Saturday, June 7, 2014

Friday, April 25, 2014

Happy World Penguin Day!

Because walking penguins make me happy

"With singular unanimity, explorers have likened the Adélie penguin to a smart and fussy little man in evening clothes, with the tail of the black coat dragging on the ground, and who walks with the roll and swagger of an old salt, just ashore from a long voyage"

Robert Murphy

Friday, April 18, 2014

10 Things About Emperor Penguins

Because lists are a thing right now.

1. At nearly 4 ft tall, they are the largest living penguin

2. The March of the Penguins was about them

3. They start breeding in the middle of the Antarctic winter when it's dark and really, really cold (-60 degrees C)

4. They incubate one egg on top of their feet and it eventually hatches out into one of the cutest things on the planet

5. Curious Adélies will sometimes harass the big fluffy chicks

6. Despite the fact that they often walk many miles over ice to get to their breeding colony, they walk really, really slowly

7. Like polar bears, they need sea ice to survive

8. There are no polar bears in Antarctica

9. The book "The Worst Journey in the World" tells the story of 3 looney Brits that almost died trying to collect the first ever Emperor eggs. From this very colony (remember its -60C when they are incubating)!

10. A trumpeting adult is one of the coolest things I have ever heard

Monday, April 14, 2014

Curious and curiouser

Adélie penguins do not mate for life. Their pair bonds last only as long and the pair remains synchronous. The males typically arrive first, find their territory, and start building a nest. But if the female returns before the male, she will quickly find another mate. The breeding season at 77 degrees South is too short for waiting. By the time we arrived, the pairs had formed, eggs had been laid, and incubation, for some, was nearly complete. The incubating penguins eyed us warily if we got too close, sometimes rolling their eyes to show off their intimidating whites, even growling. But they stuck tight to their precious eggs. The young non-breeders on the other hand, were often curious and wandered up to us to get a good look. Occasionally nibbling on our clothing or fingers, the question clearly in their eyes, "What are you?" Usually after a few moments, they lost interest and wandered off.

and Curiouser

A male advertising for a mate

Undisturbed by a dusting of snow
 When a mate returns from sea, a raucous greeting takes place complete with eye rolling, and coordinated, sinuous neck movements. The vocalizations are an important part of mate recognition and will be extremely important later when the chick and parent need to find each other.
Coming up, I realize a lifelong dream and visit an Emperor penguin colony. It was better than I imagined.
Emperor colony seen from Cape Crozier

Thursday, April 3, 2014

To the Cape!

It's hard to describe that first helo trip to Crozier. I was so excited that the memories are a little blurry. I sat in the front of the helo, my head on a swivel, trying to see everything at once, my camera following. I do remember the slightly disconcerting, unsteady feeling of lifting off for the first time in a helicopter. 
Lift off!

Back seat crew: Megan, Amélie, Ben

Pretty soon, we were surrounded by white, but it was far from uniform. The mostly flat sea ice ran up to the crackled, cravassed slopes of Mt. Erebus, where deep blue cracks looked deceptively shallow.
The slopes of Mt. Erebus

After a short 30 minutes, we arrived at out tiny hut at Cape Crozier. And it is tiny. If you didn't know where to look, it would be surprisingly easy to miss our little sanctuary in the vastness of the landscape.

The hut from the helo landing pad

Since it was the start of the field season, we had quite a bit of gear to bring out with us so we had to have a second helo follow us out with most of our gear. Although we could hear it coming, it was still hard to find the tiny speck in the sky slinging all our precious food and sleep kits

The speck

Shortly after lugging all our gear from the helo pad to the hut, the wind picked up and we were treated to a small taste of the legendary Crozier weather. We sheltered in the hut, with gear, as the wind gusted and snow swirled.

I think it's night in this photo. Or is it day? I can't tell.

Inside. Critical components: heater on the right, wine on the shelf.
We did manage to set up three tents in a lull, and Amélie and I tried to sleep in them that night. After a few hours, the wind picked up again and we gave up and moved inside. Welcome to Crozier! Next day it stormed all day until early evening when the wind finally died. By this time we were all dying to get to the colony so we geared up and headed down the hill.

And then there were penguins. Everywhere. The colony stretched out before us, thousands and thousands of patiently incubating penguins. I was immediately struck by the noise. Or rather the lack of it. I've spent a lot of time on seabird colonies in the last 10 years and there are generally two things they have in common: guano and noise. Mates greeting each other, birds fighting, general audio chaos. But for a colony with 500,000+ penguins, there was remarkably little sound. It turns out that most birds at the colony when we arrived were already incubating. The raucous mate choosing had passed, eggs were laid, and females went out at sea. With no mates around, the incubating birds have no one to talk to and spend most of their time sleeping, with only rare shouts at an encroaching neighbor or wandering birds. Apparent peace reigned.

First looks at the immense Crozier colony (this is only a very small part)

A pair at an empty nest surrounded by incubating birds

Long shadows

Monday, March 24, 2014

In Town (ish)

I'll be talking a lot about this place so I thought I'd start this post with a map. First Antarctica.

McMurdo Station is located on Ross Island at the tip of Hut Point peninsula, the very southern tip of the island.

Cape Royds is the western point and the most southern Adelie penguin colony. Cape Crozier, where I'm headed for the season, is the eastern point right on the edge of the Ross ice shelf.

McMurdo Station is both a very small town (people there just call it "Town") and a very big place. First day was a blur: briefings, getting keys, finding our lab space, setting up internet access, picking up linens for our dorm rooms and other small tasks. Megan and I were the neophytes, staring wide eyed, not sure how or what to do, or where anything was.
McMurdo. The blue building is the most important: dorms, station store, and galley

Because it was our first time in Antarctica, Megan and I had several days of safety training. First up, sea ice safety. We spent all day out on the sea ice, learning how to determine if a crack was too wide to drive various vehicle across. And enjoying the stunning scenery.
Mt. Erebus, the active volcano on Ross Island

Wind and snow make beauty

First Adélie Penguin!

Barne glacier

Iceberg near the Barne glacieer grounded and hemmed in by sea ice

 Next day, we started snow school (aka Happy Camper), an overnight training where we learned how to set up a camp in snow and ice and wind. We had a great group and it turned out to be super fun despite (or because of) the 40 mph wind.
Lining up gear helps you find it in a white-out

Building a snow wall to shelter the tents

Dug in kitchen to get out of the wind

Me and my layers

Mt. Discovery across the sound

Flags mark safe routes over the ice

With our training mostly complete, we were able to think about penguins again. Cape Royds, the closest penguin colony to McMurdo, was still accessible by snowmobile over the sea ice so we took a day trip out to do the breeding census. Royds is small enough that the entire colony can be counted in just a few hours. I was so excited to get my first close look at a penguin. Unfortunately, there wasn't much time to savor the experience as we dove right in to the counting.
Cape Royds colony ~ 2000 pairs nesting here

Penguins! Everywhere!

Shackleton's Nimrod hut at Cape Royds

Penguins trekking to the edge of the ice

On the way back to town, we stopped by the Barne Glacier and the grounded iceberg again and had a look inside an ice cave in the side of the iceberg
Hard to tell but this is me

Ice cave blueness

A fantastic and packed few days. Next up, Cape Crozier! One of the largesAdélie colonies in the world and my home for the next 10 weeks.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Destination Antarctica

It's hard to believe it has been more than 5 weeks since I left the land of ice and penguins. In case you don't remember, way back in mid-November, I left to spend the next 12 weeks in Antarctica working at the Adélie penguin colony at Cape Crozer on Ross Island. The experiences of the last few months were so remarkable that I'm not entirely certain I didn't dream the whole thing. I'm going to try and do a few blog posts to give people a glimpse of what it was like to live for a short time at one of the largest Adélie penguin colonies in the world.

Getting ready

First, preparing to go to Antarctica is no easy task. There are numerous doctor and medical visits to make sure you are healthy, there are stacks of paperwork to fill out, and...there is clothing to purchase. I tend to be a cold person (physically I mean), so I was a little anxious about how I would cope with the weather in Antarctica. The US Antarctic Program issues every participant clothing and in theory one could simply use the issued gear and be fine. However, the issued clothing doesn't really have penguin biologists in mind. The boots are too clunky and uncomfortable for hiking all day, the outerwear is too bulky, you only get 2 pairs of socks and everything is about 70 years old. So I was advised by numerous experienced people to bring lots of my own gear. That set off months of online shopping, something I would use as a distraction while I was finishing my dissertation.

Essential gear (things I would have been miserable without):
Lots of socks
Boots (crampon compatible)
Down jacket
Baby wipes

I traveled light

Socks, socks and more socks!

Getting There

Traveling to Antarctica takes a loooong time. Travel for me (and fellow penguin science team members Megan and Ben) went like this: San Francisco to LA (1 hr); LA to Sydney, Australia (13 hr); Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand (3 hr); and eventually Christchurch to McMurdo Station Antarctica (5 hrs) for a total of around 22 hours of flight time. US Antarctic Program operations for McMurdo and South Pole stations are supported from Christchurch so the day after arriving there, we went to the Clothing Distribution Center (confusingly referred to as the CDC) to get our issued clothing and our Extreme Cold Weather gear (ECW). In the end we are all supposed to look something like this as we boarded our ice flight.

Racks of "Big Red" at the CDC

Our trip to the ice was delayed by bad weather first by a day, then 2. On the 3rd day we went the the airport, hung out there for a few hours hoping the flight would go but were disappointed again. Finally, 4 days late, we board the C-17 and headed South.

On the flight deck which had the only clear view outside

First view of the continent

Just landed on the sea ice runway

We made it!

Up next, safety trainings, packing gear and penguins!