Fear and loathing in Antarctica
About this time I’ve given up fantasizing that the harsh volcanic hills of black gravel, pocked rock and boulders are covered with trees. There are no trees. How nice it would be to have some trees. When the snow melts from a sun, amid a record hole in the ozone layer, the hills look like another planet. You have to wear sun screen every day or you bake. Always wanted to see another planet.
So, here I am.
It gave me solace to think there was life other than human here at times. At least I think they’re human.
So I’ve given up pretending I’m on the moon, on Mars, or some off-world colony. So alien is this place, ice and snow permeated by ashen black. An active volcano looms, within a few miles, steaming away, Mount Erebus. One hundred years ago people were struggling to just stay alive here. Now we have fresh pizza 24/7, cable TV with local weather to include the South Pole. Our veritable suburb. I have accepted my fate. I have been assimilated.
I am in Antarctica.
Resistance is futile.
McMurdo Station, Ross Island, on the Ross Sea: population around nine hundred. A collection of Scientists, Military and support. I look out over the sound and see crystalline mountains and untouched glacier. Beyond: the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The area that is said to be the most like Mars without being on Mars. However this Martian wins no Golden Globe for comedy.
Upon seeing this, one hundred years ago, explorer Robert Falcon Scott said, “We have seen no living thing, not even a moss or lichen.”
Fast forward to the twenty-first century for the night life. You should hit the bars here for music, karaoke or the parties.
One hundred years later and we’re shooting for the stars with research for detecting the existence of life on other worlds. Ecological studies to deal with a changing planet.
And some: lamenting over whether or not they’re selected by the Rec Department to get a trip to the Ice Caves, Cape Evans or “Room with a View” on a snow machine to see Mount Erebus a little closer.
And I’m not only referring to the inhabitants wearing costumes for the Fuelie’s Mad Max extravaganza, Ice Stock, the toga party at Southern Exposure or personnel wearing tiaras. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
That’s life. Taking the edge off a world during summer where the sun never sets. Literally.
Seals lazing about pressure ridges, cracks in the ice, waiting for something, perhaps dreaming. You walk by them. One of the few rec trips I was selected for, at our neighbor’s research facility: the New Zealander’s base, the Kiwis, they are called: Scott Base. And off the peninsula, Hut Point, home to Scott Hut. Seals: like giant garden slugs, but their garden is ice. Barely moving. You may see them look at you briefly.
Sighing, as if to themselves think, ‘another human, so?’ and look away.
I saw one poke up in a dive hole, and then leave when he saw us humans. The one diver said they sometimes lie about the hole drilled for research as many as three at a time. The seals seem fearless. They seem to care less.
Penguins. Everyone awaits their return to McMurdo. One was running around the airfield at Pegasus. One of the airfields here on a sheet of ice, unless it melts with the changing climate. The penguins. I’ve heard they go rogue. They break away from their colony and wander away. For reasons unknown. Suicidal, some say. I thought that was just for the life forms with more deductive reasoning. This one was getting in the way of Air Force C-17s coming in and had to be escorted off by the Antarctic Fire Department.
Hiking out to the Hut Point to get a better view of the Polar Star, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker coming in to port. Looks like summer is coming to an end. First the icebreaker, then the tanker (the USNS Maersk Peary, followed by the resupply vessel (the USNS Ocean Giant.) The breaker is sallying about readying the arrival of the other ships.
And there he was: a penguin running (if that’s what you call it) scoping out the path of the icebreaker. Arms flapping. Well, wings or wing-like appendages flapping. Slipping once in a while on the ice, but carrying on. Then a dead stop as a pair of skua soared above. The one species of bird that you see here, flying around — or just lurking. Dinner or just curious. Skua left and Penguin went about its way.
Then the crack protruding out to sea from Hut Point alarmed him. With dozens of seals lazing about in the ice sun. The penguin stops, dead in his tracks, as if radioing his findings back to his base. Proceeds a bit closer, then immediately takes a right turn and continues out into the McMurdo Sound toward the silent white mountains, miles away.
Penguin sightings and tales of their behavior are cherished stories among support staff here.
Life includes skua, an aggressive bird that blends in with its surrounding, icy white and dirty ash to fit the volcanic rock. Part giant sea gull, part buzzard. It will knock your shoulder, your back, your head to steal your food, if you’re bringing a tray back to the dorms to get away from the crowds in the galley.
But no trees, no grass.
Nothing like the rest of Earth that you take for granted.
All photos by Jeff Worman.
Top photo: “Off the Coast of McMurdo.”
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeff Worman was selected to work at McMurdo Station in Antarctica for the summer months. He helps monitor and maintain the fire control systems for the station.
The temperatures can be warm enough to warrant not wearing a hat for a few hours during the day. But who can tell if it’s day or night, if the sun never sets at this time of year?
On Jeff’s free time he writes and does art work, along with his radio program, Musictime USNA 2045. “Coming to you over Ice Radio here in Antarctica. All of North America, the moon, Mars and planetary colonies.”
And so he begins his Antarctica blog and diary, with a nod to the father of Gonzo Journalism.
Part Two: The Older Gentleman and the Ross Sea
Jeff Worman lives in Walworth County, Wisconsin where there is water and a crisp, cool night sky conducive to the creative process. He has been drawing and writing since he was able to hold a pencil in his hand. Worman started out as a high school intern at the Bugle-American, an alternative newspaper in Milwaukee, and was a founder and long standing contributor to the Crazy Shepherd which emerged from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is published currently as the Shepherd Express. Worman’s column The Hourly Why was conceived in 1982, published broadly in underground newspapers over the decades and can be found online today at www.thehourlywhy.com. He has a great love of the outdoors and champions charities by riding those long distance centuries on his road bike to raise funds. Contact the author.