notes from the field

No. 4 - King George Island

The Cape Shirreff field camp is first class. The three buildings are solid and well insulated; they survived their first winter in good shape. There is a vast store of food and an abundance of equipment, backups, fuel and water. And best of all, one can sit on the front deck, when the wind isn't howling and the fog has raised, and watch humpback whales gorge on krill in the bay. We reluctantly left our colleagues, who had been there since mid-November, and headed over to visit a couple of bays on the south side of King George Island, or KGI as the locals sometimes write.

If you can think of the large US Base McMurdo on the Ross Sea, where more than 1000 people work, as industrial Antarctica, you might consider KGI on the opposite side of the continent as its cosmopolitan center. Our first stop is in Maxwell Bay to drop off a Chilean colleague at his country's air base for a 5-hour plane ride back home. Also arranged around the bay are Korean, Uruguayan, Chinese and Russian bases (Russians being among the first to scientifically explore this area just before the revolution). We go to the next bay over, Admiralty Bay, where The Poles, the Brazilians and the Argentines have bases. These bases are staffed by less than 30 people, fewer in the winter, and there is much collaboration among the KGI'ans. We drop off provisions for a camp at the mouth of the bay and then move deep inside to anchor in quiet water. We must calibrate our instruments and prepare for a large-scale survey of the waters surrounding these islands.

The beauty of the bay is inspiring. It's wide and T-shaped, filled with floating rafts of bergy bits and smaller junks of ice. We ease up into one of the arms of the T and catch a glimpse of the Brazilian base at foot of a glacier that has plunged a thousand feet. All around us are high mountains with glaciers tumbling down the ravines between them. Below the ship pass swarms of small krill - easy pickings for a humpback whale off in the mist that seems to be feeding in ultra-slow motion. Across from us is the Polish base, rusty and run-down on the outside, a comfortable Nordic hunting lodge atmosphere on the inside. Their supply ship is also anchored in the bay and they appear to be closing up shop early for the season. The sun shows its face periodically making fantastic reflections on the ice and the water. We sit here until well after midnight, anxious to get started on our survey but reluctant to leave such a place.


next episode: Purposefully Repetitive.