Update #6

It turned out that the German Gondwana Base was not entirely abandoned, instead we found caretakers Jürgen and Eiger at home and happy for company. The base has not been used since the mid-80’s, when economic issues at home forced its temporary closure. But caretakers have been down every summer to maintain the critical functions, such as starting up the generators, clearing ice from delicate systems, and running heaters. The station is set to reopen in the 2005-2006 season, so it is critical that everything is working when the expedition arrives. Jürgen and Eiger are both geologists, as much of the German program is geological or geophysical, and this is Jürgen’s 17th season in either the Antarctic or Arctic. They invited us for a quick tour of the station, and we found it small but well designed. We were told the pilots often stayed in this luxury penthouse overlooking Terra Nova Bay. The geologic setting of Gondwana is very different from that of Terra Nova, with a metamorphic bedrock composed largely of gneiss. Views of the Campbell Ice Tongue were spectacular from the point the station is situated on, as is the view of seal heaven next to a major hole in the sea ice. A whale researcher at Terra Nova told us that ice holes such as these that are far from the ice edge are popular for seals because orca can’t reach them.

We surveyed the exposed areas of the point, and found only minimal sign of abandoned colonies. We excavated one promising-looking site, but the deposit was thin with only egg shell membrane visible. During our survey we did find this very old butchered seal carcass. The Germans at the station knew nothing about its history, but its age suggests that it may be related to Scott’s Northern Party that passed through here in the early 1900’s. We returned to the base for a grog with the lonely Germans, and learned a bit more about the history of the German Antarctic program, but soon our helo arrived to zip us across the bay back to Terra Nova. I think our friendly German hosts were sorry to see us go, as it must get lonely over there with only two of them, but their stay is quickly coming to an end and they are due to return to Germany the next week.

During a short hike on Sunday afternoon down to the ski runway, we located some abandoned penguin mounds at Terra Nova itself, only 100 m or so from our bunkhouse. Baroni had radiocarbon-dated some guano from the site of the helicopter pad at 5770 yr BP, so we were hopeful that other sites still existed on the peninsula. We excavated this site, and carried our samples to the road for transport with a Fiat. A skua mother and chick resided nearby, and she was unhappy about our proximity to her little one. In the afternoon we returned to the northern Adelie Cove site to look for one more deep site, as this area has the greatest potential for the oldest sites. We found another mound that looked likely, and excavated a pit to 7 levels, finding several bones at the deepest part. This means that we can get a reliable age for the site to see how old this occupation may be.

One responsibility any long-term residents of Terra Nova must fulfill is night duty- with the requirement of staying up all night to check gauges at two-hour intervals and manning the operations room for the wee morning hours. During our block of four nights of night duty (Steve first, then Jurek, Ed, and finally me) we all got to watch the complete progression of the Antarctic night while making our rounds and sitting in the Operations Room trying to stay awake. Eerie sounds and unintelligible voices came from the HF radio set to monitor emergencies at remote camps. Our rounds took us through the water filtration plant, the power generator and batteries, as well as a series of freezers. Fortunately no emergencies occurred during our watches, although Ed got a scare with pack ice blowing into the bay and threatening the research vessel Mallipo. It was humbling to see how a minor change in wind direction could rapidly clog the bay with drifting ice then just as rapidly clear out, as demonstrated in these before and after photos. It certainly demonstrated how the Endurance could have been swiftly trapped at the beginning of the Shackleton party ordeal.

Now that we know our hosts a bit better, it may be appropriate to say something about Italian culture as expressed by the inhabitants of Terra Nova. Although almost everyone speaks English to at least some degree, most of the liveliest discussion takes place in Italian. The movies shown in the theater are of course mostly American box office hits, but dubbed in Italian, making the dialog a bit tricky to follow for our team. I thought I was ok the other night when The Time Machine began, as it was all special effects at first, but after the action slowed and the dialog began it lost me. The camaraderie around the base is impressive, as everyone socializes together regardless of being a construction worker, a surgeon, or an IT specialist. Lunch and dinner are elaborate affairs, and the big table in the center of the dining hall fills in before the surrounding smaller tables. But just before dinner begins, all the English-speaking inhabitants of the base (helo and Twin Otter pilots, mechanics, and us) have been meeting in the coffee lounge for a beer, a tradition Steve has named the English Club.

Next day we were scheduled to fly north to Cape Hallett, although we didn’t fully understand why things were arranged this way as we planned to briefly visit Hallett on our way to Cape Adare in the far north. But Steve was not going to complain, as Hallett is an important site we had wanted to reach in the ’00-’01 season but were unable to. We were told that space (meaning weight) was tight, as this mission was intended to fly up some fuel barrels to extend the range of the helos operating northward. At the last minutes before boarding the word came down from Operations, only three of us could go due to weight factors. Although no one wanted to stay behind, I gave in reluctantly as I had not slept the night before during night duty. Steve, Jurek, and Ed were kind when they returned, and did not rub in how amazing of a day they had. The flight up lasted 2 hours, since they flew far inland of the coast to avoid bad weather. The route took them up the Meander Glacier, past Mount Murchison (a high 13’er), and finally to the amazing, huge Hallett colony, set in front of the scenic Mount Herschel. With any luck I will get to see these sites for myself when (if?) we fly to Cape Adare.

Ciao, Larry

On to Update #7

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