Lori Ross - November 25, 1996

    From: Lori Ross, Palmer Station

(Lori Ross is one of Carol Vleck's research team, studying the reproductive success of Adelie penguins on Torgersen and other nearby islands. These Journal entries come from a series of letters home to family and friends.)

I have not written in a while. As soon as Carol got here the weather turned beautiful. I mean sunny warm days with no wind and no ice! We have only had 2 wind days in these two weeks and I have spent these days in the lab trying to catch up on paper work and data entry. My project is in full swing now. This means I am in the field for 9 hours then in the lab trying to catch up on paper work and data entry. My project is in full swing now. This means I am in the field for 9 hours then in the lab dealing with the samples for 6 more hours. We have to re-suspend the blood to take hematocrit and blood smears and hemoglobin. Then we spin the samples to get the plasma off. Meanwhile, someone is labeling tubes with the appropriate band numbers ( we do this in triplicate). After all the blood work is done, we have to enter our colony data and figure out who we need to bleed the next day. These make for very long days. I usually try to get to sleep around 12:30, but this usually turns into 1 or 1:30.

It is great getting out every day though. I still cannot believe I am in Antarctica. I love this place. There is nothing more beautiful than a clear sunny day here. I have been careful about sunscreen, but I still have a lot more freckles than I used to and I did get blisters on my lower lip when the ozone hole was over us on a sunny day. On these days you can see for miles. The coast is 20 miles away and it looks 2 miles away. I wish the air in the states could be as clean as it is down here. The mountains are incredible, and I cannot begin to describe the sunset/dawn. It does not get dark here any more, but the clouds still turn these tremendous pinks and purples. Sometimes it will turn the glacier pink.

All of these warm days has made for some incredible calving off of the glacier. It sounds like thunder when the ice sloughs off. When I get home and hear a thunder storm, I am going to look around for the calving!

I saw a great one today actually. It looked like a blue ice waterfall and it was incredibly loud. It took two minutes for the wave to hit Torgersen. I would hate to be in a boat when one of these calvings happened. It looks like one whole side of the glacier is about ready to go. I hope I am standing on Torgersen when this happens.

I did get to go out recreational boating one day last week. We went to this place called loudwater cove where lots of calving takes place. It was quiet that night, but still incredibly beautiful. I am going to have so many pictures of ice! I also had someone take a picture of me driving the boat. Proof! We drove around for a while and took some pictures of some seals and penguins on icebergs. Cool National Geographic shots, I hope. We also visited the site of the Bahia Paraiso, the Argentinean cruise ship that sunk in January of 1989. It was a really depressing sight in all of this vast beauty. The sea breaks over the hull and on days when the water is clear you can see more underwater. However, it is a rare day when the water is clear over the Bahia as it is still leaking fuel. They drained all of it that they could, but obviously they did not get it all. I could see the oil on the water and smell diesel in the air. I would much rather spend my time on smelly old Torgersen than smell that any day.

Oh, the reason Torgy smells is the penguins. There is this brown muck all over the island that looks like mud. Unfortunately it is not mud, but penguin guano. Now that the snow is melting, it is really messy over there. The smell is something indescribable. My field clothes are actually covered in the stuff. I wash my hands with a nail brush and lava soap. It works, but I think that is because it takes the first layer of skin off. My fingers are covered with scabs from penguin bites. These birds can be very mean! When they bite, they also beat me with their flippers. They are amazingly powerful. I have bruises all over my wrists and calves from these beatings.

The doctor down here (Ralph) has taken some pictures and he wants to write a paper for publication about penguin trauma. I will get copies of the pictures and show them to my committee (ed. note: presumably for her Ph.D. or post-doctoral study) to show them the pain and suffering I went through to get my data. But, I will also have all of these beautiful pictures of icebergs and penguins and seals and...

Speaking of icebergs, I saw one the night we were recreational boating. I was asking what all the islands we were seeing were called and when I pointed to this relatively small snow-covered island and asked what it was called, it was pointed out to me that it was in fact a very large, flat iceberg! I love being continuously amazed by this continent.

All of the days on the same island tend to get to me. Time does not mean anything anymore. I do not have weekends where I know I do not have to get out of bed until at least 8:00. It is really nice to get a break from the monotony. Like one day last week when a bunch of ASA support staff and scientists went to Dream Island for the day. This is a special treat because this island is 6 miles away from station. That means it has to be an incredibly calm day to take the zodiacs that far. It is a beautiful island with blue-eyed shag ( a cormorant) colonies, chinstrap penguin colonies, and of course Adelie colonies. The day could not have been more perfect. The sky was crystal clear and visibility was superb.

The boat ride over took about an hour, but that includes a few stops for pictures. There were three boats in our convoy and we kept taking pictures of each other. When we finally made it, Carol, Dave and I went straight to work while most everyone else got to play (John, Pete, and Eric were also working). The studies that we do on these remote islands are actually very interesting. We take these birds that presumably have never been exposed to the stress of humans and handling and take blood samples from them at 2, 5, 10, 20, and 30 minutes apart. We are trying to see if the corticosterone levels of these birds (the stress hormone) goes up any faster or slower than it does for the Torgy birds which are exposed to lots of human contact including us, other science (groups), and the tourists.

We are also taking DNA samples from all of our birds and we may do population genetics studies between islands as well as the other planned DNA studies (parentage, cuckoldry, etc.). So after 4 hours of working, I only had an hour to play around. I went over to this cove where the penguins come on shore to watch them arrive. They are so agile in the water. Of course I have witnessed firsthand how strong their flippers are! It is amazing to watch them shoot out of the water. Especially when there is a leopard seal around which there just happened to be. I didn't get a real good view of it, I just saw it chasing penguins out of the water. A couple of weeks before, I saw one eating a penguin. I couldn't see this one really well either as it was pretty far off the shore of Torgersen. There were a lot of birds around the area that were scavenging.

This was the day John, Pete, Eric, Don, and I were on Torgy late to do a little bit of work and we saw this squall coming in. We ran to the boat, loaded it up and were off. The boat was going really slow due to the weight of the people and the ice in the area under the floorboards. We were actually racing the storm home. We saw the islands disappear one by one. We just made onto station when the winds and snow hit. It was really a unique experience.

Anyway, back to my day on Dream. I wandered around and saw the chinny colonies and the cormorant colonies, but then it was time to go. Before we left, I heard a rumor that someone was hurt. When I got back to the boat, I found out that it was Randy or "Random" as we all know him. He had tried to slide down this very large hill (just like the 5 people before him) and cut his left butt cheek open. The wound actually required 15 stitches...

Randy has not been our only medical emergency here unfortunately. When the Duke came in there were many sick people (as usual), but there was one case that was worse than the rest. It turned out that a girl who was supposed to be on the cruise this month had appendicitis. So that Saturday was very busy for some people. The British base Rothera has a plane and agreed to come and get Ally. After this, she flew back to Rothera, got into a second plane with full fuel and was flown to King George Island, the closest place with a landing strip. The twin prop had to land on the glacier here at Palmer. It was very strange to hear the sound of a plane again. The people at Rothera were under no obligation to do this and we are very grateful to them.

This place has really changed me. I find myself becoming more confident in my abilities and willing to try new things more often. Carol has helped a lot in these respects. I also find myself not missing home as much as I used to. I have so many people to talk to and I am always busy that I just don't have time to miss it.

Well, last Thursday was Thanksgiving. Just another field day for me. We had our dinner on Friday. Everyone got dressed up and brought over a bottle of wine. They had table cloths and candles on the table. The food was really great! All the traditional fixings. Don and Mark made it look so easy. The leftovers are gone already.

On Sunday we had the first annual Palmer Pentathlon. Five teams of five competed in a number of events. These events included three people pulling two people on a sled, skiing up the glacier, snow shoeing down the glacier, and rowing a Zodiac around a buoy in the inlet. The entire day was great. I don't think I have laughed so much in my life. First of all, this girl Janice fell down while pulling the sled. Do you think her team mates stopped for her? No Way! They just kept running with her trailing along behind. The ski up the glacier was hilarious too. This guy Craig kept trying to ski, but the spot that he was in was very icy so he kept slipping backwards. Finally he took the skis off and ran up. He tried to fool everyone at the top by putting them back on right before he got to the finish line. My team did really well in the skiing part and snow shoeing, but we really lost it in the boat race. I think we had the strong people on the wrong side. Anyway, our time was twice as long as the other team's time, but we went twice as far as we were supposed too. I have it all on video and it is hilarious to watch. Oh, I was on a team with Carol, Wild Bill (the carpenter here), Sid, and Kirt ( an under grad from University of Arizona). We came in third overall. Not too bad. We all had a great time which is the important part.

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