Elana Blog #7
December 8, 2013

The start to my last week in Antarctica – I really wish I could stay here longer!

Monday was spent in the office getting stuck into several of the desk-based projects I am doing. I am making a little ‘welcome to Scott Base’ information booklet, a poster on the historical sites and protected areas within the Ross Sea region, as well as doing some filming for one of Antarctic NZ’s environmental management certifiers. I have to say that it was pretty difficult to work inside for the day as every time I looked outside I could see pods of Minke whales breaching in the melt pools. Also hundreds of Weddel Seals have now appeared on the sea ice outside Scott Base.

Weddel Seals haul out on the ice at this time of year to moult their mottled grey coats. The seals spend the winter out in the ocean to avoid blizzards; they then come back on shore in the summer to breed, give birth, and moult. Weddels have very high site fidelity, meaning that they return annually to their place of birth to carry out these activities. McMurdo Sound has a resident population of around 1000 seals, with most of these individuals tagged for research purposes. Seal research here has been going on since 1968! Last year they identified a super mum seal. She has had 21 pups in the 25 years that she has been alive, so she has had a pup per year since she reached sexual maturity – a truly astounding feat. Also Weddle Seals can dive to depths of 600+metres in the search food and hold their breath for up to 45mins. As you can probably tell, I absolutely amazed by these creatures.

Monday evening I climbed to the top of Crater Hill. The weather was superb, with light winds, and majestic views out towards Mount Erebus and over McMurdo Sound. I sat for an hour or so at the top just absorbing it all in. I often have to stop myself during the day to appreciate that I’m actually in Antarctica. At the top you get an impressive view over the three wind turbines. These were erected in a collaborate effort between Antarctic NZ and Meridian Energy to decrease the reliance of fossil fuels by Scott Base and McMurdo Station. It’s great to see New Zealand taking the initiative in pushing for clean forms of energy in this part of the world!

Tuesday was a full on day to say the least. I spent the morning running up and down Arrival Heights with a GPS, taking coordinate data for a new map of the walking tracks in the area. At the bottom of the hill I met up with Ceisha and made our way over to Discovery Hut to conduct an environmental audit. Environmental audits are done for every Antarctic NZ field based project to make sure they are complying with strict environmental standards that are set forth. The Antarctic Heritage Trust have been working over at Discovery Hut over the summer doing restoration and conservation work. Fortunately, the site is excellently run and the audit was passed with flying colours.

After the audit we were invited to tour the Maersk Peary along with Antarctic NZ top management. The Maersk Peary is a large fuel tanker that has arrived in port to refuel McMurdo Station for the upcoming winter season. The ship is American flagged and its entire crew are from the States. To board the ship we had to cross the ice pier, a floating platform of sea ice covered with dirt to stop it melting, and this was slightly unnerving as only several metres of sea ice are supporting all the heavy equipment involved in the refuelling exercise. Once on board we were introduced to the captain and chief engineer and started the tour by visiting the bridge of the ship. The bridge is the area of the ship from where the ship is commanded when underway. The captain enthusiastically showed us all the equipment and answered all our questions. He was most accommodating in answering all my environmental related questions, such as their compliances with international marine pollution agreements and rules around dumping of ballast water. A tour around the engine room reconfirmed the ship and crew’s commitment to ensuring that they achieve the highest environmental standards. The crew then graciously invited us for lunch in the galley and gave us a few mementos to remember thisfantastic experience.

That evening we had several science talks at base. Many of the field based science programmes had finished for the season and returned back to base to finish up their work. This was great for me, as I love hearing about all the amazing science being down on the ice. The first talk was given up Graig Stewart, a PhD candidate with Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute. Graig and his team are investigating the basal melting of the Ross Ice Shelf using oceanography and basal melt rate measurements from instruments moored under the Shelf. They have spent weeks riding around on Skidoos on the ice to get their data and endured periods of extreme weather. Their research will be important in understanding the influence of that the ocean has on ice melt, and is especially pertinent in the face of increasing climate change pressures.

Dr. Regina Eisert, a research scientist from the University of Canterbury, gave the second talk. Dr. Eisert and her team are investigating the diet of killer whales in a bid to learn if they are consuming toothfish and if so, how much they rely on it. They are doing this by firing biosample darts at the whales, which extracts a very tiny sample of their skin. This can then be analysed by using carbon isotope analysis to determine their diet. This research is important in that there is currently a toothfish fishery in the Ross Sea. Very little is known about the life history of toothfish and scientists are concern that if they are over exploited, then this fishery will collapse and impact the animals that rely on toothfish. Dr.Eisert’s research will be essential for fisheries managers and conservation bodies. Watch this One News clip for more on this research project: http://tvnz.co.nz/world-news/nz-scientists-fire-da…


Elana Hawke

Elana Hawke

BLAKE Antarctic Ambassador 2013