Vacationing on an icebreaker

By Michael Raffety

4-23-12

Once the sun rose up high enough in Antarctica to signal spring the first signs of life we saw were skua gulls, who checked out our garbage dump in search of tasty items before the icebreakers came in and sank everything to the bottom of the bay.

I’m sure McMurdo Sound is more environmentally sensitive than it was when I was there in the austral summer of 1967-68.

I worked in the electronic shop on the Hill. We also serviced the helicopter that ferried scientists around nearby areas such as the Adelie penguin rookeries at Cape Crozier or Cape Royds. Shackleton’s hut is also there on Cape Royds.

Cape Crozier has rookeries holding more than 100,000 Adelies and colonies of 20,000-30,000 are found on Cape Royds.

The first penguins I saw were emperor penguins that just wandered from the ice around the shoreline of Shelter Bay below McMurdo Station.

Then when the icebreakers came for some reason we saw a few Adelie penguins. They were very social and unafraid. Not reserved like the emperors.

I didn’t get to fly on the helicopter, being mainly a shop guy. The air crew enlisted men and engine mechanics were down on the ice in canvas quonset huts. They were down there because the C-130 Hercules were based there on an ice runway, with sleds in place of wheels. On the Hill we had metal quonset huts.

When the icebreakers came into Shelter Cove I wrangled a ride on one and my boss was kind enough to let me take a five-day trip on the Westwind, which motored out through McMurdo Sound to keep the channel open for the cargo ships.

The only other ship I had been on was an aircraft carrier, the Saratoga, now mothballed near Newport, R.I., waiting for a civilian group to get up the money to turn it into a museum. It’s a big challenge to do that. A fellow from Placerville, now deceased, was a driving force in getting the aircraft carrier Hornet turned into a museum at Alameda. The best one is the U.S.S Midway in San Diego. It’s run by a retired admiral and has a fabulous collection of jets, helicopters and other aircraft used on modern aircraft carriers. A town like San Diego is full of retired sailors who volunteer to work on the Midway. The admiral caters dinners for conventions on the flight deck.

Enlisted bunks on the Saratoga were three high. Each person had his own styrofoam bunk and a metal storage cabinet that swung open by the bunk. The icebreaker quarters were less posh, so to speak. They were canvas racks arranged end-to-end. In other words, I could pat the next guy on the head with my feet.

For me the exciting part was seeing icebergs floating away and Adelie penguins popping up from the sea to the ice like bars of soap shot out of your hand. And if they thought there was a leopard seal or killer whale in the water they would wait until it looked safe. Then they would all gather around the stupidest penguin in the flock and push him off the ice. If he survived they would all dive in after him.

On ice to move faster they would skitter along on their bellies using their flippers to move themselves along.

Adelie penguins are named for the wife of the 19th century French explorer Jules Sebastien Dumont d’Urville.  They can dive up to 575 feet in search of fish. They live in the open ocean around the ice pack in the winter and breed in the summer. They can swim up to 185 miles round-trip in search of food.

Emperors live on the ice and even breed in the cold night of winter. The females will travel up to 50 miles to reach the open ocean to go fishing for two months after laying an egg, which the male balances between his feet. Emperors can dive up to 1,850 feet deep and stay under water for 20 minutes. That’s pretty impressive.

The Wall Street Journal reported April 14 that analysis of satellite data show there are twice as many emperor penguins as scientists previously thought. Instead of the hand count of 270,00-350,000 there are 595,000, according to mapping experts who reported that April 13 in the journal PLoS One. That’s the same journal that carried the story about common tree frogs infecting yellow legged frogs. Not only that, but they found four previously unknown emperor penguin colonies. It took two years to complete the count. Two years ago this month the WSJ reported the satellite count had begin. Each 4-foot-high 90-pound bird showed up as one pixel on the satellite imagery.

The icebreaker vacation was pretty interesting. Besides the penguins I got to hang out in the bridge and watch the quartermaster man the ship’s wheel.

After my vacation it was back to the electronics shop and the nightly dart tournament in the Lifer’s Lounge. We had the best dart teams in the camp and the best collection of Carling Black Label beer.

Spending a summer on the the Ice was a great adventure. We hardly every had to do any saluting, didn’t have to wear Dixie cup hats and got to grow beards. We to looked inside Scott’s Hut, walked to the New Zealand camp to pet their sled dogs, explored an ice cave, saw the first tourist ship and played more darts.

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