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,

Kate

14 comments:

Mary Grubbs said...

Kate,
What an adventure!!! Your descritptions paint a wonderful picture. Thanks for including the links on the locations and wildlife. Stay warm...
Mary

Roger said...

Kate it is good to hear that you made it? Send or post pictures when you can. Do you know if you are going to SCUBA yet? With that being said stay as warm as you can.
Roger

Mary Grubbs said...

Kate,
What impact has Palmer Station seen on the local marine ecosystem due to global warming? Do they track climate changes for the area at this station? If so, what are the trends? How long have they been collecting data at this site? Any mer sitings yet? ;-)
Mary

Arturo said...

wow, katie, my girl. you are the best! thanks so much for keeping us up on all that is going on. i have so enjoyed hearing about your trip so far. keep at it and yes, keep warm. lots of love, j

Mom said...

Hi, my dear,
I don't know if you'll get this or not, but I keep on trying! :} Dad is golfing with John, so he can't help me at present.
I wanted to guess what the most exotic creature you would first see would be, but I (and your father), didn't know how to get to your blog. My guess would be Ann Curry. :) Did you know that she has been visiting Antarctica for the Today Show?
Dad & I went to 8:00 a.m. Mass today, then headed for Geneseo to have breakfast and visit Gram. She's doing about the same--very quiet, but not unhappy. She seems to still enjoy being a little ornery. :)
We are leaving for Kansas next Saturday morning. We'll stay until Wednesday morning, because Erin, Jessie and Jack have a Gold
Orchestra concert on Tuesday evening. We saw the orchestra perform a year or two ago; and they are excellent. The head of the Music Department at K-State trains and conducts the kids, who are between 8 and 17 or so; and he does a terrific job with them. They sound like a professional orchestra.
Hope things are going very well for you. Dad and I really enjoy reading your blog. It is so inter-esting! You have been (and are) very creative with it. We're very proud of you! It was great to talk to you on the phone the other evening, but evidently we got cut off. We're looking forward to another call soon.
Stay well and happy! We're praying for you
Lots of Love,

Mom and Dad xo xo

Katek said...

In answer to some of Mary’s most excellent questions—

Palmer Station was opened in February of 1965. The location of the station was selected in large part because of the biological diversity of the area, and research into the marine ecosystem began immediately. The scientists on station also conducted research in the upper and lower atmospheric sciences, glaciology, geophysics, and terrestrial ecology. Beginning in 1985, intensive oceanographic studies were begun aboard the research vessel R/V Polar Duke. In 1998, the Laurence M Gould replaced Polar Duke and shortly thereafter a much larger ship, the Nathaniel B Palmer, was also put into service as a science vessel.

Kim, the sculptor who is also at Palmer as a participant in the Artists and Writers Program, and I had a chance to participate in the shipboard research while crossing the Drake Passage. We each took part in 4-hour shifts in which we dropped sensors into the water to test temperature and salinity at various depths throughout the passage. The data is then passed back to science teams and mathematicians who analyze the data looking for trends and patterns in the information and also correlating the information with things like krill blooms and breeding success of penguins colonies to determine if there are correlations between these independent factors.

Certainly the team has noticed trends in climate change, and it was a British team in the peninsula who first called attention to the depletion of the ozone layer that protects us from danger UV rays. The thinning—or hole—in the ozone is most severe over this area. Since actions have been taken to reduce the number of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere, I understand that the rate of depletion has slowed.

Additionally, the teams here have emphasized to me that the situation we typically refer to as “global warming” is actually “global climate change.” I asked one of the biologists about this and he explained to me that climate changes, even warming trends, are normal. What alarms scientists and researchers at present is the rate of change. Our climate is changing much faster than it has historically, and much faster even that scientists had predicted. Their concern revolves around the fact that the rate of climate change is accelerating.

Regarding the impact on the marine ecosystem, I will try to answer that after speaking with the scientists conducting research into the lifecycles and breeding patterns of local krill and penguin populations.

Danielle said...

Kate,

We miss you! We had our team offsite last week, and it went very well, but it would have been even better with you there!

My kids (Morgan and Troy) have been reading your blogs with me and we have a few questions for you:

Q: How cold is the water there?
Q: What seals are there? Do they have any predators?
Q: What are krill and what are their predators?
Q: Were/are you seasick?

Thank you for sharing your adventure with us!

-Danielle

Anonymous said...

So, so cool. I especially like hearing about the fear of going through Drake's passage. That just makes it so clear that, despite the century that has passed since we first reached there, the sea still rules. So cool and loved hearing about the local wildlife. Thank you, Kate.

kate keeley said...

Troy and Morgan,

These are great questions!

Q: How cold is the water there?
A: The water averages 32 degrees Fahrenheit; but can drop as low as 28 degrees without freezing.

Today 12 of us jumped in the water because that is a tradition here whenever the ship leaves. It is people’s way of saying “thank you” because the ship brings all the freshies and other supplies that the people on station need.

Q: What seals are there? Do they have any predators?
A: There are elephant seals, fur seals, crabeater, Weddell, and—the scariest: leopard seals. Elephant seals are the largest. Most of the shoreline here is covered with large, round stones or brown dirt. (I think it’s dirt, but so far it is all covered by snow, and I haven’t had a close look.) Most of the time seals ignore the people who come around, but the seals look so much like the rocks that sometimes the scientists or the support staff that visit the islands and shorelines where they breed don’t see them and a couple of times have almost stepped on them.

Leopard seals are the most aggressive, and it’s a good idea to stay out of the water when they’re around. They eat fish, penguins, and even other seals.

The main predator of the seals is the killer whale. These whales have been known to leap up on ice floats to “bounce” a seal in the water so that they can eat it.

I have to check a couple of facts on the krill, so I will post answers to the other questions after I do a little more research.

Anonymous said...

That picture of the Lemare mountain was awesome.

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