31 January, 1999
Hello from McMurdo - still!!
I woke up early this morning in anticipation of leaving today. We were scheduled to report for transportation to Pegasus field at 11:30. The sky was cloudy to the south, but blue to the north so I felt confident that breakfast would be my last meal in Antarctica.
I had fruit and yogurt, coffee and juice. I ate with some of the members of the other group that was in Beacon Valley and one of the penguin people from Mt. Bird.
When we left breakfast the sky was completely overcast; there was no horizon. Everything was white. The sky and the ice just blended together. This did not look promising at all. As soon as I walked into the lounge at the Hotel California we got the word- no plane today. Again!! I had heard the day before that they hate to fly on Superbowl Sunday, too. Hmmm...
But this news was great news - it meant I could go on one of the "Morale Cruises" that the Coast Guard runs for the Antarctic Support Associates (ASA) employees. ASA is a group out of Denver that takes care of the science support here in Antarctica. Everything from janitors, cooks, communications, search and rescue and medical staffing is handled by ASA. These people work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Most of them have little opportunity to get out to places to see sights, so the Morale Cruise on the icebreaker is important to the employees and ASA. The cruise is scheduled immediately before the Greenwave, the supply ship, comes in. This year the Greenwave is scheduled in on February 5th. Most of the workers here will move from their regular jobs to the massive job of unloading the Greenwave, accounting for the cargo and directing it to the correct base. It supplies everything that McMurdo, Scott Base (Kiwi), Terra Nova (Italian and Scott Amundsen South Pole Station will need for the next year. Yes this means that for instance the food we ate in the field was ordered years ago and may have been delivered as early as one year ago. Some of the food we ate certainly arrived longer ago than that!! All the expiration dates were in the early to mid- 1990's. It wasn't until we returned to McMurdo that the expiration dates became fairly recent or perhaps even current!
The logistics of even being here are mind boggling - everything we use arrived last year. The garbage we threw away in Beacon Valley will now go out on the Greenwave - along with all the other garbage that is down by the ice pier in huge metal containers - all sorted into various recycling categories. That garbage is coming back to the United States for disposal.
This cruise was for the day shift - they have Sundays off - so there were several hundred on the Manifest.(they haveanother cruise for the night shift on Wednesday so if I am still here, well I'll go again1!!) We began to line up at noon and the queue easily reached the top of the hill - pretty awesome to see all the red coats dotting the roadside. Oh - there were a few brown coats - the Carharts and blue coats - Kiwis too. My name was not on the list, but S numbers (science numbers) need only to sign in.
We were allowed anywhere on the ship, so my first instinct was to climb as high as possible. I reached the deck above the bridge. The view was stunning - I could see all the activity below to prepare to leave the pier. The pier is ice - remember that even now the ice is 4-5 feet thick.
It was a new and wonderful view of McMurdo and Hut Point. This was different than the breathtaking first glimpse from the C-131 or the thrilling sight from the helicopter. It felt like a more intimate encounter, at eye level. Even though I was on a massive 399 foot vessel, I couldn't help but think of the early expeditions and the dedication of those explorers. To accomplish one summer of exploration required a committment of three years in the early days, including wintering in the harsh and isolating darkness.
Weddell seals dotted the ice edge. Many did not even deign to move. But others scurried in their invertebrate way to escape the disturbance of the ship.
Then I saw one of the most amazing things I have seen here. Here came the 212 helicopter with a very large slingload. That slingload was the disabled Kiwi Hughey. The RNZAF (Royal New Zealand Air Force) helicopter had transmission problems at Cape Royds. It was determined that fixing it there and flying to McMurdo was unsafe. So they stripped parts from the Hughey until it weighed about 3000 pounds - withing the sling limit for the 212. It was impressive and we wondered if PHI timed the flight just for us. Show offs!
I went down to the main deck on the starboard side. I wanted a better view when we saw whales. It was so overcast that everything was white - the sky, the ice - it all blended together. It made the whole experience that much more Antarctic. Surrounded by white and every now and again dots of life - skuas, seals. A group of four seals lying parallel to each other began to scoot away from the edge as we passed. A skua that was near them looked quite alarmed at being "charged" by a mob of seals and backed off in horror.
While we were in the channel, the icebreaker sounded like someone was dragging chains along the hull. Big chunks of five foot thick ice and debris that had refrozen filled the channel. The ship was vibrating-more like oscillating really.
Over there!! Everyone ran to the port side. There was the pod of 7 Orcas that we had seen one night at the end of the open water in the channel. They gave us a great show and we could hear their exhalations.
We could see the open water which by now is south of Cape Evans. Just a few weeks ago, I had gone to Cape Evans on a Delta with other people to the ice caves and to Scott's Hut. Now we'd need a ship to get there. When the Polar Sea arrived, they broke through 31 miles of ice 6-8 feet thick. Just three days earlier there had been 12 miles off ice, today there was only 10 miles of ice from McMurdo to the open water.
We passed large splotches of smooth, oily looking water. If we passed over them we could see that they had the consistency of a slurpee. This is grease ice. It is formed by deteriorating chunks of ice that have been blown out by the wind. The icebreaker relies on the wind to do most of the work along the edge, and to blow out the chopped up ice from the channel.
The icebreaker turned around to head home and it was a tight, fast turn. Almost like a sports car. More showing off!
By now I was cold and went downstairs for a latte. Seattle's Best was the best coffee I have had here in Antarctica. Better even than the twice boiled stuff we drank in the field.
I had assumed that we would come back in the same channel. To my surprise they decided to show us what they could do - and cut a new channel. The bow of the ship is designed so that the icebreaker rides up over the ice and then the weight of the front of the ship pushes down on the ice and breaks it. We could see huge chunks of 5 foot thick ice fold out from under the ship. Every so often, a lead would take off on its own. Remember that the sky and the ice are the same color so when these leads took off on their own it was like watching something take off into infinity.
The icebreaker was shuddering and groaning. Power.
The Polar Sea carries 2 HH-65A Dolphin (pronounced Dol Feen) helicopters. These are fast, gorgeous and about 4 million each. They are used for science, logistics and search and rescue (SAR). They carry 4 pilots and 10 air crew. While in McMurdo, the Dolphins are on the helopad, but they have a hangar aboard.
This ship is the most powerful non-nuclear icebreaker. The Polar Sea's typical deployment includes 1.4 million gallons of fuel. It is essentially a floating fuel tank! All available space is filled with fuel. There are about 156 crew and they are at sea for 6 months.
I thought that if I was in my twenties I would go to the Coast Guard Academy.
We headed back over to the old channel. We got our penguins!! Two little Adelies were scampering away from us over the large chunks in the channel. They were having a hard time climbing over the mountains of ice.
We moored at 4 and came in to blue skies at McMurdo. Maybe we will fly tomorrow.
Goodnight from McMurdo.
31 miles now down to 10
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