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26 November, 2003

Learning life lessons!

Temperature: 13*F

Location: McMurdo Station, Antarctica

Today I had the opportunity to go back out to Scott's Hut at Cape Evans; I leapt at the chance! Part of the fun in going on these excursions is the pure adventure of getting to the destination. The sea ice is thinning - a tell tale sign is the increased numbers of seals that are "hauling out" and lounging on the ice - so travel out to places like Cape Evans is getting limited. I didn't want to miss an opportunity to "get out of town!" I was also hoping to see a penguin along the way.

Our driver reminded us of the safety issues with traveling in the huge Delta trucks. Seatbelts are a must, the road is bumpy... some people have hit their heads on the ceiling after being bounced. This is impressive when you realize that if you stand up in the truck, you're head just touches the ceiling. That's a big bounce! The driver also reminded us not to open the exit door when the vehicle stops - he will come open the door. The door is at the back of the truck at the top of a large metal ladder. If the driver is climbing up to let us out, and we open the door, we could knock him right off the ladder! He followed this instruction with "but... if the truck goes through the ice and water is filling the back, feel free to open the back door as well as the escape hatch in the roof, and get out!" This made me question whether this trip was such a good idea!

We made it to Cape Evans without mishap. Although several times the truck did seem to slip off the "road" and sink into the ice a bit. There were lots of raised eyebrows in the back; but we kept moving!

It was ferociously windy at Cape Evans today. This really gave me a feel for just how cold and windy Antarctica can be; especially when I remembered that this was just a "windy day." There was no storm, just a "little" wind. We all

huddled into our big red parkas and waddled up to the hut. I shot some video footage inside the hut during this trip. I also went into the horse stable beside the hut which I had not been in before. It still smelled a bit like horses! The horses names were stenciled into the wall across from there stalls. It did make me sad to think of any animal being subjected to such harsh conditions.

I also noticed something else in the hut on this trip. Beside one of the bunks, there was a list of names of people who had perished during the expedition. The date was 1916, there were four names on the list as definate deaths, and Shackletons name was on the list with a question mark beside it. Shackleton was not part of Scott's trip, but they were keeping tabs on him through the men that were stocking supplies for him.

Upon leaving the hut, I noticed a small group of people gathered around a spot on the ice. I assumed there was a seal hole with a seal in it, so I quickly joined the group. There was a mother seal and her pup in the hole! We are 98% sure that this is the same mother and pup that was here on April 9th. The pup was estimated to be about twenty four hours old on April 9th. Here we are, seventeen days later; the pup is swimming! I felt like I was visiting old friends. We watched the awkward, uncoordinated efforts of the pup beside the graceful elegance of the mother. The pup was "barking" and scraping the ice with its teeth. Ice scraping is what weddell seals do to keep their air holes in the ice open. The pup had clearly already learned this vital skill. The pup swam around the circle gnawing at the ice edge; I wondered what other life lessons it had already been taught. We watched for a while and then decided we should move away. We thought perhaps the mother and pup wanted to get out of the water and we didn't want to interfere with their behavior. I wished them both luck as we moved away!

Weddell seals have a tooth structure that is quite different from some of the other seals. The weddell seals front teeth point forward to make ice scraping easier. Because they spend so much time scraping the ice, their teeth tend to be very worn down. Leapord seals spend their time on the ice edge and don't rely on air holes or crevasses in the ice. Leapord seal teeth point straight down and look quite ferocious! Below, are photos of weddell seal and leapord seal skulls; check out the difference in the teeth.

1. The science lab in Scott's Hut.

2. Baby seal "ice scraping".

3. Mom!

4. Mother and pup!

5. Weddell seal skull. Notice the forward facing, worn down front teeth.

6. Leapord seal skull; notice the sharp downward facing front teeth!

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