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28 November, 2003

Hello Everyone,

My name is Mark Johnston. I'm a field technician with the Weddell seal crew and today I'm going to be your guest writer. If there were any message I could relay to you from Antarctica it would be that I think Antarctica is one of the most incredible places on Earth. I have found it to be a life-changing experience. Antarctica awakens one's senses by its sights, sounds, and tactile sensations. I don't know if it's because we are close to the South Pole but there is a magnetism here that has been attracting me for years and now wants me to stay. It is difficult for me to put into words, but you don't just see Antarctica you feel it, and I'm not referring to the obvious that's its cold and windy, there is a unique presence here that gives Antarctica it's own signature or individuality. Antarctica is also home to three of my favorite things in life, the ocean, mountains and animals.

I'd like to note that I am privileged to be here as a research technician. Biologists get special privileges and support from the National Science Foundation that allow them to see more of Antarctica than most folks do. As a member of the Weddell seal team supported by the NSF, I have seen Antarctica from the air, below the ice and across miles of ice and snow.

As you probably know from reading Susy's journals we have had some amazing experiences here. Antarctica is very dynamic and ever changing, as indicated by the frequent sounds of cracking ice. Everyday is new here; even if you go to the same place you were the day before you see something different. If someone asked me about memorable days I would have to say all, but there are some days that I know will be etched into my memory forever. The day we flew to Marble Point was probably one of the coolest days of my life. I'll never forget seeing a large huddle of Emperor penguins by the ice edge and the pilots asking us if we want to go down We all were anticipating an awesome encounter as the helicopter thumped and shuddered its way down onto the ice. Once the engines and blades wound down to a halt we opened the door to be greeted by a stiff onshore blow coming off a rough, dark blue sea, as well as a single file line of Emperors coming out because of their own curiosity to investigate this strange red and white mechanical metal bird that had just landed on the ice. I'll never forget the beauty of the penguin's colors and the contrast with the surrounding environment. Their black heads with patches of yellow on the sides, pink edges around to their bills, white bellies and black capes as they were walking and sliding their way through a steady four foot high stream of white spindrift, with the ice edge and a high sea as a backdrop. The penguins were squawking and trumpeting loudly as they came to greet us. After a short time we were in awe as we were surrounded by some of the coolest creatures on the Earth. We went to the ice edge and watched them dive into the water and float on the surface between dives, some would jump out of the water and slide right up to us dripping wet as they pushed themselves to their feet with their bills .It was awesome. Definitely not something I get to see every day. Getting to climb twenty feet down under the ice in an observation tube in a deep blue ocean watching Emperor penguins fly and glide leaving a trail of small bubbles as they go is quite an experience as well. We have also watched Adelie penguins run across the ice from the sea to their rookeries, stopping to hop over cracks or waddling around in search of the perfect stone for their nest.

Then of course there are the Weddell seals, they are truly remarkable animals, and their resilience in adverse conditions amazes me. We've seen seal pups born in Condition 1 weather and survive; we've had the pleasure to watch these little guys fight against some outrageous odds; some are more fortunate than others. We observed them lose their fur pajamas and become mini seals, and have also witnessed their moms giving them swimming lessons to prepare them for the long enigmatic journey that lies ahead. Once weaned Weddell seal pups head out to the pack ice and will not return to the breeding colonies for four to six years, if they survive. The pack ice and polynyas where they go to are home to killer whales and leopard seals. Icebreaker crews have actually seen killer whales tip over small bergs that the seals are resting on to feed on them. It's hard to believe that they head out there on their own when they are only six weeks old. I could go on forever about this place.

In closing I'd like to point out that science can be fun, we really do have fun while doing our work. There is a lot of cool science out there and new state of the art technology to do it with, all one needs is a sincere desire and some willingness to do it. I truly hope that all of you one day find a place that you find special in your heart as I have here in Antarctica.

Daily Haiku:

Antarctica calls

Sea ice snow penguins and seals

Science on the ice

Who's studying whom? Left to right: mother seal, seal pup, Mark Johnston

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