There’s a weird phenomenon that occurs at the end of the season. The days simultaneously start crawling and flying. There isn’t enough time to pack with the precision and organization that months of traveling in diverse climates demands, and yet the hour to climb aboard Ivan the Terra Bus and get carted out to the runway seems to hover permanently just beyond sight. This limbo drives me crazy.
Luckily this time of year is also the most dynamic. The sea ice to open water ratio changes hourly, so every glance out our bedroom window provides a completely different vista. Every time I get frustrated with the prospect of having to weed out several more shirts in order to make room for other, less fun items such as just-in-case medications for Nepal, I glance out the window and watch the whales roll by.
The first sunset of the year just happened, and this explosion at the horizon was by far one of the most impressive I’ve witnessed. The interim weeks between winter and summer seasons are my favorite times of the year – a time in which the monochromatic scheme we’re used to is bombarded with fiery bombs of orange, red, purple. One can look at out a window and see the sun setting upon whales, seals, and a huddle of Emperor Penguins. Every glance outside is the definition of breathtaking.
Antarctica is in its own superlative category of beautiful, and it’s given me countless opportunities and gifts, but honestly? I am ready to get the hell out of here.
Leaving Antarctica is a bittersweet thing. After having spent six months here working 60 hours a week cleaning bathrooms, dealing with thin walls and neighbors who are on opposite schedules, and eating tater-tot casseroles and trans-fat fried something-or-other for the nth time, leaving isn’t the worst prospect. Six months of only looking at different shades of white, blue and volcanic-rock-brown. Six months of the chorus of a busy industrial hum, led by the back-up alarms on large vehicles. Six months of cold and aching hands. Six months of dry mouth, nose, and skin. Six months of doing the same thing, at the same place, with the same people, day after day. At times, these inconveniences can be trying.
But, that’s all they are, inconveniences. In reality, these complacency-driven complaints are just plain silly. Dorm life got you down? Think the food sucks? Bored at work? Less than 100 years ago, the heroes of the great age of Antarctic exploration were trapped in wooden huts, starving to death, and spending every moment fighting an often-lost battle for survival on this same very spot. Get tough and be thankful for what you’ve got.
Beyond recognizing how easy the modern day Antarctic adventurer has it, there is much else to appreciate. Currently, much of the sea ice in front of McMurdo has cleared out, leaving huge swaths of open water. The result of this is a brand new landscape, smooth white replaced by textured and churning deep blue. When the wind is still, a thin layer of ice forms on the surface of the water, perfectly mirroring the baby blue sky and snow covered slopes of the mountains across the sound. The dorsal fins of Minke whales and Orca extend above the surface, accompanied by powerful breath and an expulsion of water into the air. The Sun is getting lower in the sky now, and in the wee hours of the morning the dusk-like sunlight catches the spouting water from the whales and it becomes a glowing gold for a brief moment before it rejoins the sea. Groups of Emperor Penguins gather on the ice edge across the water. When the weather is nice, they fan out, some walking and some sliding on their bellies. When the wind picks up, they huddle together to shield themselves and keep one another warm. The first sunsets of the season occur, lasting only minutes before the sun rises once again. In these brief hours the sky is set alight with color, the mountains glow pink and defined, and the waters of the sound shine like glass.
This reshaping of the landscape is one very remarkable trait of the McMurdo Sound. Coastal Antarctica is a very dynamic place and during our recent six-month stay in the area, we witnessed temperatures as high as 40°F, and wind chills as low as -112°F. We arrived in darkness, watched the weeks-long sunrise, entered into 24-hour daylight, and then watched the Sun begin to gradually wind back down along the horizon. At first the landscape was exclusively white, the ocean frozen over and the island blanketed in snow. Now, miles and miles of open water were exposed, and most of the snow had melted. Nearly everyday you will see the same view in a brand new way.
Lying in bed, staring out the window at this pristine and wild land, watching whales and penguins exist in their natural habitat, you feel something reach deep inside of you and take hold. Antarctica is a natural force unlike any other on Earth. Its harshness and inhabitability matched only by its great beauty. Once you have spent time in Antarctica you become certain of one very recognizable fact: its presence will be with you always. Leaving this place is hard. Maybe we will be back, maybe we won’t. But in many ways, Antarctica has had an incredible and lasting impact on us. It freed me from the 9-5. It got me out into the world and opened my horizons. It taught me much about who I am. It found me a girl I love, and who loves me back. No matter the inconsequential bullshit, it will certainly be a forever-earmarked page in my story.