Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Home sweet home

Still a little bit of snow around, but I'm not sure I'd call it a white Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Happy solstice, everyone!

(Picture taken at 2am. This is as dark as it ever got.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Does anyone know what humpback whales sound like when they're singing? Because I do.

Their songs are something that you can't imagine existing naturally on this planet; for such a huge animal, it's a remarkably delicate melody. It comes from everywhere, this high-pitched warbled that could almost be mistaken from a bird is coming from the entire ocean, not a single (enormous) creature.

They were feeding, taking advantage of an explosion that we've recently seen in the krill population. Krill, tiny little shrimp-like critters that feed on phytoplankton, are the basis of the entire Antarctic food chain. Everything eats them, big and small, from fish to penguins to whales. The last few weeks here have seen remarkably beautiful weather, with clear skies and endless sunlight, causing an massive bloom of phytoplankton growth. A bit after the bloom, along came the krill in similarly massive numbers, so many that as we drove our zodiac boat along, they were leaping out of the water in front of us. It was like rain, but in reverse; the drops were jumping out of the water.

Penguins like krill as well, and there were large numbers of them in the water with us, darting around like little torpedos and snapping up all the krill they could.

The water wasn't this clear just a week ago; the krill had done an excellent job of cleaning it up. Even with the clear water, tracking the penguins in it was incredibly difficult; their clumsy aloofness on land is exchanged for astonishing nimbleness and speed in the water.

But the whales!  They would dive to just under the surface, turn sideways and take an enormous mouthful of the krill they'd driven to the surface.  Their mouths would open ten feet wide, giving us sight of what passes for whale teeth; baleen, delicate structures used to filter the krill out from the seawater.

And then they'd dive again, to repeat the process over and over.  We followed them at a very respectful distance, mostly drifting with the currents with the engine off.  The only sounds we had were humpback whales breathing and singing.

And to think, they pay me to live here.

Another "Helper" job

I walked into the mechanical room of one of the main buildings today on morning rounds, to find that raw sewage had backed up from the floor drain overnight. The entire floor was covered in half an inch of ground-up kitchen waste, toilet paper, and . . . other stuff. It smelled about as you would expect, and my first thought was "Oh god, I pity the poor schmuck who has to clean this up"

My second thought was "Oh, wait. I am that schmuck."

Yup, this is what I gave up a desk job on a tropical island for.

Monday, December 17, 2012

More "Awww!"

Everything is comfortable, when you are your own pillow.

Ah, loverly soft rocks.  Yes, this is a good place for sleeps.      

The seal was nestled all snug in his bed, while visions of tasty fish danced in his head.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

You want the fuzzy!?


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Well, this ought to be interesting.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Tourist season has begun

Wow, that was exhausting.

Yesterday, tourist season officially opened when we looked out our window in the morning to see this floating in Arthur Harbor to the northeast of station.

The fact that we were blessed with perfect weather was a happy coincidence.

The National Geographic Explorer, the first ship of the season to stop by and say hi, bringing with it 150 passengers eager for a glimpse at our little life down here.  The ship's crew ferried them ashore in zodiacs, where one of us from the station would take about ten of them at a time on a little tour around our home.

I should say that the station doesn't get paid or compensated a dime for this; we do it partly for fun, but mostly because we love it here and enjoy sharing our experiences with the world.  It's also good PR to show to as many people what science really looks like.  Then there's the fact that many of the people on this ship are US citizens, and therefore taxpayers, and by that extension it is their money that pays our salaries and keeps the station running.  So they deserve to see what they're getting out of the deal.

Our station usually holds around 30 people, and only 44 at maximum capacity.  It's also the least handicapped-accessible place I've ever seen; there's steps, ledges, and uneven surfaces everywhere, and we're still in the middle of the spring thaw so most of the area is a slushy mess.  Now when a hundred and fifty people who on average were very, uh, "experienced in life" (as our manager so delicately put it) are dropped on our dock, our usually quite home quickly transformed into vaugly organized bedlam.  Such that can only be properly illustrated with a time lapse of the pier, and that most catchy and useful tune to accompany it.

After they were given a tour around station and given an opportunity to stop at our tiny little station store, they headed up to what's usually our galley, now cleared of most of the tables and with coffee and brownies set out for a meet-and-greet.

The first load of passengers arrived at around 2pm, and the last of them didn't leave until 5:30.  And I have to say that as much fun as this all was, it's also completely exhausting.  Don't get me wrong, it was a ton of fun and I can't wait to do it again; I love this station and this continent, and the chance to share it with outsiders was awesome. But at the end of the day, the moments of silence as the last zodiac pulled away was welcome; it was a chance for life here to return to normal (or what passes for normal here).
And yet our night was not over yet . . . for Palmer Station has quite an interesting relationship with the National Geographic ships.  So much so that there's a fair number of people who have worked on both the ship, as well as the station, and many employees on the ship are usually long-term so we've seen them multiple times. So around 6pm, after we'd wolfed down some food here on station, it was our turn to pile into our Zodiacs and be tourists for a while.  (This may or may not have been influenced by the offer of free drinks in exchange for some Q&A time from the ship's entertainment director)

Sean and I, due mostly to the fact that we could be counted on to not drink and therefor be designated drivers, were tasked with driving our zodiacs to ferry us back and forth from our station to the ship.

Notice how the sun is exactly behind my head?  That's not an accident.
In between trips back and forth, we took a few moments to spin around in the harbor, taking in the absurd location that we call home and snapping a couple pictures.  We alternated between silhouetted hero shots, as above, and then pictures with me in my more . . . natural pose.

I'M ON A BOAT!  Or will be soon.

Once everyone was on board, we ditched our float coats in their gear room and headed up to the lounge, through the swanky but tastefully understated interior.  This was a massive mind-job; for the last three months I've seen nothing but the same walls of the station every day, and now I'd been transplanted into a completely different universe.

To the ship's lounge we went, where we (well, everyone but Sean and I) began to see how much of the ship's Guinness they could drink, and the ship's entertainment director opened up the floor for Q&A.  We were now on display.

The questions we got were all over the map, but mostly what we expect; everyone we ever meet in the real world usually asks pretty much the same questions.  Although when I was asked what my job was, and how I contribute to the science here, my response of "Me?  I make broken things not broken.  See how long science keeps working when the toilets don't flush." got quite a laugh.  Eventually the guess went to dinner in their fancy sit-down restaurant, and we headed out onto the back deck of the ship for a grill-out with the crew.

I only had like, twelve of these.
And all this, while floating out in our harbor, standing on the sterns deck of a luxury cruise ship looking out at our home, and a view that never gets old.

Occasionally, Sean and I would be called upon to ferry people back and forth from the boat to station again, an opprotunity we used to take more pictures.  And on one of our runs, when passing under the bow of the ship, I had yet another "WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING HERE?!" moments.

Seriously, what the hell.
What on earth was I doing driving a zodiac boat around in the waters of Antarctica?  Why was I swaggering around a luxury cruise ship getting treated like a movie star while every person I met tried to buy me a drink?  Why was the sky so beautiful, the air calm, the waters flat and the evening so perfect?  What had I done so wrong and so right with my life that I was here, staring up at the bow of a cruise ship like it was the most natural thing in the world?

It was the most absurd and surreal experience that I've had so far this year, and it promises to not be the last; they're due for another visit in early January.

See you then, guys.  :)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

And to think, they pay us to live here.

Tourist season officially begins today, with the visit of the National Geographic Explorer. A smaller cruise ship carrying only about 150 passengers, they're bringing people ashore at 1pm today for tours and a meet and greet. I'm signed up to be a tour guide, and afterwards the plan is for some of us to head out to the ship for some Q&A.

Before any of that happens though, we have to get the station ready. This promises to be a long but very interesting day.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sunday rounds

My boss asked me to re-do our guidebook that we give to whomever is tasked with doing the Sunday station rounds every week. Was I subtle enough on the new cover page?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tourist season starts tomorrow

It seems that we have visitors this week; a few hours ago, we got a radio call from a Chilean patrol boat who's in the area, asking if they could stop by for a visit.  They'll only be bringing about 20 people ashore, a tenth as many as the cruise ships will.  So this will be good practice for us to get the station ready for visitors, and to hone our tour speeches.

Believe it or not, we have a very busy tourist season here, and as a matter of goodwill and publicity, anyone who's in the vicinity is welcome to stop by the station.  We get a fair number of private yachts, sailboats, and smaller military craft stopping by, and as long as we have some warning we're happy to bring them ashore, and if it's a very small group will often invite them for dinner. Small cruise ships up to about 200 passengers we will usually let come ashore in groups; we'll give tours and have a meet-and-greet in the galley with the science teams.  Larger cruise ships would overrun our little island though, so for anything bigger we'll go out to the ship in Zodiacs, to do a lecture and Q&A on board.

We don't get paid a dime for this, from anyone, and we refuse to accept donations.  It's something we do for goodwill and to promote the USAP; many of the ships carry a lot of American citizens, and it's their tax dollars paying for all of this, so we owe it to them to show what it's spent on.

(And let's be honest, it's just fun)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Who wants to come visit?

If anyone's able to travel on super-short notice, and felt like coming to visit this little slide of weirdness that I call home, a friend of mine stumbled across a "Black Friday" sale on two of the cruise ships that will be visiting here this summer.

Quark Expeditions will be having a 2-for-1 sale on cruises sailing December 15th and January 13th, both are just under two weeks in length and will tour the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, including a stop by Palmer Station, where I'm living.  But to be fair, even with the sale, it's not exactly what you'd call affordable.  Especially when considering that airfare down to the embarkation point will probably run a couple thousand dollars itself.

You'd have to buy between 7:30 a.m. EST on Thursday, November 22nd and 9:00 p.m. EST on November 27th to take advantage of the sale.  Aside from getting a job here, it's probably the easiest way to visit the Antarctic!

Information here: http://www.quarkexpeditions.com/antarctic-expeditions/antarctic-explorer-classic-adventure/overview
When to buy: Between 7:30 a.m. EST on Thursday, November 22nd and 9:00 p.m. EST on November 27th.

Read more: http://www.budgettravel.com/blog/hotels-offer-black-friday-and-cyber-monday-deals,12628/#ixzz2Co5HrHsb
Between 7:30 a.m. EST on Thursday, November 22nd and 9:00 p.m. EST on November 27th.

Read more: http://www.budgettravel.com/blog/hotels-offer-black-friday-and-cyber-monday-deals,12628/#ixzz2CnzWFEgz

Sunday, November 18, 2012


I could write a bunch about weekend hiking adventures on the outer islands, but I know that all you're really interested in is pictures of penguins.  Which I am happy to provide.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Pants required

Every week we have a station meeting to go over various important things, and one of the topics is "Gentle Reminders", things that people need to stop doing, or do more of to make the community run smoother.  One of the "Gentle Reminders" last week was a request from out station manager to "Please wear pants in the galley; long johns or underwear are not appropriate dinner attire".

The only result of this "Gentle Reminder" was two nights later, when almost everyone on station showed up to dinner . . . in our long johns and underwear.

My boat boots make me sassy

The fastest way to get Ice People to do anything is to try and prevent them from doing it.

Monday, November 12, 2012


The big orange blob returned again a few days ago, bringing with it a few more scientists and some trades people to get started on the summer construction projects.  The last month has also seen a massive change in the climate; last time the LMG was here it had to spend a lot of time punching through some thick sea ice, but in the intervening weeks it's all thawed out and broken up.

I set up my camera at various places around station to catch the ice's movement, taking a photo once every ten seconds or so, for hours at a time.  Here's the results.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Occasionally, science actually looks as impressive as we want it to.

The vast majority of science that goes on here is marine-biology related, and for all of the studying baby penguins that happens, the vast majority of the lab work is boring as snot.  It's nothing like we (and hollywood) expect it to look.  At least, it usually isn't.

One of the groups here currently is studying disolved gasses in ocean water as a means to estimate bacterial bio-mass, and they've taken over half the aquarium with this Rube-Goldburg inspired setup.

One of the researches leading the project gave a talk about it last week, which mostly served to make me feel really stupid as it largely flew over my head.  But from what I gathered, they're sampling seawater from our intake pipe constantly, 24/7.  The plan is to have this running for most of the season I think, but it could be even longer if the funding comes through.  This sort of thing hasn't really been done before, and the researches had to design and build most of the equipment themselves.

Most of it is for permentant ongoing calibrations; to saturate a sample of water with a precise quantity of a known gas, to give the equipment something to compare the seawater samples to.  But the heart of the matter is this mass spectrometer, which gives ultra-precise and continuous readouts of exactly what is in the seawater.

Occasionally, science does look almost as impressive in real life as it does in the movies.  Now they just need to add more blinky lights and bubbling beakers full of colored liquid . . .

Thursday, November 1, 2012

You think YOU have a crappy job?

Don't complain about having a crappy day; mine quite literally involved poo.

During our weekly station cleaning known as "Housemouse", one of the people cleaning a bathroom notices a residue and wetness around the base of one of the toilets. 

I went over to take a look at it, gave the bolts holding it to the floor a tug . . . and they fell off in my hands.  They were completely corroded to the point of non-existence.

This isn't too suprising; to save on fresh water, we flush our toilets with filtered sea water, and the salt makes anything it comes in accidental contact with rust almost instantly.  Usually it's not a problem, but apparently the wax ring under the toilet had failed, and that allowed the sea water to contact the bolts.

Once I got the toilet pulled out, things got worse; the sea water had corroded the riser pipe to the flush valve so badly that it crumbled in my hand.  I was able to do this damage accidentally with just my fingers.

Pulled the toilet off, and found a whole mess of corrosion and . . . uh, rather not think about it.

But a few minutes with rubber gloves and a couple putty knives, and a new wax ring was in place and ready for the toilet to go back on.

 This is what I left a cushy IT job on a tropical island; to fix toilets on a frozen wasteland.

It's still the best decision I ever made.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

They're back . . .

So, this happened.

(I'm still at least 25 feet away from them, and they didn't take the slightest notice of me.  We operate under the Antarctic Treaty, and while there's no rule about exact distance, the guideline is that if our presence is affecting their behavior, we're too close.  So we stay far enough away that they either don't notice or don't care)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

No big deal

Just hangin' out on the ice, chillin' with some penguins.  No big deal.