Monday, January 30, 2012

Cape Bird

P1000739There has been a distinct change in the air around McMurdo the past few weeks. While the cracks in my dry skin have been racing those in the sea ice of McMurdo Sound, the arrival of the Russian ice breaker, Vladimir Ignatyuk, advanced the break up of the sea ice in a way that I hope won’t be replicated on my hands. However, the melt of the sea ice clearly lags the air temperatures as the once balmy days are beginning to be replaced with significantly cooler and windier days. After several days of cracking through the McMurdo Sound sea ice, the Ignatyuk cleared a path into the tiny bay near between our dorms and Scott’s Hut and the fuel tanker lumbered into port to resupply the 7 million gallons of fuel that are staged around McMurdo. The sight of water in the sound and the arrival of ships signaled that the Antarctic summer season was rapidly approaching its conclusion.

Meanwhile, our own scientific campaign was on its own home stretch. Having successfully completed 2 of the 4 ozone station installations in the previous weeks, we were poised to finish the remaining installations in rapid fire succession beginning Saturday, January 28th, but poor visibility across Ross Island delayed our progress for two days. Then, on Monday, January 30th, we boarded a helicopter under beautiful, blue skies bound for Cape Bird on the north end of Ross Island. The flight path followed the island coastline with a direct overflight of Castle Rock that I hiked the prior day, then skirted the glacial flanks of the southernmost active volcano in the world, Mount Erebus, and finally hugged the rocky sea cliffs just before touching down on a black sand beach. As spectacular as the icy, mountain landscapes were during the journey, the real treat was our first glance of open water in more than a month. In an primal land comprised exclusively of ice, rock, and sky, the introduction of open water as a new element was truly refreshing.

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The departure from the helicopter onto the beach was filled with the usual hurried movements as gear was quickly loaded into a safe pile away from the landing zone, but then in a surprising sight that surely would not have happened in our previous remote field sites, 3 individuals approached the helicopter bearing gear of their own. In an instant, reality and dreamspace collided in my mind as I was confronted with an amazingly distinct déjà vu. The spin of the rotor blades slowed as did the motion of these new individuals who had clearly rehearsed their exact motions to coincide with those I had encountered in another time but in this exact place. As quickly as the feeling blanketed my mind and emotions, the rotors and all motion accelerated to their previous pace and the bustling on the beach resumed. With all of the gear properly accounted for, the copter rose from its temporary roost with a resultant sandstorm in its immediate vicinity. As the scene quieted and the dust settled, introductions occurred between our party and the three beach people turned out to be Kiwis based at New Zealand’s tiny Cape Bird Hut just up the hill. As a further confirmation of my déjà vu, I realized I had already met one of the researchers, Kevin, on my first hike up Observation Hill shortly after my arrival in McMurdo and we proceeded to explain the purpose of our visit to the Cape.

P1000678The helicopter landing zone at Cape Bird is situated on a flat beach behind which rocky cliffs quickly rise towards an eventual meeting with the glacial arms of Mount Bird. A few hundred yards down the beach, a carefully crafted set of 60 stairs wind their way up the steep hillside to a bench where the Kiwi hut resides. Further up the hill another couple hundred of yards, a trail leads to the automatic weather station and the location of our ozone instrument installation. With 1400 pounds of lead batteries, solar panels, and metal framing, this was clearly going to be a challenging, physical day of work unlike our previous installs, but much to our delight, the Kiwis provided us with a wheelbarrow on the beach and another near the hut to aid in our laborious gear transport. And so we set about two hours of huffing our equipment up the steep flanks to the weather station just to reach the stage that we could actually begin to erect the station. In an ordinary place and situation, the work would have been mind numbing and regrettable, but this place was not ordinary, it was Cape Bird.

As an American, you might think this cape was named for our renowned Antarctic explorer, Admiral Richard Byrd, who among other aviation exploits was the first to fly over the South Pole. Instead, this northern tip of Ross Island was named a century before Byrd on an 1841 British expedition for Lieutenant Edward J. Bird of the ship Erebus. But if you were to step foot on this coast for your first time with no prior knowledge of its existence, you would likely choose the same name but for a completely unrelated reason. In fact, as our helicopter descended past the cliffs towards the beach, my vision began to fill with dozens of curious little animals who are neither fish nor mammals as you might guess, but are actually flightless birds. With over 100,000 Adélie penguins occupying a rookery along the Cape Bird beach, no matter the name’s origin, it certainly seems to have been chosen correctly.

1, 2, 3,... JUMP!!!

So you can begin to imagine why hauling hundreds of pounds of equipment up the hill was anything but a pyramid- building, slaving experience. For when we crested the hill at the weather station site, our vision was filled by the entire penguin colony, our ears were filled with their incessant squawking, and our noses were filled with the unavoidable byproducts of so many animals of the sea living in such close proximity. The setting was spectacular, but I was concerned that it was a fleeting moment that would vanish the instant we had time to spare, so I directed my full attention towards the landscape beyond our immediate work hoping to absorb as much as possible throughout the day. There are strict guidelines concerning animal interaction in Antarctica, so I quietly observed the penguins from a distance and captured photos from our high perch using my long zoom camera.

When our grunt work was nearing its conclusion, Kevin arrived at our site with a 70 pound battery in arms and an invitation to lunch and tea in the Kiwi hut, both of which we gratefully accepted. We learned about their field research over sandwiches, and then Kevin offered a most spectacular invitation to join him on a private, up-close tour of the penguin rookery after we finished our installation. Considering the distance that must usually be maintained from wildlife according to the Antarctic Treaty, his offer was a most incredible opportunity to experience this quintessential Antarctica. With this new goal in mind, the ozone station practically assembled itself over the next few hours, and before long, we found ourselves being guided along the beach in the midst of the massive Adélie penguin rookery.

In sharp contrast to the windy, cooler weather that we had been experiencing in McMurdo as of late, Cape Bird was graced with sunshine, blue skies, and almost no wind. The quiet air allowed ice flows to return close to shore and penguins took advantage of the newfound islands with plunges into the water followed shortly after with amazing leaps out of the sea and landings onto their feet on the ice. At least as amazing and in a behavior I never knew existed, the penguins swam through the water like porpoises with their bodies alternately diving and attaining momentary flight. As we worked our way along the beach, I found myself lagging farther and farther behind the others. The scene around me was all encompassing with mini dramas being enacted by groups of penguins everywhere I looked. But mostly, I was simply enamored by the antics of these bipedal, adorable little creatures who walked as if they were a very distant evolutionary relative of our human species and almost wholly unrelated to the bird family to which they actually belong. I wandered for some time along the water amongst this alien world occupied by a colony of odd, little inhabitants and an occasional, massive seal who blissfully rested without a trace of motion on the warm, black sand. As I neared the glacial terminus, the other party members had already turned around and begun their return to the hut. I rejoined them for a stroll through the middle of the colony, but quickly found myself lagging again as the dynamics of the local species fully occupied my attention. Eventually, we reached the edge of the rookery and ascended to the hut where the others sipped tea and engaged in conversation. Meanwhile, I was still focused on the occupants below us at the water’s edge and with a few minutes left before the helicopter’s arrival, I politely dismissed myself for some final time on the beach with the Adélies. The helicopter arrived 25 minutes late which afforded a little more precious time in this special place, and I cherished every bit of it. I knew that my Antarctic experience was going to be special, but my time spent at Cape Bird left me feeling truly blessed. Without a doubt, my time among the Adélie penguins was of the most incredible experiences of my life.

During the time I spent on the Cape Bird beach, I managed to amass 400 photos and did my best to select some favorites that you can view directly in the photo album below or in a new page.

I also captured a panorama of the ozone station and the hillside that overlooks the impressive Adélie penguin colony that you can view directly in the frame below.

I also captured a few random video clips of the Adélie penguins and decided to splice them together to provide a sense of how these peculiar little creatures spend their time.

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