The United States runs three permanently manned research bases in Antarctica. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is the most well known, and McMurdo Station on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf is the oldest (founded in 1956), and largest, with a peak capacity of over 1,200 researchers and support personnel during the Summer, shrinking down to an overwintering crew of around 180.
Much cozier than its bigger brothers is Palmer Station, and it was with no shortage of admiration and respect that we accepted Palmer Station's invitation for dinner and a guided tour. In turn, we invited the current station staff of twenty-four for a tour of our ship.
While about twelve large ships and a handful of smaller vessels visit the station each summer, most of these visits involve either a few of the scientists going on board the large ship to give a lecture about station life and the work that goes on there, or several groups of tourists getting a walkthrough of the station and an informational lecture in the station lounge.
Pulling in to the station on the zodiacs, we were greeted by Rebecca the station manager, Paul, and Amber, an instrument tech and part-time tour guide. We started out with the regular tour, albeit a little faster because there were only a dozen of us. We quickly found ourselves situated in the station's lunge for their research presentation. Picture a room about 30' by 20' with no fewer than ten cushy loveseats and a handful of recliners, and walls completely covered with bookcases housing hundreds of DVDs.
Walking into this den of communal entertainment, you immediately get the sense of just how long and dark the winters here are.
Rebecca and Paul gave us a nice overview of the work being done at the station, ranging from studying the growth patterns of the local Gentoo penguins to autonomous underwater gliders that roams the sea for weeks gathering data on phytoplankton dynamics.
After the lecture we went to the adjoining rec room (sooo hard to get off comfy warm sofa!) Pool table, dart board, bar, and a really cool model bi-plane constructed by one of the residents out of Guinness cans. Talk about recycling!
As we toured the station grounds, going through the labs and outbuildings, we learned a lot about the station's research activities and how they maintain an small an environmental footprint as possible.
Even more interesting than the technical goings-on of the station is the way the people who live and work there shape it, cast themselves upon the station's environment. Everyone who works at Palmer has their reasons for doing so, and those reasons are often far broader and unique than the scientific research they're doing. We got the impression that a lot of them steered their lives deep to the south to be part of something bigger, to simultaneously 'get away from the world' while cherishing their new, smaller world of their own making.
It's telling that while most of the people at Palmer have college or advanced degrees, most of them are doing scientific work unrelated to those degrees. The implication is either that being here is the goal, or that the passion that drives people to these fields is one they've discovered later in life. Either way, it feels like this is what makes this a more creative and compelling environment than a weather station or an oil rig.
Walking the grounds feels eerily like playing Myst. The light never changes, the elevated walkways give the same feel of a slightly alien open world with constraints, and if you're by yourself the only sound you hear is the gentle lapping of the water on the island's rocks.
You have to want to get here to be here, and it shows up all over the place. The hand-made signs, the colloquial names stenciled on to cargo containers, the traditions passed down from one team to the next, and the people who choose to stay here, year after year, shepherding in the new teams as they reminisce about the old.
The best gift shop in the Antarctic Peninsula is manned by Myrna, a charming woman who was new to Palmer but has ample Antarctic cred, having worked for the last sixteen years at McMurdo and South Pole stations. She considers this her retirement job! We were really impressed by the offerings in that 15 x 20 foot shop. Unexpectedly, we were able to bring home a few mementos from our trip!
Eating with the Palmer team was a rare and special honor. When so much of your life is open to gawking visitors, it's natural to erect literal or social boundaries around parts of your life, defining those regions that are open for all to see, question, and document, and those that are your own, where you can let down your game face and be at home with yourself. The galley is behind that metaphorical curtain and dining with the Palmer folk taught us more about what it's really like to live on the station than a dozen powerpoint presentations.
At dinner we struck up a conversation with Alex, the principle investigator on the Slocum Glider project, and he invited Rachel, Noah, Patricia and me down to his lab to see for ourselves. The Slocum Glider is an amazing 12-foot underwater torpedo-like craft that runs for days on D-cells. It uses changes in ballast to float and sink, using its fins to glide forward with each vertical transit. When it hits the surface it gets its position via GPS and radios the information it's gathered, then descends again to gather more data. The simplicity and efficiency of the device is staggering, and it was awesome to just banter with Alex about his work and life on the station.
We invited the station personnel back to our ship for a tour and to hang out. Over half of the 24 Palmerites came out and we talked about everything under the Sun and several things that weren't, as we heard stories of life overwintering at South Pole Station, where the temperature can get to 100 degrees below zero and joining the 300 Club is a rite of passage.
What was most amazing to us was the sense of normalcy and equality. I mean these are Research Scientists and Intrepid Souls, working on an Antarctic Base. They're Awesome, while we're just tourists coming to visit. But it didn't feel that way at all. They told us about their lives and were sincerely interested to hear about ours. We showed wedding photos and heard stories about the paths they took to Antarctica. It was interesting that a fair number of them lived, if not nomadic, certainly spontaneous lives. Several of the folks we talked with didn't really know where they would go or what they would do after their turn on the station was over, while others were sure that they wanted to come back in whatever capacity they could.
We talked with Wendy, the cook at Palmer who has worked at all three bases over the last 10 years, and learned to cook on the job (and she learned well! Dinner was delicious), knowing only that she wanted to get to Antarctica however she could.
Lou was eager to hear about our trip on the Herc. She flies gliders and works on gyroscope support for the Cassini space probe, and helped make the Kepler planet-hunting telescope a reality. It's due to launch on March 5th, 2009.
We knew when we set out on this trip that we could expect ice and penguins, but the rest would be a mystery. Tonight was exactly the kind of unexpected but thoroughly awesome experience we hoped for in general, but could never predict in specific. In this vast expanse of water in all forms, we found an island of concentrated warming humanity, with goals, ambition, and shared adventure. It gave us a mirror by which we could see our own wonder at this place, and I think Rachel is already trying to plan ways that she might be able to take a turn summering at Palmer Station.
Read the next chapter: Day 4: Icy Penguins
Table of Contents:
Introduction: Telling the Story posted Jan 10, 2009
Day 0: Positioning posted Jan 12, 2009
Leaving, on a jet plane posted Jan 12, 2009
Day 1: The Herc posted Jan 15, 2009
Day 1: Penguino posted Jan 16, 2009
Day 2: Chicken posted Jan 17, 2009
Day 2: Leopard posted Jan 19, 2009
Day 2: Snow Day posted Jan 22, 2009
Day 2: Shipwreck posted Jan 26, 2009
Day 2: Totally Tabular posted Jan 27, 2009
Day 3: Gentoo Cute posted Jan 29, 2009
Day 3: Lichen Shag Glacier posted Feb 3, 2009
» Day 3: Palmer Station Visit posted Feb 9, 2009
Day 4: Icy Penguins posted Feb 11, 2009
Day 4: Adelie Awesome posted Feb 15, 2009
Day 4: Leopard Seal Attack posted Feb 17, 2009
Day 4: Kayak posted Feb 19, 2009
Day 4: Vernadsky Station Visit posted Feb 23, 2009
Day 4: Vernadsky Sunset posted Feb 25, 2009
Day 5: Antarctic Circle posted Feb 27, 2009
Day 5: Polar Plunge posted Mar 5, 2009
Day 5: Mouth of The Gullet posted Mar 13, 2009
Day 5: Ice Camping posted Mar 18, 2009
Day 6: Flamingos on Ice posted Mar 20, 2009
Day 6: Mountain Climbing posted Mar 24, 2009
Day 6: Ice Textures posted Mar 26, 2009
Day 6: Antarctic New Years posted Apr 2, 2009
Day 7: Crystal Sound Icebreaker posted Apr 9, 2009
Day 7: Abandoned Antarctica: Base W - Part 1 posted Apr 17, 2009
Day 7: Abandoned Antarctica: Base W - Part 2 posted Apr 21, 2009
Day 8: Bird Watching in the Fish Islands posted Apr 23, 2009
Day 8: Icee Day - Part 1 posted May 5, 2009
Day 8: Icee Day - Part 2 posted May 11, 2009
Day 9: Port Lockroy - Base A posted May 20, 2009
Bonus Chapter: Baby Penguins! posted May 21, 2009
Day 9: Antarctic Humpback Whales posted June 3, 2009
Day 9: Dallmann Butt Sliding posted June 11, 2009
Day 10: Birthday Whales posted June 23, 2009
Day 10: Hannah Point Part 1: The Birds posted July 15, 2009
Day 10: Hannah Point Part 2: Elephant Seals posted July 22, 2009
Day 10: Deception Island - Part 1: Walking on the Moon posted Dec 11, 2009
Day 10: Deception Island - Part 2: The Martian Chronicles of Oz posted Dec 15, 2009
Day 11: Emperor Penguins posted Jan 8, 2010
Day 12: Black and White and Pink All Over posted Aug 4, 2011
More chapters posted every few days...
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