Setting foot on Antarctic soil (well, igneous rock on Ross Island)

We had a port call at the largest US research station in Antarctica, McMurdo Station (MacTown), at the halfway point (hump day) of our expedition to switch out some of the ship’s crew and science party groups. To get to the McMurdo ice pier, we had to break through the heavy sea ice around Ross Island, the home of McMurdo and New Zealand’s Scott Base. Luckily, the US Coast Guard heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, cut a path for us. But the pack ice quickly moved, obscuring the Polar Star’s path, and we had start breaking our own path. Icebreaking doesn’t just make for a bumpy and loud ride, it is the best time to spot wildlife. We saw all the Adelie penguins in Antarctic (slight exaggeration), as well as minke whales, and seals. Some folks were lucky enough to spot some orca whales!

The RVIB N.B. Palmer at the McMurdo Station Pier. McMurdo Station is the major US research base on Antarctica and is run by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

As McMurdo Station came into view, we caught a glimpse of the “Golf Ball”, which is the aptly named weatherproofing that protects various satellite receivers, and wind turbines that supply power to McMurdo Station and Scott Base. Even with ice breaking, we arrived at port 3 hours early and had to park in the sea ice until the station was ready for us. While we were waiting, we got a glimpse of life in McMurdo, including some type of running race, featuring an inflatable t-rex costume. Since it was Sunday, most of McMurdo had the day off.

After docking, we said goodbye to the other group of scientists, who spent a few days in McMurdo before flying back to Christchurch, New Zealand. Luckily, it was not goodbye, but rather, see you later, as we now have plenty of future collaborations. Plus, as it turns out, two of my roommates, Alyssa (featured in the last post) and Rachel (one of the microbiologists), and I got tickets for the same Taylor Swift concert in Tampa (Editorial note: SOMEONE’S PhD advisor did NOT get tickets and remains quite bitter about her loss).

After saying goodbye to our fellow NBP23-01 scientists and offloading some gear, we were allowed down the gangplank and onto the Antarctic continent – well, technically, the igneous rocks of Ross Island. Our first adventure on land was to Hut Point, named for Discovery Hut, built by Captain Robert F. Scott in 1902 for his Discovery Expedition (1901-1904) and used by Ernest Shackleton during his Nimrod Expedition (1907-1909). Fun fact: the hut was delivered to Antarctica in pieces – much like Ikea furniture! The strangest thing about visiting the hut was the perfectly preserved seal and penguin carcasses inside –hunted by Scott’s party and preserved in the cold and dry Antarctic polar conditions.

Discovery Hut (left), overlooking McMurdo Sound. We were lucky to be able to tour inside the practically undisturbed hut (right, which is also Antarctic Specially Protected Area 158)! We were happy we wore masks, because the smell of petrified seal blubber and penguin carcasses from the early 1900s was not pleasant.

For dinner that night, we had a special delivery to the Palmer – pizza! While it wasn’t the most gourmet pizza ever, not many people can say that they had pizza delivery from McMurdo Station, Antarctica!

Special delivery from McMurdo Station!

Our next land adventure, Observation Hill, required outdoor safety training. The 230m tall (extinct) lava dome provides 360° views of McMurdo Station, Scott Base, McMurdo Sound, the Ross Ice Shelf, and the expanse of surrounding sea ice. We also got great views of Mount Erebus, Earth’s southernmost active volcano, which was named after one of James Clark Ross’ ships.

View of McMurdo Station from Observation Hill. McMurdo is the main US station in Antarctica and is run by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs; their logo is on one of the tanks in the photo. Hey – I can see my home (the Palmer) from here!

Our last outing, before boarding the Palmer for another month, was a short walk towards Scott Base. Unfortunately, we missed “American Night” at Scott Base, but it was a nice little walk to see our Ross Island neighbors.

New Zealand’s Scott Base, located next to the ridge where the Ross Ice Shelf meets the surrounding sea ice. The base is very green!

The night before our departure, we had some new scientists and crew join us onboard. Stay tuned over the next few weeks to hear more about our sediment coring adventures and their science.


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