Wednesday, 26 January 2011

A Vacation at the Coast

We don?t go. It?s nothing to do with the plan we made yesterday,
visibility is too low to land at DC. Everybody is making optimistic
noises about tomorrow but I don?t believe it, I think I?m stuck here
for the week. I can?t begin to count the number of ways this is going
to cause trouble. But it is entirely out of my control and it?s no
different to the experience of doctors everywhere who travel on
transfers. You?re highest priority on the way there, and the lowest
on the way back. It?s just that with the distances here the problems
are magnified.
I?d email Nathalie, but she?ll be flying for 2-3 days.So I mooch around the base and go for a couple of walks. I?ve noticed
there is a huge, ship-sinker of an iceberg in the bay, drifting in and
out by several miles with the flow of the tides. Last night it was
right here where it is now, but first thing this morning it was way
out past the headland. I wonder how long it takes to make a break out
into the ocean currents and away from here.The snow is all gone at sea
level; and up over in Tethys bay there is
a beach with a few small dark sandy patches; the strong sun has
warmed the sand despite the cold air and I spend a very enjoyable
afternoon relaxing by myself by the crisp blue water. There is a
current circulating anticlockwise here, and circles of floating flat
ice, 5-10 metres in diameter drift past. On the other side of the
bay, between two sheer cliffs, the glacier headwall our plane taxied
up so close to last time now meets the water?s edge and occasionally
makes ominous booming noises, although I never see any ice falling off
into the water. The whole mountainous basin sparkles, white and deep
blue in the sunshine.
There are two adele penguins wandering around on the beach. I think
it might be the same pair I saw the last time I was here, because
their relationship is the same. One is very active, inquisitive and
busy. The other is slower moving, would prefer to waddle slower and
take it easy. It reluctantly lets itself get chivvied along by the
busy one. They are fun to watch, and over time I realize that the
busy one has a particular body language it uses when it want to
encourage it?s partner along. It?s recognizable because the half
turned away shoulders, the squawks pitched quieter so not to annoy,
the distance from the partner just right to encourage the other to
catch up, not so far away it gives up, is so remarkably similar to
that I see in humans. Occasionally the busy one strays too far ahead
and has to double back and start again as the other stops, giving up.
This busy penguin just exudes patience bordering on frustration! But
it does work and the reticent one comes following behind, the pair
making their way towards me and towards the shore. I get a five
minute close inspection by Busy, head bobbing furiously and swiveling
side to side only a metre away from me, while Shy keeps a couple of
metres back watching more in stillness. Eventually Busy comes up with
a new plan and I am forgotten. It leads Shy down to the waters edge
for a swim and several times the pair comically miss-time their flop
into the water only to end up on their bellies on the sand, as the
waves drain back too fast. But after four or five attempts they have
waded into the water deep enough to catch the wave and, I catch my
breath as I see how fast they dart away in the water. Such speed!
The sand in the water is light coloured and several times I catch a
flash of black as they zoom past, cruising in the warmer shallow
water. Every time they come up for air they caw so I can hear them
around all afternoon. The company is nice. Later, as I walk around the
bay closer to the circulating fragments of ice, one of the penguins drifts
past on one, cleaning itself in the sun.
I saw a couple of seals pop up for air earlier, and when I see a dark
shape in the shallow water I remember what one of the helicopter
pilots told me earlier, that the seals like to lie in the shallow
water too, sunbathing, so still they are mistaken for rocks until they
move. This smooth shape looks like could be moving a bit, so I sit
down to watch, thinking it might possibly be a seal. After a while of
uncertainty I remember that I have my glasses in my camera bag. I
put them on and I realize that this supposed rock I have been watching
so closely for signs of life for ten minutes or so is, in fact, a
rock. Time to go back, I think.
And when I get back I get the happy news. I am getting a five day
vacation at MZS, courtesy of PNRA and Ken Borac aviation company.
Actually it occurs to me that 1) my last full day off was Christmas
day and that many days recently I?ve worked 7 am round to 1 am as we get
the project going, so I?ve probably earned this break and 2) five days
off here has without doubt got a lot more potential than five days off
in Concordia.
Happy times.

Vacation over.
After two days I get an email account, and it's great to be connected
again. It's been a long time since I had no internet, no phone, no
email and no way to leave under my own steam and I have to say I found
it really uncomfartable.
The crew of MZS are incredibly welcoming and friendly. At meal times
the Canadians are often there, but if not I'm never alone - always
there is someone willing to make the effort to chat in English. I
really find it a bit humbling.
And the crew find me tihings to do. Claudio the meteorolist takes me
up to see the work he does; every day he launches a helium filled
balloon with a device dangling underneath it the records the air
temperature, gas mix, and by GPS the wind speed. It's climate change
research basically. Rick, the technical manager gets me helping out
the crew with installing new power cables, whcih is a laugh when you
don't speak the language! The base buzzes with activity. The two
helicopters go off every day carrying the two Lauras as they hunt for
microbial life here, and the guys hunting for meteorites. Antarctica
doesn't get especially many meteorites, but they sure are more visible
in the snow, so it's a great hunting ground for them.
I get time to walk, which is bliss all by itself, and take loads of
photographs. On the 24th Shaun, the Canadian plane mechanic and I take
a hike up past enigma lake, to have a look at the glaciers coming down
from Mt Abbott, the big peak dominating the skyline.
When we get back I get the news that we'll be able to fly up to DC
tomorrow and I do feel a twinge of disappointment. This place is so
beautiful and fun, and the people so friendly that I'm sad to leave.
But, well, isn't that how all the best holidays end?
The twin otter will fly to McMurdo tomorrow, and then come back to
drop off some cargo and then pick me up to go to DC. Which means I
don't leave until 2.30pm, and that means I can spend the morning on
the Skua! So chuffed.The Skua is the small, maybe ten metre long, boat that MZ keeps. It
looks for all the world like a minature trawler, with some heavy
looking lifting gear on the back. It's been craned out of the water
since I arrived because big waves crash it against it's mooring and,
being aluminium hulled, it's can't take too much of that. It's crewed
by Giuseppe, Enrico and David, who are all very fun, but only David
really speaks any English. The boat can only go a few miles for
safety, as they don't have another to make a rescue should anything go
wrong. So we do some experiments - chlorophyll measuring in several
areas near the base, and then for another project they lower a small
basket and net into the water to dredge the bottom for sponges. And
It's remarkable, the variety of life they bring up! Scallops,
starfish, oyster like things called adamussio (I think), sea worms
almost a metre long, several little fish, crabs looking like spiders -
really there was a huge variety. I never would have believed so many
things would live in such cold water. We pick out the sponges and
return the rest to the water. The boat is designed to cope with ice,
and so it's flat bottomed. Which means it bobs like a cork in tiny
waves. I would not like to be out on a rough day without some good
strong anti sickness drugs!
All too soon it's time to go back and I'm so sad as we motor slowly
back to the mooring. Terra Nova bay, it's a wonderful place.
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