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In transition

Welcome to the end. We spent a couple of days doing essentially nothing other than packing and cleaning up the lab. I’m starting to get a little antsy being on station with essentially nothing to do. It suddenly becomes very apparent that you currently exist in a place that you really shouldn’t exist in. People are on Antarctica because of science. Being down here without doing science and being down here without the purpose of helping to facilitate science suddenly makes you feel rather silly for continuing to be down here at all. Originally, I was scheduled to fly out of Antarctica on the 18th. But, if there is one thing that becomes blatantly clear rather quickly down here, it’s that the weather is unpredictable, and so are the flights.

First, our flight switched from leaving on the 18th to hearing that the plane was actually leaving Christchurch on the night of the 18th, which meant we wouldn’t fly out on that plane until the morning (or middle of the night) on the 19th. The 19th is today. Since that development, there’s been a 24 weather delay, I’ve been scheduled to fly out on an air bus with a 4:00 am transport time, switched to fly out on a Herc (also known as a Hercules or LC-130) with a 7:00 am transport time, and then bumped from that flight to be placed on the manifest for the airbus with a 4:00 am transport on the 20th. Welcome to travel in Antarctica. Oh, something else to consider. There is an air bus flight scheduled for tomorrow (the 20th), one more flight scheduled for the day after that  (the 21st), and then there will be no more flights off the continent until after Christmas, on the 27th. Happy Holidays.

Markus left 9 days ago (and yet it feels like it’s been so much longer), Rachel got out yesterday, and Jo and Allyson left on the Herc today (or at least I think they successfully left), and John and I have been rescheduled to leave tomorrow. Thus, I continue to wait, in transition. Not quite fully on the continent, and most definitely not quite back home, I wait.

 

**Oh, and a quick shameless plug – Happy Birthday to my beautiful big sister! Thanks for all the love and support, I’m sorry I’m not home to wish you a happy birthday or a Merry Christmas in person.

Love, your baby sister,

Mee-ya

 

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Last day

 

An Orca spyhopping at the ice edge. Thanks to Terril Efird for this photo!

 

 

 

Melt-pool by Little Razorback Island – McMurdo Sound, Antarctica

Turks Head – Ross Island, Antarctica

Scott’s Hut – Cape Evans on Ross Island, Antarctica

It seems impossible that four days have passed since my last post, yet somehow time seems to be slipping away from me. By Tuesday we had completed all of our deployments and it was time to start retrieving our gear from the six animals that were still out. On Tuesday Jo, Rachel, Ally, and Peter (a reporter from the Antarctic Sun) went out and retrieved two sets of gear from two animals. John and I stayed back in town and worked on data. As of Tuesday morning, I had 8 models left to create. I built 6 models on Tuesday, thus completing all of the 3D models from the 2012 season. I only had 2 models left and they were of animals from the 2011 season that I hadn’t gotten around to due to calibration issues. By the time we left for the sea ice on Wednesday morning, I was quite literally 5 or 10 minutes away from finishing my very last model.

Wednesday turned out to be our last day out on the sea ice and it was the perfect all-encompassing Antarctic experience. It was also one of those beautifully poetic and seemingly impossible perfect days.

It was gorgeous out on the sea ice and impossibly warm. By 1 o’clock in the afternoon, we had recovered 3 of the 4 remaining animals left to recover. My big wakeup call about our upcoming departure came the night before Markus’ flight off the ice. It was a rough night. Since then, I’ve come to the realization that dwelling on the idea of leaving only means that I’ll not only be sad after I leave, but for the week before I leave. It means continuing to be open to all of the positives and good that my experience here has to offer. Hence the reason I have been trying to stay as positive as possible, not dwelling on the fact that I’m leaving, and trying to continue to have amazing days until I leave instead. While out on the ice on Wednesday, John kept coming over and telling me, “This could be the last time you look at Little Razorback, ever”, “This could be the last time you look at Turk’s Head, ever”, “This could be the last time you look at Cape Royds, ever”. I kept giving him the stink eye and telling him to shut it because I know he’s trying to be a brat. He just responded by saying that he was only trying to pull me into the moment, to help me appreciate it. I still think he was mainly trying to rile me up, but there is a lot of validity to his statement. On what turned out to be our last day out, it was a good practice to look around, take in the scene, and realize this could be it, the end. You just never know with experiences like this, you never know if you can come back.

We decided to continue to scout in an attempt to find the last animal that we know was actively on and off the sea ice (we also have one pup we have yet to recover, but we haven’t had any satellite hits from him). We ended up on the sea ice edge, but as we were driving away from the Delbridge Islands and towards the ice edge, I remember noticing the change in weather from sunny blue skies to heavy cloud cover, wind, and the threat of something worse. But as we pulled up to the ice edge and started scouting for our animal, all thoughts of weather and seals temporarily left my mind as I heard the sound of water being blown up into the air with a great deal of force and saw the unmistakable blow of a whale. Somehow, we were in the perfect place, at the perfect time, as 4 beautiful and majestic Orcas came and surfaced right at the ice edge, only a few feet away from us. There was even one who spy hopped just in front of us, in what I can only imagine was an attempt to look at the strange creatures standing above them on the ice that were screaming and squealing at their appearance. Orcas have always been easily my favorite animal and one that I have always been completely enthralled by. Don’t get me wrong, I am a general avid lover of all marine species, but Orcas for some reason have always had my heart. Even though I grew up just outside of Seattle and the Puget Sound, I had never seen Orcas in the wild before, and to have my first experience be one like this, was absolutely mind blowing. To be so close to a wild animal that is so massive, so powerful, intelligent, and absolutely gorgeous is just insane. There’s no other word for it, it was insane. I was in a daze the rest of the day. We didn’t end up hearing from our last animal until we came back to town and after a hurried dinner (which had been reserved for us, because we had missed dinner), we had a smaller crew go back out and retrieve the last female at 10 o’clock at night. I stayed in town, cleaned the tags we had retrieved that day, and finished my very last 3D model. It was one of those days. One of those days where the stars seem to align and everything is not just right with the world, but absolutely amazing.

Experiences like this inspire you, they make your jaw drop to the floor, they are surreal, they are life changing, and I believe they are essential. I think everyone has moments like this in their life, but definitely not at the same frequency. Since starting undergraduate and especially since I quit school (and yes eventually returned), I feel moments like this have been happening more and more often to me. My eyes grow wider with every experience, my perspective changes, and I find myself in yet another situation that will lead me to have more life changing experiences. I had a conversation just the other day with a close friend of mine on station about this. Since coming to the Antarctic, these life altering moments of awe and clarity that seem to happen to some only a few times in a life time, happen to me closer to once a week if not more often.

 

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The Edge

In the process of scouting for seals, sometimes you end up in the most amazing places, like the sea ice edge.

 

 

 

Friday was our last day for deployments. We successfully tagged four animals in two days, and suddenly, just like that we were done. 28 animals tagged this season, 42 tagged over the course of both seasons. 34 models built, 8 left to go, and suddenly, the season has come to a close. We had our first legitimate day off of the season this weekend, we have already started packing up the lab, and Markus left the ice on the first flight out this morning. John, Rachel, Jo, Allyson, and I are still here, searching for animals to recover tags from, cleaning the lab, and packing up our gear to ship back home.

I cannot believe how quickly the time has passed. In some ways, I feel as though I just arrived on the ice, and in others it is piercingly clear just how much time has passed while I have been away. It’s strange being here in Antarctica, especially here at McMurdo. You almost start to believe that time stops at home, that the world stops spinning with the eternal daylight down here at the bottom of the Earth, but alas, the days are passing and life has continued to go on despite your odd displacement from it.

We have another week left here, there is plenty of work to be done yet, but it’s hard to avoid the blatant truth that our time here is coming to a close. Reality is just around the corner and whether you’re excited to leave, heartbroken, or somewhere in between, your return to the real world is inevitable and drawing nearer.

I don’t know that I can even quite explain, or even process, everything that I am feeling at the moment. The last couple of days have been fantastic, taking some time, walking up to Observation Hill with friends, going scouting for seals without the pressure of completing more deployments, spending time with the people whom you’ve truly come to care for on the ice, and trying to ignore the goodbyes that will soon commence. Yet, it is all part of the experience, part of being down here; your presence is only temporary and a re-occurrence never guaranteed.

That is part of the amazing thing about coming down to Antarctica though, you never know when, if ever, you’ll receive the opportunity to come back. I cannot believe how fortunate I am to have been given the opportunity to spend two seasons on the ice, to be a part of B470 and such an amazing project. It’s getting tougher with each day, but there is no benefit in thinking about leaving when it’s not here yet. There is still work to be done, time spent on the ice to enjoy, and dreading my departure is only going to hold me back.

Observation Hill

Thierry, Ally, Mee-ya, and Jesse

B479ers

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Preparation for the End

December 6, 2012

 

The last couple of days have blurred into what feels like a week’s worth of activity – two recoveries and one deployment yesterday. The weather was easily Condition 2 out on the sea ice. It was difficult to orient yourself considering that you couldn’t really see clearly more than 100 feet in front of you or so. Especially when you’re working out on sea ice, with minimal landmarks in the first place, working in conditions like this can leave you feeling disoriented. We were searching for an animal who was essentially in the middle of McMurdo Sound. We put a VHF tag inside our fish hut just as extra security, we were using GPS coordinates from our tags, driving out into the sound hoping to come close enough to our tagged animal to see them and thus recover them. It was like Hansel and Grettle setting down breadcrumbs to find their way home. We did all of this as an extra security precaution. Yet, I have to admit that even though all this amazing weather this year has been great, I think it’s conditions like yesterday that make me truly love being down here. I love the big storms that come through, the storms that threaten to knock me flat on my back and challenge my ability to persevere and complete my research regardless. We were out all day yesterday and had the same schedule today. Although today, was a gorgeous day. It was so warm that we worked without the onion, most of us wearing only a couple of layers, and during lunch we quite literally laid out and basked in the sun. Coming back into town, I saw several men standing around the Derelict Junction (DJ) in front of the dorms passing around a football wearing jeans and sweatshirts. It seemed so bizarre to see something so normal in a place like Antarctica, a place that is simply anything but normal. It’s bizarre how it happens, but somehow you find yourself in a place where living here and working here just becomes…. Normal.

We’re coming down to the home stretch. Markus leaves on Monday and we are done deploying tags on animals after tomorrow! It’s 9 pm and I am literally falling asleep at my computer as I attempt to create more models as I, yet again, attempt to catch up and stay up with the speed at which we are tagging animals. Hopefully two more animals tomorrow and then it’s all recoveries, modeling, and packing up all of our gear from here on out. Can’t believe it, but somehow the end is drawing nearer, and another season has passed by without me realizing how quickly time was passing.

 

Weather on Wednesday December 5, 2012:

Temperature: 28.4°F or -2°C

Wind Chill: 14.7°F or -9.7°C

Skies: Overcast

Visibility (miles): Unrestricted

Winds (knots): S @ 19

 

Weather on Thursday December 6, 2012:

Mean Temperature: 1.4°C with a high of 5.0°C OR 34.52°F with a high of 41°F

Average Winds: 7 knots

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6 more to go

December 2, 2012

It’s been 4 days since my crashing realization that I was running behind on models (well , OK so technically Markus was the one to point out this fact). On Wednesday I had 9 of 18 models completed. Between Wednesday and Sunday, we have tagged 4 more animals, and I have completed 21 of 22 models. The team was splitting into two groups last week, a scouting/recovery team, and Markus and I would come in later around noon after the team found animals to deploy tags on. A major point to this new scheme was in order to allow Markus and I to stay back in town to work on tags andmodels.  I was waking up as early as I could possibly convince myself, getting 3 to 4 models done in the morning before lunch, and then going out for double deployment days (a day where we tag two seals).

We had Saturday and Sunday in town, which largely consisted of working on models and trying to recharge for the coming week. We have another deployment set for a pup in the morning. The plan as of right now, is that we are only going to tag 6 more animals. 6 more models! I am extremely grateful that Markus pointed out how behind I was becoming. If he hadn’t I probably wouldn’t have realized how bad the situation was until the last week and then had no time to do anything other than model and I’m sure my stress level would have been through the roof. Now, it’s actually possible for me to keep up with the models as we go along. 6 more models! WOOOO.

Time to go tag a pup!

 

Weather for Monday December 3, 2012:

Skies: Partly Cloudy

Visibility (miles): Unrestricted

Winds: Calm

Temperature: -3°C or 26.6°F

 

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Click Click Click… Models Models Models

Last night, it was brought to my attention that I am starting to get behind on models. It’s an easy thing to do when we are racking up animals left and right. The girl team went out yesterday and scanned for prospective animals (Jo, Allyson, Rachel, and I). We managed to recover one animal, but couldn’t find another animal to tag. John and Markus stayed back and worked on fixing up tags.

As of yesterday afternoon I had 9 of of 18 models completed. By the time we went out this afternoon (Markus and I had a late start and went out in the Piston Bully after lunch) I had 13 of 18 models done. We tagged two more pups today, leaving me with 13 of 20 models completed. It’s kind of like fighting a losing battle, but all you can do is try and make progress and not fall too far behind. Markus and I are leaving later tomorrow morning as well, which should leave me with more time to catch up on some models. The pups take much less time to models than the adults, which leaves me wishing we only worked on pups.

Pups take about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes to model, juveniles take an hour and a half, adults take two hours. That isn’t factoring in the time it takes for me to log the photos, pick a set, load them into Photomodeler, and reference the photo sets in Photomodeler. It’s been a bit difficult to stay positive the last couple of days. When you start playing the number game with how many (or how little) models I have modeled,  you start to feel like you’re already giving everything you’ve got and you have no idea how to give anymore without losing your sanity altogether, or facing the horrible possibility that your most just isn’t enough. Perseverance, that’s all I’ve got on my side right now.

 

Weather today:

Mean temperature: -10.1°C / 13.82°F

Wind Average: 17 knots

Skies: Mostly clear

Visibility (miles): Unrestricted

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Snow

B470 family portrait on Thanksgiving
Markus, Allyson, Jo, Rachel, Mee-ya, and John

 

B479 (B470+B009)
plus all of our good friends
posing before Thanksgiving dinner
 

It’s Monday and it’s back to work. 2 recoveries and 1 deployment today. We have more possible recoveries tomorrow and hopefully 2 more deployments. The pups are finally weaning, molting their pup coats, and getting old enough for us to tag them. Therefore, their moms are now ready to be tagged as well. We’re going to be in hyper drive for a while. As of today, we’ve tagged 16 animals this season so far. We only did 15 last year.

It was great to spend the Thanksgiving weekend with such a great group of people. We have kind of melded together with another Weddell seal group, becoming one giant family. The other group is B009 and I’ve spoken of them before, they were the group we went out to Cape Royds with and who have been tagging Weddell seals in McMurdo Sound for 30 years. We joke that our event number is really B479 (B470+B009) and sitting at a giant table at Thanksgiving, it really made it easy to list off the things I am grateful for. Spending Thanksgiving in an amazing, beautiful, and rare place to visit like Antarctica is truly amazing. Being surrounded by people who you’ve become such good friends with and team members who have become like family just makes the whole experience that much more surreal.

It’s 10:30 pm, I am attempting to convince myself to leave the lab. Since the week of doubles began, we have been leaving station at 9 am. Since we couldn’t find a second animal to tag today, we actually returned home quite early and even managed to make it back in time for dinner (5:30).

It was snowing today, which is a rare occurrence here, what with Antarctica being considered the driest place on Earth, on average. Watching the snow covering the sea ice in a thin layer of snow today, it actually reminded me of Christmas time, and made me a bit homesick. Everyone is so isolated from the real world here, that it just never truly feels like the holiday season here. At least I remember feeling that way last year, but after today, I feel a bit cheerier remembering that this is one my favorite times of the year. I think I might head to Skua (the Goodwill of McMurdo, only it’s a free exchange of goods) and see if I can find some twinkle lights to set up around my bed.

 

The weather today:

Temperature: -9.6°C or 15°F

Average Wind Speed: 5 knots

Skies: Mostly cloudy

Visibility: Unrestricted with light snow

 

It was actually very warm out today. The wind was virtually nonexistent and the sun was out to warm us, most of us were sweating with all of our layers on inside of the onion. Oh, and no I did not end up running the Turkey Trot, I slept in instead. Not really that surprising I suppose.

 

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Turkey Weekend

We tagged two more animals yesterday and although we spent all morning searching for candidates this morning, we returned home empty handed.  The running count for this week of doubles is 5 tagged animals since Tuesday. It takes all the time and energy I have after returning from a day of doing deployments to update the blog, log photos, and clean stomach tubes. Hence the reason I find myself yet again behind with my models. There are now 7 models from this season to model and 3 from last season that I haven’t quite gotten around to finishing just yet. The goal is to get all the models done by the end of the season, which is possible, it’s just difficult to find the balance between working out on the sea ice, working back at the lab, have fun/relax, and sleep. For now, we have been gifted with the weekend off, which is really more a miracle. Thanksgiving weekend is one of 3 holidays in town where “everyone” receives 2 days off from work. Most people on station work Monday through Saturday 7:30-5:30. Thanksgiving dinner will be tomorrow night, and this weekend will be filled with the potential of unwinding and spending free time with everyone else on station. Tomorrow is the Turkey Trot, a 5 km “race” that occurs on station. From my understanding people usually dress up in ridiculous costumes and walk/run/drink their way to the finish line. Apparently you earn yourself a free T-shirt, which quite frankly is my motivation at the moment for considering getting up at 9:30 am on my day off to run up a giant hill. Not usually the kind of thing I would consider fun, but with McMurdo’s rendition of a “race”, I think I might actually be tempted to cross the finish line.

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The Week of Doubles

Two videos to check out today! Henry caught some fantastic footage of a Weddell seal pup interacting with their mother that has already been featured on Boing Boing and another video of me building one of 3D models of the seals! Thanks to John Skinner who took the GoPro footage and to Henry Kaiser for the field footage and for putting the whole thing together!

 

 

 

And so begins the week of doubles. Today was the first day that we have finally had potential pups that are both old enough and weaned and therefore potentials for us to work on. We’re trying to get out as many tags out as possible, we’re attempting double deployments (tagging two animals a day) until further notice or until we run out of tags, and Thanksgiving is this weekend.

My back started to spasm again yesterday, so I decided to play it safe and ride in the Piston Bully (PB) today, and to top it all off I woke up this morning, on the first day of this intense week, aching all over, and hoping with all of my might that I am not getting the crud at the most inopportune time ever. We left at 9 am, got back into town at 8 pm, we called ahead and had the galley save dinner for us, undressed out of our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather gear), had dinner, and now we’re back in the lab again. It’s 10:45 and I’ve cleaned two sets of stomach tubes, charged the camera batteries, uploaded photogrammetry photos for the day, I’m blogging now, and still need to log the photos from today. The whole process starts again tomorrow. We load the PB at 8:45 am, PB leaves at 9 am, skidoo team leaves at 10, and we meet at Turks Head. Turks head is 25 miles away from station, a 2 hour drive by PB, and 45 minutes by skidoo. The skidoo team drives around looking for potential candidates and searching for the specific pups we know are old enough and can even be considered as potential candidates. There are several islands in McMurdo Sound, the Delbridge Islands consists of: Inaccessible Island, Tent Island, Big Razorback Island, Little and Razorback Island. There are also breeding colonies of Weddell seals at places like Turks Head, Tryggve Point, and Turtle Rock. But groups of seals both large and small can be found all around the bay, usually congregated near cracks (Mainbody crack is a popular spot this year for instance) and sometimes you can even find a single seal seemingly in the middle of nowhere, far away from any visible crack or hole.

On a side note, life can be so ridiculously crazy sometimes. One of my good friends from OSU, Kiya Riverman, is someone who I met while working as an undergraduate research assistant at OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. She graduated from OSU a year ago and just completed her first year as a PHD student at Penn State. Kiya told me a month ago that she received a last minute opportunity to come down to Antarctica and that she would be coming through McMurdo on her way to field camp. I went out to meet Kiya yesterday as she got off the Kress and walked onto station for the first time. Later that evening I walked into my dorm room to find out, SURPRISE, she is also Rachel’s and my new roommate! Funny how things work out sometimes and how the ties you make with people have a tendency of crossing again at random points in your life. It felt pretty fantastic and surreal to be to catching up with an old friend sitting on my bed in a dorm room at McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

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Snack Time!

Check out this hilarious, yet oddly enlightening video Henry Kaiser filmed and put together!

 Skyping with a class at Oregon State University

Things have been a bit slow as of late. Everyone has been doing different things, but mostly (for me at least), it seems that time has been mainly based in town. I am 3 models away from being caught up, which is fantastic since I know things will be crazy here in a few days once the pups are finally old enough to be worked on and we start cranking tagged animals out.

Allyson, Rachel, and John went on a pup recce (reconnaissance) a couple days ago, but the weather was quickly deteriorating throughout the day, and they didn’t end up finding any of the pups they were looking for. Allyson and Rachel went out looking for pups again today, and Henry and Markus went out on another recce today as well. John went diving with Henry yesterday at Tent Island, the site of our fish hut and the location of one of many Weddell seal breeding colonies.  Today, I received a pretty fantastic opportunity to act as a dive tender for a science group. I am extremely envious of all the scientists who dive for their research here. Antarctica is a beautiful place, no doubt about it, but the beauty underwater? From the little video and photos I have seen, it seems absolutely amazing. Think about it. When you come down to Antarctica, you’re one of how many people in the world to come to the bottom of the world? But then you factor in diving and then you’re literally one of the few people in the world who have been under the ice in Antarctica. Crazy.

I’m trying hard to meet new people and spend time away from work, trying to give myself a chance to decompress, and possibly help with the fact that I’ve been feeling increasingly antsy. The pups still aren’t ready to be worked on, so we’ll stay in town tomorrow. Just means more time to work on these models.

 

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