Palmer: The Basics

I know the title of the last post would indicate at least one more post about science, and don’t you worry your pretty little head: there will be plenty more science posts. But I realize that before we get too much further into the season, you might want to hear just a bit more about the details of life at Palmer.

I know what you’re thinking. “This is supposed to be a blog about Antarctica, so when are we going to get some actually interesting information about what life is like in Antarctica?!? She knows we have questions. Do they sleep in snow forts? Do they eat seal blubber and drink melted snow? Who else is down there? I mean, we’ve slogged our way through… well, I guess it’s only been about five posts, but I swear it’s felt like a hundred at this interminable, trudging rate. Is she doing it on purpose? Make us read her weird cartoons and ill-executed italicized self-referential second-person rambles hoping, like a dog at her table, that she’ll accidentally let some interesting scraps of information slip? Withhold the juicy details that have to exist just to keep us coming back? Has Susan been some sort of evil blogging mastermind the whole time??!?!”

I mean, no. But I get it. So here’s a quick FAQ for a lot of the questions I people tend to have about life in Antarctica.

Do you sleep in tents?

No. In fact, let me just qualify this entire post right here: our life is much, much cushier here than you’re probably imagining. We sleep in two-person rooms, with bunk beds, and share a communal restroom.

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Welcome to Palmer!

What do you eat?

Pretty much…normal food? Less fresh fruit and vegetables than I would at home—Palmer depends on “freshies” deliveries from the Gould to restock on perishables. But we get three hot meals a day, plus a 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM snack in our galley. Cuisine is varied in style but consistently delicious, and if anything, overabundant. And there is so. Much. Dessert. Forget the “Freshman 15”; meet the “Palmer Pudge.”

How many people are there?

There are 41 people on station right now. Palmer can hold up to 45 at full capacity, but there’ll only be 41 people on station at its fullest this summer season.

Who is there?

Well, right now, there are eleven grantees on station, and everyone else (I believe) is a contractor. The latter category includes administration, logistics, electricians, technicians, mechanics, and basically everyone necessary to keep the literal and proverbial lights on. The grantees are, more or less, the scientists. People like Jodi (if you haven’t been following along, Jodi our lab’s principal investigator) write proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF) if they have a compelling project that requires fieldwork in Antarctica. If they secure a grant to come here, then they find out how many people they can bring (limited often by how many beds there are available), and decide who will come. I know PIs must come sometimes, but this year, it’s all graduate students and lab technicians. (Not to be confused with the station technicians. Labs back in the states often have technicians or assistants who participate in research, but aren’t necessarily working toward a degree in doing so. Palmer technicians are experts in different areas, some of them directly relating to science, such as the lab instrument tech, and some of them more tangentially, like the marine techs who run the little boats we use for sampling.)

How long are the days?

Long. Right now, the sun sets between 9 and 10 PM, and the sun rises around 4 AM. Not that I can confirm the latter from direct observation. (Although there have been some late nights in lab where I’ve come uncomfortably close to seeing the sun rise.)

Are there polar bears?

Nope. That’s the other pole. Also walruses. We don’t have those here.

What do you do for fun?

In the not-particularly-abundant free time that we have, there’s no shortage of fun stuff going on. We have a BYOB bar on station, as well as a lounge where we have a large number of movies and TV shows available. On Halloween, for example, we had a double feature of Hocus Pocus followed by The Shining. (The latter being especially appropriate, atmospherically). And that following weekend, we had a costume party—some costumes people made themselves, some they brought, but many are available in a big box in storage, the refuse of many years of occupation by patriotic, Halloween-loving Americans. Also in communal storage are gear outdoor recreation—snowshoes and cross-country skis for wandering the “backyard” and our neighboring glacier—and crafting supplies. This year, the instrument tech has taught a bunch of Palmerites how to knit, so the common spaces are often filled with one or more people practicing their stitches. And then, we play a lot of games. On a recent “day off” (in quotations, because Hannah and I haven’t really had a full day off since we’ve arrived), I got into a game of spades that lasted four grueling hours.

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The all-important decks of cards live in the galley, along with games, puzzles, books, binoculars, and some instruments. Many more books and movies can be found in the lounge.

It is a constant surprise to me how multi-talented the station residents are. The station waste manager crafts and sells hand-made rings. The network engineer designs Antarctica-themed stickers. We have skilled painters, photographers, weavers, and woodworkers, not to mention the professional-grade sculptures that are welded on station: all “amateurs” in name only. This stuff is crazy good. And on top of that, NSF also awards grants to artists to come down for short deployments. Right now, we have a professional painter on station, who is here for twelve days to create art based on the amazing sights Palmer has to offer.

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Sculptures welded by station residents.

We also get to go recreational boating from time to time, when it doesn’t interrupt essential station operations or scientific sampling, which is always worth the trip if you can spare the precious time. I probably haven’t covered all there is, but to summarize: you would have to really try to ever be bored at Palmer.

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Gentoo penguin sighting during rec boating. 
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Sciencing, Pt. 1

I kind of slipped it into the last post all casual-like, so in case you missed it: WE’RE IN ANTARCTICA. Now that I’m done playing catch-up on all that Gould stuff, I can tell you a bit about what life has been like here at Palmer Station so far.

I’m a little torn about where to start. The last few days have been exciting and exhausting, and everything seems to merit immediate dissection. Even if I’d just arrived, plopped down in the middle of the galley, and sat there for a week, there would still be more to talk about—about the sights and sounds and modi operandi of the United States’ smallest Antarctic research station—than I could reasonably explore in a 500-word blog post.

But of course, that’s not how we spent the last few days. Unexpectedly, we ended up starting ~ScieNCe~ within our first twenty-four hours on station. That was not the original plan. The original plan was to take a few days to unpack; set up the lab space; attend orientation meetings, safety briefings, and the like; and generally adjust to life at Palmer. Of course, we did most of that, anyway. (Don’t worry, NSF! We didn’t start lab work until we’d had training.). But, when we arrived, the water around Palmer was filled by a bumper crop of sea ice. And that was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

So while I promise I will tell you about Palmer—the industrial-park-on-the-outside-family-owned-ski-lodge-on-the-inside aesthetic, the glacier in the backyard, what in Sir Ernest Shackleton’s name “House Mouse” means—right now, it’s time to talk turkey. And by “turkey,” I mean science.

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… Okay, first you can check out this cute picture of a mother seal and her pup. We think it’s a crab-eater, but someone else said it was the Weddell seal, which is rarer in these parts. So if we have any mammologists in the audience who can tell us, don’t be a stranger!

Before I talk about sampling, I’m going to give an overview of what we’re actually trying to accomplish during our all-too-brief time on station.

We came here primarily to study algae. Okay, you hopefully got that from the name of the blog. But hey, what even are algae, anyway? I’m glad you asked! Algae are microscopic photosynthesizers—that is, organisms so small that they are invisible to the naked eye (thanks, Hans and Zacharias Janssen!) that use the sun’s energy to turn carbon dioxide (a waste-product in our nasty nasty animal breath) into food, generating oxygen in the process. All the oxygen you breathe was made by photosynthesis.

When most people think of photosynthesis, their minds immediately jump to plants. For good reason: land plants are responsible for about half of photosynthesis (and therefore oxygen production!) on Earth.

Where did the other half originate?” you ask, suspecting the answer but willing to humor your friendly neighborhood blogger.

Algae! That’s right. Those tiny green dots you can only see under a microscope are responsible for half the air we breathe.

 

Or, as my PI (recall: principal investigator, not private eye) says, every second breath you take was produced by algae in the oceans.

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But, like, picture her saying it in an Australian accent. (Sorry Jodi plz don’t fire me)

“Okay, algae are important. Can we see pictures of derpy penguins now?”

Soon! But first, a bit more about algae and why we’re studying them–and perhaps more saliently, why we’re studying them here.

Wait a second. That’s a good point. Aren’t the little suckers everywhere? Couldn’t you go someplace like, I don’t know, Hawaii to find algae? I mean, isn’t your lab two steps from the ocean? Why don’t you just walk down to the dock with a bucket and call it a day?”

That’s a valid question. One reason we came here is that “here” is a really special place, and not just in the sense that we have a glacier in our backyard. Biologically, the Western Antarctic Peninsula is both fascinating and crucially important. It’s one of the most productive places in the entire Southern Ocean. (“Productive” is just a fancy way of saying that a lot of carbon dioxide is coming out of the atmosphere, which is good for humans, and lots of oxygen is going into the atmosphere. Which, you know. Also good for humans.)

And it’s not just about breathable air; it’s about ecosystems. The wildlife here is remarkable, with lots of marine mammals and bird life unlike anywhere else on the planet. But all that life needs a healthy system to support it. Remember learning about the food chain in grade school? The orca eats the seal who eats the penguin who eats the fish who eats the krill. It’s all a big house of cards, and if you pull out one of the cards on the bottom–e.g., if the krill go away–the whole thing comes falling down. (“It’s a chain? It’s a house of cards? For heaven’s sake, woman, pick a metaphor and stick to it!”). Those krill are mighty important, and boy howdy, do oceanographers like to study them. Which they absolutely should.

But what do the krill eat?

You guessed it. Algae.

It’s crazy enough that algae are able to live in these waters. The first officer on the Gould told us that even in our Gumby suits, we wouldn’t be able to survive a full hour in the sub-zero waters of the Southern Ocean. (A very reassuring fact to learn during a safety briefing.) Remember, life is chemistry. And in chemistry, low temperatures mean slow reactions. Slow reactions are bad news for any living thing that wants to stay that way. And some algae aren’t just living in the water–they’re living in the ice itself. How is this possible? How are these guys–who, by all logic, should be living life in the slow lane, if at all–not only surviving in these conditions, but thriving to such an extent that they are supporting a food web that gives us penguins and baby seals?

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It’s not just humans who depend on algae to survive. 

And to complicate matters, the Western Antarctic Peninsula is among the places on Earth warming the fastest.

Remember “every second breath”? Remember the house of cards?

Hawaii would be great. There’s important work to do in Hawaii, and the Puget Sound, and any other body of water you can think of. There are amazing discoveries to be made no farther than your front lawn. But something important is happening here, and right now, we just don’t understand it well enough. We don’t know why this place is so productive. We don’t know how these algae can survive the extremes that they do. We don’t know what will happen when the climate changes more dramatically here than anywhere else on the planet. From a bioengineering perspective, the answers could give us clues about how to use algae as a carbon sink to help fight the rise of greenhouse gases causing the very climate change that is currently altering every part of the world, including and especially this most remarkable corner. More basically, it lets us lift up the hood (“Please, not another metaphor, we beg you“) and peek inside this biological engine so we can see how it works, and predict how it’s function will be affected as the environment in which it operates changes.

Luckily for us, we don’t have to wait for the climate to change to get some idea of how the algae will change. Spring in Antarctica might not feel so spring-like to those of us used to walking around in fewer than five layers of clothing, but the shift is near-cataclysmic on a microscopic level. The temperature increases, causing ice to melt, which in turn decreases the salinity (=saltiness) of the sea water. And the days–which are nonexistent during the so-called “Polar Night”–stretch to eighteen hours or longer depending on latitude, until the sun never fully sets at all. That kind of extreme puts a lot of stress on humans, but that’s nothing compared the havoc it wreaks on photosynthesizers.

The effects of sunlight on algae are very interesting, and pretty well studied, but less relevant to climate change than temperature and salinity. Why? Well, climate change– devastating as its effects are predicted to be–won’t shorten or lengthen our days. It will, however, change temperature and sea water salinity. So Hannah and I are hoping to tease apart some of the physiological changes these magnificent microbes make to survive the buck-wild shift in temperature and salinity they undergo each year during the austral spring.

Here’s a funny joke: remember when I suggested this post might clock in at 500 words? Hysterical, I know. I guess the actual deets of sampling and Palmer livin’ will have to wait for another day. It’s coming, I promise! Anyway. Here’s some seal cuddles for your troubles.

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The “Gould” Stuff, Pt. 2

More photos! This time, less about ship life, more of the amazing sights en route to Palmer Station. I took… too many pictures. Often of the same glacier or iceberg, um, about a thousand times.

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Hannah and I are at Palmer now, busy setting up our lab and even getting in some sampling!! I’ll tell you all about it in gratuitous detail in the days to come. Keep that blog-readin’ head on a swivel.

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Smith Island, our first glimpse of land in days.
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Smith Island, but a close-up!
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Yet another view of Smith Island.
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We passengers weren’t allowed on the main deck during the crossing, for this reason. 
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Approaching Neumayer Channel at dawn on our last day at sea.

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Captain Zsolt looking at me like I’m crazy, even though he’s the one out here in a short-sleeved shirt. (Seriously though, Zsolt–Captain of the Gould on our journey–was the coolest. The title of “Captain” can seem intimidating, but Zsolt is super friendly and approachable, and has a delightfully goody sense of humor. Though you might not guess it from this picture, I suppose.)

If I haven’t given you glacier fatigue yet, check out our Instagram! Or Twitter! We are very hip. All up in the social mediums. (For the record, I’m 24. This is my first foray into both Instagram and Twitter. Luckily, Hannah is much more saavy than I am, so don’t let my lack of proficiency scare you off!).

 

The “Gould” Stuff, Pt. 1

First of all, I’d just like to apologize for the pun with which I opened this post. If you need to leave this page now and never return, I completely understand.

To make up for the absence of any pictures in the last post, I’m going to make this one primarily pictures from our time on the Gould. Your welcome, everyone who was sick of my barely-lucid monologues! (I know I am).

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The Gould, in all her splendor, moored at the pier in Punta Arenas.
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The Main and 01 decks of the Gould.
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That big ol’ submarine-looking thing? That’s one of the lifeboats! Our first full day on board, we had an “abandon ship” drill where we had to practice getting in. Thankfully, we never needed them.
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Railings everywhere. And an imposing ax. Anyone else reminded of that one scene in Titanic where Kate Winslet has to bust Leo DiCaprio out of the handcuffs? No? Just me, then.
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Our teeny bathroom. 
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The room Hannah and I shared.
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But is it art?
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Terrifyingly vertical stairs. It might not SEEM terribly steep, but in a rocking ship? TREACHEROUS.
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Massive copy of an old NYTimes crossword puzzle posted in the hallways for everyone to work on together.
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The galley.
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Another view of the galley. Note the built-in cupholders.
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Yet another angle of the galley.
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The “muster station” is where roll-call would take place in case of emergency. 

Greetings from the Gould!

 

Friends, I have some good news, and some bad news. The good news is, new blog post! You finally get to hear an update on our temporary life at sea! And more good news: photos! Soon, you can do what every lawless, free-spirited blog reader is born for: scrolling through these verbose blocks of texts until they are mere black-and-white blurs between what we really came here for. Pictures!

But, Susan! you cry at the cold, indifferent screen before you. I have scrolled this post already—you needn’t doubt it was my sole intention upon opening this missive to seek out the images that you, miserly creature that you are, have withheld until now (your poorly-drawn, boorish cartoons do not count)—and have found nothing but the dense verbiage to which I have been so hopelessly resigned henceforth. Surely you know I would not be reading this drivel at all right now if there were even a single picture of a blurry penguin to ogle!

Well, that’s the bad news. Here, aboard the Lawrence M. Gould, we don’t have a lot of bandwidth to play around with. So at least until we get to Palmer Station, you’re going to have to use your brain-theater to see envision those pretty pretty pics. You know, like they did in Ye Olde Days of blogging.

 

Physical Qualification

So. After passing out on the night of our arrival in Punta Arenas (or “PA,” as the cool kids call it), we were picked up the next morning at our hotel and brought to a warehouse by the pier. It felt very official (thanks in large part, no doubt, to the gleaming USAP insignia plastered on every surface in the place). We were then brought upstairs to a small conference room overlooking the warehouse for our final medical check.

Now, long before we’d arrived in Punta Arenas—long before we’d even received our plane tickets—we’d undergone a process of “Physical Qualification,” or “PQ,” to demonstrate our fitness for Antarctic deployment. This included a full medical history; immunization records; blood tests; dental x-rays; an EKG; and for anything marginally anomalous, a letter from our physician effectively saying, “Don’t worry, she’s good.” If that doesn’t sound too bad, then I’ve failed to capture the essence of the experience, because it was the worst. Lots of calls back and forth from the folks in charge of medical clearance, current and past doctors, and me in the middle, just silently pleading that no un-dotted i or un-crossed t would stand between me and this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But for all my grousing, I get it. Antarctica is just about as remote a location as it gets, and Palmer Station perhaps especially so, logistically. Some of the other American stations on the continent have airstrips, so at least some flights can come in and out. But it takes at least four days by sea to get to Palmer from, well, civilization. There’s a doctor on station, but certainly not the facilities of a full hospital. In that isolation, it’s better to be cautious.

So when we had our last medical check in PA, there wasn’t much left to do. Everyone who hadn’t brought proof of the seasonal flu vaccine stateside got a quick jab, and we all had our temperatures taken (with the sobering knowledge that if anyone’s temperature was too high, they’d be turning right around and flying home). That done, we headed downstairs for the next leg of preparations.

 

Suiting Up

A lot of people have asked me (since, as I’ve mentioned, I babbled about going to Antarctica approximately always) about the clothing situation. Did I have to buy a bunch of intense gear before flying down? Thankfully, no. USAP supplies its participants with all the Extreme Cold Weather gear, or ECW, before embarking, which we get to use for the field season and return when we arrive back in PA. So for about an hour—and with the help of two of the most patient men in the world, Paulo and Sebastian—the soon-to-be passengers of the Gould tried on a litany of ECW. Steel-toed boots too big? Paulo and Sebastian grabbed you a pair in a smaller size. Glove liners too small? Paulo and Sebastian got you the next size up. The zipper on this jacket’s broken, and could I maybe get a second pair of these fleece pants? Paulo and Sebastian have you covered!

(I know, it stinks not having pictures. So just imagine the “shopping montage” in a movie. You know—the characters try on different outfits, surrounded by an entourage that provides wordless feedback? Like, imagine me with an enormous red parka that’s several sizes too big, and holding up my arms in a way that just says, “Eh? What do you think?” And Paulo and Sebastian cross their arms and shake their heads in a way that says, “It’s not the one.” And when I’ve finally found the pair of mucus-green rubbery overalls that fit just right, Hannah nods sagely and gives me the thumbs up. You get the idea.)

 

Bon Voyage, us!

That night, we slept on the boat while it was still moored in PA, and in the wee hours of the morning, we set off.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve never been on a boat overnight, so everything about this experience has been novel, though far from unpleasant. Hannah and I are sharing a bunk on 02 deck of the ship, on the starboard side (that’s the right side, for all you landlubbers.) It’s tiny—tinier than my freshman year dorm room in college—but we’ve got our own restroom, plenty of outlets, a desk and chair, and even a TV! (Before you get too outraged at the luxury: the TV shows footage from cameras mounted on different parts of the ship, as well as a few screens that get into the nitty-gritties of maritime life. Windspeed and ocean depth, and a bunch of other metrics that are so much sci-fi-looking gibberish to me.) Plus, we have our lifejackets and “survival suits” in here, in case we ever have to abandon ship. (I overheard someone referring to these survival suits as “gumby suits,” and I can see why: it’s an overlarge body suit with oven mitts for hands that you’re supposed to zip yourself up into if you ever need to go into the water. They’re insulated, but not particularly flattering).

There are railings everywhere aboard the Gould, and what a blessing they are. Now that we’re on the rough seas of the Drake, you can feel like a pinball walking down the hallways, bouncing from one wall to the other and back again. And then there’s the bizarre experience of climbing the stairs. Depending on the motion of the ship, one moment, you fly up the flight breezily, as if your feet need barely make contact to propel you upward. The next moment, you feel as though someone has cranked up the dial on Earth’s gravity, and just peeling your foot off the step is a small workout. Some bigger open spaces, like the galley, have no easy handholds (though the seats are all thankfully all fastened to the floor), so you feel like a toddler taking her first steps, swaying this way and that, speeding up and slowing down in a manner not quite rhythmic enough to anticipate. No wonder all the tables have sturdy cupholders built into them, and placemats with good friction that can keep your food where you want it, and not in your lap. And believe it or not, the food is actually pretty good. We’ve had a varied diet these past few days, with BBQ chicken, curries, soups, pizza, and pasta, and options for the vegetarians. We get three meals a day, plus plenty of pickings for snacking in between. (If only my appetite were up to the task. Dramamine and Bonine are godsends, but, this is the Drake Passage…)

The crew in general are efficient, friendly, and tight-knit. It’s no wonder that the passengers who have come through before are already friends with many crewmembers, who welcome them back with smiles and jokes and reminiscences of past voyages. As for us newcomers, we’ve been treated with the same friendliness and hospitality. The seas have been rough, it’s true, but in every other respect, the journey has been as smooth as possible.

And they’re off!

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Well, folks, we’re on our way. We hopscotched our way from Seattle to Dallas, Dallas to Santiago, and Santiago to Punta Arenas, and I’ll be honest with you: I’m feeling a little punchy. Hannah (the other graduate student from Jodi’s lab on this trip–she’s entering her third year, and she’ll be the team lead of our project on station) likened our extended day of sleep-deprived travel to the feeling of being underwater all day, and I couldn’t agree more. My head still feels sloshy, my ears can’t decide whether or not they would like to remain “popped,” and every action, even the tiniest movement, just feels that much harder–like the air’s gone a bit viscous, just a little more reluctant to let me move through it.

Aside from this minor fatigue, though, our trip proceeded without incident. In Santiago, we were met by a USAP (United States Antarctic Program) representative named Jimmy, who ushered us through immigration and customs with the practiced ease of a choreographer who’s run this show a thousand times. As someone who’s muddled through the steps alone in many countries, I cannot tell you what a luxury it was to have someone like Jimmy. Usually, I move through border patrol like a disgruntled Sim who’s many mood meters keep falling, desperately wanting to eat/sleep/find a washroom. With Jimmy talking to the various agents, explaining in Spanish why we were checking a large tub filled with scientific equipment, the whole process–landing in Santiago to checking in for our domestic flight to Punta Arenas–couldn’t have taken longer than half an hour. I could have wept.

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Travelling sometimes turns me into a dissatisfied Sim.

We arrived in Punta Arenas a few hours ago, after flying over some truly spectacular mountain scenery which I could barely see from my aisle seat. (Don’t worry, though–Hannah got some great pictures!). Once again, we were able to relax and let USAP do the “heavy lifting”–literal and figurative. (Good Lord, is that my sense of humor when I’m travel-loopy?? Eegh.) They picked Hannah, myself, and maybe another eight or so participants up from the tiny Punta Arenas airport, gave us instructions for where we needed to be in the next few days before embarking on the ship that will take us to Palmer. After they gave us packets containing these details and other useful information, they shuttled us to our respective hotels in town itself.

The landscape is all greys and browns and dark greens, none of which stand out as the dominant hue, but rather all elide into each other. The vegetation isn’t particularly lush, but it is hearty looking. If I had to describe my first impression of the nearby countryside, I’d probably call it “scrappy.” Like, if these scrubby, gnarling trees could speak, I’d imagine them spitting out the gritty patois of a short but stocky boxer from 1930s Brooklyn, fists raised and ready for a fight.

Also striking is the cloudless sky, which has held steady at a crisp, baby blue from our mid-afternoon arrival through the time of this writing (it’s about 6:45 PM local time now). It’s a color I usually associate with early mornings, just after the sun has fully risen. It’s a fresh, bracing blue–but perhaps I only think so because the air itself is so deliciously cool here after seemingly endless hours of stuffy, recycled airplane ventilation. Punta Arenas feels like a refuge and a relief after the first leg of our long journey, and I am grateful for the time we have to rest here–before the real voyage begins.

 

Subject Line: Antarctic Field Work

I’m not proud of it, but I actually squeaked when I saw it in my inbox. Antarctic Field Work: that was the subject line of an email waiting for me one day in mid-April. It was a short email–a few sentences from my soon-to-be-advisor that conveyed, without preamble or fanfare, that she had secured funding for her current graduate student and one additional person to go to Antarctica to conduct research, and would I at all be interested in participating?

Hence, the squeaking.

Perhaps I should have spent more time in crafting a dignified response, but it was all I could do to keep the exclamation marks to a minimum. (Four. It had four exclamation marks). Thank Heavens I didn’t unleash a stream of disbelieving and ecstatic expletives, as I would in my head and in my subsequent announcements to family. And friends. Former co-workers. Vague acquaintances. Strangers on the street who accidentally made eye contact with me.

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(Fine, you caught me! Six, okay?! It had six exclamation marks. Are you happy now??)

Now, as self-aggrandizing as I’m tempted to be in this account of what I’m already mentally referring to as my “expedition,” I should tell you: it’s not really that crazy, given what I’m studying in grad school, that I’m going to Antarctica. I’m going to grad school for Oceanography (and Astrobiology, but that deserves its own blog post), and I’ll be working in a lab that specializes in the study of polar microalgae. A typical PhD program in oceanography takes around 6 and a half years (I don’t want to talk about it). My PI (principal investigator—science-speak for mentor/bosslady/head of lab. Not, in fact, an acronym for a tough-talking film noir detective) is incredibly accomplished, and has won a bunch of prestigious awards already, so the chances of us having funding to do this sort of work in my incredibly-long-graduate-school-career-that-won’t-be-over-until-my-thirties (seriously, I don’t want to talk about it) were always pretty good. Which isn’t to say it’s not the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life—it WAY is—but: it’s not utterly shocking.

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A principal investigator may not be a “private eye,” but a scientist may be more like a gumshoe than you’d think. Both careers involve forming hypotheses that need to be backed up by evidence, and in a way, the questions a researcher might address are in themselves “mysteries.” 

The weirdest part, I think, is that it’s happening in my first year of grad school, before I’ve taken a single oceanography class or done a single research cruise. (Or any cruise, for that matter–my four days on the Gould will be my first time sleeping on any ship overnight. Good thing the Drake Passage is so famously tranquil!). It’s not my first time conducting research, or even my first time in the field, but I can’t help feeling very much like a rookie. In the past months, I’ve been able to look forward to our upcoming trip with the kind of vague excitement of a daydream: it never felt real. Even now, one day out from our departure, that seventh continent—hanging off the edge of our planet and collective awareness, a blank space at the foot of the map whose whiteness we might sometimes mistake for emptiness—seems as alien to me now as it did that April day when I opened my inbox and yelped with disbelieving delight.

So pull out your crayons, dear reader. (And by “reader,” I mean “mother,” because it’s entirely possible she’s the only one reading this. Hi, Mom!). Sharpen your colored pencils and lay out your paintbrushes. Let’s add a little color to that big white circle pasted on the bottom of the globe. I can’t promise to stay inside the lines.