Animal life in Antarctica

Michael Raffety

Nov. 3, 2009

Just living in Antarctica is an adventure. Besides the fact that there was a girl behind every tree, there was animal life that surprised a first-timer like myself. The first we encountered were Weddell seals. They would be found lounging on the ice between McMurdo Station and Scott Base, the New Zealand station.

McMurdo and Scott Base are really on an island in the Ross Sea. South of the Ross Sea and McMurdo Sound is the Ross Ice Shelf, variously described as being the size of Spain or France. It is the largest ice shelf in the world, with a thickness of 600-3,000 feet. Fed by glaciers, it moves as much as 300 to 1,000 meters annually. Its size has varied over the last century, depending on what size iceberg is calved off. In 2000 a 275-mile long chunk broke off and threatened to block access to the Ross Seas.

U.S. Geological Survey studies of the ice shelf from 1962-2004 and published in 2007 concluded that variations in the size of the Ross Ice Shelf due to “tabular ice calving was a result of glaciological stress rather than a result of stresses introduced by ocean or atmosphere.”

McMurdo Sound on the Ross Seas is surrounded by sea ice that in winter gets up to 10 feet thick. Below it ice platelets form and catch food tidbits. Despite the thickness of this sea ice there are blow holes that the 800-pound Weddell seals come up through. In the summer they lie out in the sun near craggy ice ridges, sometimes with their pups. Mostly they like to relax away from the killer whales and tiger seals. The Weddell seals have been recorded to depths of 1,500 feet and can stay under water for an hour. They are named after 19th century British Antarctic explorer James Weddell, who also had the Weddell Sea named after him since he discovered it.

The Ross Sea and Ross Ice Shelf are named after British explorer James Clark Ross, who discovered the ice shelf and its 200-foot-high ice cliffs (only 10 percent showing above the water line). Ross named McMurdo Sound after one of the captains of this three ships, Lt. Archibald McMurdo.

I always went exploring with a friend. We didn’t go much farther than the couple of miles to Scott Base. The Kiwis were the last ones to keep sled dog teams. They were pretty friendly huskies. When they died they would bury them in the snow. But once buried they didn’t stay put. The snow and ice is constantly moving. There was an ice cave just below the New Zealand base. If you went in far enough you would see the head of a perfectly preserved frozen husky emerging from the cave wall that had migrated from above. It was spooky.

It’s amazing what equipment you can scrounge up from the Navy even in such a remote and hostile place. My friend and I rounded up a generator that fit on a sled we dragged behind us along with floodlights and colored gels. We hauled that down to the ice cave and lit it up for colorful photos. We didn’t photograph the spooky dog in the wall.

Weddell seals were our first signs of life. The other early sign of life at McMurdo was the arrival of the skua gulls to pick over the dump at Shelter Cove. Most of them hung around the penguin rookeries farther north at Cape Crozier. There are two species of skua. The brown skua breeds on the Antarctic islands and will venture into the tropics. The south polar skua breeds on the Antarctic Continent. It was the south polar skuas that flew in and picked through our dump. A dead skua provided arty photos from various angles as the sun cast shadows from its wings on the ice. It doesn’t take much to get excited about on “The Ice,” except for the woman behind every tree.

Since 1989 all garbage is recycled or exported on cargo ships later in the summer. In 1967-68 operating McMurdo Station was less complicated. But obviously there was a limit to what Shelter Cove could hold in its frozen depths. An underwater survey in 2001 found 15 vehicles, 26 shipping containers, 603 fuel drums (mostly full of frozen urine) as well as 1,000 miscellaneous items in an area of 50 acres. Raw sewage dumping into Shelter Cove ended in 2003 when a $5 million waste treatment plant began operating.

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