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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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.

Pressure ridges in the Ross Sea Ice near Scott Base, Antarctica

Today I went to the Pressure Ridges near Scott Base, Antarctica. These are created by the pressure of the Ross Ice Shelf pressing against the annual sea ice of the Ross Sea. The ice shelf is 400+ feet thick, while the annual sea ice is around 9+ feet thick currently. Where they meet, the pressure pushes the sea ice into beautiful ice formations. Because these are cracks in the ice, you have to be very careful as you can definitely fall into an ice crack and that could be very, very bad. The Weddell seals sometimes come up through the cracks to lounge on the ice.

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