The long crossing of the Drake Passage is over and the captain and crew have skillfully navigated our way through Nuemayer Channel beneath towering granite peaks laden with hundreds of meters of snow and around the various rambling icebergs until at last we reach Anvers Island, the home of Palmer Station. Crew and science members gathered on the deck to witness the last 300 meters of our 1400 kilometer journey. Penguins scatter and dive into the dark waters as the Laurence M Gould slowly backs itself into position. Salty veterans wave to familiar jacketed forms on the land and lines are tossed to the helpful station crew. We are not only new faces but fresh food, supplies to refill that empty item that everyone craves and the entertainment during our first night in the bar. This is, for many of us, the first chance to set foot on this remote, icy continent. Cameras captured the slow motion arrival but soon went back in bags as an impromptu snowball fight began. The ships’ contingent was at a disadvantage as all we had were slim trimmings from a few snow flurries encountered on our voyage. But the Palmer Station crew has the accumulated snow of months at their feet. No malice intended by either side but it just seems to be the proper thing to do at a time like this.
Prior to rushing ashore we are visited by the station manager Rebecca Shoop who kindly welcomed us to this unique community of 44 summer residents (only 20 stay through the winter). In addition to station regulations and helpful hints to navigating this small piece of Antarctica we are reminded of the overriding law that governs our actions while on station, the Antarctic Conservation Act. Antarctica is a still a brand new place on Earth, a landmass that holds no national claims, is governed on the principles of doing no harm, predicated on providing benefits to all mankind and that it is our first duty to see that it is studied and inhabited in a responsible manner. A refreshing thought of what the larger world might strive for, all bound together by the remoteness of the place, the hostility of the environment and the pristine continent still largely unmolested by the hand of humans.
Speaking of the hostile environment; our first night in town had winds gust up to 50 MPH and the wind chill reached a nice tidy -25°C. For the residents it was all part of the scenery even though many of us donned all the large layers of clothing that were supplied by the US Antarctic Program. Despite the cold outside we were warmly welcomed in to this tiny community and before we could sit by the cozy fire or lounge in the bar there was only one stop that mattered. The Palmer Station store, yes we embarked across a surly Southern Ocean and past glaciers to reach this frozen continent to go shopping. Postcards, t-shirts, shot glasses, patches, stickers this place had it all for the visitor. But it also supplied the needs of the residents shampoo, razors, medicines and sodas. And for all it was the mecca of beer, wine and alcohol.
The trip to Palmer was only the very beginning and for most of us it was the trip that had captured our imagination since the very first. Now we were here in Antarctica, glad to set foot on land and discover its mysterious reputation for ourselves. But arriving in Palmer was only a waypoint, a distracting waypoint, but really it was the gateway to our adventure. It was the starting point for 29 days of intense scientific sampling, which will translate to years of laboratory investigation. If we complete the ambitious list of operations that we have planned all hands on board will have earned every moment of their time in Antarctica.
Written by Clifton Nunnally.