13 November, 1998
November 13, 1998
WOW the last few days have flown by and have been chock-full of neat experiences. The neatest experience was the trip to Granite Harbor on Wednesday.
PREPARING TO FLY
The night before, the fish-group gathered together all that we would need for our trip: 5 coolers , 4 of them fitted with battery-operated air-bubblers to keep the fish alive until we could get them back to the aquarium, 2 cylindrical cages made out of plastic-coated chicken-wire to hold some of the fish in the water until we packed them up to go, the jiffy-drill with bit extensions allowing it to drill 10Ē holes through about 8 or 9 feet of ice, gas for the drill, fish hooks, rubber-worms for bait, hand-lines, ice axes to chop away at the ice, a hand-held radio (to communicate with the helicopter after we were dropped off if need be), a small camping stove with fuel, eat-out-of-the-bag freeze-dried meals like chicken fettuccini and beef stroganoff, cocoa and cup-of-soup mix, (we forgot cups and bowls however), a pot, plastic eating utensils, buckets, a hand-operated bilge pump to help fill the coolers with water from the jiffy-drill holes, small nets to scoop the slush out of the fish holes as the surface water started to freeze again, and probably some other things that I forgot about. It was a lot of stuff and the next day we needed a pick-up truck to bring it all down.
At about 8:00 in the morning, I took some Bonine, a tasty, chewable pill that prevents motion sickness without making you drowsy. I had heard bad things about bumpy helicopter rides and I didnít want my first helicopter experience destroyed by feeling nauseous. (However, I didnít need it since it was a very smooth flight.)
At 8:30 we gathered at the lab with the gear we had prepared the day before and with our own personal gear to head down to the helicopter pad for our flight to Granite Harbor. I brought my water bottle which I filled with very hot water and put it in my camera bag to help keep my camera warm so the batteries wouldnít lose their power. (Cold temperatures sap the energy out of batteries. WHY?) I also protected one camera by keeping it under my coat. I also brought a candy bar and lots of film (but just barely enough); and chapstick, sunscreen and sunglasses to protect myself from the ultraviolet rays which can quickly burn or cause ďsnow-blindnessĒ. We each also had to bring an extra supply of our cold weather survival gear, just in case we got stranded in a blizzard out at Granite Harbor. It is a little less than a hundred miles to Granite Harbor and the weather can quickly change so we had to be prepared just in case. The helicopter was scheduled to pick us up six hours after it dropped us off on the ice and a lot can happen to weather in 6 hours. It was overcast in McMurdo; the tops of the mountains were invisible in the clouds. We wondered what it would it be like at Granite Harbor. The helicopter also carried an emergency survival bag to drop off with us when it landed . It was full of supplies (tent, sleeping bags, emergency food rations, etc) to help us survive until help could come if a storm suddenly stranded us here.
Before boarding the helicopter we weighed ourselves and all our gear. (Why do you think it was important for the pilots to know the total weight?) We also were fitted with helmets equipped with earphones and microphones so we could hear and speak with the captain in the noisy helicopter. The helicopter blades were so noisy that I had to put my fingers in my ears when we were outside if my helmet wasnít on.
At about 9:15 we were off. I was very excited. I always love the ďskuaís eye viewĒ of the world. It really helps to put things in a grander ecological and geological perspective. One of the amazing things that struck me as we flew along was how the mountains seemed nearly smothered in a blanket of white, with just their peaks poking out above the glaciers and snow-cover. Some of the ice must be thousands of feet thick. The other thing that struck me was that even though the frozen sea seemed limitless from the ground view, the ocean really wasnít very far away; we could see it in the distance about 10 or 15 miles away. For a skua that is probably not very far. But if a penguin canít find any seal holes to dive into, it would be a pretty long walk for him to find breakfast. I guess thatís why there arenít any penguin colonies this far from the ice edge. When we flew over the ice-sea edge I looked for penguins and whales but couldnít see any. GRANITE HARBOR
When we landed at Granite Harbor I was awestruck. How can I put into words the spectacular majesty of the place. Unfortunately the attached digital pictures cannot begin to communicate the feeling of awe and humility and enthusiastic appreciation of what I saw. A few individual pictures cannot record the full expanse that overwhelms and envelops a tiny person who is plopped into the middle of such a grand thing. Even now as I think about it in my mindís eye, a lot of the experience and the accompanying emotions are lost. It can only be appreciated fully at the time and in the place, and even then it is not a full appreciation. I would have to go back for days and days and walk for miles and miles listening, thinking, rejoicing, praying, watching, smelling, feeling to even begin to take it all in. The first hour and half we were there we all just walked around savoring the entrancing beauty around us. So what were some of things we saw and heard?
Huge sculptures of ice, pressure ridges of blue ice slowly shoved up as immense slabs by the forces of tides and glaciers --white on top, glazed and textured by melt and wind, blue underneath. Melted and wind blown into bizarre shapes. Icicles dripping into angular caves.
And in the distance: these sculptures were placed in an overwhelming setting, a huge sweeping valley filled with a glacier, edged by mountains, a huge frozen bay rimmed by snow-capped mountains, a steep cliff plummeting into the frozen sea which seemed to go on forever in one direction, a gradual slope, strewn with huge glacial boulders of granite rounded and dropped off by glaciers in the geological past.
Here among these boulders was a crude boulder shelter, merely 15 feet by 10 feet or so, hidden behind some larger boulders which housed 6 men on their way back to Cape Evans after they had been stranded at Cape Adare for several months during a very long, cold, dark winter in 1912. They were stranded in a snow cave no larger than the boulder shelter at Granite Harbor when their ship couldnít come to pick them up because the ice was frozen solid. They rationed their food supplies. At the end of each month they each had a treat of 25 raisins. Once or twice a week they had a little chunk of chocolate. When their food supply ran out they ate nothing but the meat and blubber of seals and penguins. Once they received a surprise treat when they found 12 undigested fish in the stomach of a seal. At night they had nightmares about food. In their dreams only one of them managed to eat their scrumptious banquets; the others all woke up up before they could enjoy their dream-feasts! What torture! Two of them got very bad diarrhea; that must have been an extreme nuisance in the bitter wind and cold of winter. Those two almost died. They burned seal blubber to heat their shelter. An old dried seal hide is still visible on the ruins of their shelter at Granite Harbor. When they finally made it back to Cape Evans the following summer, their clothes and skin were permeated by the black oil of the burned blubber. Their clothes had started to rot on their bodies. I complain when I canít sleep because someone is snoring; imagine what smells, sounds,
cold, wind and other conditions they had to endure as they tried to sleep and survive! I wonder what they talked about while they were crammed together for months in the cold and dark.
THE WEDDELL SEALS
To me, the most surreal part of our expedition on Wednesday was the sounds of the Weddell Seals. Eerie, ethereal musical wails, boops, and grunts came from below us in all directions. Unseen singers swimming under the ice, rapidly getting closer and closer until they sounded like they were right beneath us, and then off into the distance. How can I describe these sounds in words? I canít; but I do seem to remember an Internet website where you can hear their calls. If anyone can find this site please e-mail me and let me know and Iíll pass it on to the other journal readers.
Among the beautiful pressure ridges were cracks in the ice. These had frozen over, but in some places the seals had used their specialized teeth to keep the holes big enough for them to get up out of the water onto the ice to soak in the sun and to nurse their pups. (How do you think they managed to get their megabodies out onto the slippery ice?) I was standing right next to one of these holes when I suddenly heard some soft splashing and loud blowing noise as a seal pup stuck its head out of the hole. He looked at me curiously and went back under. As I stood there awhile he and another pup kept coming back. We left the area just in case our presence was preventing them from coming out. Once I saw the sleek, dappled body of one of the adults gracefully ballet by beneath the crack
A little later I saw one of the pups out on the ice. He was moving towards me wailing and groaning, sounding sort of like a lamb, as if he was calling to his momma. Sometimes his voice sounded like Chewbaca in Star Wars. I sat down on the ice to watch. He kept getting closer and closer, calling out. I think he thought that any big dark shape on the ice might be his mom, but about 20 feet away it seemed like he suddenly recognized that I wasnít a seal , he stopped and turned around with a protesting groan. He wiggled away with maggot-like movements and I moved on. A couple minutes later he saw me moving again and started coming towards me; so I sat down again to watch. What a cute puppy-face seal pups have! Soon his Mom poked her head out of the hole in the ice and called to him. He immediately stopped and went towards her voice whining all the way. She submerged and he quietly slid into the water behind her. About an hour later when Sierra was fishing in the hole we saw the mother nursing her pup out on the ice about 50 feet away. Occasionally the momma would call out with a peculiar series of muffled grunts, her head bobbing up and down. It was quite a scene.
FISHING AFTER LUNCH
Since we didnít have the fish hut or the meter-wide hole for fishing, several smaller holes were drilled with the jiffy drill along the frozen ice crack where the ice was thinner. Then 3 of us positioned ourselves at the holes and started hauliní in the fish. It was a great day for fishing. My job however, was not fishing. I was assigned to protect the fish that were caught. Remember if the water gets too hot or too cold the fish can die so I went around to all the coolers checking the temperature and adding cold or warm water as needed to keep the fish within about -1.7 degrees Celsius and + .5 degrees Celsius. I also had to change the water when it got dirty and change the batteries of the air-bubblers when they started to lose their power. If there were too many fishes in one cooler I needed to transfer a few to a cooler with fewer fishes. Out of the 40 or 50 fish we caught only one died by the time we reached the aquarium back at McMurdo so we all felt good about that.
Even though it was overcast in McMurdo all day, the weather at Granite Harbor was sunny and warm. It was +.5 C, a smidge above freezing. That made the surface of the ice very slippery (WHY?). We all took off our parkas and didnít mind handling the fish with our bare hands because it was so balmy. But just before we packed up to leave, the wind picked up, and we immediately ran to don our warm gear. Although I wore my sunglasses all the time except the first 15 minutes when I was so entranced that I forgot, and occasionally when I was taking a picture, I still had the beginning symptoms of snow-blindness at the end of the day: a head-ache behind the eyes and blood-shot, gritty-feeling eyes. I am so glad I wore the glasses most of the time. I hear that snow-blindness is torturously uncomfortable. (It is caused by the sunlight coming from above and also reflecting off the snow. The ozone hole here in Antarctica means there is more harmful ultraviolet (UV) light which makes it even worse.
THE END OF THE DAY
At the end of the day I was so exhausted that I fought to stay awake during a very interesting lecture on the ecological effects of pollution in McMurdo Sound and then went straight to bed at 8:30. It was a GREAT DAY!!!!!!!! One day like this is worth many in the lab!
Well I guess Iíll send this journal entry along and tell you
about the labwork over the last few days tomorrow.
Until then, I hope you have a good day and do something good for someone.
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