I have finally arrived at Palmer Station, Antarctica. The last few weeks have been filled with restless anticipation, curiosity, and excitement. Curiously the adventure began at the Birmingham airport at the check-in counter.
Due to the large amount of dive gear and other necessary amenities, I needed to check in five bags for transport to Punta Arenas, Chile, the port city from which we sail to Palmer Station. As I struggled up to the check-in counter dragging my five bags behind me, I detected a look of panic in the eyes of the American Airlines personnel. When I explained that I had vouchers for all these bags and therefore did not have to pay the extra baggage fees, it was as if I had single handedly tossed the earth off of its orbit, spinning myself and the check-in attendants into oblivion. After 10 to 15 airport employees had listened to my defense, they finally allowed me to check my five bags for departure. Good thing I arrived two hours early, by the time that debacle had passed I had only 40 minutes left until boarding.
From that point on the travel to Santiago, Chile was as smooth as could hope for in airport transit. I was a bit nervous deboarding in Santiago because I did not want to delay the rest of the folks traveling to Palmer Station, this fear became reality when my bags were the last to appear on the conveyer belt. Those ten minutes when the other Palmer Station personnel had possession of their bags and were nervously waiting even my first bag to arrive felt like hours. I thought for sure the problems at the Birmingham check-in counter had come back to haunt me, but at last all five bags appeared consecutively and a big sigh of relief followed.
After all the folks traveling to Palmer Station had rechecked their bags for the flight to Punta Arenas, I finally had a chance to chat with them. I was surprised to find I was the only graduate student and/or scientist traveling to Palmer Station, everyone else was either winter staff or worked on our transport ship, the Laurence M. Gould. However there were two other graduate students, Ben Held and Andy Graves from University of Minnesota who were headed to Deception Island to sample fungal and bacterial growth on the old historical whaling station structures. Upon realizing that they might need help with their collections, I immediately offered my services, which they gladly accepted (more to come on this soon).
As I continued talking with the folks headed to Palmer Station I soon realized that I was the only “Antarctic rookie” in the group. All other members of the winter over staff had been to the ice on previous occasions. No wonder they were able to sleep on the flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas! The fact that there were only "science support personnel" on my trip was fascinating. These folks were from all over the U.S. but spent about 30 - 50 % of each year in one of the three US Antarctic Stations. When you ask some of these people where they are from, some would reply "usually Antarctica."
Our stay in Punta Arenas was brief but I did find time to explore and check out some of the macroalgae that had washed up on shore. Less than 24 hours after our arrival in Chile we boarded the Laurence M. Gould. The next day we set sail. It was an easy-going trip and the first time in a few years that I consistently ate three squares meals a day, (life of a grad student, what can I say). After four days of sailing, through the Straits of Magellan, past Tierra del Fuego, and across the Drake Passage, we arrived at Deception Island.
Deception Island was my first taste of Antarctica. This crescent shaped island is an active volcano and at one point housed a whaling station. However, two separate volcanic eruptions and needed whale hunting restrictions put an end to the whaling.
We arrived at the island on the evening of March 26th and the captain of the L.M. Gould, who is one of the most even-keeled people I have ever met, decided it was better to enter the waters within the volcanic caldera and go ashore in the morning. Everyone on the ship was very thankful that Ben and Andy had provided an opportunity to go ashore….at least until the morning.
The dawn brought the worst weather we had seen. Snow, wind, fog, rain, you name it, nothing like a bit of adventure to start of the day. A couple of the RV Gould's crew US Antarctic Program support staff launched the Zodiac into the water and away we went.
Once onshore we collected "cubical fungal rot" from the wooden buildings and old boats, as well as soil samples from different areas around the island. Ben also wanted to look at the differences in soil bacteria and fungi from different regions of the island as they differ in heated soils and waters from the underlying geothermal activity.
By mid-morning the weather had cleared and sunny skies persisted the rest of the day. We hiked to some of the peaks on the island, were visited by a few fur seals near the coast, and saw Adelie and Gentoo Penguins. This was a wonderful way to begin my Antarctic research, thank you Ben and Andy.
Now I am eager to begin my the exciting research as I try to unravel why only the brown alga Elachista antarctica grows on the most palatable algae in this region, Palmeria decipiens. Oh yeah, I will also be diving in the icy waters near Palmer Station and the surrounding islands. Stay tuned sports fans!