Someone the other day asked me if being down here is what I had expected. I didn’t know how to answer because I had absolutely no idea what to expect. The only impressions I had before going were from watching March of the Penguins and from reading my friend Lizzy’s blog about her experience here last year. (By the way don’t watch Farce of the Penguins, it’s not good.)
So far, it’s nothing like March of the Penguins in that, sadly, Morgan Freeman is not narrating my life and that we’re not close to any penguin colonies (although if I’m lucky I’ll still be able to spot a few later on).
As far as the impressions I got from Lizzy’s blog, which I thoroughly enjoyed, it was still completely different from what I could have imagined before come here.
To anyone who has been in Antarctica before, I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not realize the whole continent is not just ice. I found that out about 2 weeks before arriving here thanks to a book I was reading.
To those who have not been here before, I was just like you and thought the whole thing was ice and that polar bears lived here with narwhals and penguins. To dispel any further rumors, Antarctica is not solely composed of ice, and there are no polar bears or narwhals here. Apparently (I haven’t Googled this yet to confirm), Antarctica comes from a greek word meaning opposite of where the bears live.
I have since Googled it, and can report that arktos is greek for bear and ant means opposite. So it is literally the opposite of bears. Polar bears are only north pole.
McMurdo station is located on Ross Island on the edge of where the ice shelf meets the rock. Right now, the town is pretty snowy and icy, but when the weather warms it will all turn to mud. The station is a cluster of about 50 or so buildings, ranging from dorms to gyms to labs and etc. Life revolves mostly around the big blue building in the middle which has the cafeteria and the first year dorms (where I live). The station looks directly out to the sea ice and the Royal Society mountains across the way (also known as the Transantarctic mountains). If the weather is clear you get amazing views just from walking between buildings. If the weather is not good, sometimes you can’t even see the building you’re walking to. The world’s southernmost active volcano, Mount Erebus, is located on the island and can be seen from some of the hills around town and out at the airfields.
Despite being at the bottom of the world in one of Earth’s harshest environments, there’s tons to do here. There’s a library, 3 gyms, a (small) climbing wall, a craft room, rec sports, tons of groups and clubs, 3 bars, trivia nights, science lectures and travel talks, yoga classes, marathons and of course outdoor recreation. Dan, a guy I met on the plane ride down, also speaks French and we decided to start a French club. We had our first meeting the other day. I’ve played volleyball a couple times in the big gym. I rented cross country skis from gear issue and am waiting for the weather to clear up to head out and ski. New Zealand has a base just down the road and on Thursdays they have America night where we’re invited over to their bar. They also have a small ski hill but you have to be invited to ski over there because our 1000-person base would completely overwhelm their 40-person one.
Oh yeah, and the sun stopped setting. It won’t set now until early February I think. So there is constant daylight which is very disorienting. It’s cool though, because let’s say you’re walking out of the bar on Saturday night at midnight and it’s still sunny out. If you pay close enough attention you’ll notice it’s different lighting depending on the time of day.
The accommodations are dorm-style and most first years live in 4-person dorms – it’s like being back in college. I’m living with 3 girls that I met in Christchurch during orientation and we ended up being placed together. Returners live in 2-person dorms and if they think you’re important enough you get a room to yourself.
As far as work goes, I’m really enjoying being in shuttles. We get around and off base a lot more than many of the other departments, so I get to see more than some other people on base. We have 4 types of vehicles – Ford e 350 vans, deltas (they remind me of the AT ATs in Star Wars), Ivan the Terra Bus which holds 50 odd people and the Kress which holds 65 people. I won’t be driving the high occupancy vehicles – only the vans and the deltas. There are a couple airfields located on the ice shelf and a lot of the driving we do takes us out there and back to the station, but we also offer a taxi service around town. The shifts are 12 hours but we only work 5 days instead of 6 like everyone else.
We had our Halloween party Saturday night which was a lot of fun. They decorated the big gym (which really isn’t that big), but did a good transforming it. My roommate Jaime dressed up as Bob Ross with a wig and a beard, and several of us painted trees and mountains on large pieces of cardboard and were her painting. We won the group costume competition!
So far these first two weeks have flown by. I’ve been keeping busy with work and all the activities on offer and have been having a great time. I’m a little bummed that I’m working night shifts first because most of my friends are on day shifts. But I’ll switch back to days at Christmas and in the meantime hopefully have the chance to meet new people who also work nights.