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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ross and Terrill during the flight.

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Kaitlin and I during the flight.

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The Bell 212

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

-Erika

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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