The Last Descent

Today, I entered the portal into the glowing sea ice underworld for one last time. It was fitting that my last time doing so was at the Jetty – the site where it all started. It was difficult knowing that this was likely not only the last time for this season, but perhaps the last time in my life. The opportunity to see the beautiful things we’ve shared with you on this blog is something I will never forget. I hope that through the imagery and blogs we’ve captured during our time here, we’ve been able to convey to you what a magical place this is and how important these habitats are – for their role in the larger Antarctic ecosystem, for what they enable us to learn, and for their inherent fascinating beauty.

On this last dive, I chose to dedicate my time toward capturing better versions of some of the earlier images I think best describe this beautiful place. At the Jetty in particular, one of the most characteristic, but difficult-to-capture features of a dive has been light and the lack thereof. The contrast between dark shadows and glowing ceilings. The brilliance of each animal that we are able to give a moment in the spotlight. Each time I plunged into the world below the Jetty, it was into darkness. It takes a bit, as you blink your eyes and adjust your gear, to orient yourself to your surroundings. And each time it was the glow of the cracks surrounding the Jetty that helped me to figure out where I was. Here, I did my best to capture that glow and the beauty below it, illuminated with the help of our comparatively small lights. I hope that through our pictures, you’re able to feel like you were almost here too.

Magical Seal Encounters

Today was without a doubt one of the most magical dives of my life. It is difficult to describe how special it feels to have the privilege of experiencing these beautiful animals underwater. Although Weddell seals are well built to withstand the extreme cold of life on the sea ice, up there they look anything but graceful. It’s hard to imagine those big gray sausages could ever move this quickly, or spin around so delicately with so much control. Any time I’ve seen a seal underwater it has been special, particularly when we get to hear them vocalizing. I will never not be blown away by the otherworldly sound of their voices.

That being said, today was different. Multiple curious seals came to visit us throughout the dive, but one in particular stuck around for at least 10 minutes. It seemed that it saw it’s own reflection in the dome port of the camera Rowan was using to capture video (and the video she managed to get is incredible!). It swirled upside down, right side up, and sideways over and over. It couldn’t get enough of that good-looking seal.

For a very brief moment, it took interest in me and my camera, but ultimately decided Rowan was much more fun.

Soon after, another seal came by to visit as well. It was especially fun on this dive to take in the differences between each seal – differences in their faces and patterns and also in their personalities and moods.

All the while, other creatures sat below us on the seafloor, and although it was hard to look away from the seals, I’m glad to have captured some moments with them as well. Each animal, big and small, is to be appreciated. Although you need to look at a sea star for longer to notice beauty in the way sea stars move, the march of thousands of tube feet, carrying a comparatively massive five-armed body is a beautiful thing as well.

The Jetty From All Angles

Although we’ve been diving at the Jetty many times since the beginning of the season, there are new beautiful things to take in each time we go. On this dive, we started by descending to the deeper, darker parts of this site that we have visited less frequently. Here, there are huge sponges, looming in the dark until we illuminate their bright white with our lights. Because of how good the visibility is here, even 100+ feet deep and 100+ feet away from the rocks of the Jetty itself, we can see the glow of the beautiful tidal cracks in the background of each shot.

As we approach our “no decompression limits” – that is the amount of time we can stay at a certain depth before our tissues take on too much nitrogen for a regular ascent to be safe – it’s time to start heading upslope. Even here, in areas we’ve visited more often, there are always new and unusual creatures. For example, this jelly. To me, it almost looks like a beating heart. Aside from the vibrant colors, one can also make out tiny little parasitic amphipods throughout it’s clear gelatinous body.

As anyone can see from our pictures, some of the most fun pictures to take are those of other dives, especially against the glow of sea ice cracks above them.

Soon, it’s time to wrap up. Having done our safety stops while in the shallows of the Jetty, we all stay shallow on our way back to the downline, it’s lights beaconing us from a distance. After one last glimpse of the beautiful, anchor-ice-covered mound that is the Jetty, it’s time to head back up through our interdimensional portal in the ice.

Front Yard Beauty

Thanks to the arrival of a new team member (welcome Justin!), we had the opportunity this week to revisit our first two dive sites. Although it feels like eons since we’ve been there, it’s only been about two months since these sites saw Rowan and I do our first dives under the ice. It felt like coming home and we were excited to show Justin around as he got comfortable with the under ice world.

Since we were focusing on getting Justin (our team videographer) acquainted, we all took down our cameras to capture still imagery while doing a tour of the Dayton’s Wall dive site. After a whole lot of science task diving at Cinder Cones and Turtle Rock, I had forgotten how much darker Dayton’s Wall was and how much there was to photograph. I started off the dive taking pictures of all the spectacular creatures I had missed having the chance to admire. Ruffly nudibranchs and galaxy-eyed fish. We even had a seal visitor off in the distance.

As we headed upslope and into the expanse of 10-foot tall sea ice crack paradise that is the shallows of Dayton’s Wall, I did my best to capture the stunning scene before me. Rowan and Justin were up ahead, illuminating the isparkling ce around them with their cameras. Two silhouettes against a glowing icy backdrop, fringed by the darkness of the deep blue waters beyond.

The sites in McMurdo’s front yard are my favorite of the four. Sure, there may be no breathtaking 1-2 hour commute along the sea ice, and you don’t feel quite as tough and rugged diving out of a cozy heated hut as you do diving out of a chilly dive apple on the sea ice, but their beauty cannot be understated. When we tell people on station about the world below the ice right outside of town, or show our dive tenders videos, they’re always surprised. Surprised that a colorful, lively world like this exists at all beyond the endless white, and surprised that some of the most beautiful sites are those right below the orange dive huts they can see from town.

As we near the two week mark before our departures, I’m doing my best to soak it all in. It’s hard to imagine leaving this world behind, but I look forward to sharing our next two weeks of appreciation with you!

Earning the Dive

After a nearly 2 hour drive, we finally reached Turtle Rock. What had only ever been a speck of black on the horizon, visible from our Cinder Cones dive site, was now a large mound of volcanic rubble, surrounded by happy, floppy seals. After admiring the beautiful day and trying not to jinx our incredible weather luck, our first order of business was to find a good place for our dive hole. 

We quickly realized this set-up was going to take a lot longer than any of our previous sites. The ice here was thicker than at Cinder Cones and without the option of heavy machinery (aka a super duper big drill), getting through it was going to be all on us. Using GPS coordinates for past holes and features above ground, we ballparked a potential spot for the dive hole. Before getting to work, we drilled a small hole through almost a meter of ice to drop down a lead line and confirm we were at about the right water depth. The line read about 60 ft, which told us we were close to the base of Turtle Rock’s slope. This would allow us to both collect imagery of pretty creatures in the deeper canyons and also access seepy sites of scientific interest in the shallows. 

And then came the spicy bit. It may be cold in Antarctica, but nothing warms you up like spending a few hours chainsawing, drilling, and hand-sawing a hole through almost a meter of ice. If someone had told me I would wear nothing but a fleece, thin puffy, and overalls in 2 degree F weather (30 below freezing), I would’ve laughed in their face. I usually tell people I’m chilly in 70 degree F weather. I was sweating.

Cutting a new hole takes a whole lot of tools and a whole lot of motivation – oh and a lot of team problem solving. We started off by outlining a square and went to work with the chainsaw. Usually one would chainsaw small blocks out of the whole top layer of the ice, but this chainsaw was guzzling gas and we knew we wouldn’t be able to count on it for long with our limited supply. Instead we decided to chainsaw a mote – but could only get through about half the ice thickness. So, we drilled holes in the corners of our mote and got to hand sawing. This included the use of a two-person gas-powered Jiffy drill – the jiffiest thing about it is how fast it makes you want to hand it off to the next person.

Personally, I distracted myself from the backbreaking work by looking at our seal friends. Weddell seals are a common sight at Turtle Rock, which is also one of the sites that the seal research teams visit. Off in the distance we even saw a mother with what must have been a newborn.

Okay back to that block of ice – after over an hour of sawing a drilling, we finally had it bobbing in the water. Knowing there was no way we could lift it out ourselves, we set up a v-thread. That is, we drilled two holes in the block in the shape of a “v”, dropped a rope down one end, and used the drill to catch it and pull it out the other. This was then attached to a nylon lift sling, which we hooked up to our Pisten Bully.

Photo credit Andrew Thurber.

Getting this massive block out still took some ingenuity. We first tried sawing a ramp into the ice and dragging the block out with the PistenBully, but it kept getting stuck. With two Pisten Bullies at our disposal, we hatched an improved plan. We would sling our lift strap through one of the Pisten Bully’s roof rack bars and have the other drive away, using the bar as a re-direct to lift the block straight upward. Yes…that actually worked. Ta da! We had a hole.

And after some quick dive apple dragging we had a shelter too! Heat would’ve been nice, but unfortunately our propane tank wasn’t feeling up to the challenge of vaporizing at 2 degrees. We could relate, but set our sights on a cold dive anyway. We’d come too far to turn back without going through that tunnel.

As we were nearing station after a chilly, but productive dive and a long haul home, we received a radio call “Penguins, about a mile ahead of you.” “Are they talking to us…?!?!?!” We didn’t want to get our hopes up, but sure enough, as we closed in on station we began to make out two figures on the horizon, waddling towards us on a mission. We stopped the appropriate distance from them and got out of our vehicles. We weren’t allowed to approach them, but we were allowed to patiently wait and will them towards us with all possible mental manifestation of penguin hugs. No patience was needed, these curious penguins B-lined for us immediately. For a more in depth description of how insanely cool this was – check out Rowan’s earlier post. I’ll just say, this was one of our longest, but most fulfilling days yet. I still can’t believe I’m here.

New Digs

Exciting news! The last few days, the team has been diving at a new (third) site in McMurdo Sound: Cinder Cones. This site is particularly special because it’s the one the proposal for our work here was most driven by. For years there was no seep here, but over the last 10 years, different sections of methane seepage suddenly “turned on”. It’s the first time scientists have known when a methane seep actually started and it gives us a really unique opportunity to watch the microbial community and ecosystem evolve over time. Cinder Cones is the only seep site the Thurber Lab has existing samples from in Antarctica and for that reason it was one of the most important for us to get back to and collect samples to watch the community change.

With the thinner than usual sea ice year we’ve been experiencing down here, it has taken quite some time to make it out, but we finally got there! I’ve been focusing all my dives on sampling, so I don’t have any pictures to share yet, but the team will post some very soon. We’re excited to tell you more about how things have changed since Andrew last saw this site in 2016. For now, here are pictures of the journey.

Although I love the other two sites we’ve gotten to dive at, the Jetty and Dayton’s Wall, one of the most exciting aspects of our dives at Cinder Cones is the hour long commute along the sea ice. Every day Rowan and I can’t help but say “can you believe this is our freaking job??” It’s an incredibly beautiful place that we get to call home right now, and we are very lucky to be able to get off station as often as we do.

Every day now Rob, Andrew, Rowan, and I take two PistenBullys full of dive and sampling gear out and around Hut Point (avoiding some of the big cracks that stretch out from the point every year) and head northward. It’s a bumpy ride, especially for our lovely dive tenders who sit in the back cab, but I think we all agree it’s worth it for the views (and the science obviously!). To our right is the Hut Peninsula we live on, Mount Erebus looms in front of us, and the Transantarctic Mountains stretch out to our left as far as the eye can see. We drive until we’re on the sea ice side of Castle Rock (check out my post about our first hike) and there, near another crack, is Cinder Cones.

The apple we dive out of at Cinder Cones. Castle Rock is just up and left of the open apple door. Erebus looms in the background to the left.

Here we’ve been diving out of an apple (which we dragged out and set up ourselves with the PistenBully). It’s not quite as toasty or spacious as the dive huts the big machines drove out to our other two dive sites, but we’re starting to get the hang of it now.

The extra time in the cold and drives out to the dive site make for long days, so the site of our little McMurdo home off in the distance is always a welcome one. On that note, after another missed lunch out at Cinder Cones, it’s about time for a warm dinner! Thanks for reading and can’t wait to show & tell you more about this exciting site.

Creatures of Dayton’s Wall Shallows

Dayton’s Wall is one of our two main dive sites at the moment – named after Paul Dayton, the pioneering polar diver and ecologist who first characterized many of the sites divers visit in McMurdo Sound today. Here our blinking descent line drops down to a whopping 102 ft, from which we venture even deeper onto Dayton’s Wall itself to collect imagery of the all the critters it is home to. Our time at these depths is limited, and our dive computer soon lets us know it’s time to ascend a little. It’s always hard to leave behind the dense sea life of the wall (just let me take one last picture!), but there are still plenty of cool animals to admire in the “shallows” (anywhere else I would not consider 70 ft shallow).

This sea star and sea spider hanging out on a sponge for example, surrounded by other sponges, anemones, and soft coral. Many of the animals here are suspension feeders (they eat what’s floating in the water) and usually hang out with their tentacles extended. If they sense a threat though, they’re quick to close up into a more protective pose like the anemone below. Also notice how the pink coral below (in the background) has its tentacles out, unlike the ones near the sponge above.

Backboneless animals here are nice because they stay still and are easy to take pictures of. Slightly more challenging (only slightly) are the fish. It’s kind of impressive how slow moving and fearless the fish are here though. The other day I was sampling in one spot for a while and one got so curious it basically ran into my face. Below is a bernacchii with golden galaxy eyes followed by an Antarctic dragonfish with glittering emerald eyes.

After some fun macro photography in the “shallows” it’s time to head to head further up and enjoy the glowing blue world of the real shallows. I know we’ve talked a lot about anchor ice (the cool ice crystals that form on the bottom) but it really never gets old.

Eventually our hands start going numb and we all turn to each other and give the look that says “Yeah. I’m cold. Please let’s leave?” We spend the rest of our safety stop admiring the blue ceiling and trying to wiggle warmth into our fingers before clipping our cameras back on to the down line and heading up the hole one by one, excited to talk about all the cool things we got to see.

Getting to Know the Seafloor

We’ve been starting to show you images of what the icy surface of the Ross Sea looks like from below, but some of the most fascinating things we’ve seen are actually on the seafloor. Not everyone is aware of the fact that there’s actually a rich community of organisms living in these waters, and rightfully so! It’s pretty impressive that their existence is possible in a world that lacks any light and food from algae for many months of the year.

The top of “Dayton’s Wall”, the animal-covered feature for which this dive site is named. Our descent line in the background.

The last two days I have taken a break from sample collection tasks and have instead been taking down a camera. Although there’s much more living on the seafloor than I could possibly take pictures of, I’d like to introduce you to a few of the animals we sea regularly.

Believe it or not, we’re not just collecting mud and water for microbes, we’re also collecting three animals. Odontaster sea stars, Sterechinus sea urchins, and Parborlasia nemertean worms (they look and smell like intestines). Part of what we’re interested in researching here is whether animals like these eat the microbes we study as a food source. Some of the ways we figure that out are by sequencing the genes in their guts to see what microbes are inside and by analyzing their body tissues for signatures of those unique microbes. You really are what you eat!

Odontaster sea star.
Sterechinus sea urchin.
Parborlasia worm.

Most of the organisms living on the seafloor and in the water are invertebrates – animals without a backbone like the worms, anemones, and nudibranchs below. Most of them get food by filtering through the sediments and water for anything edible and expelling the rest. Whenever we dissect a sea star or urchin there’s a brown gut running through much of their bodies, filled with mud being processed for anything that might be of value.

Feather duster worm.
Nudibranchs – can you find the one on the right? It’s cryptic, meaning it blends in to the hydroid it’s living on.
A ctenophore (aka comb jelly). The rainbow rows are the fluttering iridescent ctenes (combs) they use to get around.
A sea star in anchor ice.

While picking out red sea stars to sample is easy, sometimes at first glance it’s hard to tell which spineless animal you’re looking at, even at a broad level. This bryozoan (a colonial invertebrate), for example, looks similar to some sponges, which are an entirely different group of animals. Rowan is sampling these for a potential project of hers – stayed tuned for more in a future post.

Other things are really apparent, like this neon spiky yellow sponge, although even these are hard to tell apart to species level with multiple species looking alike.

And yes, although invertebrates may be my personal favorite for all their complex and fascinating anatomy, so drastically different from our own, there are also fish. And down here, they too have fascinating adaptations. Many fish here, such as the Trematomus bernacchii below, have anti-freeze proteins in their blood allowing them to live in the almost -2 degree Celsius water that characterizes their environment.

And then there’s us! Totally out of place, using 100+ pounds of gear and other technology to cheat our way into an environment for which our bodies are comically ill-adapted. Taking pictures in a place where we shouldn’t be able to breathe, adjust our buoyancy, or see well. I’m grateful to be here in this alien world, bringing photos back for you all to enjoy!

Diving Under the Ice – Best Birthday Present Ever

Today I am thinking of how grateful I am to be here. In this magical place. Under the freaking ice.

Of the officially recorded USAP divers (both McMurdo & Palmer Stations), 99 of the 400 – 500 (the number is somewhere in this range) have been women. On Wednesday, Rowan and I got to be 100 and 101.

The next day, for my birthday, I got to do my first science dives collecting samples (the first two were warm ups, or…maybe cool downs? idk.). It was the best birthday present ever. On the ride out to the dive site (below), Rob and I talked about what a magical coincidence it is that we were born during this time. Diving first started in Antarctica in the 60s – people wore wet suits and let’s be clear that is way hardcore and must have been MISerable. So if we omit those years and think about how long in human history diving has been and will be possible, from the 80s until….an unknown, but potentially soon time in the next 100 years when there is no longer seasonal sea ice to dive through, that’s a shockingly small blip in time. A shockingly small window in which one would’ve had to be born to be able to do what I got to do on my birthday. In an effort to help others imagine this magical experience, here’s a description of that our first few days of diving have looked like. There is plenty more footage to come!

Rob driving the PistenBully out onto the ice.

First, after prepping our diving and science gear and getting all kitted up at the dive locker, we load up and drive out to the dive site in a tracked PistenBully vehicle (see Rowan’s last post if you’re curious). It’s a bumpy ride, but much better once you cross the transition from land to sea ice. These vehicles were made originally for grooming slopes, but on McMurdo serve the unique purpose of getting divers from town to their dive holes out on the sea ice.

Andrew loading gear into the hut. This particular bag contained cameras – yay imagery!

And we have the luxury of that dive hole being in a warm hut! Once we pull up to the hut, we unload all our gear into what has become a very steamy hut since opening the door to the cold world outside.

The plastic tube contraption hanging from the ceiling above our hole has a fan on top and does the very important job of blowing warm air into the dive hole and keeping it open. It’s no easy job getting the hole drilled and if left alone it would freeze back over very quickly. After removing the fan, we clip our dive gear onto loops at intervals along the descent line (which Andrew is holding above) and carefully drop it into the water. This is super helpful and allows us to get through the hole without clumsily clinging to a bunch of stuff or clipping it to our already bulky gear.

Once the gear is in, we all get the rest of our kit on alongside the dive hole. This process involves much whining and old man grunting and is only possible with the help of our lovely dive tenders – folks from the McMurdo community who take a break from their jobs to help us load up and prep for our dives.

And then, one by one, we all jump in, twisting around and aiming our tanks toward the middle of the hole. I’ll describe my first time through the magical portal into the under ice world. After chaotically (at least I felt chaotic) descending through a 2 meter (but seemingly eternal) tunnel filled with pieces of ice, you blink your eyes into a dark and cold expanse. Soon the down line, which has blinking lights along it so you can find your way back into the hole, becomes clear. It takes a while to gain spatial awareness and take it all in. I was so busy thinking about my kit and getting acquainted with my new dive watch that I didn’t even notice the blue crystal-covered wall in the distance. That wall is the edge of the jetty upon which McMurdo’s water intake system sits.

Our first dive, we dropped down to the bottom of our down line, which ends at about 72 ft under water. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I stared at the blue wall beyond, the glowing streaks of blue tidal cracks, and the bulbous crystal balls of ice shards along the underside of the ice. After exploring the sea floor and taking in for the first time all the fish, sea stars, urchins, and nemerteans (they’re worms that look like intestines) I had only ever seen in pictures, we moved toward the wall beyond. I tried to flip over and look at the ice ceiling above, forgetting at first that turning to the left would dump the air out of my arm. Right side up turns only! After getting that down I swam sideways, admiring the glowing links between the under ice world and the one I’d left above.

Me looking at the crystal shards of anchor ice along the McMurdo jetty. PC: Andrew.

The anchor ice along the jetty was fascinating. The closer I looked the more creatures I noticed hiding in its crevices. Every time my fin or hand brushed the ice, fragments would float up like icy confetti. I didn’t even notice the cold. Our safety stop flew by, that’s 3-5 minutes at 15 ft to prevent nitrogen in our blood stream from forming bubbles and problems.

Rowan swimming under one of the tidal cracks above us. PC: Andrew.

After spending our time admiring the shallows, we made our way back to the dive hole. Looking at the blinking lights in the distance I imagined it was close, but I was quickly reminded that Antarctic visibility (usually many hundreds of feet during this time) can be deceiving. After finally making it to the dive hole, one by one we each ascended back into the over world.

Under water you’re weightless – you forgot how much gear you’re wearing and the fact that it weighs more than 100 lbs. Once through the hole, your old friend gravity quickly welcomes back. You cling to the ladder for dear life, awkwardly attempting to unclip your gear so a tender can pry it free from your shoulders. Once you’ve hauled yourself up and gotten off your weight belt, you feel like a new human. A still very uncomfortable new human. It’s not until you manage to tear off your mask, and three layers of hoods that you feel like a real human again.

Me celebrating my first dive.
The team post first dive!

After processing urgent samples along the side of the dive hole, its time to load back into the PistenBully and drive back to town.

You never look at the sea ice quite the same after your first dive. It’s a magical thing to know what lays beneath. It’s a sharp contrast to the sunny, white, glittering world we live in above.

Rowan in the back of the steamy PistenBully.

In honor of our first dive, Rob gifted Rowan and I each patches. As a collector of patches and stickers, I can easily say this is the one I will cherish the most. Not only will it always remind me of my rare privilege of diving under the Antarctic ice, of all the experiences in my life that brought me here to this magical moment, but it’ll also remind me of the extremely cool person who gave it to me. Rob has been diving here for the last 44 years and there’s no teacher I would rather have had under water with my on my first dive. My first dive, I was nervous – about the gear, about the conditions, about messing something silly up – but with Rob and the rest of my team there I knew I’d be okay no matter what and that’s a feeling I’m very grateful for. Every time since I’ve gotten more and more confident, and now after 5 dives I’m feeling just fine about each time I plunge through our magical ice tunnel, thanks to my awesome team.

First Day Off: Castle Rock

I must admit, before yesterday, no matter how many times I looked at a map, I remained pretty confused about exactly which direction I was facing or where I was in relation to…well anything other than McMurdo. Not only is the position of McMurdo a bit confusing – it faces water, but that water is McMurdo Sound and not ocean to the North – we landed in the pitch black on an aircraft with basically no windows. Luckily for me, it all makes sense after getting to look at my new home from higher ground. For most folks on station, Sunday is the universal day off and we took this opportunity to hike up onto the icy plateau of the Hut Point Peninsula. That’s the peninsula of Ross Island, the tip of which is home to McMurdo and Scott bases (see map further down).

We set off right after brunch (another awesome Sunday occurrence in McMurdo), wearing our Sunday best (aka every layer we own). Plus extras, so called “ECW plus plus.” As we get acquainted with our own best layering systems, we always play it safe. It would stink to be hours from station and wishing you’d brought that fleece.

We made our way up to the trailhead (McMurdo is on a hill), and over the next hill to the plateau. This was arguably the hardest part of the hike and we definitely paused to ditch a layer or two before even leaving sight of station. It was fun to pass by Ivan the Terra Bus, which carried us from the airstrip just one long week ago.

Still slogging uphill from station, with Transantarctic Mountains in the background.

Just when your fingers or face start to get a bit uncomfortably cold, and you’re really wishing there were some place out of the wind to readjust your system, a cute little red shelter (aptly called an Apple or a Tomato) comes into view. It’s tall enough that the average person can stand up in it, and provides a barrier from the wind with some basic emergency gear inside, but is unheated and wouldn’t be the most fun place spend a night if weather conditions rapidly turned. It’s always important to check the weather before leaving station!

Inside the warming hut we readjusted layers, drank water, and got chilly. Turns out you get cold again when you stop moving – more of a cooling hut actually.

After warming back up, we continued upward, finally making it onto the plateau, with Castle Rock jutting out in the distance. After spending all week in town, it was a welcome change to get to stand in the glacial expanse of the peninsula, with no manmade structures other than our trail flags in sight.

Three flags mark a junction between two safe trails.

These flags play the important role of telling us where it is safe to walk. Glacial regions like this can have hidden crevasses, cracks which can be 10s or 100s of feet deep and covered with snow, invisible to the oblivious hiker. Thankfully, McMurdo has a Search & Rescue team, usually made up of experienced mountaineers, paramedics, and/or guides with SAR experience, that navigate and flag these routes for the community.

This particular turn-off led us up a rocky ridge (no crevasses to worry about here, phew), which led us to an absolutely stunning panoramic view of the peninsula and the volcanoes which make up most of the remaining island. It’s from here that I finally managed to grasp where I was.

Here I’m facing roughly NW, the Transantarctic Mountain range stretching northward into the distance, and the small dark Dellbridge Islands near the center of the image.

Above, looking roughly NE and straight down the peninsula, one can see castle rock and beyond that Mt. Erebus to the left and Mt. Terror to the right. These two shield volcanoes are names after the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the two vessels aboard which British Royal Navy officer James Clark Ross and his team discovered the Ross Sea, explored its uncharted Antarctic coastlines, and came across Ross Island in 1841. Mt. Erebus is the southernmost active volcano in the world, and some of the teams passing through McMurdo Station conduct research from field camps located on the volcano itself.

In front of Erebus and Terror, one can make out the edges of Ross Island and the slopes of the Hut Peninsula, descending into seasonal sea ice (relatively thin sea ice, <1 m – several m thick) on the left and permanent ice shelf (floating glacier, 100s m thick) on the right.

Here I am looking roughly to the SE, the Ross Ice shelf extending for hundreds of miles into the distance (it’s about the size of France). I can’t imagine what it must have been like for early explorers to make it even to Ross Island by way of the Southern Ocean, nor can I imagine standing here and looking to the South, knowing the nearly 1000 miles (1600 km) of travel by foot (carrying heavy sledges) that it would take to get there.

In this image, one can also make out the Willy Air Field where our C17 landed last week. I feel incredibly fortunate to be alive in an age where we get to make it here that way instead.

After an enlightening and windy detour, we headed further toward castle rock, sun illuminating its angular, snow-covered, glittering walls in the distance. Later in the hear one can actually ascend the rock itself, via a roped path, but that’s closed off for now.

Castle Rock, with Mt. Erebus in the background and a teeny tiny apple/tomato to its right for scale.

Let me tell you. All this ECW gear keeps you relatively warm when you get your layering down just right, but it is not lightweight. Rowan and I did take a quick moment to collapse on the way back. And I did try to make a snow angel, but the ice packed snow did not oblige.

The ice snow was really pretty to look at though! So many glitter, much ripples.

Left: A metal sculpture of a skier. Right: Three wind turbines, installed by the joint efforts of USAP and Antarctica NZ, which produce enough energy (under ideal conditions) to power 100 average American households and save an estimated 240,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year.

As we descended back into McMurdo I was ready for the warmth of the buildings, the quirky character of the town, and the comforting rows of storage containers filled with all the things one needs to be comfortable and do science in what could otherwise be a very unfriendly place.

I have no idea.

After a half-day adventure and a big dinner to refuel, we got to end our evening with a beautiful nacreous cloud sunset, as seen from behind our dorm. The most obvious nacreous clouds in this image are those in the top right, but much of this sunset had the dancing rainbow colors that I’ve only ever seen here. It’s hard to believe it won’t be long before the sun comes up to stay.