Success on the Antarctic Peninsula
22 February 2014
Dan McGrath, Resident Scientist, Earth Vision Institute
The faint glow of the soon to be rising sun welcomes our arrival as we nose into Andvord Bay on the western Antarctic Peninsula. We passed unscathed through the Drake Passage thanks to calm conditions and quickly motored south to 64˚ 50’. Here, the glaciers literally fall off the mountains around us, with cascading icefalls and crumbling seracs lining the mirror calm waters of the un-charted inner Neko Harbor. Adélie penguins playfully wander around on a small iceberg near the ship and in the distance, ripples emanate from the minke whale that just surfaced. The Captain wakes us from our near dream state to notify us that the zodiac is being lowered on the starboard side and it’s time to load our equipment.
As we pull ashore, the sun peeks out from behind the spine of the peninsula, with golden rays bathing the highest peaks down to the ice-choked bays. Gentoo penguin chicks encased in their fluffy down jackets chase their sleek ocean worthy parents around, hoping for another krill meal. We know we only have a few hours to deploy our first two cameras, but it’s hard to pull ourselves away from this shoreline and the nearly overwhelming sensory overload it presents. When we finally manage to, we steadily trudge up the snow slope with heavily laden packs, the batteries seemingly gaining weight by the step. Odd shaped aluminum towers, tripod arms and camera housings awkwardly protrude from our loads. We reach the first crest and in the distance, silhouetted against the glacier’s calving front is a narrow rock rib. The team agrees that this is our spot and starts a rising track to reach this point. The main structure is quickly bolted into place; taut guy wires quickly follow, ensuring that our cameras survive the brutal wind and snow that will soon punish them. Next up are the solar panels and batteries, quickly followed by the two camera housings. James intuitively arranges the housings, aligning the Nikon D3200’s point of view to match our envisioned expectations. The crackle of the VHF radio brings a reminder that the ship will be pulling anchor in 45 minutes and well, we better be there! With a final push of the “Test” button, Matt waits for the reassuring “Click” of the shutter before snapping the cases closed. We snap a few final photos of the installation, quickly repack our tools and scamper down the slippery slope towards the landing. We board the zodiac and push through the thick brash ice towards the National Geographic Explorer with barely a few minutes to spare.
Back onboard, we frantically charge our drill and camera batteries, while simultaneously scarfing down lunch. In what seems like ten minutes, Lisa, the Expedition Leader, announces that we’ll be dropping anchor in Orne Harbor shortly, where we hope to install an additional camera this afternoon. We repack our bags and rush down to the loading hatch, where the zodiac already awaits us. We pile the gear high and head to shore. The local welcoming committee, a rather gregarious group of fur seals, momentarily squabbles about our presence before resuming their afternoon nap. Up the hill we go again, with the late afternoon sun pouring down on us. We reach a rocky ridge 500 ft above the bay, where we turn left up a steep ridgeline. The glacier pours down the valley in the near distance, full of deep blue shades, sharp cracks and wonderful shapes. This site is a bit trickier—an exposed perch precipitously hanging over what feels to be the ocean. Matt and I establish an anchor and quickly get to work. The wall mount goes up, the guy wires go out, the solar panels get bolted on; our patient eyes quickly begin to take shape. Matt runs through the final checks again and before long, we’re latching the case closed.
Walking down to the boat, with the sun just starting to dip low in the sky, it’s hard to believe that the alarm at 4:30 am was actually earlier today—it truly feels like it could have been a week ago. The past 14 hours have been incredible; a day filled with alpenglow light, breaching whales, warm mid-day sun, curious penguins, and cascading glaciers—all capped by three cameras now capturing a visual record of the world around them. There’s no time to rest though, tomorrow is another opportunity and we’re currently organizing our equipment and charging our batteries for two more installations. Fingers crossed that the good weather continues!