Deane Rink - December 25, 1996

    From: Deane Rink, aboard the R/V Polar Duke

(Deane is Video Producer and leader of the LFA 2 field team.)


Santa Claus Island

Brief stopover at Rothera, long enough to drop off six mesoscale radar array workers and to have us herded into Rothera store where I managed to drop $60 on esoteric t-shirts and baseball caps (Ever hear of the "Rothera Rangers"?) and BAS first-day covers featuring Captains Cook and Scott. As it was Xmas Eve, nobody wanted to do anything more than horse-trade, but I finally got to see a base I've been trying to get to for years; one of the most spectacular settings on the Peninsula, marred by an ugly long stone runway that handles the Rothera fleet of Twin Otters and the military DeHaviland flights from the Falklands (perhaps I should say Malvinas, since there are Chileans and Argentines aboard this vessel, who may be lurking over my shoulder) that carry in their heavy equipment.

How a base that has less than 100 people on it rates an aircraft hangar when McMurdo with over 1000 and infinitely more plane traffic, and with bigger birds, has none, is a mystery known only to the gods and the NSF. Anyway, at the end of Rothera's runway sits an immense grounded iceberg that has been there for years, and that serves as grim reminder of a 1994 Twin Otter crash that killed five or six people and occurred because the plane was so heavily loaded that it couldn't generate the required lift to take it over the iceberg in time. It was that I had in mind as I watched two Twin Otters take off and circle round to buzz us ("Just showin' off, mates!") before they went their merry ways to outlying field camps.

I have trouble understanding all this till Julian, my East Ender guide whose every third word is barely comprehensible, mentions, sans accent in my rendition, that the sea lanes to Rothera freeze every other austral summer, making sea resupply dodgy at best, as he points up to the huge piedmont glacier that dominates the base and says, "That's where we used to land the planes till the runway was installed six years ago." Julian hasn't left Rothera in twenty months and has two more to go on his contract, and actually prefers the winters when the base winnows its population down to 15, so I'm not quite sure what to make of him or his stories.

I do sight a silvery new bioscience lab there and realize that the British Antarctic Survey will be soon poised to give Palmer a run for its money in the marine biology areas, a new development, since Rothera is primarily known for atmospherics and geophysics... Now it's on to our mission, the replacement of an Automated Weather Station that had been installed two years ago on Santa Claus Island. We think the island will be deserted since we will be doing the reinstallation on Christmas Day, and Santa Claus usually gathers his Northern Hemisphere frequent flyer miles in that time frame. We hope Donner and Blitzen, his lead penguins, have at least left some of their families around, as Santa Claus Island is a reputed breeding ground for Gentoos and Chinstraps, two species of penguin I have yet to experience up close and in the wild.

 

El Duko Polare sets anchor a few hundred yards off Santa's isle. At least ten attempts at landing by zodiac on this rocky outcrop have been made over the last few months, but all have failed, as this island has no natural landing site. It is as forbidding to ships as Pitcairn's Island, but this Christmas Day is sunny and clear, and the waters are calm. Hopes run high.

The zodiac is dropped overboard and the first contingent outboards to our putative landing site. The rest of us await, dressed in out float coats and yellow rubber pants and boots. The zodiac returns with just the operator and Marine Projects Coordinator, so we know the first wave has landed. We climb down the rope ladder and pile in, and are swiftly ferried over to the same rock cliff where the first group awaits. I see Scott on the rock cliff, filming our arrival. Gary, the zodiac operator, rams the rubber inflatable boat into the rock, and Al, M.P.C., throws a line ashore. It is secured and we clamber onto this algae-infested, slippery rock. We off-load our equipment and load it onto a banana sled, starting the long haul up the snow-covered ridge to where the weather station awaits. When we get on the island's summit, perhaps 200 feet above sea level, we look around and see Hugo Island across the way, and the redness of the Polar Duke out in the bay. White snow-capped mountains in the distance, it looks like Everest-by-the-sea. And Santa has been generous. Every rock outcropping, including the one on which the Automated Weather Station has been erected, teems with Gentoos and Chinstraps, all guarding their rock nests and sitting on two eggs each.

We see why the weather station has ceased to function. The 12-foot-high frame has been bent by what must have been hurricane-force winds, and the propeller for the wind vane has been sheared off and is eventually located, in three non-repairable parts, 100 feet away among the gentoos. The electronics wizards begin their repair and replacement, and Scott and I roam the 500-yard-long island, paying nest visits to small colonies of these two distinctive species of penguin. We watch and shoot them nesting and stealing rocks from one another and braying like mules, and nervously spying skuas who glide noiselessly overhead. Every once in a while, a bird will stand up from the nest and re-arrange the rocks that surround the eggs, but it takes us over an hour to catch one doing that while we are ready to tape the activity.

I spy a group of silently-sitting Giant Petrels down a small glacier from where we are, and Scott grabs them with the long lens, though they don't seem to be as active or as nervous as the penguins. The place is permeated with the aroma of partially-digested krill, stained with red and orange krill parts that have somehow encouraged the lichens and algae to give the rocks a dappled hue. We walk three or four steps away from Gentoo and Chinstrap nests, and the birds do not move, do not fear us, and even watch with gentle curoisity as the scientists and constructions people rebuild the weather station.

About two hours into the island visit, Santa returns! He is being drawn by a human in a banana sled, complete with red coat and white long beard and hair. He carries a blue velvet bag, but unceremoniously falls off the sled as the bumps in the snow make his ride rougher than it earlier had been on rafts of air. Our Santa is Tony Amos, a London-born oceanographer who is now a U.S. citizen residing in Texas, the technician in charge of maintaining this array of weather stations that dot the Antarctic. This is his 33rd visit south of the Antarctic Circle, and the velvet bag contains a nice Chilean Chardonnay, Tony's way of thanking the hard-working troops who have fixed his station by volunteering to work on Christmas Day.

We pause an extra hour to film the Chinstraps with as much attention to detail as we had earlier gotten with the Gentoos. Then it's back into the zodiac and back to the Duke, where a proper Christmas feast awaits. Everybody has worked up an appetite, but no one is prepared for turkey and a whole roasted pig, ice sculpture featuring birds and exotic flowers made out of fruits, five different desserts including a Chilean specialty on which rum is poured and lit ("Baked Antarctica"!!!) and a custard laced with Gran Marnier. A Christmas to remember on Santa Claus island!

We silently hope that the Captain will choose the Lemaire Channel to sail back to Palmer, because it is a million-dollar ride, scenery not to be believed, with almost-guaranteed close encounters of the cetacean kind likely. But the captain shakes his head. In Norwegian, this doesn't necessarily mean "No." Most likely, it means "I'll think about it and look at the chart. We'll see, Ja, we'll see." One last Xmas gift, Father Karl, and Tusen Takk for the holidaze.

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