Lots of whales and penguins

When the annual Ross Sea ice melts this area comes alive with lots of wildlife, especially at the edge of the ice shelf (which doesn’t melt).  Adelie and Emperor penguins come out and can be seen just about anywhere… even walking right down the center of McMurdo Station!  In addition to the penguins, the melting ice attracts more seals and both Minke and Orca (Killer) whales.  They are all looking for food and since they are mammals, they need air to breathe.  The ice edge has a lot of wildlife activity and Orcas will come to hunt Minkes, seals, and sometimes a penguin.  The Orcas live together in Pods that span many generations.  They are amazing animals and will start communicating with their young when they are still in the mother’s womb.  The scientists that study them say that their communication and ability to transfer knowledge between generations actually rivals humans!  When you watch them hunt in packs and look for seals sitting on ice floes you will believe it.  They are highly intelligent.

The Minke whales are plankton eaters and are also pretty curious.  They will poke their heads out of the water and look at you if you are on the ice edge.  The penguins and seals are sometimes curious too and have been known to just walk, or waddle, up to you.  It seems they all like to sleep a lot!

A Minke whale cruising the ice edge with some sleepy seals in the background.

A Minke whale cruising the ice edge with some sleepy seals in the background.

A pod of Minke whales getting ready to dive under the ice near the pressure ridges.  The pressure ridges are caused by the ice shelf pressing against a land mass and causing the ice to buckle.  There are almost always seals nearby due to the cracks that are formed.

A pod of Minke whales getting ready to dive under the ice near the pressure ridges. The pressure ridges are caused by the ice shelf pressing against a land mass and causing the ice to buckle. There are almost always seals nearby due to the cracks that are formed.

Some sleepy Adelie penguins basking in the sun at Hut Point, McMurdo Station.  They come ashore to escape the seals and whales that might want to eat them.  These ones are just getting ready to molt.

Some sleepy Adelie penguins basking in the sun at Hut Point, McMurdo Station. They come ashore to escape the seals and whales that might want to eat them. These ones are just getting ready to molt.

Cute Adelie penguins sleeping on Hut Point in McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Cute Adelie penguins sleeping on Hut Point in McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Emperor penguins just starting to molt.  During the molting process they will replace their feathers and won't enter the water because they are won't be waterproof and would get cold.  Molting can take up to a month.  They get nice and fat before the molt because they won't be able to eat or catch fish until their new coat of feathers is ready for swimming.

Emperor penguins just starting to molt. During the molting process they will replace their feathers and won’t enter the water because they are won’t be waterproof and would get cold. Molting can take up to a month. They get nice and fat before the molt because they won’t be able to eat or catch fish until their new coat of feathers is ready for swimming.

Emperor penguins that are molting.  You can see they are starting to lose feathers on their backs.  Emperor penguins are very large compared to Adelies and can measure up to about 3 feet tall when standing up straight.  They don't have any land predators so they just hang out and watch you take pictures of them.  Sometimes they will approach you when they are curious.

Emperor penguins that are molting. You can see they are starting to lose feathers on their backs. Emperor penguins are very large compared to Adelies and can measure up to about 3 feet tall when standing up straight. They don’t have any land predators so they just hang out and watch you take pictures of them. Sometimes they will approach you when they are curious.

An Emperor penguin hanging out on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

An Emperor penguin hanging out on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

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Snowboarding in Antarctica!

Well, I’ve snowboarded on the harshest continent in the world.  Something not many people get to do.  I was very happy and excited to do it, but it’s not like snowboarding on the deep soft fresh snow we have at home in Colorado.  The snow here is sastrugi and is basically like icy drifts that set up like concrete.  It’s so hard that it breaks many of our snowmobiles.

The only decent area to snowboard here is about a 9.5 mile walk round trip and as a result it deters many from trying it.  Because of that my coworker  Dave and I wanted to get people out there without all the hassle and risk.  A proposal was sent in to station management and the NSF to use a Pisten Bully to shuttle people out there and also to use to get them up the hill.  We were really excited when it was approved, but it happened right before Dave left the ice so I led all of the trips while he was surfing on some tropical island.  I led about a dozen snowboard trips during both day and night (the sun was up 24hrs a day) so that everyone who wanted could go.  It was really awesome when people said that they had their best day on ice during one of my trips!

A self portrait outside the Pisten Bully.  As you can see the visibility is terrible... the snow is also not like home.  We have sastrugi snow here in Antarctica.  Basically it means that the snow blows into very hard drifts and sets up like concrete.  I used the Pisten Bully to drive over it repeatedly to soften it up a little.

A self portrait outside the Pisten Bully. As you can see the visibility is terrible… the snow is also not like home. We have sastrugi snow here in Antarctica. Basically it means that the snow blows into very hard drifts and sets up like concrete. I used the Pisten Bully to drive over it repeatedly to soften it up a little.

Leaving the station in our trusty Pisten Bully.  I had to stop to see the icebergs floating by and check for Orcas.  I have seen quite a few whales in this area.  You can get really close to shore and the whales will swim right by you.  I'll have a post on whales coming up.

Leaving the station in our trusty Pisten Bully. I had to stop to see the icebergs floating by and check for Orcas. I have seen quite a few whales in this area. You can get really close to shore and the whales will swim right by you. I’ll have a post on whales coming up.

Standing on Castle Rock enjoying the views of the ridge and a smoking Mt. Erebus in the distance.  The frozen Ross Sea is in the middle of the picture.  You don't want to fall off this part of Castle Rock as there are big crevasses between the rocks and the bottom.

Standing on Castle Rock enjoying the views of the ridge and a smoking Mt. Erebus in the distance. The frozen Ross Sea is in the middle of the picture. You don’t want to fall off this part of Castle Rock as there are big crevasses between the rocks and the bottom.

Dave and I making our way down.  Very flat light made it really hard to see.  You could barely tell what was ground vs what was sky!

Dave and I making our way down. Very flat light made it really hard to see. You could barely tell what was ground vs what was sky!

Looking along the ridge towards Mt. Erebus.  We snowboard down the right side of the ridge as the left has big crevasses to fall into.

Looking along the ridge towards Mt. Erebus. We snowboard down the right side of the ridge as the left has big crevasses to fall into.

Leading trips to “Room with a View”

It takes a lot of people to keep McMurdo Station running.  Everyone’s job is critical in this process, no matter what they do.  Humans are not meant to survive in this place so we need shelter, special clothing, power, drinkable water, reliable transportation, etc.  We rely on each other to keep things working and to stay alive.  A lot of these jobs are not glamorous, yet they are done by really awesome people.  They say McMurdo has more graduate students doing dishes than any place on earth.  Where am I going with this you ask?  Well, most people never get to leave McMurdo in the course of their jobs… in fact some never leave their building!  The NSF and station management have outings or “morale trips” to ensure people get a chance to get out and see something off the station.

One of these trips is via snowmobiles to a place called “Room with a View” which is located on the flank of Mt Erebus.  Since I am the Snowmobile Instructor, I had the pleasure of leading these trips and training the other guides.  This is something I take very seriously as Antarctica can be extremely dangerous and conditions can change in a moments.  Whiteouts can blind you and you can’t even tell which way is up. Crevasses can swallow you.  Temperatures can cause frostbite, hypothermia, and death very quickly if you can’t seek shelter.  Normally we don’t go outside if conditions are really bad, but sometimes weather moves in before you can get back to station.  Because of that we keep “survival bags” with us at all times when off base.  We also have very strict checkout procedures so that a search team can be called upon even if someone misses a check-in by a few minutes.  I’m happy to say that I kept all my students safe all season.

Looking down the Erebus Glacier Tongue in the frozen Ross Sea.  The glacier tongue is where the glacier leaves land and is literally floating in the sea.  The tongue floats out into the Ross Sea about 7+ miles.  A couple years ago a 2 mile section of the tongue broke off and floated away when the annual ice melted.  In the background you can see the Royal Society Mountain Range.  The islands are Tent Island and Razorback from left to right.

Looking down the Erebus Glacier Tongue in the frozen Ross Sea. The glacier tongue is where the glacier leaves land and is literally floating in the sea. The tongue floats out into the Ross Sea about 7+ miles. A couple years ago a 2 mile section of the tongue broke off and floated away when the annual ice melted. In the background you can see the Royal Society Mountain Range. The islands are Tent Island and Razorback from left to right.

This picture is looking down the peninsula with Mt. Discovery in the left background.  The US Antarctic base McMurdo Station, and the New Zealand Scott Base are located at the end of the peninsula.   On the left side of the peninsula is the Ross Ice Shelf, and on the right side is the Ross Sea.  This is one of the most southern areas accessible by ship which is why Robert Falcon Scott chose this location for his Discovery Hut.

This picture is looking down the peninsula with Mt. Discovery in the left background. The US Antarctic base McMurdo Station, and the New Zealand Scott Base are located at the end of the peninsula. On the left side of the peninsula is the Ross Ice Shelf, and on the right side is the Ross Sea. This is one of the most southern areas accessible by ship which is why Robert Falcon Scott chose this location for his Discovery Hut.

Cracks and crevasses in the snow on the side of Mt Erebus.  These cracks are deceiving... they are actually large enough to swallow a house... and who knows how deep.  The are opened up by snow/glaciers moving down Erebus and flowing over the uneven terrain below.

Cracks and crevasses in the snow on the side of Mt Erebus. These cracks are deceiving… they are actually large enough to swallow a house… and who knows how deep. The are opened up by snow/glaciers moving down Erebus and flowing over the uneven terrain below.

More crevasses in the side of Mt. Erebus.  This side of Erebus is very deadly and not safe to travel on.  The safer route up the volcano is on the opposite side.

More crevasses in the side of Mt. Erebus. This side of Erebus is very deadly and not safe to travel on. The safer route up the volcano is on the opposite side.

Looking across the Ross Ice Shelf near Windless Bight.  It's definitely not windless though... The winds can actually blow at hurricane forces out here.  Antarctica is the windiest, coldest, driest, and highest mean elevation continent on Earth.  The snow/ice just keeps going and going and going.  Distances are very deceiving and are actually much further than they appear.   This part of the ice shelf moves up to 400 ft per year.

Looking across the Ross Ice Shelf near Windless Bight. It’s definitely not windless though… The winds can actually blow at hurricane forces out here. Antarctica is the windiest, coldest, driest, and highest mean elevation continent on Earth. The snow/ice just keeps going and going and going. Distances are very deceiving and are actually much further than they appear. This part of the ice shelf moves up to 400 ft per year.

A storm moving in quickly on Room with a View.  When it hit you couldn't see more than a few feet in any direction.

A storm moving in quickly on Room with a View. When it hit you couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction.

A group cartwheel session on the route to "Room With A View".  I am on the far right in the blue jacket.  This pic was taken on my birthday which is why I'm wearing the Birthday Boy cape!

A group cartwheel session on the route to “Room With A View”. I am on the far right in the blue jacket. This pic was taken on my birthday which is why I’m wearing the Birthday Boy cape!

Me in my birthday cape.  I tried to fly, but it didn't work.

Me in my birthday cape. I tried to fly, but it didn’t work.

The icebreaker USCGC Polar Star

Recently we had the USCGC Polar Star in and around McMurdo Station, Antarctica.  It is one of the largest icebreakers in the world, and I believe is the largest US icebreaker.  I was told it can break ice up to 18 feet thick!  It came down here to break up the Ross Sea ice so our fuel tanker and cargo ship could bring supplies.  It was delayed slightly because it was sent out to rescue the ships stranded in the ice down here that were making a lot of headlines in the news.  Once it broke out our ice we immediately started seeing a lot of wildlife appear.  Pods of Minke whales, Orca (killer) whales, more seals and penguins, but still no snow yeti’s yet.  Ha ha.  We also started seeing some other ships in the sea near us… one belonged to an Australian billionaire, and other research and adventure cruise ships.  When the icebreaker was done with it’s tasking we had the chance to tour the ship.

The USCGC Polar Star.  One of the largest icebreakers in the world.  USCGC stands for United States Coast Guard Cutter.  Here the ship is docked at the floating ice pier at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.  Hut Point is in the background which is where Scott's Discovery Hut is located.  The week earlier the ship broke out the ice in the Ross Sea and the winds and currents quickly carried it out to sea.  It was amazing how fast it all left.  I was in the birds nest at the top of the ship!!

The USCGC Polar Star. One of the largest icebreakers in the world. USCGC stands for United States Coast Guard Cutter. Here the ship is docked at the floating ice pier at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Hut Point is in the background which is where Scott’s Discovery Hut is located. The week earlier the ship broke out the ice in the Ross Sea and the winds and currents quickly carried it out to sea. It was amazing how fast it all left. I was in the birds nest at the top of the ship!!

The engineering room of the USCGC Polar Star.  This is where everything is monitored and controlled.

The engineering room of the USCGC Polar Star. This is where everything is monitored and controlled.

This is one of the turbine engines powering the ship.  It's really huge!  I think there were three, along with several diesel/electric engines also.  The picture is from behind a sealed door so it's not very clear.  When the ship is breaking ice, all of the engines are at max power and the whole ship makes lots of really loud noises.  The engineer told me they could break ice up to 18 ft thick.  Don't quote me though.

This is one of the turbine engines powering the ship. It’s really huge! I think there were three, along with several diesel/electric engines also. The picture is from behind a sealed door so it’s not very clear. When the ship is breaking ice, all of the engines are at max power and the whole ship makes lots of really loud noises. The engineer told me they could break ice up to 18 ft thick. Don’t quote me though.

This is the bridge of the ship.  I am at the wheel yelling into the tube for the crew to swab the poop deck.  : )  The special red bat phone there on the dash in front of me rang while I was at the wheel.  It was probably the President calling.  LOL

This is the bridge of the ship. I am at the wheel yelling into the tube for the crew to swab the poop deck. : ) The special red bat phone there on the dash in front of me rang while I was at the wheel. It was probably the President calling. LOL

Me in the bird's nest of the USCGC Polar Star icebreaker.  To get here I had to climb up many ladders in a narrow tube.  I can't imagine what it would have been like to do that while the ship is rolling on the sea.  The top would sway much more than at lower places on the ship.  This tower is used for spotting during ship operations.  Behind me you can see our ice pier floating in the water next to the ship, and Hut Point in the background.  I'm not sure if we were supposed to go up there.  I heard our tour guide may have been in some hot water for letting a few of us climb up there.  It was cool!

Me in the bird’s nest of the USCGC Polar Star icebreaker. To get here I had to climb up many ladders in a narrow tube. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to do that while the ship is rolling on the sea. The top would sway much more than at lower places on the ship. This tower is used for spotting during ship operations. Behind me you can see our ice pier floating in the water next to the ship, and Hut Point in the background. I’m not sure if we were supposed to go up there. I heard our tour guide may have been in some hot water for letting a few of us climb up there. It was cool!

Looking up towards the "bird's nest" from the top deck of the USCGC Polar Star icebreaker.  When I took this picture I was already about 6 stories up off the water or more.

Looking up towards the “bird’s nest” from the top deck of the USCGC Polar Star icebreaker. When I took this picture I was already about 6 stories up off the water or more.

The ship's map of the Ross Sea region where McMurdo Station is located.  I believe the lines drawn are the ship lanes or the route they broke the ice.

The ship’s map of the Ross Sea region where McMurdo Station is located. I believe the lines drawn are the ship lanes or the route they broke the ice.

Antarctic wildlife

I’ve been fortunate lately in terms of wildlife…  I’ve seen some seals and penguins recently and happened to have my nice camera and telephoto lens at the time.  The seals and penguins don’t have any land predators here in Antarctica, so they don’t usually run away when you happen along.  In fact they pretty much just sit there and let you take photos as long as you want.  The National Science Foundation has guidelines that we must follow in terms of our interaction with wildlife.  Basically you can’t get too close, and if the animal reacts to you, you are too close and need to back away.  That’s when having a 250mm zoom lens and 18 megapixel camera really help.  The pictures can be enlarged and cropped to show amazing detail.

I went back to the pressure ridges near Scott Base and got some great seal shots.  They are really coming out in masses now.  The males sometimes have wounds from battling with other each other.  The pressure ridges are very beautiful on their own, but they are also a great place to see a lot of seals.  The seals congregate at the cracks in the ice because they don’t have to use their teeth to keep the ice open.  They love to just bask in the sun all day.

A male Weddell Seal with some recent battle wounds.

A male Weddell Seal with some recent battle wounds.

A Weddell Seal lazily basking in the Antarctic sun.  They remind me of sleeping dogs and almost look cute and cuddly... but probably stink of fish.

A Weddell Seal lazily basking in the Antarctic sun. They remind me of sleeping dogs and almost look cute and cuddly… but probably stink of fish.

A cute Weddell Seal at the pressure ridges near Scott Base Antarctica.

A cute Weddell Seal at the pressure ridges near Scott Base Antarctica.

 

I also saw an Emperor Penguin along the Ice Shelf road to Pegasus airfield recently.  I was out moving snowmobiles because they were going to blast a nearby cornice that was unsafe to work under.  While moving them I thought I saw a fake cutout of a penguin along the ice road.  As I continued down the road I realized it was a real penguin that was sitting motionless as it molts it’s feathers.  I had my nice camera and big lens so that I could capture the explosions, and happened to get some bonus shots of this beautiful Emperor.

An Emperor Penguin that is molting.  The photo was taken along the ice shelf road to Pegasus airfield in Antarctica.

An Emperor Penguin that is molting. The photo was taken along the ice shelf road to Pegasus airfield in Antarctica.

An Emperor Penguin near Scott Base Antarctica.  This image was taken with a big zoom lens to get more detail.  These penguins are quite large and I actually thought it was fake as it was right along the ice shelf road to Pegasus airfield.  It is molting (losing it's feathers) so they just sit motionless as they lose their feathers and grow new ones.  This process can take weeks and they just sit there because they aren't waterproof until their new coat is in.

An Emperor Penguin near Scott Base Antarctica. This image was taken with a big zoom lens to get more detail. These penguins are quite large and I actually thought it was fake as it was right along the ice shelf road to Pegasus airfield. It is molting (losing it’s feathers) so they just sit motionless as they lose their feathers and grow new ones. This process can take weeks and they just sit there because they aren’t waterproof until their new coat is in.

 

More Antarctic vehicles and a few of my watercolor paintings.

Howdy everyone. It’s been busy down here in Antarctica. Now that we have funding to continue the science projects the scientists are ready to get into the field for their research. Below are a few more of the vehicles that are used down here. I have also attached a few paintings that I did for the McMurdo Craft Show.

A Pisten Bully that has a ground penetrating radar attached to the front.  This is used for traverses to the South Pole and other deep field camps.  The radar is used to detect crevasses.  Believe it or not, people and tractors have fallen into very deep crevasses.

A Pisten Bully that has a ground penetrating radar attached to the front. This is used for traverses to the South Pole and other deep field camps. The radar is used to detect crevasses. Believe it or not, people and tractors have fallen into very deep crevasses.

Me in front of a Challenger.  This vehicle is used for the South Pole Traverse.  Fuel bladders, supplies, and living modules are towed behind these to get fuel, and supplies to the South Pole.

Me in front of a Challenger. This vehicle is used for the South Pole Traverse. Fuel bladders, supplies, and living modules are towed behind these to get fuel, and supplies to the South Pole.

A Kress vehicle.  The National Science Foundation uses these to transport people and cargo from arriving flights on the Sea Ice Runway.

A Kress vehicle. The National Science Foundation uses these to transport people and cargo from arriving flights on the Sea Ice Runway.

A side view of the Kress vehicle.  It's HUGE!!!

A side view of the Kress vehicle. It’s HUGE!!!

This is a Twin Otter plane.  It's used to fly to remote field camps.  You can actually fit a few snowmobiles in the back too.

This is a Twin Otter plane. It’s used to fly to remote field camps. You can actually fit a few snowmobiles in the back too.

Ski Doo snowmobiles out on the Ross Sea Ice.  I maintain these snowmobiles and train users how to ride them.

Ski Doo snowmobiles out on the Ross Sea Ice. I maintain these snowmobiles and train users how to ride them.

This is my beginner snowmobile training course.  It's on the Ross Sea Ice in front of McMurdo Station.  New riders learn the basics of snowmobiling under my watchful eye.

This is my beginner snowmobile training course. It’s on the Ross Sea Ice in front of McMurdo Station. New riders learn the basics of snowmobiling under my watchful eye.

A watercolor painting of Hut Point and the Royal Society mountain range of Antarctica.  The hut is Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Hut.  I am a Hut guide and give guided tours of the historic huts in Antarctica.  I totally love it!  : )

A watercolor painting of Hut Point and the Royal Society mountain range of Antarctica. The hut is Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Hut. I am a Hut guide and give guided tours of the historic huts in Antarctica. I totally love it! : )

Small postcard sized watercolor painting of an Emperor Penguin that I painted for the McMurdo Station craft show.

Small postcard sized watercolor painting of an Emperor Penguin that I painted for the McMurdo Station craft show.

Yippee I’m still here

I have survived the Government shutdown! During the shutdown we were preparing McMurdo Station for “Caretaker Status”. This meant the station was not doing any science projects for the National Science Foundation and was basically shutting down. The only project was going to be the South Pole Traverse (because the South Pole Station needed food and fuel). Only staff essential to maintaining the station would have stayed. I was scheduled to depart McMurdo and go back to Christchurch, New Zealand on October 18th. I can’t say how sad I was to leave and not complete a full season. I had packed and was ready to depart on a C17 flight when the government finally started up again. The National Science Foundation was able to securing funding to keep the science projects going and I was saved. I am condensing this story a lot and can’t explain how difficult this roller coaster of emotions was as I was told numerous times that I was both staying and then leaving. When the science season was finally saved I felt like I was in an old western movie hanging from a noose when Clint Eastwood rides in and shoots the rope and I fall to the ground just before dying! LOL.

Anyway, now that the NSF has funding for the projects, we are continuing at a very fast pace…. and it’s awesome to be here! Below are a few pics from around McMurdo Station and some sunsets. During September and early October we had the most amazing sunsets that lasted 4 or more hours. The sun would just duck behind the mountains and then follow the horizon for hours. Totally gorgeous! The last picture is of a small watercolor painting I did.

Sunset over Mt. Discovery Antarctica

Sunset over Mt. Discovery Antarctica

Panorama picture of a sunset over Winter Quarters Bay, McMurdo Station, and Hut Point in Antarctica.

Panorama picture of a sunset over Winter Quarters Bay, McMurdo Station, and Hut Point in Antarctica.

A small watercolor painting I did of a sunset at Hut Point, Antarctica.

A small watercolor painting I did of a sunset at Hut Point, Antarctica.