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Writing Your Dreams into Realities

They say those who write down their goals and dreams have a higher success rate of turning them into realities.

I recently found a very artistic goal book I had made in 2001, sixteen years ago, during my 11th grade English class. Thank you to Mrs. E for giving us time in class to create these visions! Flipping through the pages, I realized that a lot of the goals I had written down, I have now accomplished. You can also tell which song was popular at that time…

“Watch a sunset in Africa.” In 2014, I traveled to South Africa co-leading a group of undergraduate students on a Big Cat Research trip.  I made sure to watch every sunrise and every sunset, imprinting the experience in my mind. I was able to travel back to Africa at the end of 2016, this time watching sunsets in Botswana and Zimbabwe (look for future posts to come).

“Swing on a vine in the rainforest.” I have this strange obsession with the rainforest. I’m not sure if it comes from gazing at all the National Geographic magazine spreads of the Amazon canopy, the film documentaries I watched as a kid, or from my visits to the Rainforest Exhibit in the Woodland Park Zoo. I remember the day I arrived in the Amazon and reached the summit of a hike I did near Aguas Calientes in Peru. My heart fluttered as I looked out over the canopy. I’m here! I’m seeing this in real life.  I can’t believe it. I’ve been to the Peruvian rainforest a number of times now as a tourist and as a volunteer biologist with Earthwatch and the Tambopata Macaw Project. On a regular basis, I daydream of the soonest time I will be able to return. I find it interesting I’m on the path to becoming a polar oceanographer, because I’ve always had a vision of myself as a rainforest biologist.

“Jump off a tall cliff into water.” Why did I want to jump off a tall cliff?! I have no idea. After college I traveled Europe with my best buddy Kristina Ciari (she hosts an awesome blog called An Adventurous Life and works for The Mountaineers). We did one of those canyoning adventures out of Bern, Switzerland and at one point had to jump off a cliff into a narrow section of the river. Terrifying to say the least. I hesitated before my jump and got reprimanded by the guide. “YOU JUST HAVE TO JUMP!” he said, “Do NOT overthink this. Now, GO!” It really is a life metaphor if you think about it.  Years later, she and I visited Smith Rock near Bend, Oregon for a climbing trip and found this beautifully tall cliff. The guide’s words still rang in my ears, “Now, GO!” We all jumped 30 feet down into a wide calm river. Some of us came up with nose bleeds. I luckily did not.  But I think I cured my desire for jumping off tall things.

“Scuba dive in exotic waters.” I grew up in Washington’s Puget Sound. A beautiful location for diving. However, scuba is an incredibly expensive hobby and I never found the means to get in to the activity until 2013 when I finally had saved enough cash to get my Open Water Certificate. I spent the next two years working to get certified in Advanced Open Water, then Dry Suit, and Rescue Diver. My progress stalled when it came time to buy my own equipment. I couldn’t pass that next financial hurdle. One day, I was talking to a science colleague while working in the lab, and he said that he got funded to dive during his graduate program. I vowed to myself that if I ever went to graduate school I would find a way to dive for science. When I found out I was going to be attending Scripps Institution of Oceanography for my Master of Advanced Studies degree, I immediately signed up for the Scientific Diving course. I then spent my loan money on nearly $3000 worth (probably more) of gear so that I could be independent of a rental shop whenever I wanted to dive. I have yet to dive in exotic tropical waters, but I did manage to snorkel in the frigid 2°C Silfra fissure of Iceland.  Some day I do plan to dive in the polar oceans, namely Antarctica. Because I’ve already written it down, I know it will happen!

“Stay in an igloo at the poles and watch the Aurora Borealis.” Ok, so the igloo part hasn’t happened yet but I have made it near to both poles and seen the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and Aurora Australis (Southern Lights). In 2013, I was sent to Antarctica aboard an icebreaker for a two month research expedition. During one of the nights, we all went on deck to gaze at the Southern Lights. Dazzling ribbons of green, electrifying the sky.  The only time I have seen the Northern Lights occurred while I was in Seattle, funnily enough, about 14 years ago. One evening I was driving home from college around midnight and I saw funny clouds moving high in the sky. As I got closer to my house I realized those funny clouds were the Aurora Borealis and I raced inside to wake my parents. They ran out, mom in a nightgown, dad in his flannel pajama set. We all gazed up as the green lights danced above us, flickering, sizzling, then moved out of sight. It was magical. Seeing the full curtain of  blues, greens, purples, and pinks — from an igloo — is still on my To-Do List.

“Walk the wall of China.” This still needs to be accomplished!  Asia has been a region of the world I haven’t devoted much time. Malaysia was the first international country I visited back at the ripe age of 15. We traveled to Kuala Lumpur and to the small island of Penang. Growing up, our family hosted over 25 Japanese exchange students, so I have every reason to plan a trip to this side of the world.

I knew at a young age I was an adventurer. I have that Wanderlust. That Travel Gene. I have visited 35 countries and all 7 continents. I had no idea at the time of my 11th grade English class assignment, that I would actually end up traveling the world, for curiosity and for science, fulfilling the goals I had written down in that little book.

I’ve been writing goals ever since, many more of which have come true. I have dozens of notebooks and journals scattered about my room.

Apparently, if you just *think* about your goals and dreams, its not enough to make them real. Dreaming and imagination occur in the right hemisphere of the brain. Writing taps into the power of your left hemisphere, or logic-based side of the brain. When you operate the two together, you send your consciousness a signal that says,  “I want this, and I mean it!” Throughout time, its as if your subconscious mind then orchestrates those visions into realities.

Seeing this book, and reflecting on the accomplishments I’ve made over the past 16 years, I’m convinced I need to keep writing down those dreams and goals so that some day they become reality!

What are the dreams and goals you have written down wondering if they would ever be achieved? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

Thank you for reading and following Woman Scientist! As always, feel free to share with a friend or young scientist!

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Exploring the Okavango Delta – Part 3

Last year I went to Africa in June. Their dry season. When all the green fades away and only shades of beige and golden hues remain. I was co-leading groups of undergraduate students who were eager to learn wildlife tracking and skills in collecting observational data on the Big Cats of Kruger National Park. Over the course of a month, we saw 101 lion, 33 leopard, and 7 cheetah, among a plethora of other fantastic african wildlife. I felt I had nearly seen it all.

This year, visiting Africa during the December wet season, proved to be equally spectacular but in a different way. The bush had become thick with green Mopani leaves and grasses extending all lengths. This cover allowed animals to better hide but despite the density of green, I was still impressed with the amount of wildlife we saw. Lions, leopards, elephants, and hippo. We did not go home feeling any sort of lack.

Early one morning, we sat with two female lionesses.  “Lions are lazy,” the guide said to us. “They lie around all day sleeping and only hunt when they have to.”

It sure seemed that way to us. Female lions are a pride’s primary hunters. They often work together to take down prey such as zebra, antelopes, and wildebeest. These lazy lionesses sure didn’t seem to be planning for any such activities that day.

Most of the time we saw lions, we either saw two brothers, two sisters, or a male and a female mating. The average size of a lion pride consists of five or six females, their cubs, and one or two males living in a family unit.  Extremely large prides are not typical, although last year, we did count a group of 29 individuals living together in Kruger National Park.

Lions are the only cats to live in social groups, and all of a pride’s lionesses are related. Female cubs typically stay with the group as they age, but young males eventually leave and establish their own prides by taking over a group headed by another male.

The story of one particular male roaming the area near Savuti had a sad beginning. Mr. Lion and his brother were a team. But one day, Mr. Lion met a Ms. Lion and the two went off to enjoy each other’s company. As a typical mating cycle lasts about three days, with the mating ritual taking place almost every 20 minutes, up to 40 times daily, the two would be busy for quite some time. Brother lion was left to wander by himself.Alone and unguarded, Brother lion ended up getting into some trouble. A band of  three other brother lions roaming the area challenged him to a fight. Without the help of his brother, he was no match for the three males and unfortunately did not survive the attack.

Mr. Lion had no idea this was happening. However, once the days had passed, and Ms. Lion’s interest wained, Mr. Lion went looking for him.

Nowhere to be found.

He called, and called. Through the night and day.

The guides suspect he eventually figured out his brother wasn’t going to come back. Without him, Mr. Lion wasn’t able to effectively hunt. They watched him slowly lose weight as time went on, and renamed him Mr. Skinny.

Each time we saw him, he barely moved. In the heat of the sun, you’d suspect he had died. Every now and then, though, he would stir, roll around, and clean himself off.  Then one evening, just before dusk, we saw Mr. Skinny in a rather peppy mood. We weren’t sure what was going on at first, but then we saw. Ms. Lion had returned. At first, she seemed rather annoyed he had started to follow her. She ran ahead, and he continued to slowly trot behind.

It became clear he was too weak to catch up with her. Exhaustion took over, and he lay down to catch a break. Surely Ms. Lion would be on her way?

Nope! She came back to him, rubbed her face against his, encouraging him to stand up and continue after her.  We watched as she played a flirtatious game of catch-me-if-you-can far into the sunset, past the hour of visibility to capture any of it on camera.

The guides were optimistic that Mr. Skinny could recover. Although, with the band of three brothers still roaming around and a flirtatious female visiting them all, his chances would be slim unless he stayed well hidden from the other males.

Each day our schedule was full of adventure, food, and relaxation.

Morning started with the 5:00 a.m. wake up call. At 5:30 a.m. we piled into the car for our first game drive of the day. At 9:30 a.m. we would find a nice place in the field to stop and have coffee and biscuits before continuing our drive.

By 11:00 a.m., we returned back to camp for breakfast with the staff and a lively recap of the morning’s sightings.

“The bar is open if anyone wants something to drink,” the host Sally announced!

“Join me in some champagne,” Eva, the German/South African would chime. Why the heck not?! We were on vacation, after all, and we had the best seats in the house!

After breakfast, we had a break in the day. Siesta time until 4:00 p.m. A perfect span of time to relax, journal, and nap. I don’t know if it was the heat of the day, or the fact we woke at 5:00 a.m., but a nap always happened.

Temperatures during December never got too cold, hovering between 60-80*F throughout the day. In June, nights would drop to 46*F and rise to 97*F by midday, so packing layers was crucial, however this time around, I never used my gloves nor hat.

At 4:00 p.m., we sauntered out to the main lodge where we sipped tea and nibbled on delicious snacks. All of the food prepared at Wilderness Safari camps was incredible.

At 4:30 p.m., we again piled into the car to begin our afternoon game drive. Every day we stopped at sunset to enjoy “Sundowners”, really just an excuse to drink and enjoy the colors of light playing off the landscape.

Tops offers Sarita a glass of Africa wine.

Eva holds a dung beetle to the light.

Unless an epic sighting kept us out late, we returned to the camp by 7:30 p.m. each night. A full course dinner and wine pairings began at 8:00 p.m. and we sat with the whole group, guests and staff.  Wine and conversation flowed as we recounted the day’s events and stories of our lives back home.  It truly felt like we were eating with family.



This story ends here! If you’d like to keep reading, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter and get immediate updates delivered to your inbox. For stories earlier in the trip, read part 1 and part 2.

As always, please share Woman Scientist with anyone you think may feel inspired!

Thanks for reading.


All photos taken by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick. Information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.


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Exploring the Okavango Delta Botswana – Savuti Part 2

“Knock, knock, knock…”


“Good morniiiiing….”

…It’s dark…

I sleepily open my eyes to the 5a.m. wake up call.

“Good morning!”

“We are awake. Thank you!”

In thirty minutes the sun would rise, which gave us just enough time to roll out of bed, throw on clothes, grab our bags, and slug back a cup of coffee and light breakfast before heading into the vehicle for our morning game drive.

In the wilderness, if you want to have the best opportunity for animal sightings, you wake up when the animals wake up .  And sunrise is actually one of my favorite times of the day.  It always feels like you are in on a secret the rest of the world doesn’t yet know about.

Elephant and a saddle-billed stork

Four of us piled into the rover eager to start exploring: Our guide and driver, Tops, a lovely German/South African woman named Eva, and my mom and I.

There is never a real agenda when you are on safari. You go where the animal signs lead you.

Tops began the morning meandering along the main roads, keeping an opportunistic eye out for fresh animal tracks.

Even when we didn’t see big game, there were plenty of other animals and birds to keep us occupied. Botswana has 75 larger mammal species and 593 bird species have been recorded. Because of the Delta’s dynamic watery woodlands, amphibians are also abundant.

Helmeted Guinea fowl

Coppery tailed coucal

Lilac breasted roller. My favorite.

White faced whistling ducks

Marabou stork

leopard tortoise

african bullfrog carcass

Southern carmine bee eater

Another lilac breasted roller

Sable antelope


They joke that warthogs are part of Africa’s “Ugly Five”.  A play on the sought after “Big Five” game animals: African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. I found the warthogs to be endearing and my favorite site was them trotting off into the bush with their tails held high. A signal to other hogs to say, “Follow me if you want to live!”

Warthogs typically live in family groups of a female and her young. Female warthogs only have four teats, so litter sizes are usually confined to four young. Each piglet has its own teat and suckles exclusively from it.  After about 4 months, the young switch to receiving most of their nourishment from grazing.

Mama warthog and piglets

Baby impala

side striped jackal

Blue Wildebeest

Pair of jackals

A playful zebra

   Giraffes are probably one of my favorite animals. They’re so tall and slow. If you’ve ever seen a giraffe running, you know what I mean. They’re operating on a different timeline and for good reason. They have some of the longest nerves around. The sciatic nerve, which runs down each of its legs, is several yards long, so responding to a stimuli actually takes longer. 

Wilderness Safari’s Savuti Camp is located in the Linyanti concession. This 125,000 hectare area is rich with mopane woodland, floodplains, and riparian forests. The year round water source from the Savute Channel attracts wildlife including herds of elephant that can reach very high densities in the drier winter months (July/August).

“Never trust a hippo,” they say.

Here, you really get to appreciate the full circle of life. From the living, to the dead, as well as the breakdown process of decay. Everyone is hard at work surviving.

Tops holds up a Cape Buffalo skull. This was a female which you can tell by looking at the helmeted cap on the head. Males have larger more fused plates which help them in combat.

Tops explains to us the importance of elephant dung in the ecosystem.

Dung beetles ready for action.

Skin of an elephant. This one probably died naturally. Signs of poaching involve removal of the tusks and Botswana has a shoot-to-kill policy against anyone suspected of doing so.

One sign that decay is close by, is that of the Scavenger of Death. The Vulture.

Vultures are not known to kill their own prey. Instead, they wait near the scene of the crime for their chance to gorge. If you’re out driving and spot vultures circling on the horizon, there is a sure chance you’ll find something exciting if you get close.

Perhaps a lion has just made a kill? Or a pair of cheetahs has finished feasting on a zebra?

One day, we saw vultures circling around a tree, so we decided to investigate.

As we got closer to the tree, we noticed many of the vultures were sitting in its branches staring at the pond below.

Then, we saw it.

A dead hippo in the water!

Trying to get a better view, we decided to circle around the pond. Attempting to cross a water way in the rainy season is always a risk.  Depending on the soil type, the ground can turn into sticky mud within minutes. 

Our effort to get closer immediately failed. The mud pulled us in. 

Tops revved the engine trying to force the Land Rover free. We didn’t budge. The mud was too slippery and grabbed us, pulling us in further.

There was no escape.

That’s when we knew we were really seriously stuck. At first, I tried to play calm. Stuck? Its part of the Safari experience! … right?! 

Then my mind started working. Vultures. Dead hippo just lying there. Nowhere to go.

I couldn’t help think the lions would be there soon.  We were goners.

Tops radioed for help but we were more than an hour outside of camp.

As we waited, he cheerily offered us all coffee and biscuits. Coffee? Biscuits?? How can we eat right now?! WE MIGHT DIE!

“But Allison, if this is your last meal, you might as well enjoy it!” Eva said as she crawled to the back of the rover and lit up a cigarette.

“Mom? Are you scared?” I asked.

“No! We are fine,” she smiled. Calm. Too calm, I thought. A sure sign of denial regarding the imminent doom we were facing.

 I felt a mix of high anxiety and thrilling adventure while my mind played thoughts of lion attack. I also knew I could trust our guide, Tops. He grew up here. Surely getting stuck has happened before.  Right!?

Tops distracted us with jokes and stories while we waited. 

And waited.

The team, enjoying our last meal.

Finally, after an hour, our help arrived!

Pahlana and ST showed up with another vehicle and long tow straps.

After several attempts, a shovel, and lots of wood jammed under the tires, they eventually pulled us out and my nerves subsided.

We circled around to get a better look at said hippo.  That’s when we discovered it’s face had been chewed off, the entire body was bloated ready to explode, and we had luckily gotten stuck upwind from the wretched stench.

An adventure to remember for sure! 

I definitely slept well that night.

This post ends here. To keep reading, click here for part 3.


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Stay tuned for more stories of my adventures in Botswana and Zimbabwe….

If you missed the beginning of this journey, click here to start from the beginning.


All information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.

Photos by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick.

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Exploring the Okavango Delta in Botswana – Savuti Part 1

I still could not believe I was about to spend the next seven days soaking in the beauty of the Okavango Delta, enjoying the wildlife and hospitality of the people at Wilderness Safaris in Botswana. If you missed the post about how I came to book this trip, click here.

The Okavango Delta is the world’s largest inland river delta and the last remaining intact wetland.  In June 2014, it became the 1000th site to be officially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The source begins in the Angolan highlands where myriad streams and smaller rivers combine to bring summer rains (falling between October and April) through Namibia before finally reaching the delta basin in Botswana (around March through August).

Simplified catchment flow progression. From Wilderness Safaris pamphlet

At this point in the season, the delta swells to three times its permanent size. Animals from miles around come to Botswana for this influx of water, thus creating one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife.


So how long does it take to travel to Africa from the west coast of the US?


We spent nearly 26 hours in flight, totaling 38 hours of travel, including layovers. I left San Diego bright and early to fly to Washington DC,  where I met my mom and caught my overseas flight to Johannesburg. That distance took 18 hours to fly and the plane made a pit stop in Ghana to refuel.  Once we got to Johannesburg the flight to Maun, Botswana, was less than two hours. From Maun, we caught a small puddle jumper flight to our first camp at Savuti, which is in the Linyanti concession.

I was able to sit as co-pilot in the tiny plane and gaze at a spectacular bird’s eye view of the region.

Copilot with Trent in charge. (Trent also has hopes of flying with Kenmore Air for any of you Seattle folk! Although I’d say flying bush planes in Africa is WAY cooler.)

Can you see the elephant at the waterhole below?

Our pilot, Trent, warned us about slight turbulence and made sure we knew where to find the doggie bags. Down below we spotted elephants drinking at a watering hole, so to gain a better view he made a large circle around.  It was during that time my mom discovered airsickness. Luckily, the doggie bags were within reach.

We landed at the small dirt airstrip where ST greeted us with a big smile. It had been raining off and on so everyone was wearing dark green ponchos. ST drove us down a mud road to the Savuti camp where a group welcomed us with singing.

Greeting committee: Quest, Julia, Sally, Kelly,  Nkuma? (If you’re from Wilderness Safaris, help me fill in the missing names!)

We had no idea what to expect but were blown away immediately. The Savuti lodge is built rustic and beautiful with an open air plan, just the way I like my living! In the elements where you can feel close to nature, hear the sounds, and see the sites directly from your bedroom. Nothing like the boxed in cages of posh hotel rooms in the city.

Elephants could literally come through your front yard, and have in the past.

After our briefing with tea and cookies, we had the option to go out on a game drive or relax. Relax?! I dont think my family knows the meaning of relax. Even though it was raining, we emphatically said YES to the game drive! My mom and I were born and raised in the rainy city of Seattle, afterall.

Sally, me, ST, mom and Phalana wait in the rain for our guide to come.

The rain didn’t seem to bother the impala nor the elephants as they feasted away on the mopane trees…

Last year I had visited Kruger National Park in South Africa during the dry season of June, so I was not expecting there to be so much green. I suppose, when you think about it, that is the whole point of the rainy season in December! It was spectacular and made the bush lush and thick. A perfect place for animals to hide.

We left the thickets and opened into a large meadow. I raised my binoculars and started scanning the edge of the meadow. Thats when I saw it.

A lion!

Two lions!

It was amazing to be so close to the king of the jungle. Awe struck and slightly terrified.

The two males, brothers, were beautiful and relaxed. Sleepily watching a heard of elephants grazing in the distance. Every time the elephants moved away, the lions took a stand, stretched, yawned, and lazily sauntered closer to them.

Their amber eyes were stunning and had the magical effect of drawing you in while seemingly reading your mind. “Please don’t eat me!” mine pleaded.

As the sun set, the two started to roar in what sounded like a duet harmonizing. Deep, guttural groans that echoed through the meadow.

We stayed with them for a while as the sun set a brilliant hot pink, casting fluorescent green on the grass.  An excellent way to begin our journey in the Okavango Delta.

Botswana is approximately 224,610m2  (581,730km2) home to just over 2 million people consisting of many ethnic groups (Bayei, Bakalanga, Babugakwe, Hamkubushu, Bakgalagadi, Batswana, Baherero, Basarwa (San), European), each with its own ethnic identity and language. I was amazed that an entire country of that size held less than the population of my home region! To put that in perspective, Seattle and Washington’s Puget Sound alone contain more than 3.8 million people all crammed into just over 1,000m2 (2,642 km2)!

Retreating into wilderness treasures, like the one in Botswana, was a welcomed relief from the rush of city life.

Many of the indigenous communities are represented within Wilderness Safaris, employed as knowledgeable guides sharing stories of the dynamic ecosystem and their culture and life living in the Delta.  To travel through this pristine region, learning from the experts, was honestly the highlight of the experience.

I will end this post here but be sure to sign up for the newsletter to get alerts the day posts go live!

To continue reading more, click here for the next post in the adventure.

Thanks for reading.

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All information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.

All photos taken by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick.


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Bidding High for the Okavango Delta

The dream started when I attended a National Geographic Live! event at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA on November 2, 2015.  South African conservationist, Steve Boyes, and Multi-disciplinary artist, Jer Thorp, led a “live-data” expedition across Botswana’s Okavango Delta in 2014 and presented the results with Seattle.

The team of baYei River Bushmen, scientists, artists, writers, photographers, bloggers, naturalists and engineers traveled from the Okavango Delta river source waters in Angola all the way through to Botswana documenting the numerous biodiversity they encountered, sharing it in real-time with thousands of followers. They recounted tales of discovery and danger, captivating the audience and stirring my wanderlust.

Photo Credit: National Geographic team

Fast forward a couple of months: January 7, 2016. A friend, Kirsten Gardner, tipped me off to a fundraising event  to help raise money for Dr. Gregory Rasmussen’s Painted Dog Research Trust in Zimbabwe. “It could be a good networking opportunity,” she said. Boy, was that a foreshadow for what was to come.

I had never been to a true auction before, much less bid on anything. And with the entry price being $50, and me being a non-profit scientist, I told myself I would bid on nothing, I was only there to network.

As nervous as I was, knowing no one in the room personally, I encouraged myself to sit down at the table in the front where sat the Woodland Park Zoo’s Vice President of Field Conservation, Fred KoontzDr. Lisa Dabek, a National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program grantee and founder and director of Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program, and wire artist Colleen with Colleen R. Cotey Studios.

The auction got started. I listened, intrigued as small items racked up high bids.  Then, the bigger items came. Weekend get-away adventures, wine packages, large wire sculptures.

I held fast. Nothing really interested me enough to actually make a bid. Then, the auctioneer said it.  The magic words: All-inclusive 7-day trip to the Okavango Delta.

Whaaaaaaat?! The Okavango Delta? Holy crap. Seriously?? I had dreamed about going there the day I heard the Nat Geo explorers talk about it in November!

Ultimate Africa has donated an all-inclusive 6 night / 7 day Botswana and Victoria Falls safari for 2 people valued at US $20,000. Two nights at their Savuti camp, followed by three nights at Vumbura Plains all ending at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Puddle jumper flights and ground transportation needs from Maun to Victoria Falls were included.

Photo credit: wilderness-safaris-vumbura

Photo credit: Allison Lee wilderness-safaris-savuti

Typically I don’t travel in luxury. I’m more of the camping/getting dirty/on-the-cheap/roughing it type of gal. But this. This, I had to bid on.

The bid started low: “Going for $1250, we have $1250, anyone for $1250, next at $2000, $2000, anyone for $2500? We have $2500, anyone for $3000, $3500?….

The bid crawled up to $5500. I quickly did the math for two: wait a minute, that’s only $2750 per person! I had to act fast.

I held my card in the air: ME!


Another guy took the bid. Dammit!

The price climbed… $7000?  … $7500?

Trip for two. Six nights. Okavango Delta. All inclusive. High end (glamping) luxury safari. Got it. I knew that last year I had spent a month in Africa for $4000 so I set my price point and told myself I wouldn’t go over that per person.

$8000, do I hear $8000?” Prices were climbing fast.

Fuck it.

ME! I held my card high again.

$8000, anyone for $8500? $8500? Going once? Going twice? $8000 to the young lady!

Oh. My. God. What have a I just done?? I felt slight shock.

Everyone congratulated me and I held a smile on my face. Luckily, I had just paid off my credit card 10 days earlier, so there was room to go right back up to my credit limit. (Despite this story, I’m actually very good with money and have an above 820  top credit score. What’s money good for if you don’t spend it, right?!) Plus, it was going to a good cause. I already know adventure and conservation are my weaknesses financially.

Dr. Rasmussen approached me to thank me and I quickly told him I was also a scientist if he wanted help in the field. “Could I stay on after my trip and come visit you in Zimbabwe?!” I begged.

Absolutely!” he exclaimed. “But only if you like picking up poop.” (A comment only true wildlife biologists would get giddy over).

Phew. OK. My $8000 7-day trip for two would now become a month long trip for me. I would spend the safari in Botswana with someone (didn’t know who yet), then we would pop over to Zimbabwe to hang out with Dr. Rasmussen. I could handle that.

I sped home and furiously began to text anyone I knew if they wanted to join me on this adventure. I spent all night in a panic hearing “no” after “no” after “I would love to but can’t afford it”.

Then, I found her.

The lucky Partner in Adventure: my mom.

It was during the next couple of month’s that I found out I would be leaving my job at the Institute for Systems Biology to attend graduate school in June at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I debated selling the trip since I would no longer have a salary, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I HAD to go. Africa was waiting.

We booked our trip for December 10, 2016 (during my school’s winter break), and planned for it to have three parts:

  1. Cape Town Road Trip in South Africa
  2. Okavango Delta Safari in Botswana
  3. Visit with Dr. Rasmussen and Painted Dog Research Trust in Zimbabwe

My mom would spend 15 days total in Africa, and I would stay for 24. Then, we waited patiently for the day to arrive.

Ultimately, the trip ended up being pretty costly after purchasing flights from US to Africa, and flights within the countries of Africa ($3100+ in flights and travel insurance). But it was all worth it in the end.

I’ll end the story here in this blog post as its getting very long.

Stay tuned for continuing stories of Okavango Delta, Botswana and Zimbabwe Adventures…coming soon!

To see the next post on Part 1 of the Okavango Delta, click here.

For those interested in what my packing list looked like, here is the run down with comments on what I used and wished I had packed.

  • sandals (luna)
  • flat walking shoes (Toms)
  • Running shoes (didn’t really wear)
  • warm socks (only wore one pair once)
  • bra (2 sports)/undies (10)
  • water bottle (used a lot)
  • cards (didn’t use)
  • book (read 2: Half-Earth by EO Wilson and Citizen Scientist by Mary Ellen Hannibal)
  • ziplocks
  • bug spray
  • small first aid kit
  • toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, dry shampoo, floss, glasses, contacts, moist wipes, kleenex, chapstick, sunscreen)
  • sunglasses
  • good binoculars
  • pretty scarf (dresses up any boring outfit)
  • gloves/hat (didn’t use, but if I traveled in their winter, might have needed)
  • allergy meds/ibuprofen/malaria pills (used! Don’t forget the malaria pills)
  • headlamp/batteries
  • down jacket (only used on frigid airplane)
  • zip up hoodie sweater (used to ward off mosquitos but was too heavy for heat in general)
  • african print sweatshirt (great! light weight but gave good coverage and comfort)
  • two light weight hiking pants
  • one pair of shorts with pockets
  • three light t-shirts (blue, black, and blue)
  • two tank tops (black and white)
  • Safari button down long sleeve shirt (loose fitting clothes are excellent)
  • poncho (used once in a downpour)
  • GoPro / cords
  • iphone / cords
  • 6-charge battery pack (VERY handy)
  • small foldable backpack (day bag also used as additional carry on item for books and airplane needs under my seat)
  • small coin/card purse (could fit passport and phone)
  • small notebook/paper/pen
  • quick dry towel (never used)
  • 26 Clif Bars, just in case food situation wasn’t good (only ate 4, gave the rest away)
  • one 44 liter/2650 cubic inch carry on backpack to fit it all in (mine is the very old version of Kelty Redwing 2650)


*Featured Image photo credit: Allison Lee

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Seal Blubber and Holiday Runs | Field Diaries – Weddell Seal Team

The seventh and final post in the Antarctica: Weddell Seal Team series comes to us from Erika Nunlist.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read the first post in this series for more background on the project and the team. You can also read the 2nd3rd4th5th, and 6th posts if you missed them.

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 1 day left to reach their goal! 

Ice Livin’

December 6, 2015

As always, work and life down here has been fun filled and fast paced. We had a great Thanksgiving – McMurdo did some fine cooking. I was just as uncomfortably full as ever. I unfortunately do not have any pictures of the meal, but I do have pictures of the Turkey Trot we did earlier in the day!


The Turkey Trot. There were around maybe 100 people that ran it, many of which were dressed up in fun outfits. These pictures are all from a guy name Greg Stone in McMurdo who I actually don’t know but he shared his pictures with everyone in McMurdo. This is a shot of people about a quarter mile from the start.


I think this may be one of the best shots, also by Greg Stone. There were more than one penguin outfits running that day.


Eric and Ross at the finish line. Photo by Greg Stone again.


We only have a handful of days left here in Antarctica and times flyin’. This is one of my favorite ‘working’ photos to date. Terrill and Kaitlin near the end of a work day– I think there was an Adelie that Kaitlin was taking pictures of. My pictures of the Adelie weren’t nearly as good as this one.


After realizing that we have so little time left I have made an effort to take a few more photos of the seals. This is from one evening in the colony just behind camp. This pup is just yawning but he looks pretty fierce!


A sleeping mom. She didn’t give two hoots that I was around taking pictures, obviously.


An adult seal coming up for a breath and thinking about coming out of the water.


Seal pups are little punks. They’re very curious and playful. I find it hilarious watching them entertain themselves and bug their moms. I’ve seen many pups just crawling all over their mom while the mom is trying to sleep. This guy was picking up snow and rolling around with it, dropping it, picking it up again, seemingly very entertained by the snow piece. On another note, apparently seals will eat snow when it is ‘hot’ outside to cool themselves down. With it being up to around 35 degrees in the last couple days, I have definitely witnessed this. I wonder just how much a little bit of snow can cool off such a big mammal though.


With work slowing down a little bit we’ve had time for some sight-seeing. A couple days ago we went to a hut at Cape Evans used for some of the early expeditions of Antarctica.


This hut was built during Robert Scott’s expedition of 1910-1913. It was later used by Ernest Shackelton’s expedition in 1915. During this expedition, their ship the Aurora broke away from its anchor (above) stranding 10 men from the party at this hut for 20 months. Luckily, the hut was well provisioned and the men were eventually rescued. When they were rescued, they left in a hurry. The hut is very well preserved. Touring around the hut is almost eerie with all the objects, pictures, and personal items strewn everywhere as if the men were still living there.


Shovels in the “mud room” of the hut. The handles all looked hand-made and well used.


A big stack of seal blubber. They used blubber as fuel for their stoves. Didn’t really smell even though you might think nearly 100 year old seal blubber might stink.


Wheel barrow out in the horse stalls added to the original hut. Yes, they brought horses to Antarctica in one of the early expeditions. I don’t think it worked out too great for the horses.


Apparently they had some time for bicycling? I can say I would be terrified to ride this bike around on the ice down here.


The kitchen. Lots of jars and utensils. They definitely weren’t roughing it. Actually, what I was most surprised with about this hut was how much stuff there was. There had to be hundreds of jars and trinkets. Every corner was riddled with interesting objects.


A note written on the side of R.W. Richards bed. If you can’t read the picture, it says “August 14, 1918, Losses to date: Haywood, Mack, Smith, and Shih” (I can’t really read the last name in the list)


Dead, mummified seal outside the hut.

Picture23Cross with Erebus in the background. I’m sure many of the men stranded at this hut for those 20 months did a lot of praying.


We’ve also had the chance to go to the ice edge for some wildlife viewing. Terrill taking pictures with some curious Adelies checking him out.


Rafted ice just beyond the ice edge. I do not know the name of the hill feature in the background. You can tell it was a beautiful day though. The open water in the picture is where penguins have been poking their heads up and swimming around.


Adelies are funny penguins. They act like little grouchy busy-bodies. Very fun to watch.


Close up head shot of an Adelie.


Our camp is being pulled in a day. We will live in McMurdo for the remainder of our time here (we leave on the 14th!). Here’s a couple more photos of camp life before we leave. Toasting bagels in the morning. I had never seen this type of toaster before. It works great!


The variety of shoes we see around camp. Chacos, down booties, and Sorell boots. I usually wear tennis shoes or Haflinger clogs.


Mike’s Chacos have recently been the most appropriate footwear. Around all the doors to our huts where dirt has accumulated the ice has started melting. There are puddles one to two feet deep. This is Mike probing the ice around the step to see where he can safely go for a dry step.


Most of our gear is pretty great, and we make do even when it isn’t. Kaitlin has had to hold her pants up with a carabiner all season. Kind of funny, I’m sure next year she’ll make sure the zippers work on her snow pants!

Well that’s all I have for this update! Hope you enjoyed! Share these with whoever might be interested and email me if you want my past and/or upcoming updates!


This wraps up our first series for Field Diaries – Reflections of Life in the Field. 

The inspiration for these series comes from the idea that field diaries, or subjective reflections, are just as informative and useful as objective research field notes and serve as an important avenue in outreach connecting scientists and science to the public.

Please share if you were inspired and thanks for reading!

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Its an Ice Life |Field Diaries – Weddell Seal Team

The sixth post in the Antarctica: Weddell Seal Team series comes to us from Erika Nunlist.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read the first post in this series for more background on the project and the team. You can also read the 2nd3rd4th, and 5th posts if you missed them.

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 4 days left to reach their goal! 

The Ice life

November 25, 2015

Life and work are still moving right along down here on the ice. We only have about three weeks left which seems absolutely crazy. I can’t believe it’s been going so fast!

First off, I had a question from someone asking ‘what is the overall objective of this project and how is it going?’ I’ve been caught up in the day-to-day activities so maybe I should take a step back for a second and briefly say a little more about the project as a whole.

The overall objective of this project is to study the long term population trends of Weddell seals. This project has been going on since the 1960’s which presents a unique opportunity to look at multi-generational data on a population of large mammalian carnivores. The oldest seal the project has had so far was 31! She was here last year but didn’t return. I believe the project has documented her with 23 pups, some of which have already had their own pups. She had her first pup in 1990, and only took 1993, 2010 and 2011 from having pups. This is an extreme case though and most of our pup moms are between 10 and 18 years old with many fewer pups to their name. Just an interesting history on an individual to help give you a sense of the information we can get out of the data this project collects!

Our short term or seasonal objective is to work hard, document all the animals in our study area, tag all the pups, and stay happy and healthy!


As our pups get older, they start to molt their ‘lanugo’ fur in favor of their adult pelage. They can have some interesting and comical molt patterns. This guy with his mohawk reminds of some kid out of an inner city punk rock band.


Another photo of the same pup with his mom. Notice her red tags and his yellow temp tag and blue normal tags. Both their tags allow us to document their association. You can also see the pup’s splotchy molting pattern again.


One thing I was surprised with was that the seals have claws. They aren’t very sharp and kind of look like dog claws. What I’ve seen the claws used for is traction on ice and scratching themselves. The molting pups especially scratch themselves a lot. Must be pretty itchy molting all that fur!


I’ve been up in a helicopter two more times recently. Both were attempts to get to an isolated seal colony. One of the flights was abandoned because there was too much wind at our destination, the second attempt was successful. More on that later. Our first flight was commissioned out to the New Zealand base, or the kiwis. This is a photo of the kiwi AStar-B2 helicopter picking us up at our camp.


We had to bail on our first flight out to White Island, where the remote seal colony is, but we did a reconnaissance flight instead. This is a shot of the kiwi base as we flew over. McMurdo is just on the other side of the wind turbines you can see in the top right.


Sea ice and multi-year ice can be under a lot of pressure and can have some interesting shapes. This is actually a picture of ice on the ice shelf (which is a floating glacier – very different from sea ice) under pressure just outside Scott Base in the shape of large ‘rollers’. I think they look like something you might see in a desert but formed entirely differently.


A view from the helicopter of one of our larger colonies at Hutton Cliffs. We had a lot of pups born here this year. Every other day we walk the entire colony and check every individual. This photo covers around a mile left to right.


Another aerial view of one of our colonies – this one is called North Base.


Mike and I in the kiwi helicopter.


On our second attempt to White Island, we had a AStar-B2 helicopter out of McMurdo. You can see John, our pilot, enjoying himself. Often the pilots just fly and don’t get the opportunity to get out and walk around. He went with us to check out the seals. This picture also shows Mike and Terril putting our gear in the carrying cage.


White Island is unique and very interesting for multiple reasons. First off, it is the most southern mammalian resident population in the world. It is also an isolated population very few individuals – last year our project saw less then 20 seals. This small population was isolated due to an event in the middle of the last century when the ice shelf broke out unusually far allowing a small subset of the seals to be trapped afterwards. The seals themselves didn’t seem to different to me, but apparently (and obviously) they are very inbred. One interesting side-effect apparently might be more female pups born than usual. No clue as to why, but an interesting observation non-the-less.


I’ve had some questions on the weather we experience down here. I have to say, it really hasn’t been that bad. We had some colder, windier days to start the season off but since then we’ve had a lot of beautiful days. Recently, the temperature has been steadily climbing. Lately it’s been in the low 20’s which is warmer than places in the states! James told me it was around -10 degrees F in couple nights ago in the Centennial Valley which was about 30 degrees colder than it was here when we were talking. This is a photo of one day that the weather wasn’t good enough to work in. It was snowy, windy, and low visibility.


Later that same day we hadn’t been able to work, it cleared up into beautiful day. Sound like a familiar weather pattern for any of you living in Montana? We didn’t end up working that day even when it did clear up so we had some free time. Running is another thing that some of us do when we have the energy and time. This is a photo of Kaitlin running back from Little Razorback – around 1.2 miles from camp. Each of those bamboo flags are 50 meters apart for some depth perception. There’s also another out and back that adds up to 3 miles round trip. If you add both out-and-backs you have a nice 5+ mile run.


Terrill and Kaitlin ‘hi-fiving’ in front of camp. They both did the same run but in different directions. Good way to blow off some steam and enjoy Antarctica when you’re not working! Our crew plans on doing the Turkey Trot for Thanksgiving in a few days, excited for that!


We routinely drive our sleds around on rough terrain. Because of this, we have had multiple sleds break down on us. Mostly its our suspension systems breaking because of all the ‘streugy’ (rough icy molgul features on the ice) we drive over. When a sled does break, it’s a pretty painless routine. We put the sled on one of our siglands and tow it with another sled back to McMurdo. In McMurdo we have great mechanics that seem to be able to fix anything. Usually we’ll have our sleds back in a day or two depending on their work load. These are pictures of one of the broken down sled scenario.


Mike getting the gear together in the morning.


Eric on a survey of another colony we call South Base.


Blueberry peach pie from scratch with our event number. Pretty tasty!


No rolling pins around here, had to make due with a Coors Light can. Worked out great! Photo by Ross.


Our first adelie penguin! We haven’t had any more emperors lately, but we have had loner adelies run through camp, yes literally run. They are just as curious as the emperors but less comfortable hanging around.


One afternoon when we finished work early we went to check out a snow cave about 10 minutes away from camp. Here’s Ross with sunglasses and a headlamp – an unusual combination around here!


Mike entering the snow cave.


Inside the snow cave. Photo by Ross.


Icicles in the snow cave.


B-009. First time fooling around with light painting. Cursive by Kaitlin with a headlamp!


Kaitlin and Mike in another, shallower, snow cave (thus the brighter blue background).


Looking up into a crevasse. So beautiful!

Hope everyone enjoyed the update!


Thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for the seventh and last post in the series, coming tomorrow!

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 4 days left to reach their goal! 

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A Typical Weddell Work Day in Antarctica |Field Diaries – Weddell Seal Team

The fifth post in the Antarctica: Weddell Seal Team series comes to us from Erika Nunlist.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read the first post in this series for more background on the project and the team. You can also read the 2nd3rd and 4th posts if you missed them.

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 5 days left to reach their goal! 

A typical work day

9 November 2015

The last couple weeks have been very busy, very awesome, and very fun! We had our two PI’s, Bob Garrott and Jay Rotella join us for the last 16 days. They are both professors and Montana State University and have been running this project for the last 15 years. While they were here, they worked every day out in the field with us and helped us set a new record on the number of pups tagged in the study area! We’ve now tagged around 630 pups with a few (maybe 10-20) to go. The most we tagged in a day was around 60 I believe.

While they were here, we also did our first survey of the entire study area. Our work so far has been focused on the main colonies where we know the majority of pups are born. The purpose of a survey day is to see where else the seals are in the study area and capture the distribution of the animals we generally aren’t as focused on (i.e. the single males and females). To do a survey, we drive around and make a note of every seal we see in the entire study area which has come to about 1500 animals this year (this number will continue to increase throughout the season).

I know many people are interested in exactly what we’ve been doing on a daily basis for work. So for this update I’m going to detail, step by step, a typical day as best I can. I must admit, I haven’t been great about pictures so many of the work photos in particular were taken by Ross Hinderer. Thanks Ross!


Our day begins in the gear hut where we keep and dry out all our seal covered gear.


Every morning we have to pack up our tools and organize them in our tagging harnesses. In each tagging harness we have two tagging pliers, a pair of nippers, a genetic sampler, a hole punch, a third tagging plier, and a brush. We also have our data book, field computer, several strands of tags, and vials to hold our genetic samples.


Tools in the tagging harness. One person will often wear this all day and have easy access to the tools.


In a separate pack we also pack materials to weigh our pups. This includes a scale and weigh bag (specialized duffel bag designed by Bob) which come in three sizes to use as the pups grow. The scale connects to the weigh bar and also to the weigh bag. Two people then stand on opposite sides of the bar and lift the pup together. We weigh pups at parturition, 20 days old, and 35 days old. Pups are born at about 60-80 pounds and can gain 2-6 pounds a day. We’ve started weighing 20 day old pups recently and they seem to average around 140-170 pounds. The heaviest 20 day pup so far has been 208 pounds. Building some good leg muscles! Can’t wait for those 35-dayers!


Additional gear we bring each day is photo bars (I’ll explain later), lunch stuff (ramen, hot water, cocoa, tea, etc.), a handful of flags, and survival bags (the red water proof bag – mandatory to have enough survival gear for each person).


When we’ve gotten all our gear together in the huts, we have to uncover our sleds, load all the gear onto the sleds, start our sleds, gear ourselves up, put on helmets and finally take off. Writing it all out makes me realize actually how much work we have to do every morning before actually going to work. With our whole crew working on it though, it really goes pretty quickly. This is a photo of penguins hanging out watching us get ready one morning. There were completely unaffected by all the hustle and bustle.


Once we get to a colony, we usually split up into groups and start working up the colony. Each group usually has their own set of tagging, weighing, and photo gear. We then go to every seal in the colony to check if there’s a pup that needs tagging or weighing. This is the normal looking scene at one of our colonies. You can see about how seals are distributed throughout the colony and another group working up seals in the background. These seals are all here because of sea ice cracks that allow them to get in and out of the water from holes they rake out with their teeth. Most of these cracks are very obvious and easy to cross but if they aren’t we have probing poles we take with us to help navigate.


Exploring part of our study area with the probing poles. This is an area with many cracks covered in snow that we don’t go to often because there really aren’t more than a handful of seals.


When we do find a mom and newborn pup it looks something like this. In this picture, Mike and I had walked up to this mom and pup pair, noticed the pup did not have tags yet so we copied down the mom’s tags and retreated to get the tagging stuff ready. At this point, we prepare two sets of tags (one pair for each flipper), write down the mom and pup information in our book, and get the weighing stuff ready. An important note, not every single of the 600-odd pups this year were weighed. That would be a ton of work. Instead, we enrolled certain pups in this particular part of the study depending on the mom’s age and history in the project. In the end, we enrolled about 180 pups in the weigh study each of which will ideally be weighed three times. Most of those pups were also enrolled in the swim study which just means we’ll take the temp tag (also explained later) off of them when we’ve weighed them for the last time. Photo by Ross.


A closer view of me writing down information in the tagging book. I’ve gotten pretty good at writing with gloves on! It’s not easy and my writing I fear is not always 100% legible. On warmer days I wear thinner gloves which makes it a little easier to write. As for entering the data into the computer, we use the butt end of a pencil which works great. After recording the necessary info, we walk up to the seal pup and tag, weigh, sex, and genetic sample the pup. There are several ways to do this and it often depends on the temperament of the mom. Some mom’s really don’t care about your presence and a single person can go up and tag the seal pup all by themselves. Other times the mom really does care and can be quite aggressive. In these instances, two or three people work together to get the pup tagged. One person tags while the other two either help drag the seal pup a short distance away or distract mom or both. Photo by Ross.


An example of a very peaceful mom and pup pair.


We always tag the outer webs on each flipper and the end product looks something like this. Sometimes we also will put a temporary third temperature recording tag in one of the inner webs. Next photo.


We call the temperature recoding tags ‘temp tags.’ The pups will wear them for about 35 days before we take them off again. The idea behind these tags is that air temperature and water temperature are different so by looking at the temperature record logged in these small devices, you can see that difference and figure out how much time pups spend in the water.

In this photo, you can kind of see the two blue normal tags and the yellow temp tag. This is a fun photo because it’s a pup that has actually been swimming. You can tell it’s freshly wet and the mom is still in the water. Photo by Ross.


Beside weighing and tagging, the last integral part of our day to day work is doing photo projects on moms with pups that we’ve chosen to weigh. A photo project entails setting up six bars (like I’m doing in the photo) evenly around the seal mom and taking photos from 8 different angles with the seal and bars in the frame. The photos are then put into a program (by Kaitlin) that can calculate the volume of the seal by referencing the bars (which are a meter long and different colors every 20 cm) and then the weight can be derived using a standard density. This may sound easy enough to do, but it is one of the hardest parts of the job. We have to make sure the seal mom stays still (very hard when she wants to watch you) and take good photos with cold hands, blowing winds, a moving pup, etc. It’s not thaaatttt hard but can be very frustrating. Photo by Ross.


So why do a photo project? This is a relatively new aspect of the project and it’s an attempt to get at how much these mom’s weigh without actually having to weigh them on a scale. We do have a weigh sled (photo) that we can weigh mom’s on, but it can’t go to all our colonies (because of rough ice) and mom’s are often very hard to coax onto the sled (we use their pups at motivation to get on the sled). We did weigh about 30 moms on the sled this year, but we got maybe 70 photo projects. So if the photo projects do work, you can see just in numbers that it would be potentially a better option. Of the mom’s we got on the sled, weights ranged from roughly 900-1100 pounds.


At the end of each day, we refuel our sleds, unpack all our gear, and cover our sleds. We fuel our sleds with a premixed fuel that is 50 gallons of gas and 5 gallons of oil per barrel. Antarctica primarily runs on fuel (some solar too) but if you calculate in the amount of effort and resources it takes to get the fuel here, fuel works out to be about $34.00 a gallon. We go through a barrel about every 5 days.

And that’s it for this this update. I have another one coming very shortly because I actually split this one in half. Hope you enjoyed and hopefully it wasn’t too much writing. The next one will be many more pictures and a lot less writing… I think.

Again, feel free to share with others and send me an email if you want me to add you to my list.


Thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for the sixth post in the series, coming tomorrow!

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 5 days left to reach their goal! 

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Camp Life in Antarctica| Field Diaries – Weddell Seal Team


The fourth post in the Antarctica: Weddell Seal Team series comes to us from Erika Nunlist.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read the first post in this series for more background on the project and the team. You can also read the 2nd and 3rd posts if you missed them.

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 7 days left to reach their goal! 

B-009, Permit number: 2013-007, NSF, Antarctica

Settling In

October 26, 2015

We’ve been very busy the last couple weeks settling into camp and field work. Sorry to keep people waiting for this update! A lot has happened over the last weeks so hopefully my pictures and comments will highlight some of it for you.


Our camp and snowmobiles in some nice evening light. The dark feature in the back is called Big Razorback, it’s an island and part of the Dellbridge Islands in McMurdo Sound that make up a caldera from a historical volcanic explosion. I have a map later and will elaborate on the geography, etc.  


I’m sure people are curious about what and how we eat down here. For the most part we eat very normally besides having fresh fruit or vegetables. We cook on two Coleman, two burner stoves or the grill. Breakfast for me is usually yogurt and granola or toast. Lunch is usually a brownie and a bumper bar – a bumper bar is kind of like a cliff bar but way better. We also don’t have any fresh dairy products (except for cheese and butter) so the yogurt is actually a powdered greek yogurt that you mix with water and let sit for about 8 hours. It’s pretty good and I have to admit, I didn’t even know powdered yogurt existed! The picture above is of steaks thawing out on our wash water. The two drums are sitting on our propane heater because the source of this water is actually an ice burg about a half mile from camp. We’re constantly adding ice to these drums, letting in melt, using it, and repeat. Pretty good system!

Below is a picture of Terrill grilling steaks on our camp grill.  Apparently this is one of the only field issued grills in Antarctica. It works great and is awesome to have! We’ve cooked everything from chorizo sausage, to pork loins, to halibut, to chicken, and steak on the grill so far.


Collecting ice burg chunks for our wash water with ice axes, our siglin sled, and skidoos. This much ice will probably last us a little more than a week. Mike, Eric, and Me from left. Photo by Ross.


A big part of our initial work was flagging roads to our seal colonies. We flag them not only to navigate the cracks around here safely but also in case of ground blizzards. We drill holes in the ice (me on the left) every 50 meters and then stick a bamboo rod with a flag on the end in the hole (Mike on the right). The worst weather I’ve been out in so far was up against Mt. Erebus (the big one by Mike’s flag) where we could barely see the next flag. At some points we’d have to stop and wait to see the next flag and then quickly gun it to the flag before stopping and waiting until we saw the next one.   Photo by Ross.



This is where I sleep. There are two sleeping huts at camp. This one has three beds and the other one has four. I share this hut with Katie and Terrill.  We have a propane heater in the back right that hooks up to two 100lb propane tanks at a time. We have to switch these tanks about once a week. These huts stay very warm and the beds are very comfortable.  We also cover the windows with boards so the huts stay nice and dark despite the nearly 24-hrs of daylight we have. No trouble sleeping for me!


Inside the outhouse. The seat on the left is for ladies – the urine funnels into a tin can that we then have to remove each time and dump down the urinal – upper right in the photo – which then drains into large 50 gallon waste water drums outside of the hut. When the drums are full they get sent back to McMurdo and eventually off the continent. The seat on the right is for pooping only. There is a 5 gallon bucket under the seat. After we go, put a piece of cardboard on top of our doo so it’s more pleasant for the next person. When these buckets full, we change them out and they are also eventually shipped off the continent. This is not a heated hut so everything freezes and it really doesn’t smell too bad at all. Notice the blue foam insulating the seats – a very important detail so the seats are never too cold.


And another essential part of camp, it turns out, has been emperor penguin visitors. These guys are very curious creatures and will walk miles to check something out. In this case, I’m guessing they walked at least 5 miles to check out Big Razorback and our huts. They waddle around, making squawking noises and slowly shuffle on only to come back through around 3am to wake everyone up in camp.


This is one of the bigger groups we’ve had. Apparently these are groups of bachelor penguins – looking for the ladies maybe? Or just confused? Still haven’t figured it out.


Emperor penguins from a distance look pretty simple, but when you get up close the designs they have in their feathers are intricate and beautiful. In this picture and the following picture notice how the males are bowing their heads to each other. I haven’t researched what this means but I’m guessing it might be a display of dominance or some other social behavior. Not sure.


Woke up to this one morning. Pretty interesting to see all the outer penguins laying down with inner ones standing up. Also not sure why they were doing this. Very cool though.

One morning of work consisted of getting into a helicopter and flying around our study area to look at our seal colonies and the crack system on the ice. We flew in a Bell 212 that picked us up right out of camp. The flight was about half hour or 45 minutes. It was an awesome first helicopter flight!! Went by too quickly.


Ross and Terrill during the flight.


Kaitlin and I during the flight.


The Bell 212


A photo of the ice edge and the Dellbridge Islands/caldera I mentioned earlier from the helicopter. 


The following map is a quick one I made to illustrate where we are and where we work a little more.


A photo of our crew that Alasdair took a day that he came out with us to photograph our work.


There have been a couple days that we haven’t been able to work due to bad weather. One of these days the winds picked up so much that our huts were actually moved. Notice how hut 13 has been slammed into hut 18? Mind you, hut 13 is probably about 10,000lbs. The winds gust to move that had to have been at least 120-150 mph. Everyone was fine, and our camp is now put back together.


Another picture of our huts and how 13 moved. You can see where it was, parallel to the kitchen hut on the far right.


Besides our huts moving, our outhouse also got blown away. You can barely see it in the distance, about 500 m away. There were four ice anchors holding the outhouse down and four ice screws also in place on each side to minimize movement. Regardless, the cords holding the outhouse down (at about 4,000lb test) broke and the outhouse blew away. We also have that back and secured even better than before.



Eric and I during one of our earlier work days surveying the southern end of study area. We went to the ice edge this particular day to check out a whole bunch of juvenile seals rumored to be there. The open water is in the background along with a seal. I haven’t been enjoying myself at all by the way, no fun at all down here as you can tell by the pictures. 😉 Photo by Ross.


And, last but not least, a seal pup!! I’ve been working so hard on tagging them and getting to the next pup, I’ve hardly taken any pictures. Managed to get this one before my camera died. My next update (don’t expect it very soon, we’re going to be incredibly busy for the next several weeks) will illustrate in much more detail exactly what we’re doing with the seals and why. Along with anything else people are maybe curious about! Let me know!

Hope everyone enjoyed and I hope it wasn’t too long!


Thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for the fifth post in the series, coming tomorrow!

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 7 days left to reach their goal! 

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Prepping for the Ice and Seals |Field Diaries – Weddell Seal Team

The third post in the Antarctica: Weddell Seal Team series comes to us from Erika Nunlist.

Be sure to read the first post in this series for more background on the project and the team. Here is the 2nd post if you want to read that too!

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 8 days left to reach their goal! 

October 8, 2015

Getting out onto the ice                                                                                 

We’ve been very busy the last week in McMurdo getting everything ready for the season. Lots of errands, lots of trainings, lots of talking to people, and a lot of new experiences. Still can’t believe I’m down here, it’s been incredible so far and we haven’t even started field work! I’ll let the following pictures detail some of the stuff we’ve been up too…


Making tags for the seals in the work shop of the Crary building (the main science building). Each seal gets two sets of tags (one on each flipper making a grand total of 4 tags per seal). We made 1000 sets of tags for the seals we’ll tag this year. Took about 8-10 hours total with all of us working.


The carts around the Crary lab have old license plates on them, thought it was kind of fun. Lots of Montanans down here, haven’t met anyone from Wyoming yet though.


Our first several days were windy and cold. Probably down to -20 or so at least and even colder with wind chill. It’s been nicer lately though sunny and in the low teens.


Errands in town. Piston bullys on the right- one of the vehicles we will use to get some of our stuff out to camp.


A lot of our gear is from the Berg Field Center (BFC). This is one of our trips there getting an assortment of things from back packs to kitchen supplies to sleeping bags, etc. Eric and Terrill in this photo… I think Terrill is still the head honcho of the show?? (Eric is holding a bat that Alasdair gave us, joking that it was a seal club)


Our lab in the Crary building. Lots going on, lots of stuff. Our staging area between our sleds and rooms where we get geared up and ready to go.


We got trained on driving piston bullys (three pictures previous). Ross and Mike enjoying the ride while Eric drove.


Some fun artwork in the BFC.


Getting our food for the next month or so. We essentially walked down these rows and pulled all of the food we need/want. Like grocery shopping but then not really having to pay for it. A fun group activity, learned a lot about each others food preferences.


Alasdair helping us get our frozen foods. And us maybe helping him get some bacon? …hmmm J He’s been a great guy to get to know, one of the top guys around McMurdo currently on ice knowledge. We’ve had some beers and good chats with him. He’s also a great photographer. I think he’s going to be doing some kind of documentary down here next year.


Our kitchen hut full of food from our food pulls. Lots and lots of food. We won’t be going hungry!


Terrill happy about getting onto the ice. Essentially sums up the rest of the crews feeling about it as well… !!


My sled. Super G. It’s super great. And my personalized helmet. Someone glued a knit hat on my helmet before I got it – I’m hoping it’ll keep my head warmer.


Down at the ‘transition’ where all the sleds are parked. The red sled to the right is called a siglin sled. We tow three of these around with our emergency survival gear (the red water proof bag on the end) and an assortment of other gear including shovels, ice drills, and bamboo flags for making our ‘roads’.


Seals!! We’ve been out to see our first seals. Haven’t done any tagging or work on them yet, but it has been super cool to actually see them. The whole reason we’re here in the first place.


Cute/funny/BIG creatures. This lady is probably about a thousand pounds or so.


If you look closely at the base of the hills in this picture, you’ll see a mirage. It’s called Fata Morgana and is regularly seen around here. Not sure exactly why it occurs, but I think it’s something to do with differences of air temperatures and bending of light.


A Caterpillar Challenger towing out our four gear huts, fuel, propane, and bathroom (the Center of Excellence). Our camp is about 12 miles out of McMurdo to the north.


A closer shot of the Challenger and our gear.


Our huts and home for the next couple months. The two huts in the middle are our sleeping huts. The 05 on the left is the kitchen hut and the 11 on the right is our gear huts. Can’t wait to move in! We’ll probably move in tomorrow- hopefully! Next update will include more pictures of camp life!

Thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for the fourth post in the series, coming tomorrow!

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 8 days left to reach their goal! 

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