We spied our first Adélies from Hut Point the evening we did our first (and so far only) stint as hut guides. We were more like apprentices, helping out 2 more seasoned guides. There was a goodly crowd: 43 total souls visited the hut in the 2-hour open house that night, most from the Polar Star, and since only 6 or 7 may enter at once, I got to hang outside and tell stories. I am rusty on some names and particulars, but I have accumulated quite a lot of material on the huts by reading about the expeditions obsessively and by making a performance also called Beyond the Utmost Bound in 2010. Anyway at one point Vince wandered up toward Vince’s cross (no relation–the cross is for George Vince who fell from a cliff during a blizzard and died on the Discovery expedition). He came back to report there was a penguin standing on the sea ice on the other side of the point. The penguin was just standing there, staring down. But later 5 or 6 others came wobbling up to join him, and they all started diving and popping up out of the water onto the ice. The sudden popping up is my favorite penguin gesture. It looks so effortless. It worked out rather well because folks waiting to get into the hut could go look at the penguins.
This turned out to be but a warm up for us, penguin-wise. We had a planned trip with famous penguin scientist and environmentalist David Ainley (http://www.penguinscience.com/; http://www.lastocean.org/) to the Cape Royds Adélie colony but he was being kind of ambiguous about it. He stopped by our lab in Crary and we showed him Ponting’s photos made 100+ years ago in that same colony and explained our project. He stared at the one photo we liked most and said, “I recognize that rock,” which to me was the least interesting thing in the photo, “but that ridge is different now.” and then let us know the photo was taken at a different time of year. The adults, he said, were mostly off feeding because the chicks were now grown enough, so mostly we would see chicks. That was OK with us. Ponting was here for a lot longer than we are, and we couldn’t possibly match up seasons on everything. There are for instance some wonderful photos Ponty did in winter using lights, but wintering here could never have been on the agenda.
At some point in the next day or two it became apparent that Dr. Ainley wanted to go to Cape Crozier to that colony. And I would love to go there–that’s where Cherry, Bowers, and Wilson went for their winter journey–but we do not have permits to go there, so we can’t. At one point we thought we were going to Royds within the hour so we scrambled around getting together our ECW gear and camera bags configured and to BFC for pee bottles and hand warmers and so on, running around like madmen, but then that didn’t happen. We waited until 9 PM that evening when the next day’s helo schedule is posted to see if we were going the next day as had been the original plan, but it wasn’t listed. So we went to the Coffee House and then I stayed up too late writing a (now destroyed) blog post that was about how this place is a strange mix of meticulous planning and sudden changes. Some of that is the weather. And some of it in this case was the Ainley factor. He has a lot of well-earned clout.
And then suddenly it was the next morning (which looks and that morning still felt a lot like night) and Vince was banging on my door saying, hurry, we’re going, we have to be at helo ops in an hour, and right after that Katy was calling my room saying the same thing. Thanks goodness we had not unpacked the pee bottles and water bottles and ECW, but it was still a rush to get down to the helicopter pad in time–and we were complete novices at this whole process of weighing and getting helmets and this is when you wish you had been more awake at the safety orientation. And whoa, I had never considered if going up in a little whirlybird in the cold and wind might not just be a bit scary. No time to think of that. I hadn’t had coffee. What was I doing?
None of this mattered as we took off. It was like leaving all the fretting below. A view of McMurdo as we rose, then up and out over the ice and the beauty that is Ross Island and the Ice Shelf and the sea ice. I cried a little into my helmet. I find the beauty of Antarctica hard to talk about. Town shields one from its full force, but away from town, this place just hits me in the solar plexus.
I fully expected to be trying to photograph Dr. Ainley in the colony from too far away, but he had chicks to catch and weigh, and several helpers along, and we were permitted right in among the penguins. We were warned to keep some distance and the oft-repeated maxim about the wildlife here: if they react to your presence, you are too close (unless of course you have a sanctioned research project). We got the video portrait of Dr. Ainley right away, as he had work to do. And there was that rock, the ridge, the chicks. A few nights later we heard his lecture “Adelie Penguins Adapt to a Changing Ross Sea Climate and Food Web” at the Science Lecture (one of the things I really enjoy about McMurdo–and a tradition that connects directly back to the Terra Nova expedition). It was witty and engrossing. There are so many factors that affect Adelie populations–on the ebb (dramatically) on the peninsula side, but on the rise on the Ross Sea side.
Back at the colony: we were then free to photograph and video the penguins. Vince spent most of that time making images of Dr. Ainley at work in slow motion, and some of it looks really great. I shot penguins, but I was overwhelmed by being right down amid them, and I was having a lot of trouble seeing in my viewfinder. My dark glasses–a necessity much of the time–wipe out alot, but without them the glare is worse to contend with. And we are learning that Antarctica is full of lens and sensor hazards because of the wind that whips up lava dust and grit and in this case, dried penguin guano. (It did not smell very bad there at all. I think it was cold and windy enough–but oh boy, when the penguin researchers come back into Crary, we know it). Add to this the dreaded bunny boots we are required to wear on helo trips. Vince actually kind of likes his, but he is used to ski boots. I despise them. They do provide a lot of warmth if you are standing on ice, but mine are a little too big for me, and they are big to begin with, and they feel like weighted clown feet. I’m not exactly graceful, but they seem to exaggerate every bit of clumsy I can be–and in big red I am as well a puffy version of myself. I have to measure every step; every limb movement feels more effortful. Ah well, it’s a harsh continent. And re-enactment means that your body learns things efficiently.
The penguins were as promised mostly chicks, past the tiny furball stage and now looking like little people in capes. I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize, but penguins make it very difficult not to. One group of chicks huddled together seemed to be guarded by a few adults, and one adult was really letting them have it, as if scolding them. It looked like primary school. There was the bad kid getting bawled out by teacher.
One horrible thing happened while we were there-all part of the cycles of life, and as we say here about every difficulty large and small, “it’s a harsh continent”–skua gulls killed and ate a chick, and then later when we were down at the hut 2 more, just kind of casually. On nature documentaries I had always seen the lone skua threatening the eggs or chicks, but they actually hunt in pairs or groups–or at least they were here. It seemed so unfair.
Katy and Vince and I went back near the helo landing site to Shackleton’s Nimrod hut and took some video and still images. It’s a lovely hut inside, spacious and high-ceilinged and clean, the inverse of the blubber-blackened Discovery hut. I wouldn’t have minded staying there (of course that is out of the question). There are lots of food tins and boxes with funny labels. Back in Christchurch Dr. Fyfe had told us what a treat this hut was. The conservation here must have been a treasure hunt in some ways. I think I would have left the canned mutton too. This is where the Antarctic scotch whiskey was found (and returned: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/world/a-rare-scotch-back-on-the-rocks.html). Yes, I could stay at this hut. But that’s unthinkable. The first rule of being a hut guide: nobody touches anything.
On the way back to McMurdo, we made an unscheduled stop at a beach–I’m not quite sure exactly where we were–because Dr. Ainley wanted to check on some penguins he thought he had seen there. It was pretty surprising. But we all got out and walked a small way toward the beach where there was a Weddell seal lolling, and another bobbing around in the water. Those big eyes.
Thus ended our first helo trip. I felt like the bunny-booted fingy (in McMurdo-speak, FNG or expletive New Guy) I am much of the trip, but I don’t care much. I lucked into an extraordinary day at Cape Royds. And Vince got our remake image. This is Ponting among the penguins. Note the rock at upper right.
Next up: Ross Ice Shelf excursions for soccer and snowmobiling