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Postcards from the Bottom of the Earth: December 2, 2001

After I write each of these travelogues, I keep thinking I’ll lose interest or be too busy to write again. Then comes another day like today, and I can’t help but want to share it.

We had been promised some recreation time on the ice, if the conditions were right and if the ice coring groups were able to work at the site. But after two days of finding only smaller ice sheets, it seemed like I’d return to Hobart without setting foot off the ship.

In the meantime, since we had crossed the Antarctic Circle (66 degrees 33 minutes south, south of which the Sun never sets in the summer, nor rises in the winter), we had King Neptune to deal with. On most marine vessels, crews have many strange habits. Among them are the ceremonies and hazing rituals surrounding crossings of the Equator and the Arctic or Antarctic Circle.

These rituals can range from pure fun to severe punishment for the uninitiated. I’m happy to say that we newly initiated “wogs” (myself included) were only forced to make minimal fools of ourselves while bowing on our knees before King Neptune and his entourage. The costumes of the jailers, who brought us one-by-one to the King’s court, were a simple but effective cross between a Halloween pirate and a prison guard in some futuristic Mad Max movie. At Neptune’s command, we kissed the Queen’s foot (adorned by a fish), sampled the icy waters (spilled down our backs), and received a Vegemite facial. (If you don’t know Vegemite or its is an Aussie spread for bread that resembles a mixture of molasses, fish sauce, brewers yeast, and other secret ingredients). As a final tribute, were issued a prawn necklace and made to kiss the King. The latter act provoked a wide range of responses from both the men and women, given Neptune’s painted face and blue tongue, which protruded from his mop beard.

In honor of the ceremony, we held our first barbecue on the fantail. The celebration continued through the night, highlighted by our chief scientist getting a crudely shaven Mohawk haircut. His was not the first Mohawk on the cruise, as hair-cutting pledges are used to raise funds for a Children’s cancer clinic in Hobart. Last night was a biggie: over $2000 (Australian) went in the pot!

I escaped with beard and head intact, and only this morning was reminded of the event by the smell of Vegemite when I washed my hair (again). Today, we were working around 66’ 30“ South, 144’ 30“ East, trying to find good locations to sample “fast ice.” The se large ice sheets are connected to the Antarctic continent and float continuously as a ring around the continent. These flows tend to be thicker and more stable than the melting ice, and tend to be safe enough for large groups to work on for coring, snow sampling, and studies of ice thickness.

We were within twenty miles of the coast when we reached a promising location where the ship could park against a continuous flow, 500 feet or more on a side and surrounded by other large flows. Word spread quickly that the gangplank had been lowered and we could go onto the ice, which was ten to twenty feet thick and covered by up to two feet of snow. It was very stable to walk on, though if you looked closely near the edges, you could see that it was moving slowly up and down with the internal motions of the ocean.

The more people got on the ice, the more Adelie penguins popped out of the water and joined our party. We were not near to any penguin colonies or other large groupings, but I guess the secret penguin signal went out (probably our engines noise) to come on over and check us out. We were cautious at first to approach them, generally on our knees or bellies. Little did we realize how quickly they would walk up to us, kneeling or not, and try to fathom why we were visiting their piece of the planet.

In the two or three hours we had with them, they waddled upright or slid on their bellies, preened their feathers and flapped their little arms, bobbed their heads or took naps. They came alone and in groups (up to five together), and at one time I had around sixteen penguins within twenty feet of me. My telephoto lens was not necessary, and some of my pictures include my boots and the penguins in the same frame!

I learned today that an Adelie penguin call is somewhere between the craw of a crow and the quack of a duck. They lift their tails just before they pee. And they often pop out of the water onto the ice like a cork let loose just below the water. All appeared to be fat and healthy. Other people had told me of penguin encounters, and I assumed that the penguins would be tolerant of us. But I didn’t realize just how curious and unafraid they would be. The penguins left the ice when we left to get back on board, and while I don’t know if they enjoyed the close encounters as much as we did, they certainly came and went as if they were solely there to see what we were up to.

We now start our last 12-day leg towards Australia. More rough seas can be expected as we leave the ice and head north. We’ll continuing sampling the water and revisiting some of the sites we occupied earlier, hoping to see changes to the marine organisms as they grow through the seasons to better understand their impact on upper ocean biogeochemistry. While I can already say from the data I have that the voyage will be a success, these repeat occupations--and the rapid changes that might await us--could prove to be the most important story that comes out of the cruise. Only time and some good luck will tell.

With the end in sight, I am looking forward to the grand reunion on the docks of Hobart with my sweeties from home, and to our Christmas holidays on the Aussie beaches.

Greetings & love from the far South.

Approach to the Mertz Glacier field. Note thin skim of ice dampens waves and gives light sheen to water vs. deeper blue color and ripples on non-ice covered areas. (Photo courtesy of Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Vegemite facial for those who displease King Neptune. (Photo courtesy of Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Shrimp on the barbie & other Aussie fun on the fan tail. (Photo courtesy of Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Scientists get first view on ice of Adelie penguins. (Photo courtesy of Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Close-up view of Adelie Penguin from ice. (Photo courtesy of Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Insititution)