Cape Crozier was the location of the largest Adelie colony that we would visit this season, with about half a million penguins! We went to Cape Crozier with the plan that we would be going there for 3 day trips (which ended up getting scratched). We could have stayed there in the hut, but it was being closed up for the season, and it would have been easier just to fly in every day. The weather there is notoriously swift to change from good to bad, and there was a large chance that we would have to stay there anyways for an indeterminate amount of time (which I would have been just fine with!). But, just like the rest of the season, the weather cooperated perfectly, and we got in and out as planned.
view from the helo flying in
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.
Beaufort Island as seen from Cape Bird
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 mighty icebreaker Oden!
*Since, for some reason, this is my most popular post, I have decided to update it as well as write additional information for those of you interested in the animals of Antarctica!*
Contrary to the extreme conditions in Antarctica, there is an abundance of life on the continent, most of it relying heavily on the Southern Ocean’s high productivity (thus there is higher biodiversity along the coast). Nonetheless, there are very few animals which spend their entire lives on the main land. The largest purely terrestrial animal in Antarctica is the flightless midge (Belgica antarctica), which reaches an impressive 0.5 inches in size. The snow petrel (Pagodroma nivea) is one of only three birds that breed exclusively in Antarctica. The Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is the only penguin that breeds during the winter in Antarctica (because it is too large to cram its breeding cycle into the brief polar summer), while the Adelie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) breeds (in the early summer months) further south than any other penguin.
The Southern Ocean is vitally important in the entire Antarctic food web, the base of which is phytoplankton. Feeding directly on the phytoplankton is krill – generally a broad collective term applying to 85 or so species of small shrimp-like crustaceans (order Eucarida). Of special interest is the Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), which can reach 10,000 – 30,000 individual animals per cubic meter.
The most important animal in Antarctica