All About Weddell Seals, Caroling, The Moon, Parties, Philosophical Tales, Mr. Science

Moving right along to the 12th week of my stay here in Antarctica. I can not believe how quickly time is flying by.

Having turned down an invitation to go walking on the Armitage trail due to being extremely tired (and sleep deprived), I fully intended to turn in early when I happened to walk into the lounge and saw the presentation I missed on Sunday being re-broadcast. As it dealt with Weddell seals, I decided to watch it. Here are some highlights from that presentation:

Foraging Behaviors of Weddell Seals

Scientists selected these seals for their study as they are excellent divers and the sea ice is their natural habitat and since the sea ice is so thick, it also provides a stable platform for the researchers over very deep water.

Weddells weigh about 1000 pounds and have been timed at staying underwater as long as 82 minutes with a single breath. With McMurdo Sound being as deep as 600 meters (almost 2000 feet) scientists were hoping for good results. What they found matched or exceeded their expectations.

The camp is located over a place where no other seal breathing holes exist within 2 to 3 miles. This basically guarantees the seal will return to the breathing hole cut out for it. The seals are captured at another location and transported to the site since the possibility of locating a seal by happenstance at the exact place where a hole is located is pretty slim. As can be imagined, the holes are already cut miles from any other existing hole so there would be no seals in the vicinity. If the study were to take place in the regular ocean devoid of ice as a containment mechanism, there would be no way to recover the animal.

When the hole is first cut in the ice, the seal is tagged and observed for several days to make sure it returns consistently. Then the animal is sedated and a neoprene rubber pad is attached to the animal’s hair. This ensures that no harm comes to the seal and that the pad can be shed after molting season thereby harmlessly falling off.

The cameras and microphones are then attached to the rubber pad. Since the batteries for these units only lasts about an hour, the scientists have honed the replacement process so that it takes only seconds to accomplish once the seal comes up to breathe.

Another mini-study conducted with the foraging study was an attempt to study just how much energy seals expend in their dives. What mechanism evolved through the eons that permits them to go as deep as they go and still have energy to find their way back to the surface?

It is a fact that swimming is energetically expensive. For dolphin it is 2 times greater than fish; for a human it is 25 times greater!! We are definitely not meant to be aquatic!

Where we swim about 1 meter/sec, the Weddell swims at 4-5 meters/sec. And the best Olympic swimmer does 2 meters/sec!!

What the researchers found out was that by putting a hydrophone on the tail of the seal they could measure its energy expenditures through the movements of its tail in the water. When there was no movement, there was a steady tone. With movement the tone increased in pitch, oscillation, and volume. For a deep foraging dive, the seal would swim energetically and then coast a great way downwards. It would also force air out of its lungs and into its bloodstream (I believe I got this right) thereby reducing their buoyancy and facilitating descent. So over millions of years this was how the seal became efficient at swimming.

The main aspect of the study was to see how seals foraged. So to this part of it, the camera mounted on the seal had to be infra-red as the depths were too dark. The imaging is limited to about 2 feet in front of the head of the seal so unless it was right on top of the fish, it was not possible to see. In stop motion they were able to detect silvery flashes of the type fish the Weddells ate. These fish are so hard to catch that for all the studies done on it to date, only 19 specimens have been trapped. And none of them in recent years. Yet the seals had no problems locating the fish.

A tactic used by the seals to capture these elusive fish was to blow bubbles into the crevasses under the ice and this scared the fish hiding in there into leaving. They then become breakfast, lunch or dinner for our Weddell. This, too, was captured on film.

For the scientists one of the most exhilarating moments came when, just prior to wrapping up the study, the camera caught the seal capturing and eating a huge Antarctic cod. The cod was about half as long as the seal itself and when the tape was reviewed they were able to see how the seal grabbed the cod by the head and by shaking it back and forth, snapped off the head to keep the carcass from sinking as the head is one of the heaviest parts of the cod. Doing a 3D analysis with vibraphone movement, time, and direction (also a variable recorded) the scientists saw how the seal was stroking for the bottom, began drifting downwards, spotted the cod, started stroking again, switched directions, stalked the cod, swam for the depths in the process, captured the cod and brought it up to the surface where it ripped its head off. Absolutely amazing to watch this footage. More info on weddells can be found here.


The 17th was also the day when a bunch of us went Christmas caroling in one of the new fuel tanks. It holds 2 million gallons when full and was being prepped for painting. Karla, Rich, Deb, Dave, Levi Heidi, Melissa, Chris, plus three more and myself had a great time in there. The echoes were magnificent and almost cathedral-like. We all had flashlights and stood around in small groups, voices aimed at the top of the interior for better effect. We’d pound our feet on the bottoms to provide excellent drum simulations in time with the music. However, it soon got quite nippy in there as the cold from the steel crept into our bodies from the soles of our feet.

The Moon, Boss! The Moon!

An interesting tidbit sent to me was that this year will be the first year in a long time for the full moon to occur on the winter solstice, Dec. 22, commonly called the first day of winter. Because this full moon on the winter solstice occurs in conjunction with a lunar perigee (point in the moon’s orbit that is closest to Earth) the moon will appear about 14% larger than it does at apogee (the point in it’s elliptical orbit that is farthest from the Earth). Also, because the Earth is several million miles closer to the sun at this time of the year than in the summer, sunlight striking the moon is about 7% stronger, making the moon brighter.

This will be the closest perigee of the moon for the year because the moon’s orbit is constantly deforming. If the weather is clear and there is a snow cover where you live, it is believed that even car headlights will be superfluous.

On December 21, 1866, the Lakota Sioux took advantage of this combination of occurrences to stage a devastating retaliatory ambush on soldiers in the Wyoming Territory.

Simply stated, the 12-22-99 full moon is supposed to be much brighter than usual. It will have been 133 years since these conditions have occurred. Our ancestors witnessed this event 133 years ago. Our descendants, 100 or more years from now, will be the next to witness this occurrence.

A 3 Party Night

Saturday night and it’s party night! A 3 Party Night as a matter of fact. It all started at 4 PM when I met my crew at the Coffee House for a Christmas Party. I’d been planning it for a few weeks and arranged for the Rec Center to find a bartender and open the place earlier than usual. I then arranged with the galley to provide a “party pak” of snacks—chips, dip, crackers, cheese. Having talked to Darrell earlier in the month about this, the five of us got out of going to the safety meeting and traded that for wine, coffee, and conversation.

Overall I’d say it was a success. Of course, since I paid for everything a blurry line is drawn across “success” as it is hard to measure under the circumstances. I guess everyone is your friend when you pay. Not much damage was done to their states of mind or my wallet so I think we all enjoyed ourselves.

I got an earful about the frustration folks experience with the supply department and the hesitance of upper management to make decisions regarding winter-overs.

From there I went back to the room, took a shower, and then went to the party in another co-worker’s dorm. His wing was putting on this international drink party where each room picked a country and then prepared a drink either popular in that country or named after it. His was Singapore and the Singapore Sling. Lots of folks milling around everywhere, many drunk on their asses.

The last event of the evening was the “Beach Party” put on by the Rec Center. Lots of folks were there and when I walked up to the Playhouse I realized it was going to be very loud as I could hear it from the outside quite well.

Unfortunately, as much a I liked the music being played and the caliber of the quality, I had to leave. I find it harder and harder to understand why these people need to have music at such tremendously high levels. I only lasted three songs.

Tales From The Philosophical Side

Recently I finished reading, “Teaching a Stone to Talk” by Annie Dillard. Basically it is a collection of stories that read like meditations exploring facts of nature and human meanings. One of the best parts of the book dealt with how we get in touch with the world and why we are here on this planet. That concept has always been a mystery to me. I find it hard to understand why there are 6 billion people on this planet and what is there to be accomplished by those people. Will we make a difference? And how do we do it if we get up, go to work, come home, eat, sleep and repeat the cycle. Every once in a while we throw a couple of kids into the equation but the cycle continues, almost rutlike until death. Occasionally an Alexander the Great, a Cleopatra, a Caesar, a William Shakespeare, a Ronald Reagan, a Margaret Thatcher, etc will come along but for the most part most of us are pretty insignificant.

For that matter, I am not sure why but I feel driven to write down and capture all of my moments here and in my other adventures after my retirement.

I know I can’t write poetry. Nor am I capable of much eloquence. But I read a lot. And here’s the strange, almost comically funny part: if I don’t write down what I feel is “moving” or poignant, I forget it. I’m introduced to someone and immediately forget his or her name. I’ll watch a movie and forget either the premise or the title and actors. I’ll read a book and forget much of it. I’ll listen to music and forget the artist’s name. Hours or days later I’ll have vague recollections of having seen or heard them but that’s about it. It is as if God made a deal with me a couple of decades back wherein He said, “OK, pal, here’s your last chance. Stop your self-destructive behaviors and I will allow you to maintain your sanity and grip on reality. In exchange, I’m taking away your short term memory.”

This has its advantages, though. I can re-read a book and enjoy it almost as much the second time as the first time around without fear of giving myself away the ending. The same with movies.

‘Twas the Week Before Christmas, Sex?, Christmas

The whole station appears to be in eager anticipation of the arrival of Santa Claus. Many folks are anxious they will not receive their package mail on time but NSF worked it out so that most of the flights coming in this week will be bearing almost nothing but mail. Of course, this means that right after Christmas there will be virtually no mail at all as all the cargo that becomes frustrated because of the sudden mail prioritization will now need to be brought to the top of the list. Sometime in Mid-January can we begin to expect more mail.

So, NSF, true to their word, had mail brought in. Over 20000 pounds of it.

Man, it was Happiness in Mac Town!! The Penguin flew proudly and, doing what a flag does best, this one signaled to the community what they’d been wishing for.

People were lined up in front of the mail room at 8 AM and the lines did not disappear until well into the afternoon. I’d gotten word Sunday night that my packages were in so I hightailed it to the back door and got my Amazon books plus the cookies my Mom sent almost 2 months ago.

The books arrived just fine but the cookies fared the worse for wear. Most of them were in crumbs. Any intact cookies were extremely dried out. But they were still edible!! Hooray!!

As an additional surprise and to add a bit of festiveness to the season, it actually snowed on Monday morning. I doubt we will get a white Christmas but it was nice to see the snow nevertheless.

The store was closed (as it always is on Mondays) so I got in the truck and made some deliveries. It’s good to get out of the office occasionally. Also stopped in to see how things were going in 174 when Santa Claus showed up along with some elves (and Gumby) to sing some carols and to pass out some Fanta. So we dubbed the helpers “Santa’s Fantas.”

Occasionally I will be asked questions by folks that are curious about why we do what we do. Usually it is related to what they feel are either unsafe or ecologically dangerous. Contrary to what people may think, there is a method to the madness and with a little bit of thought, the answers become obvious. Of course, one must assume the levels of human presence here are to remain the same. Only by reduction in numbers of people here can some of the stuff we have here and the actions we take be reduced.

The questions deal with why we’d need flammables; why we stock so much of everything; why we’d need dangerous chemicals like acids; and why we’d have to lock stuff up as the thieves have nowhere to run.

So I’ve come up with some answers.

All this flammable and dangerous stuff is needed here for the same reason you’d need it in any other community of over 1000 people with a couple of hundred vehicles. Vehicles need antifreeze and battery acid, they need to be stripped and painted when damaged (the reason for the flammable paints, strippers, solvents, etc)

The waste folks take their jobs seriously and almost everyone here hates it whenever even a drop of gasoline drips onto the ground so even though we have dangerous stuff here, we are very careful with it.

The reason for such large quantities of drums and all manner of other supplies is that since we only have one efficient method of getting stuff down here—the vessel. Should anything happen to it (crash, sink, not make it due to weather) we need to have a supply of stock on hand that is sufficient to support the mission for an extra year until the next vessel can make it the following year. The window of opportunity for re-supply is very short. Usually only a couple of weeks. If it can not be done in that time frame, then the bay freezes over. Granted, it might be able to stay a bit later in the season but then logistical problems arise with taking the people off ice that needed to stay here to unload the ship. That problem is exacerbated by a lack of airlift due to unsafe runway conditions. Once the runways gets good enough for large aircraft, it becomes too cold to bring in the aircraft themselves.

Lastly, locks are required because our warehouses have items in them that not everyone should have access to. Remember, we are dealing with human beings here and not all of them have good intentions. Some are larcenous, some are devious, some are plain, outright sick! Plus, if we allow people to just walk into warehouses, we’d lose track of what was taken since most people don’t bother to write down what they consumed. This then causes big problems down the road when we run out and can not get anything in for 8 months because no one noticed the shortage and it is too late to get it on the vessel.

Other things people are curious about and we’d get information on dealt with just how expensive was it to ship “stuff” down here. For your enjoyment, here is what I was able to locate::

Commercial air costs average about $2.50 per pound with hazardous and/or oversize items raising this average cost. To expedite something under 100 pounds by commercial air shipment costs $5.00 per pound.

It does not sound like much if you wanted to send down small things but imagine 100 computers weighing about 40 pounds each having to come down comair? That’s $10,000 on top of the cost of the computers.

The M\V Greenwave (the resupply ship) costs by the average tonnage shipped and is quoted at a cost of $.08 per pound.

Commercial vessel costs are based on the amount of cube used by the shipment. The cost is around $.16 per pound.

Another little bit of data concerns the sodas, wines, liquors shipped down here. Here is what is normally shipped down::

wine: 12240 bottles

beer: 223824 cans

liquor: 14076 bottles

soda: 187320 cans

champagne: 840 bottles

AA anybody?? Remember, there are 1000 people on station in summer and 200 in winter. Do the math.

That’s a lot of drinking!

Sex, Seals, Poop and Videotape

One of the funniest science presentations I went to in my 3 seasons in Antarctica was titled, “Sex, Seals, Poop, and Videotape” which was a study conducted by three scientists here, John Lisle, Jim Smith, and Rob Robbins.

They call themselves “turd wranglers,” “corn eyed brown trout fishermen,” or “poop people.”

The first lesson in poop they hoped to teach us, the audience, was called: “Poop 101” in which they were hoping to help us learn the difference between shit and shinola. For this they flashed on the screen an image of a seal turd and then a can of shoe shine. The crowd roared their approval of the visual aids!

We learned there were several microbial components of sewage: bacteria, viruses, protozoan, and helminthes. A couple of others were mentioned but I was not quick enough with my pen to jot them down.

The diseases these components cause range from shigellosis, giardiasis, hepatitis A, cholera, dysentery, and tapeworm.

On the station we have a waste treatment plant which has a huge masticator in it to chew up our “output.” They say it is a really nice place to have a burrito lunch. Before the pipe was extended out into the bay it also used to be a great place to watch the “outflow”. So if you were quick, you’d dump, you’d flush, you’d run outside and if you were lucky, you could watch your own brown trout pass out of the pipe. And the crowd went crazy!

Our treatment plant handles about 40 to 60,000 gallons a day with submarine discharge 180 feet from the plant into 70 foot deep water. The discharge pipe sits 4 feet above the bay’s floor.

At the discharge site, the environmental issues include the formation of what is commonly called Charmin Glacier and Turdmore Glacier. These terms allude to the formation of mounds of deposits at the outfall.

The faunal impacts are exacerbated by the decreased diversity found here. Only about 20 indigenous fauna accumulate materials from the discharge. One of the questions the scientists are asking is, “can microorganisms from this discharge cause disease in the local fauna?”

And that explains why these guys go “turd wrangling.”

They start by cutting a hole in the ice near the outfall and get excited when the hole reveals toilet paper or brown trout floating around.

They studied the outfall for choliform bacteria by drilling 50 holes and measuring the sewage found at each one.

Their findings resulted in the outfall being re-configured to go from near shore (where the fresh water intake was—YUCK!!) to its present location. They found that local currents flowed the micro-organisms in a different pattern with the outfall’s new location and kept the possibility of sewage contaminating the local water intake to a minimum.

They also discovered that, contrary to what some people thought, cold water does not kill bacteria as quickly as anticipated. As a matter of fact, the bacteria increased its respiratory activity several months after being “deposited.”

An interesting observation these guys made was that whereas under normal environmental conditions, the local fauna—sponges, sea urchins, star fish, etc. would use available seaweed and other vegetation to either disguise or camouflage themselves, by the outfall they found that rather than seaweed and vegetation, these creatures were using toilet paper, tampons, panty liners, etc to disguise themselves.

That drew a huge roar from the crowd.

Then the discussion turned to clostridium perfingens. These are spore forming microorganisms that are also known as “markers” in that they can be tracked through different life forms found here in Antarctica. Through use of molecular techniques scientists are trying to determine if bacteria and viruses from human sewage have colonized seals and are potentially altering the gene pool of indigenous life forms. Scientists find strains of the C.Perfingens in local fauna traced from human waste by growing bacteria, extracting C. Perfingen and performing chromosomal analysis. A large database of these chromosomes exists so it is a matter of comparing them to determine where they came from and where they are.

Of great concern is the fact that chromosomal and plasmid DNA from bacteria associated with human sewage, once reproduced, is a process that can NEVER be reversed. There is no “remediation” that can occur such as when there is a spill and the site gets remediated to clean it up. DNA pollution is permanent and once chromosomal evolution is set in motion it can not be reversed. Evolution then takes its course. So will it result in mutations?

I must say at this point that this had to be one of the most entertaining presentations I’ve ever seen here. I do not how long it took these guys to put this together but all three made presentations and all of them were spot on with their commentaries and dry humor.

And last but not least, they thanked us for our “contributions” of “raw material” for their studies.

What a bunch of yuck-meisters!


The week ended with everyone anxious to get the hell out of Dodge. The work pace definitely was a lot slower and at times I felt like cutting everyone loose for the rest of the day but I couldn’t as we had a Supply Christmas party planned at the Coffee House.

So I did the next best thing–I let each of them take an extra hour for lunch and then they could all go to the Coffee House to help set up. I stayed in the office manning the phone.

The main party was in the Vehicle Maintenance Facility where there was a whole bunch of different acts about to perform for our Christmas Eve pleasure.

The VMF guys did a great job of cleaning up a naturally nasty workplace and a variety of folks assisted by covering the ceiling areas with old parachute fabric and other ornamentation. Tables were set up with food and drink, beer was sold and even Santa made an appearance. Of course, our Santa was not like most Santas. He was crotchetty, lascivious, rude, groping, and desirous of getting ladies to sit on his lap. A real hoot.

The music started with a Chorale Group who sang a bunch of Christmas songs. Their group consisted of approximately 15 singers.

Then a brass trio (supposed to be a quartet but one of them crapped out due to illness) played some seasonal favorites.

The next act was called “Cakehole.” It featured Joel Foy on lead guitar (who I think is the best guitarist on station and same guy I mentioned earlier as having played with the Stilletos) Theirs was a blues-y blend of different music to include tunes written by locals.

Next was Henry and the Home Wreckers (Henry is the uncle of a lady who works in waste mgt. Her father’s here, too, so it was quite the family affair.) Henry played lead and I was unsure of the other musicians other than several vocalists who gave it their best shot:

The last band was R-4, (Rescue 4 and the Roll-Overs) named after the fire truck that crashed. A good band but the same ones that played last week in the Playhouse and were WAY TOO LOUD! So I left. Again.

Day over, off to bed knowing no Santa Claus would arrive! J

Christmas Day

The much anticipated snow never came and Christmas turned out to be a beautiful day, anyway. It was sunny, warm, with no wind blowing. A virtual carbon copy of Thanksgiving. Really did not do too much for the day so there is not much to write about.

I decided to walk to Castle Rock today. Called a friend (mandatory 2 person, check out at the Fire House, grab a two way radio, and establish a return time)and off we went. Quite the hike!

It’s a beautiful place with wonderful color tones in the rock. I stopped frequently to take photos. Along the way we came across 2 rescue huts which had sleeping bags, mats, cooking stove, gas, food, thermos, tea, chocolate, etc. One even had a phone hookup back to the base in case someone got stranded out there. Although our day was beautiful, I am sure there would be days when such a refuge would come in really handy.

While my friend stayed at the base of Castle Rock, I climbed up to the snow line of the rock itself and got awesome views of McMurdo Sound. I did not climb to the top as I was alone and he had no intention of doing the billy goat thing. I heard that last year someone fell off and died. I was not about to risk doing so myself considering I had no idea where the trail was to make the ascent.

Along the way to Castle Rock it was virtually all uphill for three miles from the station. It took us 3 hours out and back where I figure a good 2.5 hours were spent hiking the trail and the rest was spent either in the hut or climbing up the rocks.

We got back in time for brunch and I was starving!!

Continue reading Part 6 here.

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