Back to “Civilization”

The helicopter came for us last Friday afternoon. We were due to leave Cape Crozier on Thursday, but after two days of dazzling blue skies and above freezing temperatures we woke up Thursday morning in a cloud. Two days’ worth of warm air had condensed over the cold ocean (the water here is always around -1.8 degrees C) to form a dense layer of fog. The landscape was completely erased. The air was still and silent – quite a contrast to last month’s winds. I thought I could hear whales breathing, but the sound was far too regular and repetitive for a living being. The distant whoosh came from waves – a light swell from the north, not visible in the dense fog – washing up on the rocky beaches and under the ice foot at the bottom of the slope. Friday was beautiful again. The helicopter arrived, we checked the hut for forgotten items, secured the door, donned our Extreme Cold Weather gear and helmets, and within minutes the hut – our home for 2 1/2 months – was just a tiny orange speck in the Antarctic vastness of rock, ice, and snow. It’s always so disorienting to leave a place that you love so much, a place that is so much a part of your body, with so little time to think and no chance to turn back. We flew past Post Office Hill, Ainley Peak, and the Knoll, along the southern edge of Ross Island where ice shelf meets land, above the rolling fields of gaping crevasses that adorn the base of Mount Erebus, through the Windless Bight, over cracks in the sea ice and turquoise meltwater pools dotted with thousands of sleeping seals, and into McMurdo Station.

Within an hour I had taken my first shower in 2 1/2 months and was standing in the middle of the galley as dozens of people swirled about with trays of food, my gaze tracking each person as they went by, while trucks and oddly shaped heavy machinery beeped outside. This transition is always overwhelming, though my initial callousness is quickly softened by the pleasure of the first hot shower, the sight of green salad, and everyone’s unfaltering friendliness.

By Friday evening we (David, Jean, and Lloyd from Cape Royds, and the four of us from Crozier) were standing on the ice pier at McMurdo waiting to board the Polar Sea, a US Coast Guard icebreaker that was to take us to Beaufort Island to do some work. By midnight we were standing on the ship’s bridge as minke whales and orcas spy-hopped and dove along the icebreaker channel, and by 7:30 AM the next day, after a claustrophobic sleep (military ship bunks are decidedly not spacious), we were drifting a few km SW of Beaufort Island as scores of Coast Guard deck hands lowered two small steel boats into the water. We got in, motored past ice floes bathed in gorgeous morning light and covered with penguins, and landed on the beach at Beaufort Island. We banded and measured chicks and were back on the ship by 1 PM headed back to McMurdo. It was bizarre to have a 400 foot ship with 150 military personnel aboard at our disposal – a rather decadent and odd way to travel, especially after 2 1/2 months spent with three other people in a tiny, spartan hut at the edge of Antarctica.

Yesterday was mellow. Sleeping late (on a real mattress!), catching up with email after nearly a month with limited access (our link was down most of January, thus the lack of posts), drinking wine at the coffee house, and the like. Lloyd left this morning for Christchurch and then New York. The rest of us have four more days of packing before flying back to New Zealand and then our respective homes.

Me and an Adélie penguin at Cape Crozier (photo by Lloyd Fales).

Grant making funny faces on the helicopter (self portrait by GB).

Crevasses big enough to swallow a city block (or a helicopter, as the case may be).

Seals (tiny black dots) sleeping by their breathing holes.

The USCG Polar Sea approaches the ice pier.

Beaufort Island and a blue hued floe.

A minke whale comes up for air.

An orca swims along the icebreaker channel.

Beach landing with Mt. Erebus in the background.

Self portrait on the icebreaker.