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.