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.