled along the channel in the sea ice that the Oden had worked so laboriously to carve out a couple of weeks prior. Although we weren’t breaking through the older, thicker sea ice, the channel had begun to ice back over, and there were lots of lingering big chunks of ice that made it impassable for anything but an icebreaker. It was quite an experience to feel the ship charge down the channel, feeling and hearing her get buffeted by oversized icecubes. Standing at the prow I had the instinct to brace for the impending collisions, but running them over was as smooth as could be. From the sides, you could watch the huge pieces come emerging from beneath the ship and it was quite dramatic!
When we first got onto the ship, we were given a safety tour, including the exposure suits that we would have to put on in the case of an emergency. He showed us the ship’s SOS beacon, but didn’t neglect to say that there would be nobody listening – we were on the only ship in hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles. They had two lifeboats of an interesting variety – at first glance I thought that they were bathyscapes. As lifeboats, they are designed to be able to roll around in rough polar seas, and encapsulated to provide some shelter from extreme cold. He said that one of them could hold 46 people, which I just could not believe, given the small size of it. Dr. Emslie said that being in one would be enough to wish you were dead, because the motion sickness, rolling, and cramped quarters would be unbearable!
After the brief tour, we sat down in the lounge to wait for breakfast which would be served at 7:30 am. It was delightful! After weeks of McMurdo food (especially breakfast), it was so refreshing to eat a true European breakfast. There was even lingonberry juice! And the most delicious Swedish cheese! I was so delighted that I had to take a picture to share my enthusiasm. 🙂
After breakfast, I went out to the deck to see if there were any whales, since we had broken out of most of the ice and there was enough open water on one side of the channel. Sure enough, within 10 minutes, I saw (closer than ever before) a pod of orcas! They were the “type C” orcas – smaller in size, slanted eye patch, and darker saddle – the “fish eaters”.
Afterwards, I joined the others in exploring the ship for a bit – they let us roam anywhere we wanted, even to the bridge (which was quite a climb to get to, on the 6th deck). The ship was nice – it had polished wooden floorboards and accents, the bathrooms were clean, the inside of the ship even smelled slightly perfumed. There were four nice lounge areas with comfortable couches – one was for smoking, and another had a bar in it. They even had a small movie theater, with raised seating and a projector.
The Oden was running with a skeleton crew of about 15. It was pretty quiet onboard for such a large ship. But the people (all men, except for the cook) whom we did meet all spoke English impeccably. They all spoke it with perfect accent (a few even without any discernable accent!), grammar, and pronunciation (except for “jacket”, they said “yacket”:)). They spoke English better than many Americans.
I mentioned that part of the 12 person group were two artists. They were a husband and wife team (Eric Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff) from NYC that applied for the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. They won the grant (out of hundreds of applicants) to come down here for two weeks to produce art centered around Antarctica. Eric Sanko is a marionette-maker, musician, and Jessica is a set designer, but also independently produces her own art. I was intrigued when I watched Eric pull out his marionette of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, and learned that their art project was to revolve around Shackleton’s voyages. I went to their website, and this is what is described as “The Shackleton Project”:
The Shackleton Project is a series of dynamic tableaux vivants inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Co-conceived by The Phantom Limb Company and The Kronos Quartet, this narrative installation-in-motion melds theatrical performance, puppetry, photography, and film with original contemporary music and an unconventional acoustic palette to create a stunning — and unprecedented — artistic and emotional journey. PLC’s The Shackleton Project aims to bring the unknown Antarctica to an audience, reinvigorating the spirit of foregoing individual glory for the sake of collective survival. Ancient and universal themes including the price of knowledge, the inevitability of adversity and struggle, and ultimately, the power of endurance and camaraderie provide emotional ballast with re-interpretations that resonate powerfully in twenty-first century hearts and minds...
I think it sounds pretty awesome! And seeing some of the work they’ve done from their website, I know it’ll be good. Jessica said that it would be installed October 2011, so I guess we’ve all got to wait some time to see it.
Around 12 pm, we finally arrived as close to Beaufort Island as the ship would go. The teams would be ferried to the island by boat. Dr. Ainley needed to go to the colony to band Adelie chicks (at the south end) but Dr. Emslie would have liked to have gone to the north end of the island to sample the oldest sediments. Unfortunately, despite the beautiful, clear weather, the captain did not want to take anyone to the north end, presumably because it would have required more time (although only an additional hour or so). This was rather unfair because after all, the ship was contracted by NSF and should be serving science wherever it needs to happen. Anyways, in the end everyone got dropped off at the south-western end. Dr. Ainley’s group (and myself) stayed where we got dropped off, at Cadwalader Beach (which is a raised beach – marking where sea level has dropped from previous times).
I asked to help Dr. Ainley’s team band chicks since Dr. Emslie didn’t really need my help. I was excited about the prospect of getting to handle the penguins, which was another new experience for me since our team doesn’t work hands-on with the birds. Even though I had some experience banding birds before (passerines), penguins are a different story, so I mainly recorded data and helped move out pre-banded and undersized chicks from the sample. The whole process was fun to watch. Dr. Ainley had two V-shaped fences, which two people each carried and closed in on a crèche of chicks, like pincers. The little birds were trapped in the square. The first step was to remove any adults (who protested loudly at this kind of treatment), then any pre-banded chicks, and any chicks that were too small to band (because they weren’t going to survive the coming winter). Then, the three banders moved in and started banding. For the first 35 chicks, band numbers, weight, and flipper length were recorded. This was to collect data on growth, relative age, and size of the chicks. After the initial sample set, the goal was to band 400 chicks (the rest were just banded, with no measurements collected). This data-less banding was to track exactly where the birds dispersed. From the band numbers, they will be able to tell in the future where the chicks came from, where they went, and what year.
It took the team about 2.5 hours to band the 400 chicks. After we finished, Dr. Ainley hailed the ship. We walked further down the beach to a washed-up ice block to use as a stepping stone onto the boat. Dr. Emslie and Larry had spent their time excavating the sediments (and collecting eggshells) of the southern end, and came back to the ship on the second boat trip. Dr. Smykla also collected lots of samples, as Beaufort Island has the most continuous and extensive area of mosses in the McMurdo Sound area.
After everyone made it back to the ship, we departed, all wishing that we could have stayed longer on the island. But the trip back was 6 hours, and it was already after 4 pm. So we left with longing in our hearts. Dinner was at 5:30 pm, and so everyone gathered around the bar to drink a Swedish beer or two. Everyone was pretty tired after the field work, and after the dinner (which was satisfyingly delicious) everyone spread throughout the lounges and took a nap. I woke up to the sound of ice hitting the ship’s hull, which meant that we were already back near the sea ice channel. I jumped up and ran outside to look for more whales…and soon enough, there they were – this time Minke whales. They are very hard to take pictures of because of their elusive nature. I have never seen their heads lift out of the water like the orcas’ do, and so all my Minke pictures consist of their small dorsal fin.
The trip back was sad – although we had spent so many hours on the ship already, I wished we had many more. It was such a beautiful way to travel throughout Antarctica – right on the mysterious Southern Ocean. In a perfect universe, we would have been able to live on the ship for a few days, which would allow so much more time on Beaufort Island for scientific discovery! But alas…we returned to McMurdo (and reality) at 11 pm, as the Antarctic sun shone brightly down in the night.