Here in Punta Arenas, a port city at the southern edge of Chile, I’m waiting to board the R/V Laurence M. Gould and start the four-day voyage to Palmer Research Station on the Western Antarctic Peninsula, across the notoriously tumultuous Drake Passage. I’m praying the scopolamine patch my doctor prescribed will spare me from four days of vomiting.
It was no simple matter joining a research trip to Antarctica. Getting "PQ'd" ("physically qualified," in government parlance) required weeks of blood tests, cardio stress tests, teeth X-rays, and a mammogram -- all in order to be declared fit to join a group of scientists for a one-month visit to Antarctica.
But for a freelance journalist, this opportunity -- thanks to a fellowship from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts -- is well worth the medical and logistical tedium to get to Palmer Station, a small outpost for scientists whose interests range from penguins to phytoplankton to viruses.
I left Denver on November 22. The LM Gould was scheduled to leave on Thanksgiving Day. But the gale is so strong that the dock is closed and the crew can’t deliver cargo. (I had a Mary Poppins moment when the gale nearly blew me off the sidewalk.)
I’m in good company waiting in Punta Arenas, though, since some of the scientists heading to Palmer and beyond have been giving me teasers of their research projects. Like Steve Forrest and Melissa Rider, a researcher and contractor respectively with the nonprofit Oceanites. They plan to count Adelie, gentoo, and chinstrap penguin nests. Their goal is to better understand changes in the populations of the different species, as well as how warmer ocean temperatures are affecting penguins and the foods they eat.
The news is not good for Adelies in particular, according to Forrest: In the Western Antarctic peninsula, the number of breeding pairs has plummeted from about 1,000 in 1909 to about 400 today. Gentoos have had much better luck: with a more cosmopolitan diet than the krill-dependent Adelies, and warmer waters bringing them more tasty species to choose from, gentoos have expanded from 56 to 2,600 breeding pairs on the peninsula.
While sipping a latte at a café, I encountered Alexander Culley, a scientist at the Center for Microbial Oceanography Research and Education at the University of Hawaii. His team is Antarctica-bound to study the role of viruses in the marine food web, and how they contribute to diseases and mortality of marine creatures such as leopard seals and penguins.
This gale has given me a good idea of why some people think I’m crazy for spending even a month here. But talking with these scientists, I'm getting a much better sense of why they return year after year -- sometimes several times a year -- to this extreme environment at the end of the world.
Susan will file updates from Antarctica. Follow her journey here.