McMurdo Base is a very different place from when we left for the field, the most noticeable thing being that it’s about as dry as the Dry Valleys now: the snow is all gone. Two different trips to Hut Point Peninsula, one taken before and one after our time in the Dry Valleys, did a nice job of demonstrating the difference. The first time, I was bundled up in a wool hat and my ECW-issue parka, there was no sign of life, and it was so windy up near Vince’s Cross that my phone froze within seconds. This time, there was hardly any wind, I was able to pull out my phone (as a camera) with no trouble and had to shed down to a t-shirt at one point, and a large population of Weddell Seals had made it their new hang-out, giving me my first look at live members of the species whose mummified corpses had been an eerie fixture of our field season, as one of Rob’s posts will tell you.
It’s likely that I’ll leave Antarctica without ever seeing any penguins, though; the Emperor Penguin rookery filmed in March of the Penguins is in fact on the other side of Ross Island, not on the continent itself (as some people think), and there are a decent number of Adélie penguins on the island, too, but given the amount of ship traffic and the number of seals taking advantage of the pressure ridges and weakened sea ice around McMurdo, I’d imagine that they don’t especially like hanging around here. On the other hand, I’ve seen skuas aplenty; I came across one sitting in the trail as I was walking up it, completely unfazed and completely unafraid of my presence. There’s a reason that the disposal site for good but unwanted items at McMurdo (a handy system that gained me a new pair of pants once one of mine ripped) is called the “Skua Bin:” they steal from people largely because they have no fear of them, at this point. As I walked from Hut Point up towards the hills behind the base and eventually back down to it, I saw several more of them bathing themselves in the newly-melted ponds dotting the landscape.
The Dry Valleys themselves didn’t seem to change much over the course of the field season, feeling even more like a time capsule than I suggested in one of my earlier posts, although it did become noticeably balmier as time went along. The ice at the shore of Lake Buddha retreated from our camp along the shore, and Rob spotted several colonies of black, scraggly moss struggling to survive in semi-sheltered spots, the only plant or fungi besides the occasional crusty black lichen we ever saw. On our second-to-last day, I was hiking behind Rob on our return from the Altiplano, an elevated flatland similar to the South American region of the same name and laden with dikes, and passing a small lake located at a small mountain pass named “The Keyhole” for its shape and for the difficulty seeing it, except at a few angles , when I thought I saw him throwing his hat in the air. It turned out that there was a bird flying over his head, and that I was so used to the lack of animal life that I hadn’t immediately guessed what it was. It turned out to be a skua, wandering far afield, and when I later logged this into eBird (with my friend Carlos’ help) I learned that no skua had ever been logged this far south, some anecdotal accounts of their being seen at South Pole Station aside.
This wasn’t really an ornithology expedition, of course, and that was just a rather nice side product of a trip that’s otherwise had a pretty good yield, geology wise. Even as it got warmer, we had a streak of especially windy days during our last week, testing our resilience somewhat, yet for every bad, windy day, such as a trip to Renegar Glacier that yielded no samples whatsoever, we had days where the abundance of lamprophyres, the most we’d ever seen in one area, made up for what appeared to be the god Aeolus (of Odyssey fame) throwing a temper tantrum. Even as we approach the summer solstice, Antarctica is still Antarctica, and bad weather days will be ugly, but the scientific rewards make up for that.
~Nick for the Antarctica360 team