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Antarctic Journal

February 6, 2003

Depart from Palmer Station

Giant petrel
Waving goodbye.
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I'm standing on the upper deck of the Laurence Gould along with a couple dozen other passengers, looking down at Palmer Station. The ship's two 5,000 diesel engines are throbbing. The station's entire staff are assembled on the pier below to bid the ship adieu. Moments earlier old friends and new acquaintances said their goodbyes with kisses, hugs and handshakes. After a month on station I had my share of emotional farewells and expressions of gratitude.

The previous several days were incredibly hectic. The Gould returned after a month-long scientific cruise along the Antarctic peninsula. For disembarking researchers there was equipment and other cargo to unload. For departing staff, there were offices and labs to vacate and luggage to board. There was a big bash the night before ship's departure. A welder in the maintenance department had built a huge steel oven for roasting a suckling pig over a wood fire. The aroma of smoked pork enveloped the station for an entire day. In honor of the roast, the send off feast was dubbed the Luau. The meal also included roasted trout, baked beans, sweet and sour meatballs, potato dumplings, cabbage salad and pineapple upside down cake. Two men performed a humorous skit dressed in grass skirts.

It has been an amazing four weeks stimulating all my senses. I was astounded by sight of Donna Patterson handling her petrels, I heard the underwater bang of icebergs cracking, and I smelled the sour stench of elephant-seal wallows. There's a simplicity and timelessness of the rock, ice and water of Antarctica. Yet if you watch and wait there is change as well: glaciers calve, birds nest, leopard seals stalk penguins. I discovered there's a new kind of change as well. Climate change is making glaciers recede and penguin colonies fail. Fishermen are poaching Chilean sea bass and, inadvertently, hooking giant petrels and albatrosses. Penguin researcher Bill Fraser says he expects the Adelies around Palmer Station to be gone within a decade. As I leave the place that has been my home for a month I'm sad to think that if my children ever visit, some the sights I experienced may be gone.

Now line handlers are casting off the thick lines securing the Gould to shore. Suddenly about a dozen staff members begin stripping off their outer clothing, revealing bathing suits underneath. As our ship departs they dive into the frigid waters, a Palmer tradition whenever the ship leaves. Our return trip to Chile will be the exact reverse of our arrival a little more than a month ago. We'll sail past glacier-covered mountains in the Neumayer Channel and Gerlache Strait. Then for two days we'll cross the infamous Drake Passage. Finally, we'll round Cape Horn and steam into the Strait of Magellan, back to Punta Arenas.

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