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.
September 18, 2006
Today we are planning to go on a reconnaissance of the proposed site for our seal research. This is the first time I have left the station since my arrival, and my first time back in Weddell seal territory since 1998. The weather is overcast but uncommonly warm, around 10° to 15°F (if you're wondering why I call that warm, it's about 30° to 40°F degrees warmer than it has been for the last few weeks). I feel as though I am going to go into heat shock as I head over to the Science Support Center wearing and/or carrying most of my ECW gear. The outing is organized by the FSTP department (pronounced “Eff-Stop,” short for Field Safety Training Program).
On this balmy morning, we set out in two tracked vehicles called Pisten Bullies and six souls on board, as we tell Mac Ops when we check out from the station.
A reconnaissance, more commonly referred to as a “reckie,” is always a good idea before placing a camp: to get to our site, we will have to cross several large, annually recurring cracks in the sea ice. We have to find a safe route to the campsite for the heavy vehicles that will tow in our huts and equipment. Also, the campsite itself needs to be on stable ice yet close enough to the cracks where the seals congregate in this place.
Our intrepid field guides, Cece and Thai, scout the route, setting green bamboo flags to mark our route while looking for hidden cracks that might swallow our vehicles. One warning that a crack is nearby is the presence of “seal signs,” a very genteel term for stains of seal feces and urine in the snow. Because the seals need ice cracks, seal signs always mean that a crack is nearby, no matter how innocent-looking the blanket of snow that covers it. Once we found the crack, it was “profiled,” meaning that Thai and Cece dug down through the snow to the crack itself then drilled through the ice to measure its thickness. The crack, we found, was treacherous: the ice was wet with seawater, indicating active movement of the two plates, and the ice was thin for a wide distance on either side of the visible seam.
Out of the shell of our vehicles, the wind was so strong that we walked almost bent double at times.
The sea ice was covered with a thick blanket of hardened snow that the everpresent wind had cut into abstract patterns so beautiful I did not want to walk on them. By the time Cece and Thai found a safe crossing over the crack, it was late in the afternoon and we had to turn back. I had only seen our field site from a distance and we will have Tom come back, but we managed to flag a significant part of the route and will make better time next time.
Antarctica is a truly grim place when the weather turns bad, but an overcast day has its own magic. On clear days the sun shines with fierce acetylene brightness; but when the sky is overcast, cool polar light seeps from the clouds, the ice and the air itself, and the entire landscape is filled with an unearthly blue glow. This polar light is evocative as a perfume. Years ago, during a spontaneous summertime visit to the cool halls of the Hamburger Kunsthalle (the Hamburg Art Museum), I turned a corner and suddenly was back in Antarctica. “Das Eismeer” (“The Frozen Sea,” painted in 1823/24) by C.D. Friedrich, a German painter of romantic landscapes, had somehow captured the essence of The Ice with oil on canvas. Amazing.
As we were homeward bound, we crossed over a stretch of sea ice where the snow cover had been scoured away by the wind, leaving white patches on blue ice. The ice glowed like cut sapphire lit from within. I finally realized what it reminded me of: it was almost exactly like flying across the ocean, above little fluffy clouds that reveal a sea reflecting the purest of cerulean skies. Alas, my camera battery was dead but I swear to come back on another overcast day.