Is it possible to wear every layer I own…

Today we awoke with a message from our Sea Ice Training staff notifying us that there will be an outdoor component to the course and we are to pack and wear our extreme cold weather (ECW) gear. In order to know what items from my ECW gear to pack I did a quick check of the weather:  -40°F with 20 knot winds…so…EVERYTHING. I wore every layer that they gave us and although I looked like the marshmallow man I felt great out on the ice. They cancelled the outdoor portion of the class for the rest of group, but Andrew and I went out with the instructor after the classroom portion to profile a safe route to the site of our next ice hole. A BIG thank you to Jennifer Erxleben and the Field Safety Training Program’s crew for allowing us to get on the ice and survey our next dive site so we can get our samples as soon as possible.

Before we headed out to the ice Andrew and I climbed to the top of the radar platform above Crary to have a better look at the area where we planned to explore today. The morning light made the surround areas look amazing. We used some of the techniques from this morning’s class to assess sea ice conditions and travel safely on the sea ice to the GPS coordinates for where we wanted our next ice hole to be. We used the longest handheld drill and drill bit I’d ever seen to profile the cracks in the ice around our next dive site. After a series of measurements we determined the location was safe and the ice was nice and think, 1.5 meters, along all the sea ice cracks near our site. We’re scheduled to drill the dive hole tomorrow morning with the help of the drill team and dive our new site in the afternoon.

Assembling the Echo drill and kovacs ice drilling equipment

Sea Ice Training

Sea Ice Training



Our dive hut’s first pop in visitor

We had a visitor to our dive hut just before hitting the water today. A Weddell Seal!!!

Weddell Seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) Not the one we actually saw.

As soon as we  stepped into the hut and closed the door a Weddell Seal pup popped up in our dive hole for a breather. The little guy splashed around for a bit and seemed to be just as interested in us as we all were in him, peering up at us with his big doe eyes. I should clarify the Weddell Seals can easily weigh over 200lbs just 6 months after birth (and this guys was over 200lbs). He didn’t linger much longer than 30-45 seconds before disappearing back down the dive hole.

We could hear him calling out to his buddies through the ice as soon as he passed out of sight. A great start to the dive trip.

We followed shortly after down the same hole and collected all 9 of the samples we needed to start testing our experimental design. Fingers crossed that all goes well and we can start gearing up for the big experiment without delay.


Like most of my days thus far, today was another day of firsts.

•    Took my first walk on the frozen ocean
•    Took my first ride in a piston bully (snow tracker of sorts)
•    Saw my first ice hole being drilled

The ice dive was a clear favorite. ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS! (For those of you who know me, you know I don’t use all caps and exclamation points unless I’m really excited.) More on that later.

Don’t get me wrong, some of those other firsts were pretty amazing, like the creation of our ice hole. We drove out onto the ice on our piston bully. When we arrived, I took that first step onto the frozen ocean, my back facing McMurdo Station and my eyes fixed on the half lit snow covered mountain peaks of White Island, glowing red in the distant morning sun. After a moment it hit me, I’m standing on the ocean right now. I don’t think I can find the words to do it justice. It was such an incredible sensation to know that you are standing on a solid sheet of frozen sea and somewhere 60-100 feet below in the icy waters there is an amazing community of sea creatures to be explored.

The rest of our ice drilling team showed up with three enormous trackers pulling our massive drill and ice hut. The sheet of ice is as solid as ice comes; I mean they can land planes on it. However, the new drill team assembled a massive 4-foot drill on an equally enormous tracker and cored that dive hole in no time at all.

Drill baby drill

The slowest part was all shoveling we had to do to clear the ice shavings from around the hole.  This probably took longer because I was standing there leaning on my shovel utterly stunned by everything. For example: the water temperature under the ice is – 1.8°C or 28°F, but I’m standing there watching steam, yes STEAM, rising off the water as if were a hot tub. It is just that cold down here that below freezing ice water steams like a hot evening bath…

The portal is now open

Fast forward a bit to the early afternoon, and our ice hut is centered over the hole with us inside and ready to go. We were all suited up and gathered around the ice hole testing equipment and reviewing our dive plan. Then one by one we slipped into the icy water, descending into the narrow ice tube made by the drill team earlier.

Going Below


Once below I was amazed by what I saw in every direction I turned. The ice ceiling above us created a soft soothing blue glow decorated with occasional Mini Cooper-sized ice chandelier. The visibility was unlike anything I’d ever experienced SCUBA diving. I could see clear to the anchor ice at the coast and then follow the sea floor straight down to 100 to 200 feet deep. The amount sea life totally shocked me–giant vase sponges, sea stars, fish, nemerdians (1-3 foot tape worm looking creatures), ctenophore, jellyfish, and more.


Ask A Scientist: Wildlife

From Tucker High School in Atlanta, Georgia:

What kind of animals live in Antarctica? Do they live there year round?

The only animals that live at McMurdo station year round (except for humans) are the Weddell Seals. They survive the winter by chewing holes in the ice allowing them to have access to air even during the harshest antarctic storms. During the summer months, Adelie Penguins show up as well as Skua. Skua are essentially the southern ocean equivalent of seagulls except they migrate huge distances and are much nicer to look at. They fulfill the important scavenger role in the ecosystem. Later in the year we get more larger marine wildlife, including Minke and Orca whales. Emperor penguins stay to the north of McMurdo proper but occasionally show up as do a few other species of seal, including Crab eater seals. There is way more life than I can describe under the ice and we will show images of that as we continue in our research.

Have a question? Send in your questions to us at!

Ask A Scientist: Food

From Tucker High School in Atlanta, Georgia

What kind of food is available for the scientists to eat at McMurdo Station and where is it grown?

We eat almost entirely food that is flown in or brought in by ship the year (or in some cases many years) before.  The  food is pretty amazing as a whole team of chefs make a diverse array of fresh breads, desserts, meat and veggie options and sides galore.  The real challenge is not eating too much.  Fresh salads are delivered by plane but when no flights come down these disappear from the menu.  Later in the season we will take you on a tour of the Galley and Dining area so you can see first hand.


Have a question? Send in your questions to us at!

Crazy Weather, Cool Toys, and an Ice Helmet

Our first two full days in Antarctica have been amazing. It’s a whole new world down here. The sun and moon skirt across the horizon like they are circling us, instead of rising in the east and passing over head.

The first sunrise didn’t occur until 10 days ago and already the sun is up for 6 hours. Each day gets longer and longer so quickly, I worry we’ll miss our chance to see the aurora australis (a.k.a. the southern lights). Within a month it will be light out almost all day long.

The first day was calm and clear, but still very, very cold. The second day I woke to 30-40 mph winds and a wind chill  of -39°F! To illustrate how cold that is: I squeezed in a short workout in-between some of our safety/survival training and was running a few minutes late.  I did not dry my hair thoroughly or I was still sweating from the workout when I ran out the door to make the next class. I put on my gloves with my hat tucked under my arm as I ran out. When I went to put my hat on mere seconds later, my hair was frozen solid. I freaked out and put the hat on immediately, so there is no photo evidence of my ice helmet.

The science and support staff at McMurdo station is out of this world. I’ve been to a fair amount of field research centers and this place surpasses them all. They have all sorts of high tech science “toys” and fancy equipment here and multiple people to help you use it, too. It’s really remarkable that a place this remote, in such an extreme environment, could run this smoothly. My hat is off to all the scientists and staff… but not for too long because, ya know, my hair might freeze again.

Rory’s welcome to Antarctica

The night before our flight we received word that our departure time had been pushed back and we were not report until noon instead of our original 6:30am. Extra sleep is always nice. We were greeted with an introduction safety video showing some of the wonders and dangers ahead of us. Then things got real as we suited up in our newly issued safety survival gear and gathered with the hundred other support staff and handful of scientist for the final pre-flight briefing. The scene reminded me of the scene in Star Wars: A New Hope where brief the pilots before they attack the Deathstar.

Then it was off to board our flight, a HUGE C17 aircraft. This was my first flight in a military cargo plane and I was blown away by everything. You could have driven a dump trunk inside the cargo hold and still had room left over. The insides were mostly exposed and you could see all the inner piping and wiring making up the skeleton of the C17. Oh, and the seats were great. I had more elbow room and twice as much leg room as any of the previous flights, I wish I could have taken this plane the whole way from the U.S.


Five hours later our flight crew informed us the current temperature and time, negative 31°F and I’m not sure about the time because all I heard was NEGATIVE 31°F! The pilot came on the speakers to welcome us to Antarctica and warn us they intended to take off in 45mins, so the engines were not going to shut down, and we were to turn right upon exiting or risk “items” being sucked into the jet engine. The doors opened and there we were sitting on a giant glacier. WOOO WHOOO!!! There is only a about an hour of light each day this time of year, and it was dark when we landed but I didn’t care. I couldn’t wait to step out a see the first glimpse of Antarctica. The runway was abuzz and all lit up with all the transport vehicles. I was so excited I almost didn’t realize the cold… almost. I was quickly made aware of the cold when the steam from my breath froze on the balaclava I was wearing. We were able to get one quick snap shot on the run way and then rushed into our waiting hagglund, a sort of snow tractor transport to McMurdo Station. The expedition has officially begun.