Date: Wed, 25 Dec 1996 23:48:45 (GMT)
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
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.