Cape Ross, Cape Bird (finally), and the best day in Antarctica ever!

A couple of quick news items begin this update- first there have been a couple of strong earthquakes in the ocean adjacent to the Antarctic Peninsula, about 100 miles northeast of King George Island where many countries (including the US) have research bases. The initial quake on Sunday was rated a magnitude of 6.0, followed by a second, slightly weaker one (5.2) ten minutes later. Although this is a seismically active region due to its complicated tectonic setting, quakes of this strength are unusual here. No tsunami was generated, and no news stories suggest that there were any impacts on the bases from this event. The second news-worthy event comes courtesy of penguin researcher Jean from Cape Royds- a penguin was born this season with no plumage! Normally chicks have a thick, gray coat of downy feathers to keep them warm, which gradually molt by late in the season as adult plumage forms near fledging time. But this chick is naked- something David Ainley has never seen before in all his years of studying these birds. Jean went back to check on the chick, and it was still alive late last week by virtue of the warm weather and exploiting nest-mates body heat, but it is still unknown whether it will form adult plumage, or if its days are inevitably numbered. (Late breaking news- on a re-visit later in the week David told me the chick has indeed grown adult plumage, so he stands as good a chance as any other chick born this season to survive to next).

Click on the images below for a larger version.

The complicated tectonic situation between the Antarctic Plate, the South American Plate, and the Scotian Microplate(left), and the featherless chick at Cape Royds(right). Photo: Jean Pennycook.

After a relaxing Sunday (my favorite morning in the galley- everyone sleeps in so it is quiet and serene!), we had plans for a long trip up the coast to Cape Ross. The weather was somewhat sketchy, with a high deck of unbroken clouds over Ross Island, but some sun was breaking through over on the Scott Coast. Our 212 pilot flying 7PH was Flo Schoebel, who had picked us up from Cape Roberts on Saturday, with Nora as Helotech. Conditions to our east looked bad, but the ceiling remained high over the coast the whole way to Cape Ross- Flo noted a strong tailwind and my GPS indicated that we were going 148 mph- cutting at least 15 minutes from the normally over an hour-long flight. On the way we asked Flo to circle Gregory Island to see whether it looked promising for sites, but it appeared to be mostly bedrock so it's doubtful we'll make an effort to land there. As we dropped onto Cape Ross proper we found a fuel cache in place- which provided a ready explanation for the fuel contamination we had found in one of our test pits from 2001. We de-boarded the aircraft, and after establishing comms with Flo by radio, I stayed tuned to Helo Ops and overheard a conversation between Flo and Rob the Kiwi pilot, who was flying further down the coast that morning. Rob was noting that conditions were deteriorating rapidly, with light going flat fast (if you think flat light is bad for skiing, try flying a helicopter in it!). Flo asked if he was recommending against dropping us off, and he responded affirmatively, but Flo decided to go with Helo Ops' morning assessment that someone would be able to pick us up in the afternoon and lifted off. I mentioned the conversation to the crew, and we agreed to keep a sharp eye on the weather and call in if visibility worsened.

Gloomy conditions on the way to Cape Ross (left), and the unpromising Gregory Island.

We had camped at Cape Ross in 2001, and had excavated a couple of test pits, but we could quickly see that we had previously underestimated the extent of past occupation here. Steve and I started recording major pebble mounds on the point, and I eventually marked a dozen, with Steve finding maybe 18 total. But concerning the chronology our previous work appeared accurate- all the sites were preserved in the same manner, and appeared to be the same age (2000-3000 years old, dating to the Penguin Optimum). Steve decided to sample a few more sites to confirm the ages, and I spent some time working out the beach terrace sequences discussed in a paper by Brenda Hall's crew (Gardner et al., 2006) and searching for their test pits. They had found some penguin bones from deep in the beach sediments (50-75 cm) that dated pre-full-glacial, and I was curious to see where they found them. Tao found a small basin adjacent to the sites along the terrace, and sampled another quarter-meter of organic mud. Finally, Steve and I decided to climb the short bluff above the Cape to see if there were additional sites up there. The ground appeared severely disrupted by glacial action and freeze-thaw, so although we found a few pebble accumulations they appeared geologic rather than ornithogenic. Then Steve called on the radio from a nearby knoll- he had found an intact mound and his first probe yielded bone. This was a site we had not found before, and was quite different and unusual compared to the others on the Cape, so Steve decided to do a small test excavation. We collected the bone specimens and the fine sediments, but the site was shallow so only extended to two levels. As we packed up the sediments in a stiff, cold wind, we decided that a call to Helo Ops to advise them of worsening conditions to the north was justified, although the coastline south (our route) was still relatively clear.

Complex beach terraces at Cape Ross, and Tao sampling organic mud from a shallow basin. The unusual penguin mound high above the Cape, and penguin bones emerge from the sediments on Steve's first probe.


Video: Steve conducts a test excavation on the unusual high site. The dry nature of the sediments in these open-air sites of the southern Ross Sea is obvious.

Wisely, our pick-up ship (08H piloted by Greg Leibert) decided to come get us right away, rather than waiting for our appointed time, but that meant they had to finish some work in the Dry Valleys before they could fly us back to McMurdo. They dropped us off at the Marble Point refueling station while they completed their mission, and we relaxed with the refueling crew for a couple of hours while we waited. Of all the workers in the US program, I think the Marble "fuel-ies" have one of the sweetest gigs- they live in a comfortable hut, they are truly based in Antarctica (McMurdo is on an island, not the mainland) and far from the "city life" across the Sound, and there are miles of hiking to be had surrounding their station when not working. Karen, the cook, had fresh coffee brewing, several types of baked treats, and welcomed some company different from her working companions. I leafed through the 1972-era Marble Point master plan (see Update #6 from the 2010 season for details), and enjoyed the humorous clippings that adorned the walls. When one of the fuel-ies (Phil) joined us, we learned that his girlfriend was currently working with Steve's friend and seabird biologist Wayne Trivelpiece on King George Island at the Copacabana field station- it's a very small world down here in the south. He was wearing an Arctowski ballcap (the Polish base on King George Island where Jurek wintered over on his first season in the Antarctic), and Steve and Jurek shared stories of Polish base parties which are still happening based on Jeff's girlfriend's correspondence. Soon we heard a call from 08H that they were on the way, and we headed back to the helopad for our ride back across the sound to McMurdo.

The comfortable interior of the Marble Point fuel depot hut.

The start of a new week provided one more attempt on Cape Bird (this time as a day trip)- and one more cancellation from a fast-moving blizzard. On Tuesday morning we loaded up in the Bell again for one more try, although conditions certainly didn't look promising. The pilots were starting to sympathize with our plight in getting out there (7 tries so far), and Jack decided to launch anyway to see if there was any chance. We flew the 25 miles out to where you need to climb to get up over the Bird-Erebus saddle, and conditions were totally socked in, so Jack apologized once again as we returned to the helipad.  This was getting a little ridiculous..

The next (Wednesday) we didn't have flight scheduled since Steve was giving the science lecture that night in Crary on our work in the Ross Sea. These science lectures are a weekly event, with grantees who have been working in the Antarctic often for many years explaining their work and results. In previous weeks we had attended a lecture by Berry Lyons, the director of the Byrd Polar Research Center at the Ohio State University (Lonnie Thompson's institution) on his work in the Dry Valleys (fascinating stuff about stream flow, water chemistry, biology, etc. that differs greatly across different valleys and drainage basins). Steve did a great job summing up our work in 45 data-rich minutes, and it was well-received by the audience (although David Ainley doesn't believe in a "krill surplus", but he does agree the birds will switch food sources rapidly in the face of changing abundances). We awoke the next day and prepared for another long day in the field. The helos were less busy than previously, so we had 36J and our pilot Dustin Black with us for the whole day on close support, and the plan was to head up the Scott Coast to Depot Island and some other close-by sites, but alternatively try for Cape Bird again if conditions warranted. As we lifted Dustin made it clear that he would get us into Bird if he could, since we had been trying so long, but as we climbed towards the saddle I wasn't optimistic- the clouds were closing in and the light was quickly going flat. But Dustin persisted, and soon I checked my GPS and saw that were more than 35 miles out, which meant we were very close to our destination at McDonald Beach. Soon we could see the beach though thin clouds, and Dustin coasted down the ridge line to the broad, flat beach- we were finally at Bird on our 9th try!

Steve delivers the Wednesday Science Lecture in Crary, and a view of McDonald Beach at Cape Bird during our finally successful trip (9th try!). 36 Julie awaits our return at Cape Bird, and the south colony below the scenic Shell Glacier.

Now we began a flurry of activity- tasks that we had planned for 3 days had to be accomplished in only a few hours of ground time. Steve and I headed south down the beach for South Colony. Radiocarbon dates from 2010 had confirmed that some abandoned mounds south of the South Colony were the remains of the oldest occupation at Cape Bird (1100 years old), and he wanted to map and re-sample the site. On the way I followed a rising traverse of abandoned mounds, marking each with waypoints for mapping. I surveyed the colony for modern eggshell samples for Steve to use for isotope measurements, and soon we headed back north past the helicopter and towards Middle Colony. Along the way I walked the water's edge to film some of the Adélie activity there- it is always hilarious to witness the "group think" concerning entering the water for feeding. We repeated our tasks at Middle Colony as well, and soon we were ready to return to the ship after having walked over seven miles up and down the long narrow beach. We loaded up with apologies to Dustin for what must have been a rather boring day for him (since the weather improved we didn't really need the ship at our beck and call), and soon we lifted back up the ridgeline towards the saddle. Although Dustin insisted we were following the normal route along the saddle, it seemed to me we much higher and to the east of where I had flown before- I got a great view of Lewis Bay, and the Fang Ridge on Erebus was very close. As we rounded the southwest flank of Erebus, Dustin began to point out some diagnostic features below to helotech Robby Russell. I saw how the snow-covered flanks of the mountain changed into glistening blue ice, and could see the blown-out bare spots surrounding rocky projections, but I didn't know what point Dustin was making until the powerful katabatic wind smacked the 212- the force was surprising, violent, and powerful, but he knew exactly what was coming and held the controls in check. Just feeling that solid, stable ship lurch and hearing the rotor pitch change as we got pounded by the powerful winds reminded me of what a dangerous proposition flying aircraft around in Antarctica could be in the wrong hands (fortunately I think all these pilots are the cream of the crop). The buffeting subsided as we put distance on Erebus behind us, and soon we down on the helipad in time for dinner.

Video: Adelie penguins parade down the beach at Cape Bird 



Videos: Adelies enter the water en masse at Cape Bird

Video: Adelie chicks exercise their wings as they get ready to fledge 

The remains of a skua's lunch at Cape Bird, and Jurek walks across McDonald Beach to return to the aircraft. Two views on the ride back from Cape Bird high along the Bird-Erebus Saddle: Lewis Bay where Air New Zealand Flight 901 flew into Mount Erebus in 1979 killing all onboard, and the Fang Ridge high on the north side of Erebus.

On the helo schedule for Saturday we were listed for an 8:30 AM departure for another day of close support- this time flying in an A-Star (Jurek learned that with four of us we were 150 lbs too heavy for the smaller ship, which is why we kept getting assigned to 212s). There were just three of us going, as the Bells were tied up with a big project on Byrd Glacier and only A-Stars were available, so Jurek agreed to stay in town. We were a bit grumpy about the early start to the day (you have to check in 45 minutes before your flight), but that grumpiness vanished as the day unfolded. We were flying with Barry James, and first we learned that today was his birthday. When we stopped off at Marble Point for some fuel, Karen had made a wonderful cake for Barry, and we shared in the delicious bounty of an impromptu birthday party. Soon we were zooming north along the coast in improving weather- the views of the sites we had already visited were excellent, and I shot a bunch of reference photos from above (I think I've mentioned that A-Stars have an up-front seat for passengers!). We landed on the rocky top of Depot Island with Barry parking the ship on a handy snow patch. I headed over towards a cairn I spotted on the approach, and was surprised to find another monument from the historic age- the cairn and bamboo were still in place that marked a depot, and some artifacts surrounded the cairn. We later found reference to the site in the Priestly diary- Professor David on the 1907 Shackleton Nimrod expedition has stashed some equipment and samples here, which were later reclaimed by Scott's Northern Party in 1911. It was exciting to find another sign of heroic-age exploration of the Ross Sea. Another notable find were numerous cannibalized skua chicks littering the summit. Steve suggested that a specialist must be preying on chicks from nearby colonies and bringing the spoils back here to eat. Later, when we explored Cape Depot, many of the skuas appeared to not be raising chicks, making them less concerned than usual about our presence.

Along the front of the island we found a few, apparently shallow pebble mounds. Steve test-sampled one and found the sediments dry and well-preserved- he collected some bone and feather samples for dating. Soon we re-boarded the aircraft for a very short hop over to Cape Depot. There we found much more extensive evidence of occupation, with deep pebble mounds covering the central terrace and patchily distributed upslope and down along the beach terraces. I climbed to the summit and found sites there too, perhaps the best example of how we locate these abandoned colonies. A dark, intrusive dike splits the summit, and debris from the dark rock is contained just along the dike, but the birds carried dark pebbles away to build their mounds and these contrast sharply with the light, granitic gravels. Steve and I mapped the numerous mounds, then Steve dug a test pit on the central terrace that went to three levels (15 cm deep). We wrapped up our work and rejoined Barry at the A-Star for another short hop to the top of the nearby exposed bluff on the shoreline. There we found no evidence of former occupations- it was another jumble of glacial debris and freeze-thaw-turbated ground. As we took off from the snowfield, the ground dropped away suddenly and as Barry described it the flight gave the feeling of a roller coaster ride. We asked to check out Gregory Island since we had some time to spare, and Barry obliged. As soon as Steve and I began walking up the valley in the center of the island we realized we would have get Jurek there- the vegetation in these granite wetlands looked just like that at Cape Geology, and was at least as dense. The granite bedrock seems to create a microclimate in which plants thrive- it was also very warm and comfortable here, and the gravels seem to have a mulching effect for retaining moisture. We located no pebble mounds (curiously), and soon we loaded back up in the A-Star. Barry was enjoying the day and took a very scenic route back to Marble Point, including flying very close to a huge tabular iceberg (he noted at the surface of the berg his radar still indicated the ground was 100 feet below- providing scale for the huge behemoth!), and then landing on top for us. We fueled up at Marble, and on the flight back across the Sound finally saw whales for the first time this trip- both minkes and orca were cruising the ice channel created by the icebreaker. It had been a grand day, between the history, new sites and data, and spectacular flying and scenery- as Steve mentioned perhaps the best one we had ever spent in Antarctica. Now we are planning our last week here- with perhaps another trip up the coast to get Jurek to Gregory Island, or maybe Cape Crozier. An email just arrived advertising a boon-doggle trip to the South Pole as well, so Steve put us on the waiting list for that too. I'll write another update after we see what unfolds.


 Video: Steve excavating an abandoned occupation site on Depot Island (note how dry the sediments are in these open-air deposits).

Video: The A-Star takes off from Gregory Island 


Video: Flying over sea ice and frozen-in icebergs while approaching Dunlop Island. 

Video: Barry flies up to and lands on a huge (100 ft high) tabular iceberg. 

Barry in the A-Star, and enjoying birthday wishes at Marble Point. Aerial view of Depot Island and Cape Depot, the historic monument and a couple of photos of one of the artifacts. The shallow site Steve sampled on Depot Island, and one of the unlucky chicks that was eaten by cannibal skuas. The textbook example of a pebble mound- highlighted by pebbles carried from the dark, igneous intrusion and Steve at the high sites on Cape Depot. The A-Star in the shallow valley formed by granite wetlands on Gregory Island, an example of the flora and view of the coastal side. Fine views on the flight back of the Ferrar Intrusives at Granite Harbour, and the icebreaker working the channel.