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thar she blows

WHALES. The whales have arrived!!

At 2:30 this morning I was sitting on the frozen beach of Hut Point (on the edge of town), next to the huge, Swedish icebreaker that is moored at the ice pier in the harbor. I’d taken a nap after work, intending to sleep for only an hour…and woke up six hours later. Sleep schedule shot, I went to the midnight meal for the night shift workers, and then walked down to the Point with a friend, Adam. The icebreaker floated unhindered by ice; recent wind storms had blown the loose chunks of broken ice out of the channel, leaving a wide expanse of open water.

These are magic words.  McMurdo Station is situated on an island, surrounded by the Ross Sea.  In the normal flow of seasons, the sea freezes during the winter, and is thawed and broken up by midsummer, leaving the station with a wide open sea view.  For the past five (six? seven?) years, though, the sea ice has been bottled in, blocked by two massive icebergs that had set up camp fifty miles north of the island.  Though the sea ice might have weakened, no amount of blowing winds could shift the icebergs and thereby free the seasonal ice, which means that McMurdo hasn’t seen open water in a long, long time.  Open water is a dream, a fairy tale, a phrase uttered by the old timers, those who’ve spent ten, twenty, thirty years in the USAP, who reminisce about emperor penguins roaming through town and orca whales in the harbor eating seals.  This year, the icebergs are gone.  The sea ice hasn’t blown away completely, but it’s on its way, slowly.  The Oden and The Polar Sea (the two icebreakers currently in our harbor) have carved out a channel and a turning basin (in preparation for the resupply vessel, currently en route).  This has weakened the overall composition of the ice, and each windy day clears away another few hundred feet off of the terminal face of the ice, now located perhaps five miles north of town.

This morning was clear and calm after two days of cold (12F, -7F windchill), gusty days – and behold, a wide open pool of midnight blue Antarctic seawater.  The shoreline where I sat with Adam was still ringed with ice, rising perhaps a foot above the cold, lapping waves, but for the first time in six months (tomorrow’s my six month anniversary) it felt like a shoreline.  The sun was at its low point for the day, directly south, and it painted a line on the water like any sunset back home.  And then: a plume, three feet in the air, steam and moisture expelled in a burst of sound.  Whales…. It was a moment for quiet, whispered awe.  Two minke whales, surfacing and diving, breathing and playing, displaying their dorsal fins and swimming in circles.  Adam and I sat and watched for over a half an hour.  Magic.

I celebrate six months tomorrow.  There’s a word for people who have been down here for too long: “toasty”.  Folks who have gotten toasty are, quite simply, folks whose minds are toast.  No memory, problems sleeping, difficulty forming sentences and remembering the proper words for things.  Giggling uncontrollably over inane happenings.  Trailing off in the middle of sentences, spacing out with a thousand-yard stare.  It’s a verifiable condition, though the cause is hard to pinpoint.  I wrote in my last entry about the long hours, the constant sunlight, the drinking, the constant barrage of people and activity and lack of privacy; these are all factors.  John, my fellow Lead DA and I are both displaying these symptoms, as are the other DAs.  Two days ago John was singing Christmas carols in the dish room.  We play ‘rock, paper, scissors’ obsessively to decide the most trivial details (who will write the menu on the white board before lunch? should we serve Cheerios or Total for breakfast?).  I wander about like a windup toy – I start walking in one direction with a specific purpose in mind, only to come back to my senses sixty seconds later, still walking in the same direction I was first pointed, with the task not only uncompleted, but forgotten entirely.  In some ways it’s an attempt at self-preservation.  The job and the lifestyle are relentless; it doesn’t bear thinking about too much.  Without letting one’s mind go a bit, it might well snap.  The DAs have become masters of silliness…we’ll don random hats, create makeshift bow ties out of plastic wrap, draw fake mustaches on our faces with grease pens.  During Thanksgiving, Julia (a fifty-two year old mother who’s working here with her husband) found an especially attractive rutabaga, and was so enamored with it that she duct-taped it to the top of her head.  Toasty…it means it’s time to go.

Six months; 24 weeks; 168 days…and only twelve left to go.  I feel like I’ve been counting down since I got here, and find it nearly impossible to believe that it’s almost here.  In less than two weeks I’ll be back in NZ.  It doesn’t seem real.  Antarctica, McMurdo has become my reality.  This is the real world.  I’m conditioned now, institutionalized.  In less than two weeks I’ll have to start paying for my food, clothes, accommodation, activities.  I’ll go days without seeing anyone I know.  I’ll have to drive to get around.  The sun will rise and set and I’ll follow the cycle of the moon.  I’ll be a transient once more, all my clothes in a backpack.  The sheer amount of details that are about to change are going to be overwhelming.

The energy around town is high; the word on everyone’s lips is Christchurch.  It’s like an incantation, calling up trees, greenery, scents, humidity, mountains, grass, flowers, animals, rain, restaurants – sushi, pizza, ice cream.  Culture, movies, music, radio stations.  I’m excited about being able to cook my own food, about getting back behind the wheel of the Doc.  Having options.  I’ve been fantasizing about going barefoot, about lying on a beach in the sun for an entire day without moving a muscle…sitting in the mountains completely alone, not having to talk to anyone.  Everyone, everyone is itching to go.  Twelve days…on February 16th I land in Christchurch, weather permitting.  Roll on, twelve days…

In case I don’t catch up with this again – I’ll see you in New Zealand.

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