Departing from Palmer Station

The following entry is the fifth installment of several reports that Birmingham Audubon officer and board member Maggie Amsler sent to us during her most recent research trip to Palmer Station, Antarctica. Charles D. Amsler, Ph.D., and Margaret O. Amsler, M.S. are veteran Antarctic researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). For more about their work in the Antarctic, visit https://www.uab.edu/newsarchive/37618-antarctic-island-named-for-uab-researchers-charles-d-amsler-and-margaret-o-amsler and http://www.uab.edu/antarctica/blog/maggie/148-palmer-station-the-nickel-tour-at-no-charge.

April 8, 2016

Well, as projected in my last message, today’s short update is indeed the final installment of the Deep South News 2016. The project’s labs now bare counters and shelves await tailoring from the next science group’s needs, our drained lifeless aquaria ready to be revitalized, and the dive locker room can finally deep dry without a daily watering by wet divers and gear. All packed up and our big orange ship awaits at the dock!
The six weeks I have been here at Palmer Station have been crazier than anticipated. The wild weather I wrote of last time continued throughout the remainder of our stay. Although the weather, particularly high winds, hampered our ability to safely boat and dive, the project was overall remarkably successful sampling 19 of the 20 intended sites and totaling 49 dives.
Highs this season other than winds included hiking up the glacier that rises behind the station. Once at the end of the flagged, safe area the vista is astounding. The station is no longer in sight and the panorama filled with nothing but snow, ice, mountains and water. You feel pretty darn small standing solo in such a vastness. The wind, distant roar of the ocean, your heartbeat, the cry of a seagull the only sounds. Icebergs litter the horizon while the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula loom distant on the mainland to the south. To the north undulates the mountainous/plateaued bulk of Anvers Island. The end of the flagged area is marked by signs warning of crevasses – cracks in the glacier surface ranging from minor ankle biters to gapes wide enough to swallow a sign-unheeding hiker. Presently however, the crevasses would be clearly visible as, at least in the safe zone, the snow has been wind-swept away leaving nothing but bare ice.

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In such conditions the best way to climb the glacier is with crampons or, as shown below, microspikes on my boots. Most unfortunately, no snow on the glacier has meant no skiing this year. Next year.

Crampons. Palmer Station, Antarctica. Maggie Amsler 2016

Another recent high this season was a glorious day in the field. On the way out to what would be three very productive dives, our zodiac was tailed by a flock of cormorants. How fitting for this diving bird to draft off a zodiac of divers. Our trusty tender at the tiller Emily playfully tried to race them.

Cormorants. Palmer Station, Antarctica. Maggie Amsler. 2016

I would so love to see a cormorant underwater. Apparently they are very proficient swimmers and are reported to dive down to 75 feet. Come be my buddy I silently pleaded – to no avail. Maybe next year.
Finally, I have to be honest that there was a major low to this season. Shortly after our arrival, Chuck experienced an abrupt vision issue in one of his eyes. Concern that it could be a prelude to a detaching retina prompted an early departure. He saw our eye doc as soon as he got home and his retina is fine and now weeks later, his vision is almost normal again. The diagnosis was vitreous separation (the jelly like stuff in the eyeball between the cornea and retina) which just happens sometimes. The speed of onset and severity of vision obstruction was unusual and warranted immediate action. Well as immediate as things can happen thousands of miles of remote away here in Antarctica.

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So tomorrow our team, which morphed from diver scientist Chuck to volunteer tender Emily (who would have sailed north on the ship that Chuck did), heads home.
The sign board on station points the way to Stonington, CT, the birthplace of the station’s namesake Nathaniel B. Palmer (early Antarctic explorer and ship captain). Alabama is a ways south of CT but suffice it to say I have some thousands of miles to cover by sea and air in the coming days. I should be back in the US on 15 April (taxes already done!).

I hope you have enjoyed these little glimpses into life in the deep south.
Perhaps you will read from me again next year. In the meantime, wishing you a bounty of beauty this spring.
Cheers,
Maggie Amsler
Department of Biology
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Currently in residence at Palmer Station, Antarctica