Life at the Ends of the Earth

by
Kristen Green

Kristen Green

by Kristen Green, Ichthyology Lab

Punta Arenas, Chile, is a windy, lonely, port town, at the very tip of South America, where I arrived October 12th.  Tourists arrive here to board expensive luxury cruises to Antarctica, wandering backpackers flag down buses to the Patagonia region, and stray dogs roam the streets everywhere.

Another group of ephemeral travelers haunts the city: folks frantically packing boxes at the port, making last minute shopping trips for approximately 6 months worth of toiletries, hoarding email time at the internet cafes, and in the evening, engaging in serious rounds of pisco sours, the national Chilean cocktail. These are the scientists with the US Antarctic Program, and this is how I spent my few days in Punta Arenas.

There were about 25 scientists all waiting to embark for the Antarctic aboard the Research Vessel (R/V) Laurence M. Gould.  This is a large ice-strengthened ship that transports scientists and staff to several US field camps and research stations on the Antarctic Peninsula.  The trip takes 5 days, including a few days in the much talked about (and often hazardous) Drake Passage, but we had pretty good weather. The ship arrived in Admiralty Bay, on King George Island October 18th.  While there are enormous, permanent glaciers on the island, there was actually not very much ice and snow around the station, which is right on the shores of Admiralty Bay.

The Laurence M. Gould - built for ice! (Photo by NSF)

The Laurence M. Gould - built for ice! (Photo by NSF)

It is very strange to observe the small structure where you will be living for the next few months slowly to come into view, yet, not look all that much bigger the closer you get!  The field station has a main room with a kitchen and pantry, and bunk room. There is also a small lab with another bunk room attached. Three of us will be working here continuously for the next five months:  Myself, and Dave and Amy, a couple from Alaska.  Sue, along with her husband Wayne, are in charge of the project and have been working here since 1981. Sue is starting the season with us, but will be replaced by another researcher in 5 weeks, who will in turn be replaced by her husband Wayne.

The Copacabana station relies on wind and solar power for our energy, with a generator for backup. Our drinking supply comes from a “sophisticated” rain catchment system: snow melt is collected off the roof into barrels. Water and energy conservation are critical. Our toilet is even more sophisticated: a five gallon bucket that is emptied and buried in the intertidal area when full. Communication consists of VHF radio, satellite phone, and the slowest internet connection you can imagine, through the satellite phone. It is much, much slower than dial up, and very temperamental!

There was a lot to do to get ready for the season; and everyone on the ship came ashore to help with the major offload of all the dry, fresh, and frozen food that will sustain us for the next five months. We won’t get another shipment of fresh food until January, and already some of our fresh vegetables are getting moldy. I miss fresh produce in Santa Cruz already!

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