Navigating the Icy Antarctic Landscapes

The following entry is the third 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 and

March 6, 2016

Greetings from the Deep South!

As anticipated, our group has been on the go since setting feet ashore at Palmer Station late afternoon on 26 Feb. It felt good to be on terra firma again yet after week rockin’ and rollin’ aboard the Laurence M. Gould many of us experienced ‘dock rock’ for the first few hours on land. A body in motions stays in motion!

My initial days on station are a blur of orientation sessions introducing local operational procedures like field radio use, small boat (zodiac) driving, lab and dive safety, and internet/computer policies. Community life and expectations are key in this big family of 44 and major emphasis is put on safety and hygiene in the kitchen and dining room. Most critically, everyone is schooled in the proper care and use of the coffee maker.

Once fully oriented, the action list focused on lab, dive locker and aquarium building set ups specific for our research needs. Getting unpacked or at least making my room’s bed was listed, but low in priority. With so much to do during our two month stay, it is a fortuitous this year has an extra day in February. Happy belated Leap Day (special shout out to newlyweds Helen and Simon – an anniversary once every 4 years!).

Even before labs and rooms were fully functional, the morning of March 1st found our team underwater at the station dock for an equipment check dive. Two divers at a time it was back in the drysuit again! My gear traveled fine and everything except my fins worked fin. They seemed really slow. OK maybe it is the diver wearing the fins….. Highlight of the dive, other than staying dry and warm, was seeing a big (~2 ft long) ice fish resting atop a big flat boulder at about 30 feet. He was not at all phased by me and buddy Chuck going eye to eye with him.

The very next afternoon our team loaded dive gear for two in our zodiac and we four-headed away for the first boat dives of the season. Our zodiac is a 15 ft long inflatable jet black heavy-duty rubber boat. Once loaded with heavy dive gear though the 40 hp engine is rarely powerful enough to allow the craft to reach plane and fly across the water. Also, the waters immediately surrounding station are currently littered with small-ish chunks of ice (brash ice). It is the pieces of brash on the larger/denser side of ‘ish” that are worrisome. Hitting such piece while running at high-speed could cause damage to the motor’s propeller or even the heavy-duty rubber of the boat itself. So we go slow-“ish” and safe and enjoy the vistas during the transit to our dive site. More about diving another day since we’ll be doing a lot of it.

Back to boating: In addition to the brash ice creating a zodiac slalom course, there are also larger flat pieces, floes, in the harbor to negotiate around. Floes are often a hangout for some of the harbor visitors. A large floe close to station seems to be a party floe – hosting as many as 12 crabeater seals (crabbies) at once since our arrival. Crabbies (~ 6 ft long) feed exclusively on the shrimp-like crustacean krill (~2” long) and typically haul up onto a floe after a meal of krill (~ 30 lbs worth!) like the five pictured here that I photographed from the shore:


Bigger pieces of ice – icebergs – present albeit picturesque, but oft times nuisance navigation obstacles. Safe boating policy requires maintaining a distance of at least three times the height of an iceberg. The wake of little zodiac could be enough to cause a massive berg to shift, become unstable and turn-turtle /capsize. Best not to be around tons of ice rolling over onto the ocean and the wave surge that would result. The harbor this year looks like O’Hare, Atlanta or La Guardia with a line-up of 747-sized icebergs forcing zodiacs to take circuitous routes to reach destinations safely. One of the bergs was parked too close one of our intended dive sites so we had to alter our dive mission. Always good to have a plan B!

Palmer Station, Antarctica by Maggie Amsler. 2016

Palmer Station, Antarctica by Maggie Amsler. 2016

During a break in the action one morning, I stashed my bivy sack, sleeping bag and camp pad outside at my favorite overnight spot overlooking Hero Inlet (HI). Those first few days though were sooo busy with diving and boating that I was too pooped to sleep out. One night, I awoke not long after snuggling into my third floor bed and viewed out the window stars and a crescent moon. Quietly, to not disturb slumbering Chuck, I changed into my outdoor jammies, slipped from our room, signed out on the Station status board and checked into HI – my kind of ‘Holiday Inn’ – a bivy sack at Hero Inlet.

The night sky was breathtaking! The season’s first viewing of the Southern Cross (Crux), Orion’s Belt (upside down), Milky Way!!           I breathed in the fresh cool air and marveled at the simple pleasure of sleeping neath the stars in Antarctica. I marveled a long time, not wanting to give in to sleep. Over the years of nights sleeping out, a self-imposed rule to ensure rest, is once I see a satellite it is time for shuteye. Just in time, a blinking object moving in a straight path appeared between the pair of indicator stars pointing to Crux. A sleep enforcing polar orbit satellite transmitting get some sleep.

Sleep I did – not eight hours-worth but deep and restful. I first stirred at 4:30, the peach-pink glow to the east, over the Antarctic Peninsula mountains my wake up call. During the next hour numerous bird species began chirping and squawking or stretching awake while winging overhead. Snoozing crabbies atop a floe in the inlet snored audibly, yet peacefully – perhaps dreaming of the next feast-o-krill. I think I joined in chorus with the seals a few times as I dozed off gazing at the horizon’s color show. What a blissful way to start the day!
And the busy day that followed ended with bliss, contentment and another amazing eastern sky at sunset:

Palmer Station, Antarctica by Maggie Amsler. 2016


Well, such are my highlights to date. Hope you are well and happy. Wishing you much contentment and blissful times.
Maggie Amsler
Department of Biology
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Currently in residence at Palmer Station, Antarctica