Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Penguins, again.

Whenever I'm talking to anyone back in the states and mention that I'm in Antarctica, the first question is usual something about polar bears. The second question, inevitably, is along the lines of "Do you have penguins there?"

During the winter, "Maybe" was the best answer I could give. We saw some, but they were fairly few and far between. But now, spring is here, and the silly creatures are coming back. In force. It would be fair to say that we're almost over-run with penguins.

In less then three weeks, we've gone from being exited if we saw five, to being almost indifferent to them. When we're out boating, it's a case of "Oh, yeah, there's a few hundred penguins over there. Meh."

One of the problems with penguins, though, is that they've lived for a long time in an environment with relatively few sea-based predators, and almost no land-based ones. To them, being on land is their safe zone. It doesn't seem to occur to them to be afraid of anything on land. They're a bit skittish, as most birds are, but they seem to regard humans and our detritus as oddities, and maybe even slight curiosities.

That is to say, they wander around our station like they own the place.



And according to the ACA (Antarctic Conservation Act), they do.



So they wander around station at will, sliding down rocks and poking at anything that tweaks their interest.



I wonder if he thought he was going to fix the cables or something?  Like most animals, they explore the world and everything around them with their mouth, not having hands.  So while it does look funny, them pecking at something is just their way of trying to figure out what it is, and  if they can eat it.





When they start wandering around the station's road (we only have one.  If you could call it a road) and pier, inevitably there's going to be a few of us out there taking pictures of them.  And they seem to view us with the same sort of bemusement that we view them with.  By official rule, we have to stay at least 15 feet away from them, unless they approach us.  In which case, as long as we don't antagonize or provoke them, we don't have to actively try and get out of their way.



And that means that they get absurdly close to us.  And I'm the idiot sitting there with a long telephoto lens when these guys are just a few feet away.



These are Gentoo penguins, significantly smaller then the Emperor or King penguins that live farther south, and in the areas around McMurdo. 



Penguins have recently been pretty popular in the last few years in pop culture.  March of the Penguins, Happy Feet being the big two penguin-focused movies.  But of all the various portrayals of penguins in the media, I'd have to say that the penguins in "Madagascar" are probably the closest to reality.  Not that penguins are actually para-military, but that they're just a little bit psychotic, and it seems like they're always scheming or planning something.  They'll be standing around looking bored, and then all of the sudden they'll start squawking loudly and running around, and all head off in one seemingly random direction, then abruptly stopping again to stand around and poop.



They really are that goofy.  They look absolutely ridiculous waddling around, they frequently fall flat onto their faces, either on accident or just so they can toboggan along on their belly.  They're not like cats, where they do something incredibly silly, then immediately stand up and shrug it off and pretend it never happened.  

No, they seem to be perfectly content being really strange little creatures.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Prints for sale!

(This may, or may not, be influenced by the release of this.)

Over the last couple of months, I've had people ask me how or where they could get an actual print of some of the photos I've shown. And while this whole concept of an actual hard copy is quite foreign to someone raised on digital like me, I've finally gotten around to setting up an online ordering site, which can be found here:

http://backprint.com/antarctica

I've uploaded a small selection of my images to the site already, but if you're looking through my blog archives and see a specific image that you'd really like a print of, just leave me a comment or send me an e-mail, and I can get it uploaded ASAP.

The prints are good quality, and have a variety of different finishing and framing options, if you were interested. If you wanted any of these in an ultra-high-quality art print, send me a note and I could set it up (costs for these large, archival-quality prints can often run over $100, though).

So take a look through the site, let me know what you think, and thanks for reading :)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

WTF Moments

When you're driving a zodiac boat through large swells, weaving in between bergy-bits and full-sized icebergs, pushing through brash ice and trying to stay warm, you don't have time to think about how strange it is that you're in Antarctica.

When you're wandering around on the islands around station, and a group of penguins waddle up to you, squawk curiously, and waddle off, you don't think about how strange it is that you're in Antarctica. You're too obsessed with the cute and silly.

During the workday, when you're walking around station fixing things that are broken, or preventing things from breaking, you're mostly just thinking about how long it is until lunch, or if the weather will be nice enough to go boating after work, or just hoping that the wind doesn't pick up.

When you're trying to walk from building to building in 60mph winds with frozen sea spray getting ground into your skin, it's pretty obvious that you're in Antarctica, and you don't really think about it, you're too busy holding onto the railings and trying not to get blown away.

The times that it hits you, really hits you that "This is nuts, I'm in Antarctica" is at the most mundane and random times. When you're walking up the stairs. When you're sitting on the toilet. When you're standing in line for dinner. When you're just laying in bed at night. The more typical and generic the task that you're doing is, the more likely that something taps you on the inside of your head and says "Hey! You're in Antarctica! What the heck are you doing in Antarctica?" It's when you're doing the most normal things, in the most abnormal environment, that you just notice everything. The wear patterns on the floors where so many other slightly toasty and bewildered people have walked, that one little bolt on the Bio-Lab stairs that isn't quite straight, the clean and almost clinical cleanliness of GWR vs the older, but slightly homier feel of Bio-lab.

It's those little things, tiny things, that make me sit back and realize how lucky I am, and how strange this all is.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I can't be toast yet! I've still got four months to go!

A few days ago, I was sitting down at dinner, trying to cut my chicken breast, and was very confused at why the heck my knife wasn't cutting through this damn thing.

Then I realized I was holding a spoon.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Toast

Toast           Listen to the pronunciation of 1toast
Pronunciation:\ˈtōst\
Function: verb
Etymology: Middle English tosten, from Anglo-French toster, from Late Latin tostare to roast, from Latin tostus, past participle of torrēre to dry, parch — more at thirst
Date: 14th century
transitive verb

1
: to warm thoroughly
2
: to make (as bread) crisp, hot, and brown by heat
3: the unique sort of insanity caused by spending far too much time in Antarctia

Being toast, toasty, toasted, or however you want to put it, is at it's core an extreme version of cabin fever. It's a very special version if it, though, and while it manifests itself differently in all people, there are a lot of fairly universal symptoms.

In all reality, we don't have as much of a problem with it here at Palmer as they do at the other US stations, McMurdo and South Pole. We have monthly resupply ships that bring in freshies, and contact with other humans outside of the 20-40 that we're locked up with here on station. And in the summer, cruise ships stop by, giving us a break from the day-to-day of work, and interaction with people who somehow manage to exist in the real world.

The other two stations, though, are cut off for the winters with no physical contact with the outside world. McMurdo is usually open for 6 months of the year, but South Pole can only be accessed for about 4 months per year, sometimes even less. So people doing a winter there are mostly locked in a single building for 8 months on end, with the same 50 people. It's dark for six months (well, twilight for two, fully dark for four), the freshies run out after a few weeks, it's -80F outside, you have very slow internet for only 12 hours per day.


It gets to people.

You just end up getting more and more removed from the world, and living deeper and deeper in your own head. People end up walking around in sort of a perpetual daze, like they never really wake up in the morning. If you've ever had the strange experience of pulling into your driveway when getting home from work and realizing that you don't remember actually driving home, you know the basics of the feeling.  Now stretch it out so that it lasts for weeks at a time, and that's the epitomy of toast.


People have described in to me as that you don't have the ability to concentrate on very much. If you're lucky, you'll have just enough concentration to get your job done, but after that, you just don't notice the world around you.

A few years ago at Pole, a bunch of guys buzzed another guys head in his sleep as a prank, and he didn't notice it until someone pointed it out to him . . . three days later. There's a myriad of other stories like that, people completely disconnecting. People walking into the wrong bedroom, undressing and going to sleep in it, not noticing that it's not actually their room. People going to the galley, eating lunch, but if you grabbed them walking out and ask them what they just ate, they'd not be able to tell you, if they could recall eating at all. Someone here related a personal experience to me of simply not being able to remember anything he'd done for days at a time when he was wintering at Pole.

Toastieness can get worse. Very frequently, I'm told, you'll see people randomly start crying, sometimes mid-sentence, for no particular reason at all. There's plenty of stories of random people walking into the galley, getting a plate of food, sitting down alone at a table . . . and just sitting there for half an hour quietly crying, not touching their food. When lunch is over, they get up, take their untouched plate of food to the garbage, and go back to work.

It can also give people a very quick temper. A majority of the emergency medevacs from McMurdo and Pole over the winters are injuries due to fights; our current doctor here on station has worked a while at Pole, and had a number of broken jaws, hands, and a lot of other fight-related injuries. There's more stories then I could remember of people completely flying off the handle for the most comically minor of reasons, like the cook putting too much cheese in the lasagna or something.

Some of the more extreme cases of toast would be hilarious if they weren't so indicative of something really wrong in these people's brains.

The most famous incident was a couple years ago at McMurdo, when a guy bashed in the heads of two other guys with a hammer. A few people here with me at Palmer now were at McMurdo when it happened, and while the back story is complicated, it wasn't a drunken brawl or something like that. This guy had just been here WAY too long, had been trying to leave for a while, but was in a fairly important roll and they didn't want to do without him. As a result of this incident, there were rules put in place stating that if someone wants to leave, you HAVE to let them, ASAP, no exceptions. But this guy simply walked into housewares, checked out a hammer, walked into the gally, gave each of these other two guys a good swing to the head . . . walked back to housewares, and turned the hammer back in.  The guys he attacked with the hammer both survived, and he's doing time in Hawaii last I heard. 


There's been quite a few people who've tried to leave Pole mid-winter. Keep in mind that South Pole is something like 750 miles away from McMurdo, it's frequently nudging -100F and it's the most desolate area on the planet.  Trying to make your own way out from Pole is not a decision that a sane mind makes

A few years ago, one guy decided that he had to leave Pole and tried to ski to McMurdo with nothing but a tent and some Hersheys bars. He made it 11 miles before people realized he was missing. Pole is completely flat for 500 miles in all directions, so all they had to do was go up onto the roof and look, and say "Oh, over there". He'd set up his tent to take a nap in, they went out on snowmobiles and brought him back to station.

One guy did try to leave on a snowmobile. He just strapped a couple jerry cans to the back, and left. He didn't dress properly, though, and kept getting cold, so he had to stop every so often to warm his hands back up, that was how they were able to catch up to him and bring him back.

Will I be that crazy by the time I get out of here? Probably not, but depending on who you talk to, I was crazy to begin with. But you could say that about almost everyone on station right now.

I think it's why we're all here.
And here we have a couple videos that I shot last weekend when we went out rec boating. I'm sort of low on energy and ambition right now, so I'm not bothering to write any captions or something about them.

But yeah, this is what rec boating is like on nice days. This is what we get to do for fun.







More penguin videos!

So, I've been busily clogging our stations meager bandwidth by uploading lots of stuff to youtube and things. So you're going to be getting a deluge of posts from me today.


Firstly, we have some videos of penguins being adorable!




Of course, we have us, the Penguin Paparazzi




And then a video of just a single penguin being flappy.




Watching these, it makes me sad how aggressive Youtube's compression is. These videos look SO much better in their native formats.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

So, what exactly am I doing down here, anyway?

One of the (many, many, MANY) strange things about this continent, and this program, is that they actually PAY US to be here. They don't pay us that well, but magically, every two weeks, a small number of dollars is deposited into my bank account. Of course, in exchange for these dollars, they seem to expect me to actually do some work.

My official job title here is "Carpenter's Helper". At least, it was until September 24th, when my old contract ended and my new contract started, which has now given me the title of "Utility Technician's Helper". Which on this station, is the exact same job.

Basically, I am the FEMC (Facilities, Engineering, Maintenance, Construction) department helper, as well as occasionally functioning as a helper for whomever else on the stations needs a hand to do something, or just someone to carry heavy things from point A to B. My job description is quite vauge, and can be summed up as "Do whatever other people tell you to do".

**Term you'll need to understand this next bit: PM/PMing. Preventive Maintenance, or the act of doing preventive maintenance.

In the last month, some of the things I've done would be:
-Help the plumber in the GWR sewer line replacement (being the guy who cuts the pipe and hands him parts)
-Shovel snow
-Replaced air filters and did preventive maintenance (Known as "PMing") on all the air handlers on station
-Shovel snow
-Changed the oil in one of the large Caterpillar generators
-Gone crawling around under the Bio-Lab and the deck to insulate the glycol heating lines run to the chemical storage milvan
-Gone crawling around under the Bio-Lab and the deck to help the electrician run conduit and pull wires for the chemical storage milvan
-Cleaned and PMed all the exhaust fans in Bio-Lab, replacing belts as needed and replacing a burned-out/seized motor
-Shovel snow
-Re-banded the sheet metal coverings on the large water lines that run between the buildings
-Helped inventory the dry food storage milvan
-Replaced a flange and wax ring on one of the men's toilets in GWR
-Chipped a walkway through the large ice berms that have formed in front of the HazBarn and Milvan Row
-Patched the filter housing for the hot tub
-Shovel snow
-Helped the electrician test the various fire detection and alarm systems in the buildings
-Melted and chipped the ice off the evaporator coils in the freezer milvans
-Fix a broken spigot on an eye wash station
-Measured the water flow in the aquarium tanks
-Shovel snow
-Helped with cargo ops on the pier with the logistics team (moving big stuff on and off the ship, -like full milvans and things)
-Shovel snow
-Pull an old, unused vent hood off the side of Bio-Lab, patch and re-insulate the wall
-Helped remove the oil boiler stack from the powerplant
-Do PMing on all the gym equipment
-Insulate and weather-seal cable penetrations in the VLF electronics hut
-Help the boating coordinator move boats around, break ice out from under the floorboards, and other various boating-related activities
-Shovel snow

The other two stations, McMurdo and South Pole, each have small armies of "GAs". General Assistants, people who are paid very poorly to do the lousiest work on the station. When a sewer line under the galley at McMurdo Station burst in the middle of winter, due to the cold everything just froze solid under the building and wasn't noticed for two months. When it finally WAS noticed, it had formed an enormous "Glacier of piss and sh*t", as it was phrased to me. And who was it that had to get under the building and chip away two months worth of mostly frozen, but starting to thaw raw sewage? That would be the GAs.

Palmer isn't big enough to warrant any GAs, but in essence, I fulfill that roll (although I'm paid a good bit better). The more unpleasant or tedious a job is, the more likely I am to be the one to do it.

That being said, I am under the control of the FEMC department, so the vast bulk of my time goes to them. I do all the daily maintenance rounds, going around station every morning and checking various equipment and machinery to make sure everything is still within normal parameters. I also do my best to take care of as many of the routine PMs that I can. Most of the equipment on station, everything from the seawater pumps to the generators to the stoves and kitchen equipment, has various preventive maintenance steps that should be done on either a monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or annual basis. Most of the time, this involves giving the equipment a thorough inspection, sometimes disassembling and cleaning various components, greasing bearings or moving parts, checking belt tensions, etc.

This week so far, I've done quarterly PMs on the large mixer in the kitchen, the steam sanitizer in the scullery, finished quarterly PM on all of the exhaust fans in the Bio building laboratory, did a monthly PM on the masticators, monthly PM on most of the gym equipment, quarterly PMs on all the air handlers (big fan units that heat the air and move it through the heating ducts in the buildings), and a bunch more that I can't remember. You get the idea, though.

In terms of pay, and rank, I am the lowest rung on the station. But due to the small size of this place, and how shared all the duties are, there really isn't any sort of caste system here, like there is at the other bases (although officially nothing like that exists, I'm told that in reality, you'll rarely see the scientists sitting next to janitors or GAs at lunch at McMurdo)

But I, and actually, most of the people on station, agree that while I don't have the cushiest job, I might have the most interesting. Because my roll is so loosely defined and I don't have many specific responsibilities, I've got a lot of flexibility and am often doing completely different things every week. And while sure, a lot of it is grunt work, I'm never the only one doing that grunt work, I'm helping someone else who's just as involved in it as I am.

When one of the drain pipes froze and burst under the aquarium, sure I spent 7 hours wedged under a building in slushy, dirty snow and rocks, but the plumber and electrician were right there with me.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Even more penguins

Last Saturday, it was so nice out that we canceled the station meeting had a slightly shorter station meeting focusing on safety and rushed through Housemouse did a clean and efficient, but expedited Housemouse so that we could all get off work and get out and enjoy the weather. Eight of us piled into an over-loaded zodiac and headed out to one of the closer islands, where we found . . .

MORE PENGUINS!

A new sort of penguin, even. Mostly Adelie penguins, as opposed to the Gentoo penguins that we've seen so far. Adelies are just a touch smaller, and Gentoos are a bit more bold, and have the bright orange beak and feet. Adelies have the little white eye ring, as you can see.

So, without further ado, PHOTOSPAMMING! Most of these are fantastically sharp, I was tempted to upload the native res images, but we're pretty limited on bandwidth. Still, though, view these at full res, even shrunk down with aggressive compression, they look very good, so click on them!

























We saw these next guys just after they'd gotten out of the water. They all stand there for like twenty minutes preening their feathers/fur after then get out, it's pretty funny to watch, like a little penguin preening session. It's pretty clear that these guys don't have any land-based predators. They were completely unconcerned with us less then 30 feet away, just took there sorting their feathers out, then waddling right by us, less then 10 feet away with barely a glance in our direction.

















Strangely enough, in this whole group of Adelies, there was this one lone Gentoo penguin.







Okay, that's enough for now. Maybe tomorrow I'll post some of my nice boring landscapes/icescapes/waterscapes, instead of cute silly amianls.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

It's a harsh continent

Living and working here is hard, grueling, and exhausting. You're always cold, sore, and too tired to ever have any fun, or even smile. You'll never make any friends here because everyone is too burned out and grouchy to have a laugh of mess around or be silly. There's no creature comforts and never any time for relaxing or enjoying the environment. And the powers that be would certainly never let us lounge around in a hot tub and watch the sun set! What do you think this is, Pamper Station!?




Yeah, that entire paragraph above might have been a lie.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

And we get a whole new type of penguin!



More pictures and videos coming soon. In the mean time, be amused with these little guys.