March 5: Rare visitor at Palmer Station

The crew at Palmer Station receives a rare visit from royalty as a large adult male Emperor penguin appears in the station’s “backyard.”

Blog post by VIMS graduate student Lori Price

Our days here on station have fallen into a routine—sampling when the weather is good, then sample processing, lab work, and data entry when the weather doesn’t allow us to get out on the Zodiacs.

Changes in our routine, such as the recent crevassing adventure, are a welcome treat and we had another nice surprise yesterday. I woke up yesterday morning and went to the galley for breakfast, ready for a day of monotonous lab work. I checked the white board on the wall, something we all do regularly as it contains pertinent information for people on station and is the most efficient way to spread news quickly. To my surprise, a large note on the white board said “Royal visitor to Palmer Station: Emperor Penguin in the backyard!” (Watch the video.)

Emperor Penguin
Emperor penguin near the glacier behind Palmer Station. The scar on his back is thought to be a healed wound from some kind of attack. Photo by Brian Nelson.

Maggie, one of the scientists on station, had been out in the backyard checking on some of her equipment when she had come across the large bird.

I quickly ate breakfast and prepared for the trek out to the backyard, the rocky area directly behind the buildings on station. We hiked to where the penguin had last been seen and sure enough, he was standing right there in the same spot. It was an incredible sight!

We saw an Emperor penguin last year a couple of hundred meters away from the ship during the cruise down near Charcot Island. But this bird was about 10 feet from us and very easy for even a non-birder to identify.

I asked Marc, one of the birders, if the penguin was lost because Emperors are usually not seen around here. He said that the closest breeding population of Emperors that he is aware of is on the other side of the Antarctic Peninsula. But, from what they’ve seen this year, penguins can travel much farther than he ever thought possible.

The birders have been tracking Adélie penguins with satellite tags, mainly to study their foraging patterns around Palmer Station. However, this year some of the penguins left the area before the birders could remove their tags, which is good and bad. Good because they were able to track several of the penguins that traveled down the Peninsula several hundred kilometers in a matter of days (pretty amazing if you think about it); but bad because they lost several very expensive satellite tags.

Marc isn’t aware of anyone tracking Emperor penguins, but if Adélie penguins are any indication of the traveling ability of penguins, then if the Emperor penguin is off track it might only be off of its course by a few days. In other words, if he is lost he’ll probably be fine and find his way soon, and he certainly didn’t look nervous from what I could tell. He seemed pretty content to stand by himself in the rocks behind station. Apparently he’s still there today, so we’ll see how long he sticks around. If it makes him feel any better, he brought some excitement to our little community.

March 1: An icy cure for cabin fever

The glacier behind Palmer Station is a much-appreciated afternoon retreat and provides a welcome cure for “cabin fever.”

Blog post by VIMS graduate student Kate Ruck

Work at Palmer Station is mainly directed at the marine environment or the dynamics of the many nearby islands that are accessible by Zodiacs within the 2-mile safe boating limit. This can result in some major cases of cabin fever, as the area near station that is accessible by foot is limited to a few square miles of land and glacier in the station’s “backyard.”

GSAR members Bob Devalentino and Paul Queior escort VIMS post-doc Kim Bernard outside of the Glacier's safe zone. Picture by Kate Ruck
GSAR members Bob Devalentino and Paul Queior escort VIMS post-doc Kim Bernard outside of the Glacier's safe zone. Picture by Kate Ruck

The glacier is a much-appreciated afternoon retreat and Raytheon crewmembers carefully mark the path up to the top of the glacier that is safe for foot traffic. The shape of this lane of solid ice is constantly changing throughout the summer season as temperatures warm and ice melts, revealing some potentially dangerous crevasses—cracks in the glacier can be many meters deep.

Most of the danger lies in narrow, deep cracks that are hidden under thin layers of snow or ice. Unsuspecting hikers can plunge through under their own body weight and fall many meters before being stopped by the narrowness of the crack or by a sturdy pile of snow/ice called a snow bridge.

Like everything else at Palmer Station, safety reigns and there is a team called Glacier Search and Rescue (GSAR) that specializes in first aid, crevasse travel/rescue, and first response. They regularly run drills and create potential recue scenarios to familiarize themselves with the glacial terrain; to ensure the gear they use is readily available, neatly stored, and in proper working order; and to sharpen their effectiveness in case a real emergency should ever arise.

Members of the GSAR team lower eager station residents into one of the many crevasses that riddle the glacier behind the station.  Picture by Kate Ruck.
Members of the GSAR team lower eager station residents into one of the many crevasses that riddle the glacier behind the station. Picture by Kate Ruck.

Occasionally the GSAR team will also offer their experience, knowledge, and services to the folks around station who are interested in climbing or want to get some time off of station. Usually once or twice a season, when the weather is particularly nice, a few members of the GSAR team will haul out their rescue gear to host a day of introductory crevassing. It’s a welcome opportunity for everyone to get out of the confines of station and a rare chance for us marine biologists to experience a more terrestrial aspect of Antarctica.

Kim Bernard (our resident post-doctoral researcher) and I were the first group of climbers up the glacier. We met the GSAR guys in the safe zone and then we all donned harnesses and clipped into a sturdy rope for our travel outside the flagged safe zone on the glacier. As we headed out, we organized ourselves into a zig-zag pattern, so that if one person were to fall or have the ground collapse beneath them, the two people on either side would have time to dig into the ground and serve as an anchor to prevent everyone from falling in.

We passed a lot of open crevasses before we found a spot that would be suitable for lowering people in and letting them climb back out. Once there, Kim and I sat down and watched as the guys created three anchor ropes in the ice, set up the necessary belays, and attached crampons to the snow boots we borrowed from the recreation aisle of the station warehouse. I’ve done a little bit of climbing before, but this whole set up was completely new to me and I tentatively took charge on my own rope as I made my way towards the ice edge. There was no reason to worry though, the GSAR team is so competent and experienced that their confidence and clear direction put me at ease and I was repelling myself down the ice wall of the crevasse.

Kim Bernard lowers herself into and ice crevasse in Palmer Station's 'backyard'. Picture by Kate Ruck.
Kim Bernard lowers herself into and ice crevasse in Palmer Station's 'backyard'. Picture by Kate Ruck.

Kim was about 10 feet to my left and we were able to make our way down together, snapping pictures and admiring the huge icicles and remarkable ice ribs that form from melting water falling down the sides and into the crevasse.

Once we were about 60 feet (20 meters) in we were lucky enough to hit a snow bridge that would support our combined weight. The GSAR team set up some belays on the other side of the crevasse, lowered ice picks, and let us try our hand at ice-climbing back out. It was pretty difficult to be the first one up, as we had to clear out a lot of the inferior snow to find strong foot- and handholds with our crampons and ice picks, but after some struggle we both made it to the top.

After some celebration we passed on our crampons and ice picks to the next group of climbers that had made their way up, and then watched their descent, yelling words of encouragement and snapping pictures. Once there was a lull in the climbing, we clipped back into the rope, the GSAR team escorted us back into the glacier’s safe zone, and we made our way back to station.

The members of the GSAR team ended up staying out on the ice from 11 am until 9 pm making sure that all willing parties got their chance on the ice. It was a very generous and valiant effort that we can only hope to return one day.

Video: Exploring a Crevasse