Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Thanksgiving dinner, McMurdo style

NSF Polar Program

U.S. Antarctic Program

The National Zoo's Antarctica Expedition is sponsored by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs.

All photographs depicting Weddell seals were taken under NMFS Permit No. 763-1485-00 issued under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.




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November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving Day, November 23

An ice camp in Antarctica is not a place I ever thought I'd spend Thanksgiving Day! My previous "turkey-days" abroad were in Namibia and Italy, and both were significantly warmer than here! While Thanksgiving falls on November 23, the celebration in McMurdo is on Saturday, the 25th. In fact, apart from the warm weather, Thanksgiving here has been no different than any other day.

Chef Regina at work

Regina prepared the dinner tonight, and we were able to dig up some foods that, at least in name, replicated traditional Thanksgiving fare: some five-ounce cans of Hormel Chunk Turkey in 33-percent broth, dehydrated mashed potatoes, dehydrated potato slices, canned yams, Craisins® and cranberry concentrate for the main course. Regina outdid herself with a delectable chocolate cake that included all manner of nuts and very alcoholic cranberries. Although it may not be what one would think of as a traditional Thanksgiving feast, we were quite happy with what we came up with and, as usual, the food was prepared exceedingly well. After a day out in the cold anything tastes good!

Dan plants the flag on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a very patriotic day for me as I am the offspring of an Abraham Lincoln scholar. In 1863 Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a national day of celebration in hopes of giving people something to rejoice about during the long Civil War. To celebrate, I took an American flag out into the field and flew it in the colony.

Our perspective down here is a bit different than it would be at home and one becomes thankful for some very basic things:

  • Today I am thankful for the ability to check the Internet, no matter how slow it's running, and discover that there are people back home who are thinking of us.
  • I am thankful for the relatively warm weather—in the positive 20s!
  • I am thankful for the opportunity to be in this beautiful land. Though harsh and tiring, it is truly an amazing place. Each morning walking out and seeing nothing but snow and ice for miles, with Mt. Erebus to the North and Mt. Discovery to the South, reminds us of how majestic this setting is.
  • Skua alights on a seal
  • I am thankful for my wool socks, which have done an incredible job keeping my feet warm, despite the blasting wind and frigid air.
  • I am thankful for the skua that flew into camp today and humored me with its antics for several minutes, before flying off in search of more productive feeding grounds.

As our November 23, 2006, drew to an end, I was content, and warm, and while I was thankful for that, I must say I missed some of the comforts of home, and the people who were celebrating back in the States.

Thanksgiving at McMurdo, November 25

Unlike most people, here in Antarctica, we got to celebrate Thanksgiving twice, and the second one at McMurdo was a bit more of a typical Thanksgiving meal.

We worked a full day in the field but the seals were not particularly cooperative. In fact, most of the seals we had hoped to work with spent most of their time in the water. This is becoming an increasing problem as the pups are fast approaching their weaning weights and the moms' body reserves are more and more depleted.

Mother and pup play-fighting

We were able to work with one mom/pup pair, but that was all. It was a particularly warm day, possibly above freezing, though it was cloudy with lots of wind, making it feel cooler than the last few days. When we were done, we packed up and headed for town. It was an easy ride, despite the sore backs that are now common in the group.

The approach to McMurdo was an amazing sight. With increasing temperatures, ice conditions are becoming less ideal. There were slushy ridges, making snowmobile travel a bit bumpier. As we walked up the transition from the sea ice to land I saw a sight I have not seen for some months: flowing water!

The land here is very dark, all black, red, and brown rocks, absorbing heat from the sun, which is truly quite intense down here. This heat absorption, coupled with the increasing temperatures, creates faster than expected snow-melt. I was shocked how dark the hills surrounding McMurdo had become, as only a few weeks ago they were still entirely covered with snow and ice. The running water caused by snow-melt, was in fact a quickly flowing stream, which was a wonder for me to behold. After prying myself away from the sight of moving water, I headed to our storage, where as memory served, I had a clean shirt and a pair of jeans. Luckily, my memory was correct this time.

Thanksgiving on The Ice (from left to right: Rich, Daryl, Mike, Dan, Olav, and Regina)

I headed to our dorm room, took a nice long, hot shower, and changed into clean clothes—something else I am thankful for! We then headed to the galley (dining hall) and were in for quite a treat, after the initial wait in a line! The food was AMAZING. I must hand it to the kitchen staff here—they know how to make a meal. It is quite possibly the best Thanksgiving meal I've ever had, rivaled only by Thanksgiving in Florence at Aqua al Due, which was accompanied by many liters of wine.

The dinner in Antarctica had everything one could hope for, including fresh vegetables, a rarity in these parts. We surmised these vegetables must have been shipped down in the last 24 hours, as the lettuce was not even wilted. My dinner consisted of healthy portions of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, salad, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, bread, roast beef, mixed roots, shrimp, and fruit, finished off with two pieces of pie, one pumpkin and one pecan! As I tend to do on days like this, I gorged myself, spending the next half-hour complaining about my stomach, though I must say, this time it was well worth it. The kitchen staff made an appearance and were immediately greeted by a well-deserved standing ovation.

After we let dinner settle for a bit, Mike, Darryl, and I headed over to the bar for a nightcap of whiskies and beer, before retiring to bed, full and quite content. Tonight we will sleep freshly showered, on clean sheets, and in complete darkness, some more small things I am quite thankful for.

Dan Borrit
Smithsonian Antarctic Ice Camp