Penguins and seals and cruise ships, oh my!

The last week has been a great one, packed with weather, visitors, science, and wildlife. Over the weekend, a storm system the size of the Antarctic Peninsula gusted away with Anvers Island at its fringes. Lucky for us, its 20-40 knot winds came largely from the southeast, the direction that blows ice out of Arthur Harbor!

Through lunch on Monday, the Harbor was still so iced over that there was no visible difference between the ice and snowy ground. Sometimes, when there’s nothing to distinguish water from land, I semi-wonder whether I could have made it all up–that the station is on island, that we traveled here on an ice breaker, that we’re surrounded by marine animals. But at 2 pm, I walked outside and saw, directly in front of the station, a large patch of rippling blue.

All the ice blew out by Monday evening, but the winds stayed high enough to prevent boating for several more days. Our consolation prize was to wake up Tuesday morning to a baby seal sleeping beside our Zodiac! The Bird Group, who know a great deal about the local wildlife, believe him to be a male weaned from his mother just a few days before he arrived here. Over the course of the next three days, he rolled at a leisurely pace around station, coming to rest for a day on the deck of the boathouse, presumably because of his love of and desire to be near the boating coordinator.

On Wednesday, the first cruise ship of the season came for a visit, which was exciting, exhausting, and overwhelming. We were visited by about 150 passengers and crew from countries including Poland, India, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, and England. Stationed in the dining room as a “mingler,” I met amazing people, including numerous world travelers for whom Antarctica was their seventh continent visited.

Later that night, we received another visitor to the station: a gentoo penguin! He waddled around between the Bio building and boathouse, where the seal still lay, looking fantastically busy as he leaned far forward, as if to reach his destination faster. After he dashed around for about thirty minutes, it’s likely he swam home to the Torgerson Island penguin colony, just across the harbor, for the night.

On Thursday morning, we finally woke up to winds low enough that it was time for our first real sampling excursion of the season. Frank, Nicole (the Rutgers phytoplankton group), Conor, and I checked the boat’s fuel and air, loaded our gear, and set off. As we pulled away from the boat ramp, the lab supervisor and  boating coordinator waved and took pictures, as if we were their kids who had been waiting all summer to start kindergarten, and had finally boarded the school bus. As if they were pretty sure we’d be fine, but were also a little anxious as we left the nest.

As I turned from them to face the ocean, it was dizzying to realize that the four of us, who all jokes aside, really are kids, were in our own boat, loose in the waters of Antarctica. Easing in, we started at “Station B,” the nearest of our two sampling sites, which is about a mile from Palmer. The next four hours were filled with trying to safely attach frighteningly-expensive instruments to a wire on a winch, lower them to the correct depths, get theme back on the boat, collect water, and not run into any rocks, ice, or animals. Despite all the required wrinkles (an instrument wouldn’t turn on, we drifted off Station B while we had gear in the water and couldn’t maneuver, we forgot an important piece of tubing), it was a very successful first day of sampling in that we collected all our data AND brought everyone home again.

Weather permitting, we’ll sample again tomorrow–more adventures to come!


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