One’s departure on the ARSV Gould from Palmer Station is always a bitter sweet affair. There is the perennial call of home, job and family, balanced against the joys of uninterrupted science, and the comradarie that life at a small isolated field station brings to bear. There is the quiet trepidation of the Drake Passage to come, offset by dockside hugs and gentle ribbing by those staying on. And then, quite suddenly, there is the final call for those departing to board, and the ceremonial spirit of Palmer and ship-board crews as they release the bow and stern lines that have interwoven the ship to Palmer Station much like an umbilicus.
Final “salutes” to Chuck, Bill, Maggie, Alan, Craig and Philip, and I am off towards the Gerlache Strait, where Mother Nature was quick to remind us just what a mid-spring “blow” can be like in this region of the world. What began as a brisk breeze soon gathered force and whipped up the surface of the sea, white capped frothy wavelets, churned up in seconds and spit towards us. The decks now too windy to accommodate us, we gathered on the bridge to take in the views of the nearby island and peaks that ringed the mouth of the Strait.
The Antarctic spring winds continued to mount. 45 knots, 50 knots, 55 knots, we all watched the readings climb on the ship’s instrument panel. As the winds reached hurricane force (approximately 65 knots), surfable wind-driven rollers streaking across our bow, as if daring some crazed wind surfer to take the ride. And then, just before we pulled behind the protected lee of a nearby island, one final triumphant gust of farewell displayed by the ship’s anemometer, “85 knots”, or about 95 mph!
Sharing my cruise to Punta Arenas, Chile, are most of the Palmer Station summer crew, most having spent about 6-7 months on station, and several as long as 9 months. They are eager to get home, but not too eager to celebrate an opportunity to take a slight detour off the Gerlache Strait to take in some of the most stunning scenery on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Our short four-hour venture is a small but significant reward for the outstanding performance of the “summer crew”. Our circuitous route takes us down a narrow strait lined with snow covered peaks right out of a Dr. Seuss dream, valleys with hanging glaciers, and impossibly deep turquoise ice bergs. Collectively, the landscape defies scale, sticking its perverbial tongue out at those attempting to capture a fraction of it on camera. We speak. It is “adjective city”.
In the distance someone spots a small building located on a peninsula at the base of snow covered mountains framed with a heavily crevassed glacier. As we near we can see that it is actually a collection of bright orange buildings, abandoned for the coming winter season, shuttered, and tidy. A communication antenna stands tall behind the buildings, yet a tiny matchstick against the towering peaks. “Captain Marty” informs us the station is Alimarante Brown, one of many Argentinian Stations that are found in the peninsular region.
The station reminded me of a smaller version of Esperanaza, the Argentinian station I had visited with my family in Jan 2006 during the UAB Antarctica cruise aboard Abercrombie and Kent’s Explorer II. Here, we learned that twenty children attend a small school each year. The Argentinians have sunk their collective nationalistic teeth in to the Antarctic Peninsula. Poignantly, in the past their government has offered young couples money to travel to Antarctica to give birth to a child. Argentinian Antarcticans, a sovereign ritual.
Continuing our sightseeing detour, we next passed Paradise Harbor, a magnet for tour ships that now visit Antarctica, this region well reflects its geographic place name. Protected waters surrounded by snow covered peaks it offers safe harbor and spectacular wildlife. When we visited here on the UAB Explorer II cruise we saw an abundance of minke whales, crab eater seals, and even a rare white albino-like Adelie Penguin. This afternoon we were greeted by a small island dripping with Adelie penguins.
As we rejoined the Gerlache Strait and the afternoon shadows lengthened, the summer palmer crew began to move slowly off the bridge to the lounge to watch movies or read a book. Time was on their side. Our four day journey across the Drake had just begun, and for those of us continuing homeward, a long flight transiting the equator to points north, and the waiting arms of friends and family.
While I am returning to my office at UAB and will be about 8000 miles away from Palmer Station, my involvement there continues on a day to day basis. There are our UAB Antarctica web site blogs to write and edit, an NSF Antarctic research proposal to prepare and process with Bill and Chuck, and I will be facilitating Maggie as she coordinates with NSF and UAB to design and produce a live Alabama Public Television Broadcast between members of our team at Palmer Station and middle school classrooms across the state. As all of us on our UAB Antarctic team are known to say. “Never a dull moment!”