Moving on from PCAS… a new week, a new life

Well it’s all over! I handed in my research project today, and sent the coordinator a link to My White South. Fair to say the memory of PCAS will be with me for a while yet though. I’ve learned a lot this summer, and seen some amazing things.

To visit the Ice was a privilege, and the experience vindicated some of the other things I want to achieve in the future. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey as much as I did.

Where to from here?? Well… I’m delighted to say that PCAS has paid off in more ways than one for me. Last Friday I was offered a job (an actual job!) through my contacts at the Last Ocean Trust. I start next week. It’s a dream come true. I’ve wanted to get into the conservation advocacy field for a long, long time; to now be in a position where I’m advocating not only for wildlife and the environment but in an Antarctic setting… wow!!!!!!!

It’s an uphill battle – there are quite a few obstacles in the way of protecting the Ross Sea – but if ever the time has come, it’s now. I’m honoured to be a part of it.

Here’s to the summer of a lifetime, and new horizons. Cheers PCAS! 😀

~ lonealbatross over and out, February 18, 2011

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Mr. Evans’ magical ice pipes

I said a little while back that I’d share more about the ice pipes that were erected on Christmas Day. So, the story behind the pipes: one of the guys in the class was the incomparable Julian Evans,  a composer from Plymouth in the UK. As part of his personal experience project Jules wanted to erect ice pipes during our time in Antarctica, so that he could record the various sounds as the wind interacted with them.

The poignant part of this story is that Jules’ granddad was Lieutenant ‘Teddy’ Evans, second in command to Scott on the 1910-1913 expedition, and the naval captain of the Terra Nova. Naturally Julian grew up hearing the stories of his grandfather’s exploits and had dreamed of one day being able to visit the Ice himself. As part of the centenary celebrations for Scott’s expedition, Julian was invited to create a sound installation of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK… which is where the ice pipes come in. Julian tells me that this is just a precursor – ideally he would love to get back to Antarctica and do something on a bigger scale.

I think you’ll agree that the pipes are very photogenic. I took scores of photos of them, especially whenever the light and mood changed. These are a few of my favourites…

Pretty sweet huh? If you want to know more, you can listen to Julian’s interview on Radiolive here.

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Thoughts for wannabe PCAS people

As the end of my summer school experience looms – and the end of regular blog updates – I just thought I’d share a few random thoughts for anyone out there who might be considering applying for PCAS in the future.

Christchurch… grew on me, it really did. I hated the first few weeks living in the University owned apartments, but once I moved out of there, everything was much better. If you disliked living in a hall of residence during your first year of uni (as I did), then it’s probably best to avoid the Ilam apartments. There’s plenty of other options. It’s a fairly large city by NZ standards, and there’s a lot going on. You won’t be bored in Christchurch, and if you are, then you need to try a little harder! Flats are pretty easy to find on TradeMe, and it’s also pretty level everywhere if you don’t have a car and want to cycle. There are heaps of cycling lanes and Hagley Park is awesome for running around. There are a lot of ethnic food shops and vegetarian eateries, which I really liked. However – do try to make sure you get your living arrangements sorted before the course starts, because once classes begin you can kiss goodbye any weekends/free time, for the first month at least (see below). Moving places would be a real hassle (as one classmate found out) which is why I avoided it until I was back from the Ice and really couldn’t take it any longer.

Canterbury Uni… left me a little underwhelmed, the whole summer long. I’m only basing this on my previous experiences having studied down the road at Otago. In general I found the Canterbury University systems (library catalogue, IT services etc.) unwieldy to use, and the lack of… everything was pretty annoying. I know, I know, the place was a mess after the earthquake. But the library’s summer opening hours are ridiculous and it’s really hard to find places to work. Gateway Antarctica was unable to provide us with workspace in the first half of the course, apart from the classroom, which is really the last place you want to see after spending 30+ hours a week in there for lectures. That was a sore point for me. I’ve had two other Otago friends (starting this semester) say similiar things about enrolling at Canterbury, so this isn’t just me having a whine! On the plus side, we had free library interloans all summer (because of the earthquake); I had three books sent from the US free of charge. And the Uni gym is pretty good, and ridiculously cheap.

The PCAS course, workload, lecturers… were about what I expected from the Gateway Antarctica website. The lecturers were generally very good, with some standouts at both the good and bad ends of the scale. There is a lot of contact time in the first 4 weeks, which did surprise me a little. If you’ve done postgrad level papers before coming to PCAS, you might want to think back to undergrad days, when you could easily be trapped in a lab for an entire afternoon. PCAS is similar and you are expected to attend every class.

Assignments… PCAS is not exactly an easy ride to the Ice. Maybe easier than some ways, but Gateway Antarctica works hard to keep up the academic reputation of the course,  and PCAS is fairly intensive with assessment. We did a literature review, three field reports, a creative project, a major group assignment and presentation, and a major research project. I’ve personally written about 16,000 words this summer, not including this blog. My advice is prepare for the ones that you know are coming. Everyone in PCAS submits an individual research project related to their previous studies or area of employment. You really want to have a good idea about this before the course starts (indeed, they ask you about it in the application material), and think about potential supervisors. They don’t have to be from the University of Canterbury, and it’s really left up to you to find someone who’s interested in your project and willing to supervise you. The literature review can be on just about anything, and it pays to have a fairly good idea about this one too, because you will be asked for your topic in the first week.

The field trip… well, you’ve seen the pictures. Antarctica will blow your mind. There’s nothing quite like it. If you’ve lived in a lot of field camps before, you may find it strange being in such a big group. I did. The PCAS experience does have a certain ‘school camp’ feel about it, and I think the success of the field trip largely comes down to the weather and the people you share it with. Both of which you have no control over (apart from choosing tent/cooking buddies) so I think the best advice is just go with the flow! You share a lot of incredible experiences with these people, and you will react differently in many instances. But at the end of the day you’re in it together and the thing works best when you look out for one another and respect the differences. PCAS thrives on diversity – embrace it.

So I guess, having been through all this, the question I’ve been asked most by friends is “do you recommend the course?” And the short answer is yes.

The long(er) answer is: it’s not for everyone, and it’s the kind of course where you’ll get out what you put in. The workload is heavy, especially in the first month where you have class 9-5pm most days, as well as assignments, when all you can think about is the fact that you are going to Antarctica in 4, 3, 2, 1 weeks. That part was the hardest for me.

But if you have a genuine interest in Antarctica (beyond just ‘getting there’) and want to make some great friends and contacts, then PCAS is probably one of the best things you’ll ever do. What’s holding you back?! 😀

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Antarctica: the aftermath

For me, the days immediately after returning to NZ were taken up by dealing with a mystery allergic reaction, amongst other things. I put it down to civilisation – I needed to get back to the Ice! Because of this I had a very sober New Years, but it didn’t matter. It was good to catch up with the PCAS crowd again – we were all having withdrawals from each-other after just two days apart! Sounds a little strange but we did get pretty close during our time living in Windless Bight.

Another strange yet significant event for me was hearing that my 16-year old cat, Pixie, had passed away on December 29, the day we returned to NZ. Mum waited a few days to tell me. It was sad but I know she had a good life. Just a little weird trying to say goodbye to someone who’s been around 2/3 of your life! It still seems strange actually – I know it won’t sink in until I visit home and she’s no longer curled up at the foot of my bed.

Since the trip, I’ve just been busy finishing up all the requirements for the course. We spent the first week or so working hard to write up the field reports and then it was straight into syndicate/group work. After a fortnight of that we gave our big talks and then delved into our personal research projects. These are due Friday – yes, the day after tomorrow – and then… PCAS is no more. Our Friday night gatherings have become a regular weekly occurrence and this week is sure to be raucous by anyone’s standards 😉

I’ve also been thinking a lot about Antarctica since the trip. The PCAS visit was amazing, but too short for me. I’m dreaming of going back one day as part of a small research team and spending longer in the field. PCAS has been invaluable for clarifying a few things for me, and even having just that little taster of life on the Ice is something to be treasured.

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December 29: homebound

After all our wishing for clouds the night before, the 29th did indeed dawn overcast. Once we were all packed and checked-in our big bags, there wasn’t much left to do (plane was scheduled to land late afternoon) so a handful of us ventured out to the pressure ridge in front of Scott Base. This is a unique ice formation where the sea ice meets land and is forced into amazing shapes because of all the tidal pressure. There were some magical ice creations to see.

By the time we got back to base the cloud was lifting a little. It was just about time for lunch and to pack ourselves a sandwich for dinner during the flight back to NZ.

And before we knew it, we were back on Ivan the terra-bus and headed out toward Pegasus Airfield to await the arrival of the C-17. The cloud had lifted a lot by now, so there was really no question that we wouldn’t be going home. Sad (tired) faces all round 😦

Although we had a good 3 or so hours to kill before the flight, it wasn’t boring. The Pegasus airfield is really like big boys toys – on steroids. So many cool machines coming and going. This is for you Dad…

Then sure enough, the C-17 Globemaster came roaring into view. A perfect touchdown.

Then sure enough, it was our turn to climb onboard. Goodbye Antarctica…

As with the flight down, there were many beautiful sights to be seen from the tiny plane windows. I went a little nuts photographing the pack ice, feeling pretty sad that this was goodbye. Not forever I hope though! I’ll be back someday I’m sure.

We arrived in Christchurch around 10pm, and yes… it was DARK. For the first time in 12 days, there was no sun in the sky. It was a bit strange. The air was warm and sweet and we started to melt inside our heavy thermals and boots.

After a quick waltz through Customs and duty free, we were picked up by the tireless warehouse guys from Antarctica NZ. We went straight to the store room and returned all our clothing right then-and-there so we wouldn’t do a runner with the awesome black and orange jackets. Then we were free to go home. Antarctica was done and dusted (iced?), and already it was starting to feel like a dream.

And that… was it! Hard to do such a vast place justice in just 12 days but I think we gave it a pretty good go, don’t you??

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1000 hits!!

My White South reached 1000 hits in the past 24 hours. Yay. I’m guessing only about 5% of those hits are my own, since I’m usually logged in and my own views therefore don’t count. Which leaves a lot of room for other people to be visiting and hopefully learning a little bit about PCAS and life on the Ice. Thanks to all my loyal readers for helping me reach this milestone! 😀

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December 28: Antarctica, USA style

After a little more sorting of tents, it was time to head over to the American base, McMurdo. We’d been invited for lunch, and were also planning to visit Observation Hill, the NZ lab at Arrival Heights, Scotts 1901 Discovery hut, and a tour of the huge American Crary Lab. It was going to be a very busy day!

The walk from Scott Base to McMurdo is not far at all – less than 3km. It took us quite a bit longer though because we wanted to walk up Observation Hill along the way.

This is where Scott’s men kept a lookout for the return of the Pole party that never made it home. There is a memorial cross to the men who died, and spectacular views out across McMurdo Sound and the Ross ice shelf.

We were running a little late by the time we got down from the hill so it was time to head straight to lunch. Getting down into McMurdo you instantly realise it is nothing like Scott Base. Scott Base really feels like a large backpackers or something… McMurdo is a full-blown town! The Americans have ~1200 people on base in summer.

(…click on the photo to enlarge the panorama) After lunch it was time to split the class up. My group headed up to Arrival Heights first, to check out the lab where the NZ science technicians take atmospheric readings.

Then we all piled into the Landcruiser and headed down to the point where Discovery hut is. We saw the huge land wharf where the US icebreaker comes alongside every summer.

The hut was quite different from those at Cape Evans and Royds. Rather than one big main room, there was a large corridor type room with smaller rooms/compartments as you walked through. Still lots of really old stuff lying around though!!

From here we caught a ride back to McMurdo proper and had a few minutes to kill. We went to check out the flags by the National Science Foundation headquarters, and I managed to track down the post office to get my passport stamped 😉

Then it was time to meet for our tour of the Crary lab, where so much of the US program’s science happens. This was a real treat, to be shown around and see how the place ticks. My favourite part was getting down into the wet lab where they keep some underwater delights from the waters surrounding Antarctica.

Before we knew it, the time had come to head back to Scott Base. I was a little sad to leave McMurdo – it was just so big, with so many people coming and going. I wanted more time to explore! Very different to Scott Base, where everyone knows everyone’s business.

Back at Scott Base we enjoyed our last dinner and most people ended up hanging out in the bar, aka ‘The Tatty Flag’. It was a fun way to end the trip, though many of us were willing the clouds to come in so that our flight would be delayed and we could stay a little longer. New Years on the Ice please??

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December 27: return to ‘civilisation’

So the 27th rolled around and it was time to pack up for good and get our smelly selves back to Scott Base. Most people were sad to be leaving camp, but the sound of a hot shower was very enticing. We got all the tents down just as a team of Hagglunds arrived from Scott Base to help shift all our gear.

Then there was really nothing left to do but take the mandatory group shot (no hats allowed – let that greasy hair free!) and say goodbye to Erebus.

And hello to the green, green buildings of Scott Base:

After a tasty lunch and many a hot shower, the afternoon was taken up with unpacking, cleaning and drying gear, and sorting through the leftover food. We put all the tents up to dry in a large storage space:

Then it was time to get on with our environmental monitoring projects. The class was broken down into smaller groups to work on four different projects relating to the ongoing environmental monitoring programme at Scott Base. Every base in Antarctica is obliged (under certain protocols of the Antarctic Treaty) to conduct regular monitoring to gauge the effects of human habitation on the surrounding area.

My particular project revolved around a visual assessment of the terrain around Scott Base, especially identifying areas that had high use and were heavily disturbed by vehicles and foot traffic. In other words: assigning the level of degraded terrain using a predetermined method/scale. If it sounds a little boring, that’s because it sort of was. Anyway. My group was largely working in front of Scott Base near the TAE hut. Only fair then that we stop by the Scott Base sign.

The entertainment that evening was “the big shave” – one of the girls in the class wanted to shave her head as a fundraiser for the leukemia foundation. She raised over $1000 in the process. A couple of the guys joined her, but it has to be said it’s a much bigger deal if you’re a chick with beautiful shoulder-length hair!

She totally pulled it off though – it’s all in the gorgeous smile 🙂

After 9 days in the brilliant Antarctic sun it was a little strange to be back ‘indoors,’ so to speak. We were pretty tired though, and I slept well that night. Just as well because we still had one full day in Antarctica… and we were off to McMurdo (the American base) to see how the other half lives!

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December 26: beginning of the end…

Boxing Day was a very relaxed day. This was to be our last night in the field, so it was time to start preparing the camp site for our departure. We were due back at Scott Base around lunchtime on the 27th, so there were a lot of tents to be taken down before then, as well as kitchens and toilets to be deconstructed. The idea was to leave the camp site as close as possible to how we found it. On this day there were also a lot of neat cloud formations around. I took a lot of photos, just ’cause.

Many of my photos from this day have a domestic feel to them. I was keen to capture some memories of the kitchens, snow caves and even toilets before they were destroyed. Admittedly many of the structures had melted a lot since their initial construction 8 days earlier, but you get the idea. Kitchen & dining areas:

Toilets (yes, those are really just buckets with a seat):

Snow caves:

Domestic life is very sociable in Antarctica. Melting enough ice to have enough liquid water needs constant consideration:

Once we had taken down a few of the tents it was time for my famous lentil spaghetti. It came out even better than I expected. Secret tip – freeze dried mashed spuds are perfect for thickening any sauce 😉

This was also the last free time for people to work on their personal experience projects. I stayed up until midnight, utilising the ‘golden’ light to take some photos of the camp surroundings. These are some of the more interesting ones…

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December 25: santa drives a Hägglunds

Christmas started a lot like many other Christmasses I remember. My tent buddy and I were dying to sleep in, after many days of 6 or less hours of sleep. We told our cooking group that this was the plan the night before, but still the guys came and woke us up. Just like my brothers would’ve if I’d been at home 😉

Before we knew it, a Hagglunds came roaring across Windless Bight from the direction of Scott Base. Our would-be Santa was in fact two of the base staff delivering a hot Christmas lunch for us!! (well, it was going to be hard to beat the Christmas Eve BBQ wasn’t it?!). Turkey and ham for the carnivores, and lots of yummy salads, roast veges, the works. It was nothing short of spectacular, especially considering we had been eating a lot of freeze-dry and 3 year old crackers.

And there was even dessert – ice cream and Christmas pudding!! We also had a lunch time story – The Three Fishing Brothers Gruff.

The group had also taken an alcohol order from the Scott Base shop, so we cracked into that too. The sun was shining, and it was WARM. The automatic weather station recorded 6°C at around 4pm that day. It was lovely, but also sunburn central!!

As the afternoon wore on, people broke off to enjoy the free time, really the first we’d had since getting to the Ice. It was blissful just to stop and enjoy lying in the sun. In many ways it felt a lot like Christmas at home – we gorged ourselves silly, some drank a little too much, some kicked a ball around, and then most people just ended up lying around in the sun. Erebus put on a good show too, smoking away all day…

I capped off a perfect day by taking my turn at sleeping in one of the snow caves. But not before checking out the ice pipes that one class mate had erected as part of their personal project. I’ll explain more in an upcoming post, but for now… aren’t they pretty??

All in all my first white Christmas was a resounding success – I look forward to many more in the future 🙂

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December 24: adventures on ice (and a BBQ?!)

Thanks to the near-perfect weather, by this point in the camp we had achieved most of the necessary field work and things started to wind down a little.

The morning’s adventure was a visit to the ice fall near the route back to Scott Base. So (you guessed it) we piled into the Hagg and set off. Much to my delight, I was allowed to drive part of the way. The Hagglunds have an automatic transmission, so it’s pretty foolproof – seems the hardest part is reading the ‘road’ and knowing when to decelerate over bumps, for the comfort of those in the rear unit. I imagine it’s a whole lot scarier driving on the sea ice.

Once at the ice fall, we roped up, were given crampons for our boots, and an ice axe should we need to use our newly honed self-arresting skills. We set off up the ice fall, with the field trainers on crevasse alert. They found a few, and did a good job of showing us both how beautiful and dangerous crevasses can be.

There were lots of beautiful formations in the ice.

Later in the day the sun came out and our Christmas Eve treat was a visit to the Scott Base ski field. Yup, we got to go skiing!!!!! I’m not much of a skier, in fact I hadn’t been anywhere near a slope for about 8 years, but I sort of picked it up and had so much fun.

So just when I was feeling so cool about everything, we got to go skiing in Antarctica. And that’s not all – the ski field came fully equipped with a BBQ, upon which we cooked a worthy Christmas Eve feast. Unreal.  I was assured then that this was going to be a very good Christmas indeed…

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The Last Ocean – new website

The Last Ocean Charitable Trust has a brand-spanking new website, and it’s awesome. Have a look, watch the amazing videos, learn about the Ross Sea, and be sure to sign up for the newsletters! Ooooh, exciting!! Check it all out right here.

ps. you can join us on Facebook too!

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