Training Day and Wildlife!

Training Day and Wildlife!
Written by Betty Trummel

This was my first bit of wildlife in the McMurdo area…a skua sitting right on the dirt in the middle of town. I passed by this skua on the way to work this morning. That bird did not seem to mind that people were walking around it, and just sat there. Watch out though…these birds will steal something right out of your hand if they think it’s edible. I wrote about skuas in a previous blog post “Last Lifeguard on the Beach.” This is one of just a few animals I might see in the McMurdo area.

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My morning was full of training sessions. First was a short training about Crary Lab, which also included a tour of the facility. Our home base is Crary Lab while we’re in McMurdo. Not only is it a comprehensive science laboratory, but also includes some meeting and office space for the WISSARD group. In addition, there’s an aquarium section in the lower wing…I’ll try to get some photos of that at a later date.

Another training later in the morning was on “Outdoor Safety and Recreation in the McMurdo Area.” I really enjoyed this presentation because it outlined ways we can get out and hike around if we have time. There are several trails and options available to us, ranging in length from 1 hour to all day. As always, we were reminded of safety and traveling with at least one other person. Watching weather conditions is extremely important, as conditions can change here very quickly. There are few guidelines regarding weather that I’d like to share with you.

Condition 1
Windspeed over 55 knots (60 miles per hour)
Visibility less than 100 feet (30 meters)
Wind chill below −100 °F (−73 °C)
Description: Dangerous conditions; outside travel is not permitted.

Condition 2
Windspeed of 48 to 55 knots (55 to 63 miles per hour)
Visibility 1/4 of a mile to 100 feet (402 to 30 meters)
Wind chill of −75 °F (−60 °C) to −100 °F (−73 °C)
Description: Unpleasant conditions; outside travel is permitted but not recommended.

Condition 3
Windspeed below 48 knots (55 miles per hour)
Visibility greater than 1/4 of a mile (402 meters)
Wind chill above −75 °F (−60 °C)
Description: Pleasant conditions; all outside travel is permitted.

Trails I’d like to hike around McMurdo include the loop around Observation (Ob) Hill and climbing Ob Hill itself. I’ve done that three times before, but each time is different and the 360 degree views of McMurdo, Scott Base (the New Zealand base), Mt. Erebus, and looking out over the sea ice and Ross Ice Shelf toward Mt. Discovery are spectacular. I know I’ll get to those hikes while I’m here. Another that I’d like to do is the Hutt Point Ridge Trail, to get that perspective of McMurdo Station from above. The Cape Armitage loop is also an option. It loops out onto the sea ice around Cape Armitage and Ob Hill and brings you to Scott Base. From there you hike the road between Scott Base and McMurdo Station.
Getting out and exercising is important. Keeping active and healthy is a good way to keep morale up when working in such a remote environment.

I visited the post office after lunch today. I had a huge number of postcards to mail to my students and friends at Husmann Elementary School, and also family members. They have cool Antarctic-type stamps to use on mail, and the photo above shows the local Postmaster cancelling the postcards headed back to everyone at home. Boys and girls at Husmann…it’s just like our Wee Deliver postal system in action! Only here there are one or two people working at the post office. It’s a regular U.S. post office facility, just on a much smaller scale. I’ll be headed back there soon to mail more things to friends and family back home in the United States!

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As I was mentioning, getting exercise is important, so that’s just what I did this afternoon. Mike (another one of the teachers with ANDRILL and part of the PolarTrec Program) and Dave (our videographer) and I went out to Hutt Point. Was had sweeping views of McMurdo Station. Check out the photo below and notice Ob Hill standing about 1,000 feet above sea level.

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Out at Hutt Point we saw Robert Falcon Scott’s “Discovery Hut” from an early expedition to this area. Early exploration of this part of Antarctic really got going in the early 1900’s. We hope to get a tour of the inside of the Discovery Hut very soon. I’ll tell you more about it at that time. Today, just enjoy the view!

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Out at the tip of Hutt Point is Vince’s Cross, in honor of a member of Scott’s party of explorers, who lost his life in this area. I love the peace and solitude of this spot. Soon the wind kicked up and it became much colder. As long as we kept moving, I was okay. Every time I stopped to take photos or use the Go Pro video camera my hands got cold. I had to immediately put my gloves back on and warm my hands.

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I loved the blue sky today and the landscape/ice-scape here is so incredible. It fills my field of vision from every angle, and it’s hard to take it all in at times and believe that I’m really here in Antarctica–at the bottom of the world. Despite the sunshine, it was very cold and windy standing on this exposed point of land.

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One of the best treats of the day was seeing some Weddell Seals lounging below us on the ice near Hutt Point. In the first photo they look quite small, and the second photo shows them a bit closer. It is critical that we do not approach wildlife and change their behavior at all. We observed from a safe distance above these seals, and were patiently watching them move ever so slightly on the ice. One seal did go back into the water…and we watched him kind of chewing on the ice to open the hole that had probably frozen over a bit. We couldn’t see exactly what he was doing, but that’s what we figured was happening. One minute he was chewing on the ice and then he was gone!

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When I got back to Crary Lab, I found an awesome science poster about Weddell Seals. I read through it and gathered some facts I’d like to share with you. Weddell seals are like the athletes of the sea. They can dive deeply and for a long time. They can dive up to 60 minutes on one breath! Wow! This species of seal is found only in Antarctica.
Weddell seals can grow up to 500 kg, which is over 1,102 pounds. Not long after they are born, the seals grow thick layers of blubber under their skin. This provides energy, storage, and powerful insulation. Young and older adult seals can have blubber that is 5-10 cm (1.9-3.9 inches) thick.

Weddell seals show no outward signs of aging, which is one reason scientists are interested in this particular animal. They are looking for clues in this southernmost breeding mammal that might help them better understand how we ourselves age. Here’s another incredible thing I learned from the poster: submerged Weddell seals can reduce their heart rate and blood flow to organs not essential to hunting. They might have a heart rate of 100 at the surface of the water, but this can drop to a few beats per minute when under water. That’s even while they are swimming vigorously. They push their bodies to the limits of aerobic exercise every single day. What an awesome creature!

It’s been a great day of learning and exploring. I hope you’ve learned something new through my blog post. Write and let me know what you learned.

trummelwissard@aol.com or post a comment here on the blog site.

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