Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cape Crozier

10/17/07 - The weather at Cape Crozier has finally settled down, so Paul, Jessica, and I arrived early this morning for our one-hour helo flight. We are going to Crozier to census the emperor penguin colony there. This colony was devastated a few years ago by several enormous icebergs (B15 among them) that calved off the permanent ice shelf near the Cape.

You might be wondering how an iceberg could affect an emperor colony. The emperor penguin is the only bird that lays its egg on the sea ice in the Antarctic winter. To do this, the colony needs to have smooth, flat ice for chick rearing.

When large icebergs move into the area, they can jumble the flat sea ice and either kill the adults outright when the ice heaves suddenly or block access to the ocean. If adults can't get out to the ocean, they starve. If the passage is merely difficult, a lot of the chicks starve. Either way, the colony is disrupted.

In 2001, Jerry Kooyman and Paul found no chicks and no living adults at Crozier. The few adults they found had starved to death. The colony has been coming back from that devastation, but its recovery is slow. In the natural course of things, a colony can lose a year of chicks, but recovers quickly if the adults survive. In this case, since many of the breeding adults died, as well, it may be a long time before the colony returns to its pre-iceberg levels. In 2000, there were 1200 chicks at Crozier. Since 2001, there have been less than 500 chicks every year.

Here's a photo of the helicopter pad with McMurdo in the background. The largest building in three sections on the right is Crary Lab.

Here we all are in the helo with our flight helmets.

This photo is the "back" of Ross Island and is described in Cherry-Garraud's book on his winter trip to Crozier, The Worst Journey in the World.

Here is the landing site near the Crozier hut. The hut is no where near the emperor colony and is located far up the hillside above the sea ice. Cape Crozier is an ASPA (Antarctic Specially Protected Area) because of the emperor colony and an even more important Adelie colony.

Here's Paul using the Iridium phone to make contact with Mac Ops. The helicopter pilot cannot leave us until he is certain that we make contact with the town.

This is Jessica with the Crozier hut in the background.

It's a fairly long walk from the Crozier hut down to the emperor colony as you can see in the photograph below. The Adelie colony is located in the brown areas near the shoreline.

Unfortunately, there were only a handful of early arrivals in the Adelie colony. In a week's time or so, there will be thousands of Adelies in their colony.

And here are the three of us walking over to the colony. We are walking down snow and ice covered mountains and then walking on sea ice, so we are all wearing crampons and carrying ice axes.

Jessica was particularly delighted with the crampons since she felt as if she could walk up a vertical wall with them. Actually, come to think of it, with the right kind of crampons and the right kind of climbing skills, you can.

The trickiest part of wearing crampons is not catching your pant leg with them -- a particularly treacherous thing to do when hiking down an icy slope. That's why we all have that stylish duct tape wrapped around our ankles.

We encountered some birds on the sea ice even before we got near the colony. Penguins have a natural curiosity and little fear of humans, so they frequently make a beeline to look at us.

Here's a photo of the emperor colony we found. The fluffy, gray emperor chicks are so cute that they are simply off the cuteness scale.

Another colony shot. If you look at one of the birds on the front left, you can see a chick mostly tucked into the brood pouch with only its head showing. The chick is resting on its parent's feet. It must be very warm. When the wind increases, even the large chicks try to tuck themselves back into their parent's brood pouch. Of course, they no longer fit and content themselves by only hiding their heads with their fluffy rumps out in the cold.

Most of the time, the weather was really nice, but when we reached the colony, the wind came up and we had to protect our faces from the cold. That's Jessica and me. We look as if we are about to rob a bank.

Paul and I slogged up the slope (below) while Paul's physically fit graduate student bounced up another slope to take our photo. (Hey, she's almost 30 years younger than us!)

We spent the night in the Crozier hut. When we went to sleep the weather was beautiful. When we woke up, there were tremendous gusts of wind swirling around us.

We staged all our equipment down the hill near the helo landing site, but the winds made it impossible for the helo to land, so we had to haul everything back to the hut and wait out the wind. Getting all that equipment back to the hut above was difficult because the wind gusts were so strong that some of the bulkier stuff, like the sleep kits, acted like sails. It is hard to stay upright when wind tries to blow you over with each step.

Resigned to wait out the wind, Jessica below is looking for beaked whales. None were sighted, however.

Our camp photo.

Fortunately, the winds quieted down sufficiently for the helo to make a landing later in the day. The pilot had to crab his helo into the landing site. "Crabbing" is flying forward with the helo at about a 45 degree angle. It's a very strange thing to see and a bit unnerving.

Dustin was a very experienced helo pilot. I only became worried when he started talking to his helo, "C'mon, girl, you can do it. We need a little more power." The winds aloft were still fierce and made for a very bumpy ride back home. I didn't kiss the ground when we landed, but I thought of it.