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.
Mac Town will be our project's home for the next few months, except for the time we're in the ice camp. Our news updates will have the dateline "McMurdo Station."
Located on a small point projecting into McMurdo Sound, an inlet of the Ross Sea named by explorer James Clark Ross (1800-62) after an officer on his ship Terror, McMurdo Station is the largest settlement in Antarctica and the continent's premier scientific research center. "Mac Town," as residents know it, was established in 1956 and today has a population of about 1,200 in the summer and 250 in the winter. The station sprawls over about four square kilometers, and has a harbor, three airstrips, and more than 100 buildings, including laboratories, dormitories, storage facilities, a fuel farm, sewage treatment and desalination plants, workshops, a library, a church, a hospital, and even a coffeehouse.
The logistics of living on The Ice can be quite daunting, but the residents here make the best of it and even have managed to acquire some of the comforts of home, sometimes through rather unconventional means. Supplies must be shipped or flown in when the weather permits usually via icebreakers and giant transport planes with skis for landing gear instead of wheels. Winter residents, completely isolated from the outside world, live in almost continuous darkness and rely entirely on artificial light for work and recreation, a regime that wreaks havoc on circadian rhythms and sleep cycles.
More than three-quarters of the 2,000 tons of solid waste produced annually is recycled in a massive program that far exceeds the recycling efficiency of most U.S. cities.
Fresh fruit and vegetables, hard to come by in the best of times at McMurdo, are grown in greenhouses, which yield upwards of 1,600 kilograms of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs annually, all of it hand-pollinated as there are no pollinators in Antarctica.
Despite the extreme conditions and unconventional lifestyle, some aspects of life in McMurdo Station can have a soothing familiarity. Housing is mostly dormitory style and is allotted by a point system—one's duration on The Ice determines the quality of one's berth. A weekly newspaper, a cable TV station, a radio station (Radio McMurdo), in-room phone service, and Internet access keep residents connected to the outside world. A full range of recreational activities—from aerobics to weightlifting—alleviate boredom and, for "extreme" sports enthusiasts, there is an annual golf tournament and the 7.25K Scott's Hut race. Or for the more culturally-minded there is a choir, a music festival, meetings of the McMurdo Historical Society, and even outings to historical sites, such as Scott's Discovery Hut.