Snow, rock, ice, and water hard as black marble. That’s all we could see for the last part of our 96 hour deployment to Palmer Station. Up on the bridge of the Gould, Robert, the first mate, was playing Led Zeppelin while talking on the radio with Palmer. “Never been this far south without seeing ice,” he reported. “That’s ‘cause we cleared it out for you,” the radioman joked. “Went out with our blowtorches.”
What floating ice is visible is mostly colored a turquoise blue, second year ice that has compacted so densely that it absorbs almost the entire color spectrum except blue. The coastline along the Antarctic peninsula is as rugged and implacable looking as any you can imagine, dragon’s teeth of black rock rising out of white mountain chains of snow that appear and disappear behind a low hanging curtain of fog. Still, if not hospitable to humans, it’s home to abundant wildlife, although the first wildlife I spot can hardly be called abundant: a pair of Adélie penguins on top of a white, sculpted iceberg that has to be at least 10 stories high. I wonder how they got up that high. Other penguins soon started porpoising through the waters near us.
We soon pull in to Hero Inlet, snugging the boat against a pair of giant rubber bladders at the end of Palmer’s pier. Palmer is made up of several prefab buildings of blue walled, white roofed corrugated metal, giving it a kind of low rent ski lodge look. Half a dozen black Zodiac rubber boats are tied up next to the pier, with several others scattered around the peninsula’s rocky point. Just across the inlet is Bonapart Point, another rocky finger of land blotched orange and green by lichen, moss, pearlwort, and hairgrass, the latter two being the subject of extensive study by University of Arizona’s Tad Day, who’s investigating ozone depletion’s impact on these native grasses.
Bill Frasier from the University of Montana is also going to be working here during my stay. He’s considered to be the world’s leading expert on penguins and is now looking at how climate change and declining sea ice may be affecting different penguin species. He doesn’t have to look far. I can spot several penguins hopping over some PVC pipe just below the station’s biolab.
Once we’re tied up we beeline to the store, which is located above the power plant and base garage. It’s a broom closet operation open three hours a week. Most of its shelf space is taken up with liquor, T-shirts, and bumper stickers (“I Brake for Penguins”). The souvenirs are allegedly for sale to the tourist boats that periodically drop by (some 10,000 tourists will visit Antarctica this year). Still, there seems to be a lot of debate among the krill and algae researchers over which is better: the T-shirt with the map or the one with the orca leaping through the Palmer Station logo. The store also has a sign posted listing its three free items:, tweezers, shoelaces, and condoms.
Next door to the store is the Penguin Inn, where the beer and liquor are free but you’re on your honor to periodically resupply the place. Beyond this small but solid wooden bar with its comfortable stools (I wouldn’t be a good journalist if I didn’t investigate thoroughly) is a living area, including pool table, library, and giant video screen. Its decor also includes giant whale vertebrae and ribs. The dining area and shared sleeping quarters have the funky feeling of off-campus housing, a feeling not reduced by the presence of tie-dye and jeans among many working here (“many” being a relative term; I’ll be living here with about 35 other people over the next six weeks).
Those who don’t want roommates or like the ones they have (or simply prefer the outdoors in snow, rain, and wind) have set up their own tents in Palmer’s “backyard” of granite strewn hills. Beyond the hills is a glacier, which you can hike (stick to the marked trail and you’ll avoid the crevasses).
Outside the research aquarium (think wholesale fish house, not Sea World) I hear a familiar burbling/grunting sound. I go down along the red wooden walkway that connects the buildings and, looking toward the water, spot several elephant seals. A few yards farther on I look across Hero Inlet and spot half a dozen more, including a huge “beach master” bull elephant seal, with some skuas cruising the ridgeline above them. Beyond Bonapart are more rocky spits of land and a wild mountain range that anywhere else would be the heart of a national park but here in Antarctica is only a small piece of a world park larger than the U.S. and Mexico combined. With 75 percent of the world’s fresh water and 90 percent of its ice, Antarctica really is something pretty amazing. Although I’m more of a hot beach and bodysurfing kind of guy, I think I’m going to have a good time here.