Pass the bag, chum

After tearful hugs goodbye I bid adieu to Anne and Sylvestre yesterday, hopped in my rented Toyota Corolla and tried to keep left on the winding coastal highway north from Christchurch to Kaikoura, stopping to investigate the braided shingle riverbeds of northern Canterbury for a few of the birds that specialize in this niche habitat. Black fronted tern and Banded Dotterel, both endemic to New Zealand, were easy to find, as was Southern Pied Oystercatcher. Wrybill, a small wading bird unique in the avian world for having an asymmetrical bill, remained elusive. I'll have to try for that on the road south. Bored yet?

Kaikoura at Sunrise

Kaikoura is an oceanic nature-lover's paradise, because here the offshore underwater topography is remarkable. Perhaps nowhere else in the world does the edge of the continental shelf butt up so close against the land. As all enthusiasts of marine wildlife know, the transition zone where the deep waters beyond the shelf collide and intermingle with shallows of the coastal slope, is immensely rich. With fish and krill and shrimps and what have you. All around the world this zone of the ocean is where pelagic sea-going birds concentrate. In New York the continental shelf lies offshore about 80 miles to the east, which is why albatrosses and their smaller cousins are never seen in New York harbor. But at Kaikoura the shelf shelves off just one mile from the New Zealand shore. That's why I came here. A fifteen minute ride in a small powerboat gets you to the land of whales, dolphins and seabirds galore.

The Wandering Albatross has an ass as big as a swan and can travel hundreds and even possibly thousands of miles in a day on the wings that are folded in this picture.

At six this morning, seven of us eager amateur naturalists, already clutching our binoculars with fevered anticipation, piled into a minivan for the short ride around to Kaikoura's south bay, where we boarded a twin outboard cruiser. With me on board was a hardcore British twitcher on his last day of an intensive all-birds three week trip around New Zealand, with nothing left to see. He was only looking for one species to add to his list, Buller's Shearwater, a blue-gray gull-sized seabird that swoops and soars over the open Pacific. A German couple, wearing identical, matching blue and red anoraks, the way middle-aged German couples always seem to, had telephoto lenses and video cameras at the ready, but didn't seem particularly birdy. Three young dutch ornithologists rounded out the party. They began oohing and aahing with pleasure just minutes after we launched, when the first massive Wandering Albatross wheeled by to check us out. These birds have the broadest wingspan of any species on earth--wingtip to wingtip on an average adult bird measures between nine and ten feet. That is more than a third of our boat's length. They are quite literally awesome. A moment later before we were anywhere that could be considered out of the harbor, a Buller's Shearwater zipped past. "That's it then, I can go home now," said the Brit. "Lovely."

Five minutes later Alistair, our captain, came back to the stern to release some chum, a frozen block of fish offal in a mesh bag that we proceeded to trail a few feet behind the boat. In seconds the massive Wanderers swept in to land like glider-sized gulls, settling onto the surface of the sea four or five feet away from us in the churning wake. More than a dozen Northern Giant Petrels, almost as big, but grotty and ungainly, the hunchback of Notre Dame of seabirds, flew in to join them. Then came a handful of Salvin's Albatrosses. A New Zealand White Capped Albatross, which may or may not be a separate species from the Salvin's, came in to join the aggressive maelstrom of mammoth-beaked gigantor birds pecking mercilessly at the chunk of fish guts bobbing behind us. At times the plunging assault of dozens of seabirds coming in to investigate us filled the sky until we resembled Tippi Hedren under attack, except that most of the birds arriving to visit us had wingspans the length of my rental car. It was a truly amazing spectacle of which I took some spectacularly mediocre photographs. That this was all happening not only within sight of land, but with miles and miles of New Zealand's splendid mountains stretched out above the beach behind us, was truly mind-blowing.

Sack o' fish guts at end of rope...

Off our bows, a sperm-whale tooted and sprayed, blasting its misty breath into the air before it breached. Westland and White Chinned Petrels appeared, and a multitude of Cape Pigeons. I know it's terribly tedious to read about, but this is the sort of thing I do for fun. Suddenly, amidst the gaggle of snapping Northern Giant Petrels appeared a Southern Giant Petrel, identical in all respects except that the curved nail at the tip of its bill is tinged greenish-yellow rather than reddish-yellow as on the nail of the Northern. I'm not kidding. Telling these two birds apart, in flight, at more than about ten feet, would be essentially impossible, but luckily ours were swimming around our bag of stink in a froth of feeding, so close to the boat that I could barely focus the binoculars on them. It was a great morning. 2590, if you know what I mean.

See the muddy-reddish tinge to the bill tip?

Stunningly blurry Southern Giant Petrel. Note the green tint to the nail at the tip of the bill. Or just take my word for it.

The Last Supper

Todo tiene su final
Nada dure para siempre
Tenemos que recordar
Que no existe 'eternidad

--Hector Lavoe

Tuesday night Whiskey-218 went out for a last fine meal together, at Saggio di Vino in Christchurch, marking the indisputable and bittersweet end to an epic filmshoot, much the longest on-location tournage in which I've yet been involved. It is sad to think that Whiskey-218, which was our call sign on the McMurdo radio waves, will never again check out for a Pisten Bully jaunt across the frozen Ross Sea. Never again will we call MacOps from deep in the dry valleys to ask them for the helicopter schedule or just to tell them that all is well. In essence, Whiskey-218 ceased to exist yesterday, when I hugged Anne and Sylvestre goodbye in the parking lot of a budget car-rental outfit along the road to the Christchurch airport. Our trio, after so long, disbanded. In the way of film shoots and the freelance existence, it may well be that Anne and Sylvestre and I never work together as a unit again; it is even likely that only on the rarest of occasions will we three find ourselves again in the same place at the same time. What a strange thought, after spending more than four months as inseparably joined as it seems plausible to imagine any threesome ever being.

Through it all we got along remarkably well, avoiding tension and strife like Inuits, accepting one another's quirks, arrogancies and eccentricities with patience and an ongoing spirit of cooperation. Sure, we had our moments of strife and misunderstanding, but they were rare, brief and soon forgotten. The idea of going back to my regular life in Brooklyn after such an intense and icy experience seems odd, and seems to me to hold the promise of an even greater culture shock than I have experienced when returning from other lengthy shoots in Haiti, or Rwanda or the Philippines. I don't envy Anne and Sylvestre, who flew straight home yesterday and must already be on the ground, in New York and Montreal, wondering what it's all about. At least for myself I have arranged a lengthy decompression period here in the slightly familiar but still wacky world of Southern Hemisphere white people. But it is strange just to be alone.

Syl and Anne, I wish you both a smooth and painless re-entry into what passes for society on the urban eastern seaboard.

The disbanding of W-218 should also mean the logical end of antarcticiana, the blog. It was, after all, created with the sole intent of updating friends, relatives and the curious as to the various adventures encountered during the production of a film in Antarctica. But the pleasure I felt when it became clear that a few of you were actually reading it immeasurably relieved the sense of solitude and isolation it is possible to feel in Antarctica. The blog has proved to be an invaluable goad to keeping me writing, and a forum in which I felt free to experiment with all sorts of styles of written communication, from the pompous and self-involved to the ridiculous. I hope here and there across the vast diaspora of antarcticiana readers some chuckles have now and again been chuckled, but it doesn't really matter, because I have laughed uproariously throughout. There are in-jokes buried in here that are so "in" that I am quite certain only I actually got them. Luckily, as my father pointed out to me years ago, I have cultivated "an infinite capacity for self-amusement." Not to mention that in four months I earned $19.80 referring hapless link-clickers to the Amazon superstore....

So for the time being I think I will continue. We'll just drop the "in Antarctica" bit and consider this the ongoing chronicle of the adventures of a sound recordist. At the moment, I'm on vacation, which means I am birdwatching. If you think that's a bore, lose my URL, chumpy. But check back in mid-February, when I leave for Easter Island to begin my next job.

Whiskey-218 enjoying some fine New Zealand Pinot Noir


R.I.P. James, minister of the heavy, heavy funk

When Sylvestre, Anne and I were spending every waking moment together in Antarctica we took a sort of gruesome pleasure in torturing each other with the endless repetition of little snatches of song. This wasn't intentional at first, and I suspect that many of us, in our daily solitary lives, hum bits and ditties to ourselves during the course of the day, getting away with it, as it were, because we don't generally live densely crushed together like fish in a school. But out there we recognized every familiar quirk in one another before, as it were, anyone had even had time to wipe the sleep out of their eyes in the morning. Anne and Sylvestre both had some truly awful snatches of french popular chansons that they tormented me with. Crammed in our communal cooktent day after day, it wasn't long before I grew to immediately recognize these abysmal numbers almost before the first note had been hummed.

In return I sang endless loops of Cuban standards and other premium quality funky material from my repertoire. One was particularly popular, especially with Sylvestre, and became something like the socialist anthem of the shoot. This was James Brown's "Funky President," which, aside from begining with one of the most devastatingly rump-shaking funk-oozing drum breaks in the history of beats, also lays it on thick with the afro-self-empowerment that made James so titanic.

"We gotta get together, buy some land,
Plant our food, just like the man,
Save our money, like the mob,
Buy the factory, and own the job"

Why we went around singing this endlessly while camped on a snowy, windswept plateau is one of the eternal mysteries. But the point is that James was and is everywhere. He damn near single-handedly invented funk. Contemporary rock and roll music would scarcely exist without his mountainous influence. He was the first musician to conclude that every instrument in the r+b arsenal, from guitars, to saxophones and trumpets, should be considered percussion and played primarily with a concern for rhythm. Without this innovation the last thirty years of disco, house, rap, jungle and any other forms of dance music (outside the latin world) you care to consider would in no way resemble the music I have loved since I was a child. James was a master of immeasurable influence and energy. Ripped off by everyone from David Bowie to the Beastie Boys (and that's just a couple of the B's) James just laughed, knowing that nobody could entertain like he could. He was the supreme minister of the heavy heavy funk, the black president, the a.a.b.b. (the above average black band, his parody of the average white band...), the sex machine, black ceasar, an African potentate ruling over a world nonetheless commercially dominated by funkless white rockers soullessly looting the history of black American music.

And if you don't know, now you know.


Merry Christmas, and would you pass some of that delicious mushroom stuffing, please?

...but it's not as deadly as phalloides

I've always been a fan of plants, but spending four months in Antarctica, where none save a few microscopic lichens live, has raised my appreciation of them to a new level. This now seems obvious just from looking over my last two posts, but I'm not sure that I had quite twigged just how deprived of greenery I felt on the icey continent until this morning, when we once again found ourselves standing in the jungle, filming the wind as it rustled in the foliage.

A card-carrying treehugger, I love the idea that plants have minds of their own, so it was with interest that I stumbled on a copy of Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird's The Secret Life of Plants a couple of days ago, at a rather shabby books-for-a-dollar table sale in a mildewed masonic hall here in Opotiki. Somewhere in the deep recesses of the brain I seem to be able to dredge up something to do with this book; it must have passed through my consciousness around the time it was a bestseller in 1973, when I was nine years old and Nixon's people were rampaging through the Watergate Hotel. I suspect the book sold well because it is full of information that, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s, was just too delicious not to be believed. Plants, according to Tompkins and Bird, clearly demonstrate a capacity for Extra-Sensory Perception, and they show empathy. They display grief at the death or maiming of neighboring plants and animals, and even in response to the loss of any tiny quantity of living cells by whatsoever a fellow organism.

This is the book that propounded the delightful idea that plants flourish when played Brahms; they enjoy abundant growth under the influence of the melodious tones of classical music but wither and hunker down when subjected to hard rock. Plants, the authors contend in their introduction, "have now been found to be able to distinguish between sounds inaudible to the human ear, and color wavelengths such as infra-red and ultra-violet, invisible to the human eye." They are, in their peacefulness, tranquility and ability to communicate wordlessly, far superior to we humans. This euphoria at the exceptional qualities of plants must have been short-lived, for the convinced would have felt awfully guilty about eating the friendly and sympathetic carrots and potatoes from their gardens. Presumably already vegetarian, those readers wary of eating sentient beings would after reading this scientific account have had little nourishment to turn to apart from rocks and sand.

I would love always to believe, like santeros and vodouists do, that shrubs and trees and herbs are the repositories of long-passed souls, homes for spirits from whom permission must be sought before harvesting their berries or lumber or leaves. I would love to believe what is said in Cuba, that in the middle of the night in Camaguey gigantic ceiba trees uproot themselves and wander through the forest, meeting in gangs for midnight gossip parties. I would love to believe that plants isolated by lead-lined laboratory walls nonetheless communicate with one another through space and feel pain at the suffering of the other. But it would be remiss of me not point out that Tompkins and Bird's contentions were discarded as pure bunkum and unadulterated horsepucky just as soon as some real scientists with a bit of free time got around to trying to replicate the results of the duo's principal source, "America's foremost lie-detector examiner," Clee Backster, a guy who in an idle moment had attached his polygraph machine to a potted plant in his office in Times Square and made a deep spiritual and electrical connection with the vegetable world. To make a long story short, The Secret Life of Plants is nothing but proto-new-age twaddle. But a pleasant diversion nonetheless. And cheap, at one Kiwi buck.

The psychoactive, and therefore mystical properties of plants cannot be denied, even if Tompkins and Bird's attempts to attribute to them an extensive intellectual life now reads as rather exuberant. This morning on the floor of a plantation of majestic conifers I found growing mushrooms, reminding me of another book, published just about the same time as The Secret Life of Plants, a massive volume which I recall my father buying and reading with great enthusiasm. This was Robert Gordon Wasson's Soma, the Divine Mushroom of Immortality a prototype for the sort of exhaustive investigation of a natural product or substance since made popular by Mark Kurlansky (the fabulous Cod, which explores the role of that fish in centuries of the world's economic development, and Salt, which made George W.'s publicized reading list, a list I tend to imagine being the product of a nice long afternoon of brainstorming by a group of image consultants--there will be a quiz at the end of your term, George).

Amanita muscaria aka the fly agaric aka "the divine mushroom of immortality" aka Soma aka "the monk's pee will set you free"

If I remember correctly, Soma was Wasson's life's work, hundreds of self-published pages of painstakingly researched and meticulously annoted investigation into a single species of mushroom, the horribly poisonous and spectacularly hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric. Despite our tender ages I remember my father sharing the book's more exotic observations with my sister and me. I was fascinated to learn that an entire caste of buddhist monks had trained themselves to eat the poisonous soma, painstakingly developing antibodies to the toxins so that their monk brethren might enjoy the psychedelic effects of the 'shroom by drinking the resulting urine, still full of the psychoactive substance, but stripped of the poisonous component by the hard-working livers of their elders. This was around the same time that my father was calling on his pre-internet contacts worldwide in what proved to be a successful quest to obtain a supply of fresh ox-gall (I believe this to be the liquid that in its natural state one would find contained within the gall-bladder of a male bovine), an ingredient crucial to the creation of authentic marbled endpapers as used in bookbinding in centuries prior to the one in which you were born. Dad's persistence and follow-through in the matter of the ox-gall (I remember a small glass bottle sitting in the under-the-stairs cupboard and glossy sheets of paper touching down lightly on a swirling liquid surface of multi-hued inks) has always made me wonder whether he ever managed to find a soma-chomping monk willing to part with some pee. Today of course, it's much easier: there's eBay.

I'm hoping Dad will step forward at this point and give his opinion, in the comments section, as to whether or not my identification of this fungus, known, I believe, from each and every one of the continents save Antarctica, is correct.

Don't try this at home

And a very Merry Christmas to everyone; I wish I was with you all, wherever you are!


Festooned With Epiphytes

We've flown up to the North Island, where we are experiencing post-partum Antarctic depression in a rented beach house in a place called Opotiki. Just over a low row of dunes, massive surf crashes onto an endless, driftwood strewn beach devoid of humanity. Kelp gulls cruise above the churning salty waves and dusty black oystercatchers patrol the sand, screaming in outrage when they feel you approach too close to their nests. Our friend Helen, who is spending her first season in Antarctica cooking for 1100 people at McMurdo Station, built this house with her ex-boyfriend Grant, before fleeing to the ice. He turns out to be a great guy, she's a great woman, and they spent four happy years together living in a shack amongst avocado trees while building the beach house; there must be a sad story in there somewhere that neither of them have told me yet. In any event, things are still cozy enough between them that she hooked us up to stay in her delightful former beach bungalow, a simple and tasteful three bedroom modern a stone's throw from the beach.

Grant the jungle guide

Endemic palm which makes its tree-rings on the outside, one per year

Moist and Green and Squelchy

Our goal is to decompress and also film some lush, wet landscapes of the sort that one dreams of when trapped in the piercingly dry, frosty and plantless wilds of Antarctica. With this in mind we spent the day tramping around Grant's avocado orchard and then driving up Motu Rd. into a rainforest reserve clogged with dripping green fern trees and jungle palms, their trunks matted and clotted with thick layers of epiphytic waterlogged mosses, vines and growths of every description. As anyone who knows me well can attest, these are the sorts of environments that I spend all my hard-earned ducats and leisure time flying off to experience "between jobs," so getting paid to tramp about in these claustrophobic green cathedrals of the New Zealand forest is essentially a dream come true. I recorded rain gusting down onto the leaves, bellbirds singing their watery, flute-like song, packs of grey warblers marauding through the bush, waterfalls, and the raging torrent of the Tiwaiti stream coursing through the Urutawa forest. I saw life birds number 2576, 2577 and 2578 today, all in the course of completing my duties. For those of you rubes who are totally out of it, "life bird" means "first sighting ever of that species by me in my lifetime," meaning as of today, since I first caught the ornithological cancer in December of 1976, I've seen 2578 species of birds, worldwide. But who's counting? (For the record, today's birds were Tomtit, Tui, and Weka, all endemic to New Zealand, where many of the birds retain their original Maori names). I realize I may lose some of you if antarcticiana morphs into a birding blog, but at the moment we are struggling to understand our place in the world, now that we have left the ice and are back in it.

I've been practicing my pornographic photography techniques

The director, "hungryman" and "hairyman," in the heart of darkness


It smells like we're not in Kansas any more...

This morning, while sitting beside a pond carpeted green with lily pads, a trio of fresh, downy ducklings motoring happily across the tranquil water, I felt a sharp pain in my left hand. Looking down, I found a mosquito there, latched on and sucking blood out of me like a miniature oil derrick. I was stunned to see it, and It was a long moment before human instinct surged up, dredged from my distant pre-ice life, and I swatted the insect into a black smear along the length of my finger. We are back in the world again.

Many were the ice-people who told us that one of the most remarkable things about getting off of Antarctica was the diversity and abundance of the smells. Phil claims to distinguish by scent between a dozen varieties of grasses whose odors he detects wafting on the breeze, all in the few steps between descending from the stairway of the C-17 and the rush across the tarmac through the glass terminal doors towards New Zealand immigration. I wanted this experience of heightened sensitivity, but I smelled nothing on my way back into New Zealand except the acrid blast of jet-fuel, soon followed by a cloying cloud of manufactured scent hovering about the vicinity of the duty-free shop. It was only when, after having declared a few teabags and stray granola bars, I cleared customs and was charging across the parking lot, luggage cart swaying with a load of never-again-to-be-worn (by me) Extreme Cold Weather gear, that the scent of blossoms and juniper smashed me in the face like a squash racquet. I stopped and sniffed the air like a bloodhound, only to be almost rear-ended by another luggage cart hurtling headlong towards the Clothing Distribution Center to return its cargo. No time for stopping and smelling the flowers. I was unsure. Was I passing a particularly fragrant bush? Or were my senses really more acute?

Inside the CDC the orderly piles of twin orange bags that had greeted us on our departure were nowhere to be seen. Instead the unwashed filthy fabric of countless Antarctic voyagers was piled into great stinky mountains on the floor. Men in blue coveralls with clipboards wandered the crowd. I unzipped my orange bags and yes, then I smelled it! Months of funk, perspiration and the bitter captured fumes of Coleman stove exhaust. Dueling bags of reek. Finally I corralled one of the uniformed clothes-handlers and he read out from his list the items I had been loaned upon leaving so very long ago, in August. The manky remnants of my issue, short one pair of gloves and a fleece aviator's cap, joined the growing pile. I said goodbye to my Big Red, the world's warmest coat.

In the city, I smelled little. Certainly the breeze was balmy and it was thrilling to feel a wind that did not inspire an immediate bulking up of layers, a cinching of hoods and a pulling on of gloves. But I had been led to believe that my reinvigorated nose, unused for so long, would be able to detect and isolate a waft of fresh-cut pandanus leaf blown all the way from Tonga. Or identify a dozen cuts of sushi as to species in the brief moment it took to walk past a Japanese restaurant. Know from its fragrance that the bottle of wine uncorked three tables away was an organic Grunerveltliner, vintage '98.

I went to the "aromatic" plantation in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. I am a big fan of Botanical Gardens. They are the last surviving manifestation of the "Cabinet of Curiosities" and the Victorian mania for cataloguing, collecting and displaying the natural world. All of which, of course, was a subset of the "Heroic age of Exploration" of Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen and all the other arctic explorers, orchid-fanciers, egg-blowers, phrenologists and kiwi stuffers. Christchurch has magnificent botanical gardens, with an epic greenhouse in bombastic Victorian style, like that of Kew, orgiastic rose plantations, exotica, gravel paths and lily ponds. I sniffed the air, still unsure whether months on the ice, where everything is chilled down below the olfactory threshold, had intensified my sense. Rose, and jasmine and pine filtered in through my nostrils. Fresh turned earth and musty willow. Amazing scents, which I appreciated as if for the first time. It didn't matter, I realized, whether my sense of smell had improved or not--never before had I concentrated so hard on sniffing, so badly did I want to believe that I had been deprived, and in that deprivation strengthened. I wandered from rose to rose, thrusting my nose in and imagining that I detected subtle differences in their bouquets.


Is there anything to do in the "real" world other than shop?

Yesterday at 10:15 AM we loaded onto the now-famous "Ivan the Terra-Bus" and shuttled out to the Pegasus blue-ice runway, where we had touched down almost exactly four months ago. After about an hour of milling around on the ice under bright blue skies and a straining sun someone spotted the inbound C-17 off in the northern sky and we all trooped around the pallets of cargo like mutton, trying to get a view. Only one forklift was available to unload their cargo and then reload ours, so it was another two hours of standing on the ice, a herd of enormous red parkas, before we were finally able to collect our last McMurdo sack lunches and clamber aboard, wearing our bulky ECW boots for the last time. An uneventful 4 hours and 45 minutes later we were landing in New Zealand.

Christchurch appears to be a riot of commerce; After checking in to our hotel I wandered down Colombo St. looking for a late night snack, turning back about where the shopping district gives way to cut-rate electronics stores, Khmer noodles shops and lingerie parlors hawking garish Christmas panty-sets. This morning banks are bustling, there is traffic in the streets and suddenly I am back in civilization. I'm off to the botanical gardens to smell the flowers.


Shackleton Sat Here

I don't have time to do justice to our fabulous final jaunt here in Antarctica; we have been scrambling for days to get out of McMurdo. Packing cameras for cargo flight, boxing up videotapes, doing laundry, returning mountains of camping gear and uneaten granola bars, and trying to prepare psychologically for our departure tomorrow have left little time to write about Cape Royds. The best I can manage at the moment is a photo essay.

Where's my nest?

How deep is that crevasse, do you think?

Doing the "Egg Roll"

Allan Ashworth, Kelly Gorz, Andrew Podoll and Anne, Sylvestre and I flew out to Cape Royds on Monday to film the geology party on a day of R and R, visiting Ernest Shackleton's hut there. Shackleton and his men set up camp in the midst of an Adelie penguin colony, thereby assuring themselves a plentiful blubber hunt. The colony still thrives, despite those depredations. Before we began filming we walked up to view the penguins and have a look around, and in the meanwhile another film crew arrived. If you are expecting Brad Pitt to show up at the opening of his latest movie in New York it is not surprise to find a bunch of other camera crews on the scene, but it was rather a shock to come upon the competition in the wilds of Antarctica. They had arrived from the Kiwi's Scott Base, in a Hagglunds, a vehicle rather like a Pisten Bully dragging a passenger car, which has the advantage of floating if it falls through the ice. I approached the sound man, here pictured on the right, just behind the camera. "Fantastic," I said. "Amazing; the only other soundman in all of Antarctica! Fancy us meeting this way." To which he had absolutely nothing to say. Not the merest chuckle. A couple of Germans so humorless as to have apparently gotten on board the Hagglunds at central casting.

Excuse me, we were here first. Please wait your turn behind the other film crews.

The Kiwi Hagglunds from: Vehicles of McMurdo

Ernest Shackleton's Thunder box. The hut itself is filled with a display of forgotten Byrd's Custard, Tate and Lyle's Golden Syrup, mildewed socks and a massive coal burning oven that must have kept the place quite toasty. (The images in my last post are from Scott's hut at Cape Evans, which we also visited, later in the day).


Wild life

Reestablishing our McMurdo routine, we took a Pisten Bully out on the sea-ice yesterday on a visit to the chicks who fish. They had their Minnesota ice-fishing camp set up almost in the shadow of Bob Scott's Cape Evans hut, the one his expedition used for the fatal journey to the South Pole. It's about an hour and half drive at Pisten Bully top speed, which is to say around 25km from McMurdo.

What a difference two months makes! The ice runway is closed, its surface slushy and its depth perhaps insufficient for the landing of aircraft. The surface of the flagged route across the ice was melting and pitted with pools of water of indeterminate depth. Like New York City potholes after a rainstorm, it is difficult to tell whether you can drive right over them or if they dip deeply down towards the water below. It is one thing to sit comfortably driving a Pisten Bully, which must weigh a ton or so, over the frozen sea in subzero temperatures, with the heat blasting, and quite another to find oneself dodging puddles in a steamy, tropical fifty plus degrees F. With the sweaters stripped off and the windows wide open and the sun beating through the windshield it became all to easy to imagine the ungainly Bully sliding into an advancing melt-crack and sinking very rapidly to the bottom of the Ross Sea.

We passed one recumbant sausage-like Weddell seal after another, their enormous tubular bodies stretched out beside pressure ridges where, we knew, cracks must exist big enough to give the mighty mammals access to the water and its fish. It was lovely and hot and, as Gretchen the fearless fisherwoman put it, "a great day for taking the vehicles swimming."

Jessie, Gretchen and some dude named Tim jigging for "bernies" (Trematomus bernacchii)

When we arrived at Cape Evans, Gretchen and her posse were reclining on their "tomato" shelter, basking in the sun and fishing with notably less intensity than on our previous visit so many weeks ago. Jess caught a rare and strangely beaked Dragonfish.

The dragonfish has a curious beak: Jessie on the catch and release

As we interviewed Gretchen about Antarctica's meaning in her life, she spied two Adelie Penguins waddling towards us across the ice. This brought an immediate end to the interview, as I have an "emergency penguin observation work-stoppage" clause in my contract. We walked out to meet them, flapping our arms like flippers and then lying down on the ice when they were about 100 meters off. Very curious, and without surface-based predators, they continued towards us to have a look. Gretchen pointed out that they are the only other family of birds besides parrots who manipulate the feathers of their crown and nape to change the shape of their heads to suit, perhaps, their mood. This was a piece of ornithological trivia unknown to me, a lifelong birder. We were soon able to see this behavior displayed.

The penguins continued, heading directly towards Scott's hut, as if they intended to visit its relics, and then continued past it onto an expanse of black volcanic rock. Here, perhaps lulled by the surface heat, they collapsed for a nap.

Erebus, pond, and a smattering of skuas

Nearby, the same passive solar gain of this black rock had created a pond, in which 15-20 skuas were splashing and washing and carrying on. Extraordinarily aggressive large gull-like marauders, they feed on the few delicacies the Antarctic ecosystem has to offer: penguin chicks and eggs, seal placentas and dead seals, fish scraps from Gretchen's bait pot and candy bars stolen from the hands of hapless McMurdoites crossing from the dining hall to the dorms.

Catharacta maccormicki, The South Polar skua. Note the pale nuchal collar, characteristic of this species.

Thanks to M. Deany

The man, the myth, the legend. Photo: Sylvestre Guidi

Now that I'm back in something like the modern world and have been able to wade through all the email and even speak to a few of my peeps on the telephone I've realized that while I was away a wave of confusion has been sweeping western civilization. Just how was antarcticiana updated in my long absence in the field camps of the McMurdo Dry Valleys?

Everything you've read here for the last two months came to you courtesy of the man of the hour, Michael Deany, who stayed up late into the evening on his days off, slaving to update this blog from files I managed to intermittently send back to McMurdo on passing helicopters. All this for neither personal gain nor glory. I owe him an enormous vote of thanks for all his efforts. Deany, even my mother thanks you from all the way in New Jersey; I spoke to her this morning and she asked me to impress upon you how wonderful it was for all my loved ones back home to be kept in touch with the movements and adventures of our happy little film crew.

Any typographical snafus, editorial catastrophes or errors of poor taste and judgement remain my sole responsibility; I signal only one to faithful readers. Two adjacent missives inadvertently contained the same text. For those of you who still eagerly want to know about dead seals and the Pecten Gravels, allow me to refer you here.