Just as all Antarctic field seasons begin, this first update is mostly about planes and air travel. This year the Antarctic Program got the best deal on flights in and out of Sydney, Australia, so a few extra hours were tacked onto an already-long trip (2 hours to Los Angeles; 15 hours to Sydney; 3 hours back east to Christchurch), but as usual the Quantas Airlines pampering made things more pleasant. Disembarking in Sydney we saw several of the new Aerobus A380 monster airliners- at first glance they look like Boeing 747s, but then the scale of the windows, luggage bays, etc. become perceptible and the overwhelming size of the beast becomes clear- quite an impressive plane. In Christchurch we had a bit of problem with several of our bags gone missing, but over the next couple of days they eventually showed up (with Steve’s only arriving at the very last minute). We enjoyed our traditional Kilkenny beer at the pub, and took the obligatory expedition photo in front of the Capt. Robert Scott statue next to the river Avon. The next day we returned to the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) for fitting our ECW (Extra Cold Weather) gear (lots of acronyms in the Antarctic Program!). While there we learned that quite a few folks were backed up in getting to McMurdo because of bad weather down south, so we would not get a chance to fly until Saturday. With an extra day to kill in Christchurch, we again visited the Canterbury Museum near our rooms at the YMCA.
The museum has updated several exhibits since I was there last, and one fascinating new detail for me involved the results of DNA analysis of the remains of now-extinct giant Moa in New Zealand. Taxonomists had been arguing for ages about how many species of Moa were represented by the thousands of fossils recovered from a variety of settings around the islands (cave sites, open-air kill and processing sites, bogs and peat deposits). Originally as many as sixteen species were proposed based on size, with detailed morphological work later narrowing the number down to six or seven. But new DNA analysis by Dave Lambert (who has worked with Steve on Adélie DNA) has determined there are only two species- one indigenous to the North Island, and one to the South Island. Every morphological difference, especially the great size difference between specimens, is due to sexual dimorphism (males are MUCH larger than the females!). The Antarctic exhibit in the museum was much as I remembered, with great displays containing artifacts from the rich history of the continent: a medicine case that survived from Shackleton’s ordeal on the ice, a posthumous portrait of Sir Robt. F. Scott, and one of the snow cats from Vivian Fuch’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition (with Sir Edmund Hillary as one of the drivers). The geology display in the museum has some interesting information on Antarctic deep history, but a surprise for me was the possession of the Diablo Canyon meteorite by the Canterbury Museum- this was the only part of the meteorite ever found that formed Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona. It was apparently traded to the museum in the early 1900s, probably in exchange for Moa bones.
Late afternoon we received word that today’s flight had made it, and we were scheduled for the next day. We repacked our gear and turned in early for the 5:45 AM pickup. The morning was the typical mix of hurry-up and wait, finalizing our checked versus carry-on luggage, going through security in the passenger terminal (yes, even travel to Antarctica requires X-ray baggage inspection), watching the “Welcome to Antarctica” film, then finally loading up in the bus and heading for the plane. The big surprise was our assigned plane: a C-17 Globemaster instead of the LC-130 Hercules I expected. The C-17 has four engines the same size as those on 747s, so we could expect a trip that was a couple of hours shorter, but on-board we found the most pleasant surprise- real airline-type seating instead of slings along the fuselage! The six and a half hour trip was no problem in such comfort, and the crew allowed us to make short visits to the flight deck to see the impressive instrument display (the altitude is reading 31,000 feet in the center of the image), and to get a view of swirling pack ice along the Polar Front. As we flew onto the continent, I was pleased to find that I could still remember much of the geography of the Victoria Land Coast, and could pick out landmarks such as Tinker Glacier and Coulman Island pretty easily through the tiny portholes. We landed in light snowfall, but with good visibility below the clouds, and loaded up yet again in Ivan the Terra Bus for the hour-long drive from Pegasus Airfield to McMurdo along the Ross Ice Shelf. Along the way we were treated to a greeting from four Emperor penguins that had wandered up onto the Shelf. On arrival in McMurdo, yet another briefing ensued, before finally being given room keys and allowed to head for our dorms.
Now today it is Sunday (which means brunch and waffles in the galley), but due to McMurdo rules we can’t go hiking until we complete the recreation class (next offered on Tuesday), so we’re lab-bound for the moment. Tomorrow is full of meetings and gear organization, and on Tuesday Eva and Liu head out for two days of Happy Camper School, while Steve, Jurek, and I only have to do a refresher course in field safety. Our first objective is Cape Crozier, but since a BBC film crew with Sir David Attenborough is currently there filming a documentary we will have to figure out an alternative campsite. With luck we may be able to fly by Thursday, and may spend four or five days on-site. Weather is always an issue in planning down here, and this season has been snowier than most, so we will keep our fingers crossed for good weather. I’ll post again as things develop.