“The whole place and conditions seem so strange and unlike anything in the world in our experience…that one cannot describe them in fitting words. At one moment, one thinks of Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’: ‘Alone, alone; all, all alone, alone on a wide, wide sea…’ and then when the mazy clouds spring silently from either hand and drift quickly across our zenith, not followed by any wind, it seems uncanny.” –Sir Ernest Shackleton, in Heart of the Antarctic (1919)
Between some scree-covered hills, McMurdo Station sits tucked into the armpit of Ross Island and surrounded by the frozen sea. During the summer season, airplanes and helicopters can land on ice only about as thick as I am tall, allowing for regular cargo and equipment supplies to be delivered from Christchurch, New Zealand. But the summer season is short, and airlifting supplies to Antarctica is expensive, so most of the cargo keeping this place going for a year at a time arrives annually on a single ship—quite a bit of pressure for the folks who do the ordering. And getting a ship into a place surrounded by a frozen sea isn’t easy, either.
In order to aid the resupply vessel that is on its way from Port Heuneme, California, two burly icebreakers crunched their way to McMurdo this week—a Swedish icebreaker called the Oden and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Sea, which is currently docked just outside the window. Both ships have reinforced hulls and can smash a channel through the ice so that supplies can be hoisted right onto the shore when the cargo vessel arrives. One hundred curious Adélie penguins showed up at Hut Point Peninsula after the Oden arrived, and we’re hoping for a storm to blow out the channel’s floating ice so that killer whales will follow.
The Polar Sea has brought a lot of excitement into town—including a rowdy crew of Coasties, who are glad to be at port after their long journey from Seattle. McMurdo is no Sydney (the crew’s last major stop)—we only have three dingy bars and a station store, but they don’t seem to mind.
In some ways, the ships’ arrival signals the beginning of the end. Shortly after the cargo vessel arrives, many workcenters will begin to close for the winter season, and scientists will fly back to their universities around the world. The ships will sail north, and airplanes will remain grounded in New Zealand. Within the next six weeks, a thousand people (including me) will say goodbye to this place, and just over one hundred will stay.