Friday, November 30, 2007

Out the Window

Every day, first thing, I look out the window. Between opening my eyes, climbing out of bed, and lifting the window shade, I wonder, “What kind of beauty will I see?”

This morning, it’s a ship set in water as clear and calm as black diamonds. The sun, poised in a cloudless sky, lights up the glacier in brilliant white and blue. Bergy bits knock against the stones lining the shore. An elephant seal’s call echoes off the ice. A tern screeches. But these noises of nature are a part of the stillness, not separate from it. The air is fresh and crisp, odorless.

How long, once I leave here, before I shut the window in my mind that drinks in the beauty of the moment, the wonder of the world, the exquisiteness of being, the preciousness of family and friends?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Close Encounter

Announcing himself with a burst of spray, the humpback rises out of the water beside of our zodiac. Terns chatter overhead, the surf crashes the shore, the sea herself slips off the humpback’s glistening skin like a whispered caress.

Forty-five tons of muscle, body over 50-feet long, he arches and dives. The water around the zodiac swirls. He circles us, rises, sprays, lifts his back, and slides beneath the gently rocking waves.

“How close do you think he came?” someone says, voice low, eyes scanning the water.

Close enough to reach out and touch, I think. This idea is unsettling. I am suddenly aware of how small we are—four of us in a boat no wider than one whale fin.

“Here he comes again,” one of my companions shouts and points. He skims beneath the boat, and I imagine that I am reflected in his eye.

The humpback floats underneath our zodiac, white belly shimmering in the blue water. He stretches his fins as though he is measuring our little craft. I hang over the side of the boat. His slender fin extends well beyond the edge of the zodiac. His rippled chin is just beneath the bow of our boat. In my head I hear a song. A tear wells in my eye, but I cannot tell if it is because the song is joyful or sad. Perhaps this is just the feeling of being present in the moment, focused, in awe.

Again he emerges, but farther this time. When he arches his back, his tail rises. I wave.

I search for words to express my gratitude, some sound that he will know, but I have none. If I stay here long enough, I will end up not able to talk at all.

(Many thanks to Stacie Murray for allowing me to use her wonderful pictures.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Blue Ice

What endless ache lay down upon her breast?
Cutting, carving, etching ever deeper
Helping hide the secrets meant to keep her
Weeping and alone, not allowed to rest.

Why once did she agree to play a game
As cold and white as winter wind and snow
That left her soul with nowhere else to go
Made happiness and hurt seem all the same?

It matters not what promises were spoken
Or love betrayed or truth in silence lost
Now laugh and live and love and not know when
The pale, warming sun might rise within
And give of self no matter what the cost
That frees her crying, dying heart again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Whispered Secrets

I walk out to Stacie’s tent about midnight, hunker down, and watch the sea. The moon, the only light bright enough to penetrate the layer of clouds, glows in the mist. Bits of berg rise and fall with the roll of the sea, and my own breath matches her calming rhythm.

The glacier rolls over in her sleep, and groans. The sound makes my eyes heavy, and I yawn. I climb inside the tent and wrap myself inside the down sleeping bag. I close my eyes and let my thoughts dig deep inside the earth. The elephant seals trumpet, and from inside the tent it sounds as though they are swimming in the water right below me. I take a deep breath to check for the telltale odor that gives them away, but all I smell is air cleansed by snow, wind, and salt.

My eyes open, but I can’t tell whether it is the boom of the glacier calving or the waxing light that wakes me. Snow pelts the tent, enticing me back into sleep. My eyes flutter, but I force them open, unzip the entrance to the tent, and peek outside in the hopes of seeing the glacier calve. Later I find out that the spray of ice precedes the noise by long enough that to hear the calving means I have missed seeing the glacier disgorge herself. How the earth withstands this great pressure is beyond my comprehension.

Her compassion, her endless tolerance of the burdens we place upon her will kill us one day. We will simply take from her until she has nothing left to give. She won't complain. We will wither at a breast we have sucked dry and wonder at her selfishness while we die.

Afraid I have already overslept, I check my watch—4:11 a.m. The sun has been up for at least an hour now, but I can close my eyes for a while longer. I bury my head in down and dream that the sun chases me across the sky. When I awake again, I find this time I have overslept. Still, I want to stay here forever, wrapped in down, listening, laughing, loving the snow and the surf, the seals and the glacier whispering secrets in my ear while I race the sun across the sky.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Unquiet World

Scientists get their questions from observing, as do artists.

I walk along the shore, cliffs laced with ice, crackling when the sun touches them. I go to think about art, about describing what I see and hear and smell, but mostly what I feel. The glacier moving sounds like gunshots or like old bones creaking.

Clean air smells like nothing, but if an elephant seal comes in range, the air fills with its musk. The sea moves, the sky, the wind, the waves. Clouds swoop down like a skua snatching an egg from a penguin nest. Wind stirs whitecaps on the bay, but most of the movement is inside the glacier and invisible. On my side of the harbor, icicles cover the rocky cliffs and break under the weight of the sun peeking through the clouds. Skittering through a maze of frozen lace, they chime. The glacier snaps and groans. And while I smile at the sight of the sun, the glacier weeps. Growlers hiss and pop, bits of ice bump each other or the rocks.

On the way back, the glacier calves, spewing bits of ice and powder into the bay. The water surges, rocking the growlers at the base of the ice cliffs. A few minutes later the waves hit the opposite shore. All this noise and yet I am alone.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Glacier Speaks Silence

We decide to take a walk on the glacier and the moment couldn’t be more perfect. The sun is shining and, except for a line of grey on the horizon, the sky a brilliant blue. The snow is beginning to melt. Scott needs to check the VLF tower, and Rosemary is learning to back him up on his day off. They invite me along. Rosemary and I decide to wear snowshoes; Scott only boots, and it turns out the snow is solid enough that we ladies remove our snowshoes and tromp along. We're warm with the exercise. We strip off our coats and gloves as well. The glacier is less than a quarter mile away, and you can see it from almost anywhere at Palmer, but the glacier has melted significantly since the station was built. Where the outermost buildings now stand the glacier used to crouch. The glacier melting into the sea lowers the salinity of the water, and this kills some of the creatures that make a home here. If the phytoplankton cannot live, the krill cannot feed. Without the krill, the seals and penguins have less to eat.

The adélie penguins eat only krill, and if they don't change their species may soon be extinct. Petermann Island sits at the southern border of the gentoo range and the northern edge of the adélies range. Over the past five years the temperatures have risen, the glacier is melting, the sea ice is thinner, the krill are less abundant. For the gentoo this change has meant they can extend their feeding and breeding range. But for the adélies penguins the warmer temperatures mean dwindling numbers. Five years ago the scientists on Petermann Island counted 2000 pairs of adélies and 60 pairs of gentoos. Last year the tally was adélie 500, gentoo 2000.

Stepping out onto the glacier there aren’t any trees, no breaks of any kind in the vast expanse of white. To the right mountains pierce the clouds, behind me the sea—alive with bits of iceberg—rushes the shore, ahead and to the left smooth, glistening snow coats the glacier. As we climb we begin to see the tips of larger mountains peeking up over the glacier. Away from the station, the noise of the generators and fans fade and all I hear is the snow crunching beneath my boots, the crash of the sea against the shore, the occasional call of a tern or a petrel gliding along the ice cliffs. In the distance we see two seals basking in the sunshine. As summer progresses we will begin to hear the seals barking warnings at trespassers who come too near their pups. My first question about the glacier was where it began. It’s not possible to tell from looking when you move from walking over snow-covered stones to walking over snow-covered ice. For the most part the glacier looks like a giant, snow-covered dome. Only at the edge, where the glacier calves, can you see the jagged edges of ice and the brilliant blue colors caused by gas being trapped inside the ice.

I look at the glacier edge and at the surface of the sea in much the same way, wondering, “What secrets are you hiding?” Gazing at the ocean I see only the surface of the water and a few feet down. I gaze at a distant crevasse and imagine it as an unspoken invitation to enter the world beneath the ice. These things remind me that for all our accumulated learning, we know so little. On the walk back we veered closer to the shore, and as close to the edge of the glacier as we’re allowed to approach. Where the snow had melted we see boulders emerging, glistening with the runoff of yesterday’s snow. Palmer Station, Torgersen and Litchfield Islands, and some of the other smaller islands that I can’t yet identify by shape dot the landscape below us. The clouds swoop in on the breeze coming from the sea, and the surface of the water turns grey, bits of ice bobbing at the surface. Ice dots the bay looking like a vast room covered in sculpture. One looks like a swan.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Jump

Today I joined the group jumping into Arthur Bay as a way to thank the crew of the Laurence M Gould for resupplying the station. I'm glad there weren't any leopard seals in the vacinity because I look a little too much like a penguin!

There is ice floating in the water, and the temperature stays pretty steady at around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Zee, who works on station, described it best. "It's like jumping into a glass of ice water." If anyone is curious what it feels like, you can fill a small basin with water and ice and put your hand in it.

Most people can withstand the cold for about 10 or 15 minutes before hypothermia sets in. If you would like to see more pictures of the jumpers, I have posted a few to the photo album on

Penguins are so well adapted to the climate that they have smooth skin on the inside of their wings so that they can vent air when they get too hot from zipping around the water chasing krill. (BTW...Troy and Morgan asked some good questions about these topics, and I have published a partial reply to the 10 November post.

I have to follow up on the question about krill to make sure that I have the right information.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Man Overboard

A lot of you have asked for pictures so I'm uploading one here and more to my website.

If you must go out and rescue the head of the search and rescue team at Palmer Station, Antarctica, I can say from experience that a recent graduate of Boating II will be grateful for the wise and patient instruction of a most excellent teacher.

Today Kim and I completed our Boating II course and--beside the notable fact that we have piloted a zodiac around in Antarctica--we are now qualified to check out the boat and take excursions to the islands. (Okay, I admit we must still have a seasoned seaman on the boat with us.)

Part of our class was the "Man Overboard Drill." Both Kim and I steered the boat up beside our instructor (Ryan) who had kindly submerged himself in the chilly waters so we could practice. Neither of us ran him over so all of us were quite cheered by that. Brian Johnson was with us as well (another SAR/survival skills instructor). To his credit and Ryan's, neither of them yelped once in fear when I came in a little "hot" on one or two of my three or so landings.

ATA dictionary: running hot 1. a zodiac boat landing that is taken a little too fast and causes the boat to rock and might send an unwary passenger over the side. (Hence, the "Man Overboard Drill")

This level of excitement induces exhaustion and hunger. I feel obligated to share the fact that we are fed five times a day here by an exquisite chef. For lunch we had tuna melts, cream of tomato soup with dill, and freshies.

ATA dictionary: freshies 1. fresh fruits and veggies (lettuce doesn't grow here but lichen, sea grass, and kelp do)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Excerpts from my Field Journal

1 and 2 November
Depart Denver for Punta Arenas. In Dallas I recognize a few faces when we go to board the flight to Santiago. We are all headed for the LMG, the Nathaniel B Palmer, or Palmer Station.

3 November
We'll spend the day in Punta Arenas. Our appointment to pick up (and try on) our ECW (extreme cold weather) gear is at 10 a.m.

We tour the cemetery after we get our gear and have lunch at Lomito's. (Excellent sandwiches, not to be missed if you are ever in the city.) The statuary and gardens are impressive and peaceful. Most of the grave sites have a photo of the departed and perhaps some items that they treasured in life. Many have been planted over with spring flowers--tulips, daffodils, and violets along with many varieties I'm not familiar with.

After lunch we hike up to the top of the city and take pictures. We pass through the plaza on the way to the ship and kiss the toe of the indio. Local lore says this means we will one day return.

We overnight on the ship.

4 November
Departed Punta Arenas on the Laurence M Gould. Spent the first two days deep breathing the fresh sea air and napping while we became accustomed to the pitch and roll of the ship. Sighted Commerson's dolphins in the Straits of Magellan. Lovely black and white creatures that zip through the water, diving just as they approach the bow of the boat.

5 November
The intervals between naps and trips outside to stand in the sea breeze shrinks steadily. I dread the thought of entering the Drake Passage. The crew has been telling stories of seas so rough and rocky that they end up walking on the walls.

6 November
The passage through the Drake, while rougher than the Straits of Magellan, is relatively calm. Two days on the ship has most of us accustomed to the motion and feeling quite a bit better than we had the first two days.

7 November
We are putting in a camp at Cape Shirreff. This is a protected wilderness requiring special permits to access. The science team we are dropping off will study the penguins and the seals--elephant and fur--that come here to breed. The team will be staying five months so we are delivering quite a bit of food and other supplies along with them. The skies are overcast and the sea is rough. The wind--at 20 or so knots--makes the water choppy. We time our drop into the zodiac and hunker down in the boat for a bumpy, wet ride. We load supplies on sleds and pull them the quarter mile up a hill to the team's camp. Snow drifts reach the roof of the cabin on the seaward side of the building. Kim and I help dig out the propane tanks that supply fuel to heat the building. When the supplies begin to arrive, we hike down to shore, help unload the boats, load the sleds, and pull the sleds to the hut. A team at the hut inventories the supplies and stores them.

Between loads we watch the seals swimming in the cove. We see Weddell and fur seals. A short hike away the male elephant seals have begun to arrive and are lolling on the shore. A few penguins waddle up and down the slopes.

When the last load has been hauled to the huts we wave goodbye to the team, wish them luck, and head back to the ship.

We are frozen and exhausted as we climb aboard. Again we time our transfer to the swell of the waves to keep from being tossed into the water or pinched between the boat and the ladder.

At dinner everyone's cheeks are pink from windburn, but we are all happy to know that the five we've left behind are well on their way to being settled in.

8 November
Arrive Palmer for a brief two-hour stop. We are dropping off the station manager and picking up volunteers to help with the put-in tomorrow at Petermann.

9 November
Awoke early for the trip through the stark and stunning Lemaire Channel. Blue sky peeks through the clouds. The water is as still and shiny as black polished marble. Wrapped in clouds and brushed with snow and ice, the peaks stretch skyward, the sharp angles perfectly mirrored in the water below. I am wishing for another whale sighting, which is not to be. Instead we see a leopard seal and her pup sunning themselves on a bit of ice floating in the channel. Penguins leap and dart through the water. Slow and clumsy on land, they are incredibly graceful in the sea. Across the bridge someone shouts and points. "Leopard seal," he says, and everyone crowds the windows, searching.

"It's chasing that penguin," a woman reports. "It's got it." She lays the binoculars aside. We watch the penguins until they disappear in the wake of the ship's passing. We round a corner, and to our left is Scott's Peak. To our right Petermann Island. We don our float coats and secure the beaver tails. We dip our boots and scrub the soles before we climb aboard the zodiac.

When we reach the docking point, Vlad and Constantine are there to greet us. We are the first humans (beside each other) they have seen in eight months. Vlad is a biologist from the Ukraine doing field research. I am not sure about Constantine's background, but I believe he is supporting Vlad's research.

They help us disembark and unload the zodiac and then take off to do their research. The day is warm and after a little exertion everyone begins to shed layers, some down to shirt sleeves. It is a perfect, windless, warm and sunny day.

Penguins are scattered across the island, some on the high cliffs, others near the sea. The ones swimming look like white darts zig-zagging through the water. Several pairs surround the refugio (emergency shelter/supply hut) built by the Argentines and currently occupied by the Russians. The team we are "putting in" we live in tents less than a quarter of a mile from the coast. The island is small, less than a mile wide. We watch the penguins, and they watch us. They are curious, cute, and amusing creatures.

The camp is nearest a colony of gentoos and at the end of the day we hike up the hill to take a look at the adelies. As the climate becomes warmer, the adelies struggle but the gentoos, better adapted to warmer climes, are expanding their range to locations farther south than they have been seen before. We also see some blue-eyed shags. They remind me of trim, alert penguins. They build their nests from sea grass on the edges of the cliffs right among the penguin colonies.

We go back to the ship tired, hungry, and sunburned.

10 November
Arrived Palmer Station and have been learning our way around as well as basic safety. Tonight some of my shipmates and I are planning to walk up the glacier.

I hope this catches you up a bit with our adventures.

Hasta pronto,