Monday, November 29, 2010


Happy Thanksgiving to all! This past Saturday, we celebrated Thanksgiving here on station with a two-day weekend and the biggest feast we've had yet! There were three dinner times, 3pm, 5pm, and 7pm, since the galley is not nearly large enough to house the one thousand plus people currently on station. Larry and I and several friends signed up for the 7pm dinner and spent the afternoon beforehand playing the card game Munchkin.

Whitney ponders her next strategic move...

Larry was pooped and fell asleep during the game.
At 6pm, we got in line for dinner and managed to secure a place very near the front of the line; at 7pm sharp, the galley opened!

The table where the turkey was carved

Look at all those yummy desserts! Tiramisu, pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake, chocolate raspberry torte, and so much more! I didn't have room for any of them after eating dinner, so I piled several on a plate and ate them the next morning in my dorm room.

Mmmm... dinner. After three years of vegetarianism, I began eating seafood again in August. I also allowed myself a Thanksgiving turkey exception. :-) It was all very tasty!

Larry thoroughly enjoyed his meal.

My friend and fellow janitor Aireana poses with me for a photo

More friends! 
Yet another friend Brent and me
After dinner, I went home and slept like a baby. :)

Now that it's warmed up quite a bit here, the skuas have arrived. What is a skua, you ask? It's a species of scavenger bird that feeds on the placenta of seals who have given birth. They also like to attack people who walk out of the galley with food in their hands. I saw my first skua attack yesterday! Usually, they swoop down from behind on an unsuspecting victim to startle them into dropping their food. Once that happens, the skua leaves the person alone and eats the food on the ground. They are persistent birds and are not afraid of people, which is why I was able to get a couple of close-up shots of a skua watching and waiting outside the galley.

I hope everyone had a fantastic Thanksgiving! More adventures to come!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Birthday #32 and the Ob Tube

Hello again! To start off this week, I have to give you the link to this wonderful video that my friends in Boulder made for me. Even though I'm way on the other side of the world, they threw me a birthday party! Thank you Brendan, Cassey, Alex, Mary, and Mary's new man (I look forward to meeting you someday soon)!! That makes my day! :-D And those cupcakes look really yummy...

Last Monday, I celebrated my 32nd birthday, and it was a lot of fun. Larry organized a birthday party for me in the coffee house here on station. Lots of people showed up for food, drinks, and a nice evening of hanging out.

Look at all the people who were at the party!

The birthday boy sporting his birthday headband. :)

In other news, the observation tube (the ob tube, for short) was installed in the sea ice in early November, and I took a couple of trips down the tube to observe life under the sea. The first time, Larry and I went with a friend named Steve. The tube itself goes about thirty feet under the sea ice into a little room with windows all the way around. You could see all kinds of little fish creatures swimming around and I also saw two jellyfish float by. The sea ice was also quite spectacular! Unlike the top surface, which is flat, the bottom surface of the sea ice is made up of a frozen crystalline features that stick out in all directions, sometimes forming ice "stalactites" that dipped into the water. Very beautiful!

Approaching the sea ice, you can see the diving hut on the right and the top of the ob tube on the left.

Larry and I stand beside the ob tube, which goes down about thirty feet under water.

Steve joined Larry and me for a trip to the ob tube.

Larry posed for some silly pics while we waited for our turn to go down the tube.

And when you're too silly on the ice, you slip and fall. Fortunately, Larry is okay. :)

Steve and I standing outside the ob tube. You can see the top of Ob Hill in the far center left background.

Unfortunately, photos didn't take very well through the glass at the bottom of the tube, but here's one of the crystalline features that form the bottom of the sea ice.

In addition to visiting the ob tube, Larry, Steve, and I took a look inside the nearby diving hut. As its name indicates, the hut is used by divers as an access point to get underwater. A hole about four feet in diameter is cut in the sea ice, and a plastic tube blowing warm air hangs above it to keep it from refreezing.

The diving hut

The hole in the ice is kept from refreezing by the warm air that comes out of the plastic tube.

Looking into the diving hole, we could see all the way to the sea floor about forty or fifty feet below. The glow comes from the ambient sunlight as it passes through the ice.

The second time I went to the ob tube, I took some photos of the sea ice nearby as well as a seal that was laying out in the sun. We also saw a plane land on the sea ice runway in the distance.

My friend Sharon looks up at me from the bottom of the ob tube.

Look, a plane!

Getting closer...

And just about to touch down! I'm impressed that the sea ice is thick enough to support these huge military planes!

The textured surface of the sea ice reflects the afternoon sunlight.

A seal soaks up some Antarctic summer sun near the ob tube. He made a few funny seal noises, which we loved hearing. :)

Even though the sea is frozen in Antarctica, it is still subject to the same tides that occur throughout the rest of the world. This causes swells, dips, and cracks in the ice close to land.

A swell with several cracks

Here the ice looks like it just split in two from the force of the tides.

This crack stretched for quite a ways along the ice. Fortunately, these cracks are not big enough for someone to fall through into the sea below; they can, however, twist up a person's ankle really badly.

A view of the ripples from the swells and dips in the sea ice

This week is a short work week for us at McMurdo. We have a two-day weekend this Saturday and Sunday!! Yay!! Thanksgiving will be celebrated on Saturday, with a huge feast for everyone on station (albeit in three shifts: 3pm, 5pm, and 7pm). Have a happy Turkey Day and I'll see you all again next week. :)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Happy Camper... and PENGUINS!!

Greetings! This past week has been full of fun adventures, especially last Friday and Saturday when I got to participate in Happy Camper! Happy Camper is a two-day, one-night course on how to survive on the ice in Antarctica. Everyone who works outside McMurdo Station is required to take the course in the event that they get stranded somewhere on the continent. However, there are often openings available for people who aren't required to take the course, so I got to go! :)

There were twenty of us that day and we all piled into a Delta to head out to the ice shelf on the south side of Ross Island (south of Mt. Erebus, east of Scott Base). When we got there, the first thing we learned was how to start a fire with a Whisperlite International stove. Jim and I would use a Whisperlite stove whenever we went camping, so this was a skill I already knew and I was able to help others who were learning for the first time.

Poeple and luggage crammed into the Delta

Marcie, I, and Ryan (L-R) learn how to use a stove.

Getting the stove attached to the fuel cannister can be a bit tricky.

We then learned how to set up four-season tents and Scott tents. The four-season tents were very much like the tents most people use when they go camping; however, Scott tents (named for Robert Scott) are specifically designed for camping in the extreme cold. They are the big yellow tents in the photos below.

Getting the Scott tent set up

To secure the Scott tent, we wrapped the tent cords around a bamboo stick and buried it under about a foot of snow.

The last step was to put lots of snow on the flaps around the edges (except at the opening) to keep the wind from getting under the tent.

My friend Reid reapplies sunscreen after working out in the sunlight. The UV radiation is extremely intense in Antarctica because it all gets reflected by the ice and snow. Even though I applied sunscreen on my face, I got seriously sunburned on the underside of my nose because of the UV reflection. Ouch!
After getting the tents set up, we built a wall of snow bricks to block the winds should a storm come up overnight. On Ross Island, bad weather always comes directly from the south, so we built the brick wall on the southern side of the tents. To create the bricks, we used a handsaw to cut them out of the snow and a shovel to lift them off the ground.

Here I am cutting bricks with the handsaw.

More brick-cutting.

My friend Ryan is shoveling the bricks from the snow quarry to the wall.

After sawing for a while, I decided to try carrying some bricks. They probably weighed anywhere between twenty and thirty pounds.

Reid had a smart idea to pile several bricks on a sled and drag them to the site of the wall. :)

The completed wall stands about four feet high to protect the tents from any potential bad weather. Fortunately, the bad weather never came. :-D
The outhouse where we took care of business

The pee pole for the guys. Mmmm... yellow snow. :)

A view of Mt. Discovery from the ice shelf. The green buildings in the mid-ground are Scott Base.

Here I stand in front of Mt. Erebus. The volcano wasn't steaming on this day, although it often does.
After setting up the tents and the tent wall, we ate dinner and our instructors left us students to spend the rest of the evening by ourselves. Of course, we had a radio by which we could contact our instructors in case of an actual emergency, but the idea was to simulate being stranded in the middle of nowhere in Antarctica. Several people planned to sleep that night in one of the tents, but some of us pursued other arrangements: the ice trench. If you're stranded with a broken tent or no tent, you can always dig a hole in the ground and sleep there. :) So, my friend Marcie and I decided to dig a double trench that we could both sleep in.

Here's the hole that I dug to begin creating the trench.

The trench gets a little bit deeper.

After digging for a while myself, I let Marcie take over for a bit.

Marcie had a real knack for hacking through the snow and ice.

Hack, hack, hack...

The trench begins to look like something someone could sleep in.

Finally it's finished! We added snow bricks on top to create a roof and put flags at the front and back ends to prevent people from accidentally stepping into it.

A tight fit, but it works.

From the inside looking out.

It was really snug with two people inside but at least we were able to keep warm.

Marcie made snow letters to form the word "LOVE" outside our trench.
Despite building a cozy trench, I had trouble sleeping. I kept waking up throughout the fully sunlit night. At 4:15, I climbed out of the trench and walked around outside for a bit. The sun was low in the southern sky and there was absolutely no sound anywhere: no people (everyone else was still sleeping), no seals, no penguins, nothing. It was amazing and overwhelming to stand in such immense silence and stillness.

The campsite at 4:15am. Behind is a view of the ice sheet on Ross Island, riddled with cracks.

My water bottle froze overnight (as did my socks and shoes).
After breakfast the next morning, we learned how to operate a ham radio and practiced a couple of survival scenarios. In the first one, we imagined that we had survived a helicopter crash and using only a survival kit, a radio, and a few flags, we enacted how we would respond. In the second scenario, we had to find someone who had gotten lost in total whiteout conditions. We simulated such conditions by wearing buckets on our heads.

My friend Britt uses a ham radio to get in touch with Operations at McMurdo Station.

The ham radio requires a very long antenna wire to be held up at three points, each about ten feet apart.

One exercise that we did was to try to walk in a straight line with a bucket on our heads, something that was very difficult to do. If we were ever stranded in Antarctica during a white out, trying to get from point A to point B would be equally difficult.
After getting back to station from Happy Camper, I slept like a rock the next night. It was a lot of fun but very exhausting. It's nice to know that I could survive were I to get stuck somewhere though.

Separate from Happy Camper, another exciting event that happened earlier that week: my first spotting of PENGUINS!! There were two of them and they were about fifteen feet away from me. They didn't come any closer, instead choosing to just waddle by.

Two Adélie penguins appeared on the ice shelf while driving back to McMurdo Station. You can see the planes on the sea ice runway in the background.

Flap those wings! :)

Aren't they cute? :)

Scootin' away...
Bye-bye penguins! Come back soon!

For those of you who are interested in learning more about life at McMurdo Station, I recommend the film "Encounters at the End of the World", directed by German film director Werner Herzog. Happy Camper is one of the things he films and you can see a little bit more of what happens during the course. :)