Saturday, December 25, 2004

Merry Christmas and the penguins of Cape Bird.

Merry Christmas from Antarctica! It's Christmas day down here (we are a day ahead of the States) and all is peaceful. For the most part everyone has the day off and even better for all the contract workers, it's another one of those rare 2 day weekends. So everyone is feeling pretty joyful right about now. The big Christmas party was last night. They held it in the heavy equipment building. It was a good time for all with good food and live music. Tonight is our big Christmas dinner. The only thing missing is some fresh eggnog. I had some of the Borden's ultrapasturized eggnog (the stuff that lasts for years without refrigeration), that was no good.

Earlier this week we went out to Cape Bird, the northern most tip of Ross Island. We wanted to collect sea urchins from this location. We are interested in differences in reproductive ecology between different populations of sea urchins residing in the McMurdo Sound area. So we flew out there in a helicopter and got dropped off for the day. Because the location is so far away from McMurdo, we can't get the usual dive hole drilled out there. But it turns out there are some huge cracks in the sea ice which Dave and Rob can dive through.

The cool thing about Cape Bird is that there are several Adelie penguin rookeries there, so there's always a good chance or running into some of Antarctica's most interesting citizens. We were not disappointed as we had many penguins stopping by our little diving operation to check us out. As I've mentioned before, penguins have no natural predator on land (or sea ice). So they have no fear of humans and they approach them quite happily to see what going on. The great thing about Adelie penguins is that they are probably the most indecisive animal on Earth. They see you, run towards you, stop, run away, stop, run back towards you, stop, run away.... you get the picture. The Adelies are very different from their cousins, the Emperor penguins. As the name suggests, the Emperors are quite snobby. Humanizing an Emperor penguin event would be like this: Emperor penguin waddles up to you, looks you up and down several times, walks away completey unimpressed with your existence and wonders what god in heaven would waste several millions of years of evolution to create such a useless biped.

But this day was about the cute little Adelie penguins. We saw no Emperors. We ran into a couple of Kiwi researchers who were camping out at Cape Bird studying the penguin rookeries. They said it was okay if we approached the rookeries (but of course maintain a polite distance so as not to disturb the penguins). It was amazing to see these cute little penguin chicks huddle up underneath their parents (moms and dads take turns babysitting the chicks while the other goes on foraging trips for food) trying to stay warm. Very very cute. Of course it was also sobering to keep in mind that most, if not all, of these chicks face a very bleak future because of the miles of sea ice separating the parents from the open sea where they get their food. The parents can't jump in the water and swim away, but need to walk 50 to 100 miles to get to the ocean. This means most of the chicks will eventually die of starvation. You're probably thinking, "But Doug, you said there were cracks in the sea ice. That's where you guys went diving. So why can't the penguins get in the water there and swim to the ice edge?" Good question. The penguins can get in the seawater through the cracks. But they can't swim to the open water because they need to come up frequently for air and with all the ice between the entrance point and the open water, they would suffocate along the way to the open water (unless they happened to find another crack system in the sea ice). Hopefully a large storm will come in and blow out the sea ice, allowing the parents to feed their babies.

So here's a few pictures of our big day at Cape Bird. Hope you enjoy. And I hope everyone out there has a wonderful Christmas and a fantastic new year. To the Family (Mom, Dad, Steve, Jeff, and Uncle Allan): I miss the hell out of you guys. Next year I'll be sure to get out to Ludlow for a proper Christmas.

13 Comments:

At December 25, 2004 at 11:52 AM, Blogger the old man said...

Great commentary. Hope they can figure out something for the chicks but it doesn't sound very likely. Merry Christmas (check out view from ludlow for Christmas Eve dinner pix.

 
At December 25, 2004 at 1:03 PM, Blogger on Bushmills I stagger said...

Hey Dad. I've just been trying to call you guys. I couldn't get an open phone line. I'll try to call you tomorrow.

 
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