The day began with a windy wake-up call, making the waters around Palmer Station choppy and too dangerous for small boat operations. Last night gusts were clocked up to nearly 40 knots, and even at half that strength, the bite of the wind cut through most clothing.
After lunch, however, we hit the water for advanced small boat training with clearing skies, the glaciers were glowing turquoise, and the magical spires and pinnacles of the mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula as a backdrop.
Today we were scheduled to get our advanced training for small boat operations so that we can conduct prey mapping and whale tagging research in the waters around Palmer Station when the Gould is out on fishing trips. Doug, Pat, Elliott and I spent the morning hours doing survival training, which mainly consisted of lighting fires and pitching tents. How many scientists does it take to set up a tent you ask? The boating safety personnel here take no chances in preparing everyone for the possibility of having to don survival gear and set up camp on a remote island if conditions do not allow for making it back safely to Palmer Station. There are over a dozen small, rocky islands within a 5 km radius of the Station where caches of survival equipment are stashed in the event of an emergency. These consist of tents, stoves, propane gas, sleeping bags, food, and radios.
After lunch, the winds had subsided below the 20-knot maximum allowed for boating operations. Needless to say we were all a bit excited to put the boats in and get on the water. Some were even moved to dance.
Ryan, our boating safety officer, was a fantastic teacher, despite our inability to concentrate due to the continuously amazing views and wildlife around us. We all took turns at the tiller, practiced making landings at several of the islands, and used GPS units to direct ourselves and navigate the waters. Even with a small swell, approaching and landing safely on these islands can be tricky. There are no beaches to speak of, merely rock walls and outcroppings covered in a thick layer of frozen ocean. After taking turns at each of the skills, we practiced one of the most important and critical drills: man-overboard. In this case, we work as a team to locate the person overboard, notify the station immediately of our situation and position, maintain visual contact, and get to the person back into the boat as quickly and safely as possible. Pat had volunteered to squeeze himself into an emersion suit and play the victim, but because of the choppy seas we had to use a plastic float as a substitute. Sorry Pat.
As a reward for our accomplishments, we made one final landing at Torgerson Island before returning to Palmer Station. During the summer months this rocky island, about the size of a football field, is abuzz with breeding penguins, petrels, and fur seals. At this time of the year, the only residents are a few lingering fur seals and a small group (~10) of juvenile and immature elephant seals. The fur seals are quick to notice our presence, come to attention, and make sure that we hear them loud and clear. The elephant seals, some of them having just weaned, laze about snorting and making all sorts of wonderful sounds. It was a quick visit, but enough to meet our new neighbors and take a few pictures of them. By now the skies were clearing, the winds were calming, the glaciers were glowing turquoise, and the magical spires and pinnacles of the mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula provided a backdrop none of us will soon forget.
Spending time out in the cold and on the water is a great way to work up an appetite. This evening the cooks, along with several intrepid helpers, had a pizza celebration. There were pies of all shapes, colors, sizes, and flavors. Stories were shared, smiles came easy, and laughter about the amazing Antarctic could be heard echoing through the halls of Palmer Station.
- Roland, Eletta, Alison (Stimpy), and Elliott making Pizza
The visual observer team out on the Gould had a fantastic day as well. The Gould left Palmer Station at 8 am, heading east and then north through the Newmayer Channel towards Dallman Bay where fishing operations will commence. Despite the winds, they were travelling through sheltered waters and made 27 sightings of humpback and minke whales, penguins, and seals. The whales were in groups ranging from 2-4, and were seen feeding, resting, as well as socializing. The majority of the whales were seen in the Schollaert Channel between the Gerlache Strait and Dallman Bay. We are all hopeful that we can return to this area to begin our whale tagging and prey mapping work in this area. All in all, it was a wonderfully productive day.
On a personal note, I am constantly reminded of how amazing, beautiful, brutal, and unique Antarctica is. To be able to share this place and create memories with my friends is more than I could have ever dreamed. We are truly fortunate to have this opportunity to study and learn about the ecology of the Antarctic.