At last I am breathing the cold air and marveling at the crystal clear views of the frozen sea ice and mountains outside McMurdo, Antarctica. Weather kept up us in Christchurch for an extra four days. We could not get far from the city as we were always on call for departure. I took a long hike on the peninsula and soaked up some vitamin D while I could. I also spent time at the botanical gardens imprinting green into my memory.
McMurdo is a large base of close to 1,200 people. It sits on the southern most point of Ross Island which is in the frozen Ross Sea below New Zealand. The island is home to Mount Erebus, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Town is nestled in hills that sit over the flat blue ice of the sea. Across the ice (our airport until December) the coastal mountains of mainland sparkle in white grandeur and they jut into the air.
My first week was primarily training (GPS, outdoor safety/survival skills, forklift and vehicle ops, fire extinguisher, environmental impact, etc.). Part of my camp staff has flow out to set up the camp. I will follow around Nov 18th after the final scramble for things we will need for our three months in the Trans Antarctics. When our camp aircraft arrives and radio comms are up we will start welcoming the first of 18 different science groups in early December.
A summer client at home put me in contact with a diver and I have been able to ‘tend’ a few dives since I arrived. In a small tracked vehicle we rumble over the frozen sea to dive huts that are set over holes forged through the ice. The water below is cold, calm, and clear. It was inspiring to be so close to something so different to anywhere I have dove and see a glimpse of a totally different side of Antarctica. Tiny starfish and urchins are brought up to be weighed and counted, various experiments of water temperature and CO2 levels and currents are underway, and small metal samples are set to rest to test what minerals accumulate on them over time. There is an Observation Tube for those who can’t dive sunk below the ice just outside of town. After descending into a narrow shaft you emerged into a small glass and metal space where you can look out under the ice. It forms a cloudy sky over a land 80ft below that is cluttered with sponges, corrals, and scallops so that it seems like you are floating in the fading light over a hilled forest.
Last weekend I attended “Happy Camper” school where as a group of twenty we used wood saws to cut blocks of packed snow to build walls. We set up stoves and tents and dug sleep trenches. We spent the night and ate rations like those in the survival bags we’ll have anytime we leave camp (dehydrated food, snack bars and coco). The next day we practiced radio use, and simulated white out conditions by trying to find a missing person with buckets on our heads. It was great to get out of town and practice skills I use all summer but this time in a cold environment.
The weather has been mild, ranging from -10F to 20F with winds making it seem a little cooler at times. Our gear is great though and in town we are rarely outside except when between buildings. I am enjoying town as a melting pot of interesting people from all over. I have been able to learn about various science projects depending on who I sit with in the crowded galley during mealtimes. That said I am eager to get to camp and start my job and see the interior mountains.