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.  :)