Thursday, February 27, 2014

Antarctica Day 8: Vernadski Station, Argentine Islands, and Peterman Island

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


The day started out with an early morning wakeup call, which for me are
always a bit rough. But I cheered up as soon as we got in the zodiacs. It
was snowing hard. It occurred to me that I had never seen snow falling on
the ocean before, and commented to Kurtis, our kayak guide, how strange it
was to watch snow fall with no chance of building up, melting right into the
ocean. Kurtis replied that that wasn't necessarily true, that sometimes if
it's cold enough, the snow forms a slush layer on the ice that can seed the
formation of pack ice, "I'm hoping we might see some today," he said.

Our kayaks were white when we got in them, and two of us were simultaneously
inspired to burst out singing, "It's beginning to look a lot like

We first paddled along the shore of Vernadsky Station, the first manned
research base we had seen on our voyage. It had been built as British
base—originally named Faraday Station—but was abandoned and sold for one
British Pound to the Ukrainians (it's nice real estate and a lovely base, so
I think the Ukrainians got a damned good deal), who continue to run it,
doing ionosphere and ozone hole research. I had a vague preconception of
what a research base should look like from friends and colleagues who do
research at McMurdo and South Pole Station, and that preconception involves
a sort of moon base-like sterile, inhospitable-seeming setting with half
snow-covered metal tubes that the Antarcticanauts hide in. Vernadsky, in
contrast, seemed like a summer camp on the sea, complete with a large gang
of penguins waddling around and squawking rowdily, a giant wood thumbs up
hung on the side of one building, and palm trees painted on the water tower.

Past the station, we continued into a series of little inlets that became
increasingly still and glassy, and all of the sudden I realized that the
snow that was falling was falling onto the water and staying there: grease
ice. While snow was building up on the top of my kayak, slush was building
up on the surface of the water. The slush got thicker as we paddled, to the
point where I felt like we were kayaking through a spilled white smoothie.
It was peaceful, the snow dampening the sound in the air as it does
everywhere, but being out on the water in it was a magical, novel

We came out into the open ocean again and the wind had picked up and there
was quite a bit of swell. We bobbed up and down on the waves in our little
kayaks, and the paddling was significantly more of a challenge than it had
been in the nearly glassy conditions we had been out in on our previous
trips out. It was fun. Kurtis asked us all how we were doing and if we were
up for staying out longer, and we all were. We had fun paddling around a few
small islands and watching porpoising penguins in the water and napping fur
seals on the shore.

But we also got our chance to go to land and see Vernadsky, which I was
excited about. A research station! Full of Ukrainians! And a chance to mail
some postcards! One of the engineers there gave us a brief tour of the
station, focusing on the ski room where they keep their skis and snowshoes,
although we did pass a room where I saw someone peering into a microscope
and was tempted to wander in and ask if I could see what he was looking at.
I asked our guide if the skis were for fun or for checking on instruments,
and his reply was "Sometimes instruments. Mostly fun." He, as well as the
others, had been posted there for a year and was just over a month away from
the end of the rotation. But he was still loving it. Then he took us to the

It turns out that the guys at Vernadsky distill their own vodka on the base.
They charge visitors $3 a shot, or there's a special for the ladies: the
bartender will give you a shot if you give him your bra. The bra I was
wearing had been falling apart for months and I was planning to toss it when
I returned to Ushuaia. Instead I got to leave it in good hands hanging
behind the bar at a Ukrainian research station in Antarctica. It's how my
bra would want to die. So I stripped off a few layers…and one final
layer…handed over the bra, and accepted my extra large shot of vodka, which
I downed like a champion. I sort of regretted drinking it so fast because it
was delicious; I'm not normally a vodka drinker, especially not a vodka shot
drinker, but this had a really nice cinnamon flavor and went down way too
smooth. I then got my photo taken with pretty much everyone in the bar, from
the bartender to our ship's bartender to a bunch of the Chinese students to
Sergei, one of our ship's Russian crewmen. One of the Australian Tribe of
wild women thought it was so great that I had taken the bartender up on the
bra offer that she bought me a second shot, which I drank after toasting a
poster of Michael Faraday, who I decided was far more attractive than a
physicist has any right to be (but maybe it was the vodka).

Vernadsky also has a nice (if appropriately expensive) little gift shop,
where I bought myself a patch to put on my backpack as well as $50 worth of
postage stamps to mail a bunch of postcards to those of you who took me up
on the postcard contest. There were a few issues—although I thought I had
successfully downloaded the addresses to my phone which I took with me to
the base, not all of them made it on, so some of you will get postcards from
Vernadsky that will be posted in Ushuaia, apologies, but still pretty

It was a great spot and I was sad to leave (I'm sure the station full of
Ukrainian men who had just spent 11 months at a male-only base in Antarctica
would have been happy to keep me there), but the staff dragged me back to
the ship, where we were late for lunch.

The ship continued through the islets around the Argentine Islands to
Peterman Island, which is spectacularly situated near the coast with Mount
Scott and Mount Shackleton theoretically visible (although for us they were
hidden in fog) and massive glaciers pouring off of the continent. Peterman
has a large penguin colony of both Gentoo and Adelie penguins. The island's
population used to be about 90% Adelies, which along with Emperor penguins
are one of only two endemic Antarctic species, and 10% Gentoos, which are a
warmer water species. However, the warming of water temperatures have driven
the Gentoos south, so that in the last few years the population has
reversed: ~90% Gentoos and 10% Adelies, the last of the Adelies we were
likely to see since we would be continuing north into warmer waters.

The kayakers went out for a paddle but we were turned around by large swells
that kept getting larger and had started to make a few of the group nervous.
We turned around and paddled to a zodiac that was waiting for us. The
procedure was supposed to be that we pulled up alongside the zodiac and
carefully pushed ourselves out of the kayaks, onto the pontoon of the
zodiac, and swung into the boats while the kayak guides tied up the kayaks
to trail behind the zodiac. But I suck at parallel parking, and that applies
to kayaks as well as vehicles, came in too steep, nosed the zodiac…and over
I went.

It felt like slow motion and I was fully aware of the moment that my center
of mass had shifted to the point of no return, and the kayak rolled. With my
lifejacket, it didn't flip all the way over, so for about a second I was
hanging sideways in the water, getting washed by the swells, but I was
laughing. Michelle, the other guide, was on the opposite side of the zodiac
and later said she heard a, "bump, whoop, splash, and then giggles". I
pulled my skirt off of the kayak, pushed myself out, righted myself and then
the kayak, and swam to the end of the zodiac where Kurtis hauled me in. My
total time in the water was probably less than a minute, but it was a
memorable swim! Forget the plunge pool: I went swimming in open Antarctic
waters! Not too many people can say that.

The drysuit had done its job and I was pretty dry, but the wind was cold and
it was decided that I should be dropped off at the ship to change. The trip
back to the ship was chilly, but not bad, and I half-regretted not swimming
around for longer just for shits and giggles. I got back, changed quickly,
and 10 minutes later was back on a zodiac to Peterman Island to hang out
with the penguins.

The penguins were awesome. I walked around a bit and sat down and watched
them. I only saw one Adelie and at least 500 Gentoos. Not sure where the
supposed 49 other Adelies were hanging out. Where the Adelies are just cute,
the Gentoos were obnoxious and even kind of disgusting. The smell of penguin
guano was a bit overwhelming, and it was everywhere in big pink (from the
krill they eat) shit-slicks. What really impressed me was the distance that
the penguins would shoot their projectile poo, and decided that the 5 meter
distance rule was more for our protection than for theirs.

Later back at the ship I was pointed to a research paper someone had printed
out and laminated and posted up in the bar. All of you reading this should
go to Google Scholar right now and do a search for Meyer-Rochow & Gal (2003)
"Pressures produced when penguins pooh—calculations on avian defaecation" in
Polar Biology V.27: p.56-58. Don't miss the chart (and diagram) on page 2.

On our return to the Ioffe from Peterman, we saw the fins of killer whales
in the distance, then suddenly the arced back of a humpback whale right
behind them. The humpback was part of a female and calf pair, and they were
swimming with a pod of orcas. One of the orcas even surfaced right behind
Huw's zodiac full of Chinese students, who were ready with their cameras and
took some stunning close-up shots. Once back on ship, our captain took us on
a whale watching tour, keeping a respectful distance until we stopped for a
bit to watch them swim and the humpbacks came right up to us and swam right
underneath the bow. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest and having spent a
decent amount of time in the water in Alaska, Puget Sound, and Hawaii, I'd
seen humpbacks and orcas up close before (including one childhood experience
where, while being towed on an innertube behind a boat in Puget Sound, an
orca suddenly surfaced right next to me, scaring the shit out of me and my
parents, who quickly hauled me back on the boat lest the orca decide I
looked like a nice little snack), but it was still spectacular.

Meanwhile I got to give Brandon and Ari a hand with processing the biopsy
samples they had just collected after they swaggered up the gangway like
Great White Hunters, crossbow and bags full of filled biopsy cores in hand.
(Note to my geobiology friends: I'll bet we could take some badass mat cores
if we shot the mats with a crossbow first) As everyone else was squealing
over the backs of the whales, I was geeking out looking at the cores: about
a cm of rubbery black skin attached to another several cm of creamy white,
snotty blubber. I wish I had a photo—maybe I'll have the chance later in the
trip—but I was too distracted by having biopsy of whale in my hand to think
about taking pictures. Like I said in a previous post, the biopsies are
taken by what look like pretty normal metal biopsy core tubes with a beveled
sharp cutting end sloping into a hollow metal tube, about 1cm in diameter
and ~5cm long. The cores screw onto the end of arrows with attached foam
floats. While one person drives the zodiac to get close to the whale while
it presents its back, the other loads the arrow into the crossbow, aims for
just below the dorsal fin, and shoots. If successful, the core slices into
the skin of the whale, loading the core with skin and blubber, and then
bounces off, and the zodiac moves in to pick up the floating arrow with
sample at the end. The core is unscrewed from the arrow and put into a
labeled, sterile bag, GPS coordinates are recorded along with the type of
whale and other notes, and then the cores are processed back on the ship. To
get the biopsy samples out, they just pop them out of the tube with a
toothpick (what they really need is a plunger, sometimes the samples got
kind of mangled by the toothpick) into a cryotube, and the samples get
stored in the shipboard -80°C freezer until they can take them back to their
labs to work on. Skin is used for DNA work that can tell the gender and
population of the animal, and blubber is used for lipid analyses that get at
nutrition, hormone levels, etc.

It had been an exciting day, but the excitement was just beginning. After
dinner, the brave among us were loaded back up into zodiacs and taken to
shore to go camping on the Antarctic ice.

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