When I left Birmingham to begin my journey to Antarctica, I truly believed that although it would be some of the most amazing months I would ever experience, it might also be some of the loneliest. I imagined that since Antarctica is so isolated, I would feel isolated; as if its remoteness from the rest of the world would be a tangible thing. It made me nervous. I think it made my family nervous too; they had even less an idea of what I was getting into than I did.
I couldn’t have been more wrong about how it would be to live on the Antarctic Peninsula at Palmer. The station is small – two main buildings with a maximum capacity of 44 people – but it might actually be impossible to feel lonely here. For one thing, there isn’t enough time in the day. Outside of work hours, there are always movies to watch in the lounge, people hanging out in the bar, and a hot tub at the foot of the bay where seals sleep on ice floes or make their hunting rounds, all in front of a huge glacier that sometimes calves in front of you, splashing water one hundred feet into the air.
Palmer also has a gym with a window overlooking the Bio building and the water, and yoga classes at different times of the day (times when the support folks are not working). There is a disc golf course in the rocky backyard and people have even formed a band. Most importantly, I have never met a group of nicer, more open-minded and interesting people.
Another thing I was not prepared for is how much activity there is outside of normal station life. Despite its physical remoteness, Palmer station is a very dynamic place in the summer. Bill Gates and his family stopped by a week and a half ago. He was taking his son on a birthday trip to Antarctica and they wanted to see Palmer Station. They ate lunch with us and talked to each and every science group about the work we are doing. Kate and I told Bill Gates about algae and algal endophytes. He was pretty into it! And believe it or not, these sorts of surprise “VIP” visits are not uncommon. For example, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin visited station just a few months ago.
Cruise ships also routinely stop by in the summer. The travelers come ashore to tour the station and hear about the research we do here. We show them fish, marine invertebrates, and algae in the aquarium. Other ships that are in the area stop by as well, just for a friendly visit. In only the few weeks I have been on station, we have met a family who built their own yacht and sail it to Antarctica yearly, entertained an Australian TV crew filming a travel and exploration show, and had pizza with the officers of a Chilean Navy ship. After the pizza on station, we took the zodiacs over to tour the Navy ship and to hang out for a while.
The Chilean ship employs divers mainly for maintenance and for ground truthing to make topological bottom maps. I learned some new Spanish words: A scuba dive is “un buzo” and to dive is “bucear.” I got to talk with some of the “buceadores” and see how they rig their dive gear. Sometimes they dive down here in just wetsuits!
One of the most exciting visits occurred when a tall ship, the Bark Europa, anchored in the harbor a few days ago. A tall ship is basically a really tall sailboat whose sails are rigged traditionally, using rigs and rig materials that have been used for centuries. This means that the sails on a tall ship are generally more complex and less lightweight than modern sailing rigs. Types of tall ships include brigantines, schooners, brigs, and barques, or barks. These differ in the number of masts and types of sails.
The Europa is a bark because she has 3 masts (the tall spars, or poles, that support sails), with fore-and-aft sails on the aft mast (closest to the stern, or back of the boat) and square sails on the other masts. Fore-and-aft sails run parallel to the length of the ship while square sails run perpendicular to it, spreading out from the boat like elephant ears. The horizontal spars that support square sails are called yards.
The Europa was originally built in Hamburg, Germany in 1911 to be a light ship on the Elbe River. A light ship is a ship that acts as a light house in waters where the construction of a light house is unfeasible (deep water for example). Light ships don’t really exist anymore; with advances in construction techniques and technology, lighthouses or large automatic buoys can be used instead.
In the 1990s, the Europa was rebuilt into a tall ship in the Netherlands. At 184 feet long and 108 feet high, the bark has been making trips across the Drake from Ushuaia, Chile, to the Antarctic continent ever since. Having crossed the Drake during relatively calm weather in a 250 foot ice breaker, I cannot imagine making the crossing in a sailboat during a storm. It is interesting to imagine 30 foot waves crashing over the Europa’s deck.
The ship was beautiful inside as well. After the tour, we gathered in the bar and had cinnamon bread, coffee and tea. Many of us stayed for beer and dinner aboard the ship, and one crew member was enticed to bring out his ukulele and play a tune for us. We talked with crew and travelers and generally had a good time.
My favorite thing about this trip is that there are so many moments when I stop what I’m doing and am struck by how crazy it all is: floating in a field of algae 90 feet under the freezing cold water; chatting with Bill Gates about seaweed; trying to explain in Spanish to a group of Chilean Naval officers how we rig our dive gear; looking out over Palmer Station, the harbor and the icebergs, with a massive glacier and the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula in the distance, from the deck of a beautiful tall ship…