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.
October 5, 2006
Antarctica is truly the end of the world, the pole, the extremity of all that is known to us. Here is the most blinding light, the darkest night, the purest of skies in the entire world, and it transforms those who come here. Like a torch, Antarctica accentuates both the high points and dark places of our nature. Emotions are more intense, creativity flows more freely, and people seem more fully awake and alive than elsewhere. Why would this be so? My theory is that the taste of death in the bitter wind reminds us of the time before we became domesticated. A wake-up call, if you like.
Antarctica brings out facets of our species’ programming that are buried beneath layers of civilization in everyday life. For example, in the extreme cold, our bodies burn calories at a tremendous rate and appetite increases accordingly. Like most folks, I am neither a performance athlete nor a mountain guide, so I am not used to sudden cravings for enormous quantities of high-calorie food. In the field, I have seen perfectly civilized, reasonable people get upset because they thought someone else got a little more food on his plate from the cook. Just a hint of starvation is enough to crack the veneer of social conditioning and have us snarling over food, unaware of the manipulation of our higher selves by the humble machinery of our bodies. The only fix is to acknowledge that one is being manipulated, and make a conscious choice of manners over instinct.
Another interesting example is the force of social cohesion and group identity in a small community such as McMurdo Station. During Winfly (the first flights in after the winter hiatus) in late August, five planes broke the long isolation of a community that had seen the last plane disappear five months earlier. After the last flight of Winfly, when I arrived at the station, there is again no physical contact with the outside world until Mainbody flights (the arrival of the “summer people”) start in the first week of October. The weather held for the eagerly anticipated first flight, and people stood on slopes and even rooftops above the sea ice to watch the plane land and to wave. A good friend of mine, a winterover, cried when she saw the plane—it was the end of her winter and the beginning of the reign of summer, and it was time for her to leave Antarctica. “Mainbody” means goodbye to the longest night, the Southern Cross and the Aurora Australis, and welcome to the arrival of people, seals, and the long glorious unending day of summer.
For reasons that escape me, it was officially decreed that no one was to welcome the passengers until they had sat through their arrival briefing (which is really, really dull and takes ages). But humans will not be denied access to their own kind, and many people found a way to hug their friends prior to getting official permission to do so. What looked like most of the station stood waiting for an hour outside the dining hall where the briefing was held to welcome the new arrivals.
The next morning, the Galley is crowded and we have to wait in line for trays and food. Xenophobia hits, and winterovers and Winflies are suddenly united in their loathing of the invaders. We huddle in the Galley, whispering that the place has been become overcrowded, and wishing we were back at Winfly. Almost by definition, new arrivals are too noisy, too many, and take up too much space. Nothing is like it was before, and it is hard to resist the urge to wish that all should stay the way it had been.
As natural as it is for humans to resent invaders, this never applies to one’s own. My people are scheduled on the first flight, and I am waiting eagerly (and somewhat chilled) on the outside steps of the Galley building, where antediluvian omnibuses release their loads of large red bundles clutching bright orange duffle bags. Our team consists of nine people, eight on the first flight, and so I go from being the lone seal scientist on station to having a tribe of my own. I am very glad to see them. Thus ends my Winfly, and the adventure of science is about to start.