Flying into Punta Arenas, Chile, on the exposed, southern tip of Chile, is often a seat-belt tightening enterprise. Known for its high winds, the pilot loops around such that the plane is directed into the prevailing wind, and takes a general aim for the air strip. Kate, Ruth, Chuck and Maggie, all seated in front of me were likely thinking what I was thinking, “I hope this pilot knows these Punta winds!”. The tires squeal and bounce as we touch down, and the pilot quickly teases the plane down once again, fighting to secure us to the tarmac before the winds return us aloft.
This was Kate and Ruth’s first visit to the Port City of Punta Arenas, Chile. So it was fun to see it anew through their eyes. Many of the buildings are painted in pastel colors, and there is a touch of European architecture in the stately government and military buildings, the catholic churches, and some of the elegant homes of past land owners and shipping magnates.
Our first task was for Chuck and Ruth to drop off our hand-carried algal samples at the ship, where they could be secured in a refrigerated incubator for the transit to Palmer Station. This accomplished, they joined us to check into our hotel. The Hotel Noriega is an old mansion that was converted into a hotel and sits majestically on the corner of the town square. Handsomely landscaped, the square is home most days to an artisan market. But its greatest claim to fame is its imposing statue of Magellan, with several Fuegans (indigenous people in the region before European colonization) sitting as his feet. One of the Fuegans sits such that his foot projects outward from the square concrete base of the statue, within easy reach, and it has become a ritual for those heading to sea to rub his foot to ensure a safe return to Punta Arenas.
The following morning, Kate, Ruth and I headed off to be given our National Science Foundation United States Antarctic Program (USAP) clothing issue at the USAP warehouse at the base of the city dock. The three of us headed across the town square, stopping at the statue for a photo of Kate and Ruth dutifully rubbing the Fuegan’s foot (I rubbed it too!), and then walked on, downhill, to the waterfront, weaving our way through shops, restaurants, and warehouses. At the clothing warehouse, we ran into Chuck and Maggie who had just completed their clothing issue, and took a moment for a photo of everyone posing with the mannequin dressed in standard issue U.S. Antarctic garb.
Soon, Kate, Ruth and I were each issued a cloth satchel containing our standard issue clothing for working on the Antarctic Peninsula. Inside the bag were socks, goggles, boots, rain pants, wind pants, long underwear, a red parka, fleece jacket, caps and gloves. And as Chuck, Maggie and I had been to Palmer many times before we knew to have Kate and Ruth also check out some addition items including fisherman gloves and plastic sea boots (both for working in the zodiac boats), and extra cold weather gear including a balaclava and a warm ear-covering red cap called amusingly enough, a Yazoo Cap! I encouraged Kate and Ruth to be sure and try everything on to make sure it fit. This was their only chance to trade something back in for a better fit. You definitely don’t want to be working in the field in Antarctica and not have everything you need clothing wise – nor something that is not a good fit. There is no local Target store nearby to make an exchange.
Our clothing satchels stuffed to the hilt and stowed for transport to the ship, we walked back to the hotel to gather our personal luggage together for pick-up and transport to our ship, the RV Gould. Later in the afternoon we attended a meeting aboard ship and were assigned our cabins for the voyage. A final group dinner in town at the popular restaurant “La Luna” provided a wonderful backdrop to celebrate our pending departure and two of our birthdays simultaneously, Maggie’s and my own! No, we are not divulging our respective ages (but I will admit I am older).
In the morning we had time for one last walk about town and then set sail at noon for Antarctica. As I am writing this, we are approaching the northern end of the Antarctica Peninsula, having enjoyed a reasonably smooth crossing of the Drake Passage (yesterday a bit bumpy – today a wonderful flat “Lake Drake”!). No whale sightings yet, but we have seen lots of black browed albatross, storm petrels, giant petrels, and more recently, cape petrels, all following our ship. This is always a marvelous way to be welcomed back to Antarctica! And in the case of Kate and Ruth, welcomed to Antarctica!