Day 4: Touring By Helicopter

Secretary Clough visits the driest place on the planet, Ernest Shackleton’s hut, penguins, whales and more on his final day in Antarctica

G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian, at Lake Hoare. (Tom Peterson)

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Our pilot says he can land on the ice where it is around 30 inches thick if we want a closer look. Needless to say, we do. He lands about 100 yards back from the ship channel and the co-pilot uses an ice auger to measure the thickness of the ice. It checks out and we proceed on foot toward the channel; Alex warns us to look for cracks that form near the edge and to make sure that we stay on the main ice sheet. Waiting with anticipation, we are thrilled as several of the whales rise to the surface, blowing air and water vapor before they head down again. You have to be quick to get a picture since you never know where they will surface next, but we get lucky more than once.

The whales are the very essence of grace and seem not the least concerned by our presence. After our first delighted exclamations each time a whale breaches the surface, we grow quieter. Alex notices it first: A pinging noise followed by some low vocalizations. The whales are moving through the water below the ice we are standing on and using sonar to locate fish. Alex tells us Minke whales do not hunt creatures on the top of the ice as Orcas do at times, so we feel reassured the pinging is not about locating us as prey.

It really doesn’t get much better than this. We are standing on the sea ice of McMurdo Sound on a beautiful sunny day with no one else in sight. The quiet is so profound it seems as if we are in a vacuum. The dark surface of the water is a mirror, reflecting the shimmering mountains fronted by Mount Erebus. A rectilinear block of ice that broke off when the ice breaker passed through floats near the edge of the channel. Through the clear dark water its underwater mass gleams as an emerald green jewel, seemingly unconnected to the body of the gleaming white mini-iceberg above. And, under us and beside us are the graceful whales sliding through the water, allowing us to vicariously join them through their vocalizations. We are mesmerized momentarily by the seductive beauty of it all.

The spell is broken as we are called to board the helicopter for our next and final stop. The schedule must hold for we have an event this evening we must attend. This last leg of our helicopter tour will take us back in time and at the same time allow us to see yet another of the remarkable creatures that populate the regions of the sea ice.

Our destination is Cape Royd on Ross Island, the site of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s base as he prepared for his march to the Pole in 1907 as leader of the Nimrod Expedition. The hut he and his companions built at Cape Royd, along with 33 other sites from the “historic era” of Antarctic exploration, is protected by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, a New Zealand non-profit. The hut is a rough structure with an enclosure that was used when the explorers considered using Siberian ponies to help pull the sleds. The food for the ponies is still there, hay and oats, spilling out from the bins. Nearby are crates of foodstuffs and other supplies for the men that were left behind when the expedition locked up and left in 1909.

Inside, the hut is permeated by a human presence. Sweaters, pants and socks used by Shackleton and his men lie on the bunks. Canned goods, writing paper, cured hams and candles are stored neatly on shelves and in spare rooms. Down in a root cellar the curators recently found a case of Scotch whisky was Irish) that is thought to be still drinkable. The expedition used an ingenious gas lighting system to illuminate the hut and make it as liveable as possible. The names of the expedition members are inscribed above the bunks they slept; and above one, Ernest Shackleton has written his name in his own handwriting. In the quiet, you can almost hear them, men who were about to undertake an expedition that would challenge them to the core. I feel honored to be able to sign the guest book as a measure of paying respects to these brave souls.

Shackleton’s hut is located a short walk from an Adelie penguin rookery that is protected as a natural wildlife area. The setting for the rookery is a rocky promontory rising from the dark water of McMurdo Sound that is lashed by cold winds. Several hundred Adelies and their gray down-covered chicks call this spot home. Waves crash against the rocky outcrops and white blocks of ice wallow and roll in the shallows. Adelies hop from one block to another and enjoy the action as the blocks are roiled by the water.

For the Adelie colony this point would seem to be a protected place to raise chicks, but success in survival also comes down to access to food. Unfortunately, researchers studying the colony have found its numbers declining. The reasons for this are not completely understood, but there are signs that herring, a major source of much of the Adelies’ diet, are moving to new locations, possibly as a result of global warming. Penguin colonies in many areas in the Antarctic are under pressure as their food sources abandon their old haunts and depart to other parts of the ocean. Looking out over this place of rough beauty, I am struck by the fragility of the balance of life in the Antarctic and more firmly convinced than ever of the importance of the research done here to understand how best to conserve the diversity of this part of the planet.

We lift off from Cape Royd considering the contrast of Shackelton’s Hut juxtaposed against the penguin rookery. Antarctica is the last continent on earth where man’s first dwellings still stand but only because humans have never been a part of the ancient cycles of life here. We fly back to McMurdo for a special celebration that is fitting in view of what we have just seen. At 5 p.m. we join a contingent of New Zealanders from Scott Base to inaugurate the operation of three windmills that will supply green energy to Scott Base and McMurdo Station and help reduce the reliance on carbon-based fuels that have to be brought in on ships through dangerous waters. The Kiwis invite us over to Scott Base for a wonderful reception and dinner to close out a most fulfilling day.

As the day ends, I realize that tomorrow I will leave Antarctica and start the long trip back. The morning arrives only too early and the McMurdo team takes the few hours left to show us around the logistics operations for the station. The support staff and facilities are as remarkable as the scientists who are here to help understand this unique continent. The entire station exists to serve about 125 science projects and the people who are here to conduct them. The logistics are daunting: Everything must be shipped in and everything that is not consumed must be shipped out to keep the environment pristine. As we look out over the port we see the annual fuel ship arriving and the supply ship will not be far behind. As soon as the supply ship is emptied, it will be filled with waste to be sent back for proper disposal.

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