Saturday, February 11, 2012

Last Days in Chillyville

Today marks the last day of my Bi-Polar adventure. What started at the top of the world now comes to a close at the bottom. These last few months have been memorable for more than just being some of the coldest of my life. For me, this has been a worldly experience filled with culture and remote wilderness. Both ends of the Earth showcased incredible animals adapted to live in such extreme places. This included penguins, polar bears, musk ox, Bowhead, beluga, grey, and Minke whales, Weddell seals, snowy owls, and Arctic foxes. The culture ranged from the native Inupiat and their whaling practices to the bearded, vivid lifestyle of the residents at McMurdo Station. My work was a large part of this experience as well. Whales and balloons were the reasons for these wild locales.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure
From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

I feel incredibly blessed. Not only for the opportunity to experience these places, but for the opportunity to share them with all of my friends and family back home. I enjoyed writing this blog as much as I truly hoped you enjoyed reading it. In my time between Antarctic deployments I would run into folks who'd said they had been following my blog or were really enjoying my pictures. This really meant a lot to me, more than you know. It was really special to be able to share this experience with you.

As a goodbye and farewell, I bring to you what many people have been asking me for for of PENGUINS!!!

Stay warm friends! :)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and the Discovery Hut

Antarctica has an incredible history behind its exploration and as it turns out, a huge portion of it was based out of Ross Island, which is where McMurdo station is located. They called this the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Explorers such as Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton both spent time on Ross Island nearly 100 years ago as they were exploring the great white continent. There are a number of shelters which still stand today around the small island, including one called the Discovery Hut, which is located just outside of town. From the outside, it actually looks quite modern as the wood and structure of the building are in very good condition.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

The 2 explorers I've done the most reading about are Scott and Shackleton. Their stories really demand more than just a summary, but here goes:

Scott was a British Royal Navy Officer whose claim to fame was his ill-fated journey to the South Pole starting in 1910. It turned out that at the very same time, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, was trying to be the first to reach the South Pole. It was truly a race to be the first. Amundsen reached the Pole first and successfully returned from his journey. Scott reached the pole, now being the 2nd to do so, and died on his return journey home. A cross sits just outside of McMurdo Station in honor of Capt. Scott.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

Shackleton was a British explorer whose first real historical impact was in 1909 when he led of team of 3 others to the southernmost point humans had ever visited, 97 miles from the south pole. He lived and eventually returning in 1914 to lead the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The goal of this expedition was to be the first to cross the entire continent. On the way south though, his ship was caught in pack ice and became permanently stuck. Eventually the ship was destroyed and the 28 men had to abandon ship. They drifted for about a year on sea ice which was being blown north by the wind. The crew then made a truly mad dash for a nearby island, which took 3-4 days of straight sailing. From here, Shackleton and a small crew sailed one of their small boats across the Drake Passage, notoriously the stormiest sea on Earth, to a small whaling facility nearly 1000 miles away. Shackleton returned to the rest of his crew nearly a year after he left them. All 28 men survived.

As mentioned, the Discovery Hut was used by both Explorers as well as others a century ago. It is now being preserved as a museum. I was fortunate enough to take a tour!

My time on the frozen continent draws nearly to a close. Stay warm!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Seal Wrasslin': Because someone's gotta wrassle 'em

With Happy Camper now in the rear view mirror, it was time to get back to work...WORK WITH SEALS that is!!! As it turned out, one of my friends from the Arctic whale surveys also does seal research down here. She asked me if I wanted to help with seal physiological studies. I'm no biologist but I was pretty sure that by "physiological studies" she actually meant "SEAL WRASSLIN'! I put on my seal wrasslin t-shirt and begrudgingly accepted.

The seals we were studying were Weddell seals and apparently they are hermits because they lived way out in the boons. Not once in my entire time at McMurdo did I ever see a seal at the cardio gym OR the laundry room. Zero times. Was it then a coincidence that when we pulled our snowmobiles up to the first group of lounging seals that they were both overweight AND smelly?? The evidence is staggering. Anyhow, when the group was ready for action, we hopped on snowmobiles and cruised for about 30-40 minutes out to the first congregation of seals.

As we roared up on our snow machines, I could see maybe 15 or 20 seals just loungin around on the ice. It was like pulling up to a retirement beach in Florida with all the lazy lounging that was going on. Take a look! Can you tell which blubbery mammal lives in Florida?

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

Had to think about it didn't ya? I had to remind myself that I was in Antarctica before I could get back to work. Anyhow, it was clear that these seals had a busy day of loungin ahead of them.

It pained me to disturb creatures that were so tirelessly pursuing their dream of relaxing. They were like those worker bees who spend their whole life slaving away at mastering their craft. Their craft just happened to be laying there. It was truly inspiring.

Anyhow, we did eventually do some work out there but I'm not really supposed to talk about it because I wasn't on the seal permit. So with that I leave you with these pictures of adorable seal pups. You'll forget that I'm too lazy to write a thorough post about this day in no time....

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Happy Camper and the Antarctic Igloo

It was a mere few days on the continent when I found out that I was required to participate in something called "Happy Camper". I couldn't help but let my imagination run wild about the tortures involved with such a sarcastically named program. As it turned out, Happy Camper was a 1 day Antarctic survival course catered to researchers who would be at risk of getting stranded somewhere out on the continent. I was part of the 2 man team that would recover the telescope once it had landed. This would require a flight of over 100 miles from McMurdo Station, which in turn sealed my fate as a participant of Happy Camper.

The first morning of the program was surprisingly low key. There were 20 participants and 2 teachers and we all met in a classroom in town. For the first 2-3 hours we got a crash course in Antarctic survival. We covered the basics of staying warm which boiled down to: eat a lot, drink a lot, sleep a lot, wear a lot, and uh…treat others how you would like to be treated. Ok so I'll admit that I forgot the 5th one. Anyhow, after all the classroom work, we headed out to the field where much of the remainder of the class would be held. We were off to spend a night camped out on the ice.

The campsite was about 5 miles from McMurdo and was literally located on the ice from the Ross Ice Shelf. The first thing they showed us was how to set up camp. This involved setting up mountaineering tents, a Scott tent (very warm, teepee style polar tent), and making snow blocks which would be used to set up a wall to block the wind on the tents. I've sent up plenty of tents before, but the snow block thing was really neat. Because it is so windy and cold most of the year, the snow is densely packed and very dry. We simply used hand saws to cut into the snow. It cut like foam: very clean lines and easy to saw into. The blocks were then popped out of the ground and were stacked to create a wall large enough to shield about 10 tents from strong winds.

One of the more adventurous sleeping methods attracted a few of the campers. The concept was to dig a snow trench, which in a scary number of ways compared to a snow grave. The snow trench was dug about 6 feet down and was not much larger than your body length and width. At this point, a small side car was carved into the wall of the trench about a foot off the floor. The idea was to create a cold-sink, which is creates a place for the densest, coldest air to settle while you sleep above in the relative warmth. I was briefly tempted into digging a trench for the night but opted for a 3rd option: an igloo! A fellow happy camper from New Zealand shared my passion for dome-like sleeping structures and we went to work. It took 2 or 3 hours before it was inhabitable, but by 11PM, it was pretty much perfect. Well minus the huge gaps between the blocks where snow and wind could blow through. And the roof that was made of sleds. And the persistent fear that the whole structure would collapse on us while we were sleeping. But besides that, it was basically perfect.

That night before I crawled into my sleeping bag, I was truly bracing for what would likely be the coldest night of my life. I activated a couple hand warmers, tossed them in my bag, and drifted off to sleep. It was either the incredible quality of our igloo, or the fact that it was about 35 degrees and sunny and you almost literally could have slept out in the open on the snow without getting cold, but the record for 'coldest night sleep' went unchallenged. You remain champion for another day 'night sleeping on my buddies couch in his freezing apartment with a t-shirt as a blanket'. May you forever go unchallenged.

In hindsight, my Happy Camper experience was incredibly positive! It was hands down the most enjoyable day in Antarctica to date. Plus, I learned how to melt snow into drinking water, tend to hypothermic comrades, and look so busy making an igloo that I wasn't asked to help make dinner. If these aren't the life skills that we all so desperately need, then I don't know what are.