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UAB in Antarctica

Chuck described in his recent Night Dive entry our evening dive operations.  To date, we have set the buoy (marking our intended night site) out in the afternoon several more times than we have been able to dive at night.  On Monday, all systems were go for our third night dive scheduled for 8:15.  At 6PM I set up my gear and enjoyed the calm, ice-free inlet view from the dive locker window.  At 7PM we discovered the inlet was now covered with a thick layer of slushy brash ice!  The slight wind had turned direction just enough for this ice to sneak around a point and into the inlet.

Chuck and Craig boated into the inlet lurching slowly through the ice in hopes of recovering the buoy.  For at least 20 minutes I watched the beams from strong flashlights sweeping back and forth, to and fro.  Chuck and Craig returned to station chilled and buoyless – both in spirit and our marker float.

Tuesday began blustery – 50 knot winds. But good news the ever fickle wind did us a favor, changing direction and clearing that pesky brash ice out the inlet.  As the day brightened, so did our spirits with the sighting of a yellow buoy bobbing on the steely gray water.  Fortunately, the night’s ice had only covered it up but not dragged it into water deeper than its rope as we had feared.  You can predict the end of this scenario: by late morning the wind speed turned downward enough for a Chuck and me to zodiac retrieve the buoy!   

Wednesday, the winds were kind to us.  My morning dive with Craig at Norsel Point was productive but not very pretty between the surface swell that we could still feel 80 feet below and the poor visibility due to the recent high winds.  We returned to station under a gloomy sky with our targeted collections.  Within a few hours, Craig and I were back in the zodiac tending Chuck and Philip in Hero Inlet.  I silently cheered as the bright yellow pelican buoy broke the surface, floating over Chuck and Philips’s bubbles. It’s about time for a turn in our night diving luck. 

About 4 PM, a line of brash ice casually drifted into the mouth of the inlet.  A rising wind speed and slight turn in direction signaled the intended destination of that drifting, shifting ice front.  Out went Philip and Chuck on buoy retrieval duty.  Our night dive plan turned foul once again.  On the bright side, we “Buoy Tenders” are getting quite skilled at retrieving marker buoys!

Today I woke to the howl of the wind and the commensurate clanging of the woodstove chimney rising up to the wind battered roof behind the wall of my warm and snug room.  Feeling clairvoyant, I sensed that dive operations would be cancelled for the day.  I also predicted that right about 11 AM, the winds would abate, the horizontally driven snow would turn into quiet mounds of white drifts about the station.   

At our morning meeting, now at 8:30 – an hour later than we started here in February (sunrises now after 8 AM) - as forecast from my pillow, Chuck suspended dive operations for the morning.  A dive off the station in the afternoon could be considered if conditions improved.  Our yet another attempt at night dive might be considered too.  And my featherheaded suspicion that the winds would ease held up and lunch discussion turned around possible afternoon and evening dives.

So our days and nights take many unexpected turns these days.  Yes, a turn of weather and ice forcing a turn of events.  But what I really want to talk about is the tern of events!   

One thing that has been consistent these past few weeks is seeing and hearing small flocks of Arctic terns.  From the tip of its orange beak to the end of its grayish forked tail the Arctic tern measures on adult average 33 cm.  A deep black cap sits atop the head contrasting the white belly.  Their elegant streamlined body contrasts the now rare blue sky, but also gleams against the more typical ash gray skies.

Even if you can’t see the terns, you can often hear their shrill call.  Sort of high pitched piping, bird books describe the cry as “tcheek”.  Flocks of them have been frequenting the brash ice deep in Arthur Harbor, usually too close to the glacier face for photographic purposes.  I enjoy watching their agile wing maneuvers from a distance and hearing their cries penetrating over the bumping and crunching of the ever shifting ice.   Both of night dives were climatically calm enough to carry a few tcheeks from further up Hero Inlet, perhaps reassuring me that all would turn out ok. 

Arctic terns have been common companions overhead while zodiacing to and from our sites.  They look like such a fragile seabird to me but despite their lean and nimble physique, Arctic terns are the endurance athletes of the avian world.  Soon the slight built terns will head for their breeding grounds thousands of miles away in the Arctic! This tern is the ultimate world traveler!  A tern for all seasons!

And how about a tern of events!  The Arctic tern, with its distribution spanning both poles should be the symbolic animal for this year’s International Polar Year!  It should also be the celebrated poster child for the International Migratory Bird Day (12 May).   

I am hoping for a turn of weather events that will allow us to get out and predicatably dive.  In the meantime, I fear this same ‘series unfortunate events’ may turn some switch in the tern and off they will go on their long journey to the Arctic.

“ To everything turn, turn, there is a season turn, turn, tern, and time to every purpose…..”