Classic Antarctica Trip Log (6 - 18 Jan, 2018) - Saturday, Jan 13

Saturday, January 13: Palmer Station
January 2018

We pulled back the curtains to reveal a beautiful morning in Antarctica. The skies were blue and the sun was shining. There were more waves than we would have liked but the sea calmed as we came into the sheltered waters of Arthur Harbour where the US Palmer Station is located.

The setting for this morning’s Zodiac cruise around Torgersen Island could not have been more dramatic. Sculpted icebergs, some a gorgeous blue and others a shimmering white, were scattered about. As we made our way toward Torgersen Island and the other small islets nearby, elephant seals could be seen in the rocky coves. Many of them were immature animals and, judging by the rearing up and roaring behavior, some were males practicing for the day when they will defend territories. Elephant seals are polygynous, meaning that males have a harem which can be of more than 30 females.

Gentoo and chinstrap penguins were observed in small numbers on the islands and in the water, many of them lounging on the snow or porpoising around the channels. The main interest was an Adélie penguin colony that has been the subject of research for many years. It has declined by 85% over the past 35 years, possibly due to the effects of climate change. Warmer, more humid air has resulted in more frequent heavy snowstorms during the spring and summer, often flooding the penguin nests with melt water, so drowning the eggs or chicks. Also, a decrease in the extent of winter sea ice is taking a toll on the krill population (an important food source for penguins) because juvenile krill feed on the algae that grow on the underside of sea ice. (We later learned that the local gentoo and chinstrap penguins have been increasing).

Back on the ship, some staff from Palmer Station came aboard to talk to us about the base and its research program. We had a fascinating briefing about Palmer Station, which will help our American fellow-guests learn how their tax-dollars are spent. Station Manager Rebecca Shoop described the station which is the smallest of the three U.S. year-round stations (the others are McMurdo and South Pole). The station is maintained by the US Antarctic Program and the science program is administered by the National Science Foundation. Thanks to its northerly, relatively ice-free location it can receive supplies by ship all year. Maximum numbers are 45 support personnel and scientific staff. The station was built on the southern shore of Anvers Island in 1965 and is named for American sealer Nathaniel B. Palmer who, in 1820, explored the Antarctic Peninsula area on a ship called Hero. Near the station lie the nearly submerged remains of the ship Bahia Paraiso, which sank off the coast on 28 January 1989, creating one of Antarctica’s worst environmental disasters.

There are three main areas of scientific research. There is fundamental knowledge of the Antarctic; fundamental knowledge of Antarctica; Antarctica’s role in global systems, such as large scale movements of ice; and Antarctica as a platform for research, such as tracking balloons that gather information on the upper atmosphere. The South Pole, itself, is a good place for astronomical telescopes. Rebecca also pointed out the importance of education and outreach, not only linking up with students but also including 12 visits a year from cruise ships. Randy Jones, who 'makes science happen', then took over to describe the science program. The programme includes research on the peculiar physiology of Antarctic fishes, which sheds light on the evolution of fishes and may help in medical research. SCUBA divers study the way that animals fixed to the seabed, such as sponges, defend themselves against predators, and small transmitters are glued to the heads of elephant seals. One was tracked by satellite from Palmer to New Zealand! The Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) programme monitors changes in the environment, from the numbers of penguins to climatic factors. One project that captured the imagination is the study of the wingless midge Belgica Antarctica (discovered and named by the Belgica expedition in 1898). This tiny insect (‘the largest land animal on Antarctica’!) survives extreme desiccation and freezing.

Following these presentations, Jim McClintock, for whom Palmer Station is a ‘home away from home’, presented the station with a hexacopter (drone) on behalf of Abercrombie & Kent. It will be used for the LTER cetacean research program. We were told how drones are used to photograph whales so that measurements can be made to reveal their physical condition and records made of their behaviour. The staff from Palmer were delighted with the new scientific equipment, and we were all very pleased to be playing a part in furthering research on Antarctica.

Following an excellent barbecue lunch under blue skies, we prepared to visit Palmer Station. We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to land at the station, since they normally do not accept visits from groups larger than 150 people. However, because Jim McClintock is a researcher there, we were granted permission to come ashore and tour the facility. The station tour took us to see the workshops, laboratories, and other assorted facilities. A small gift shop was one of the most exciting facilities! We then made our way to the lounge where we were served brownies and coffee. Some of the maintenance and research staff had gathered to talk to us about their work and what it is like to work in such a remote but beautiful environment. Among the post-grad students there were some staff who were not so young and have been visiting Palmer, and other US stations, over many years. Palmer, we learned, is the prize posting!

Click Here to read 'Sunday, January 14: Deception Island & Hannah Point'