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Antarctic Journal

January 13, 2003

My Arrival at and First Impressions of Palmer Station

Arrivals of the R/V Laurence M. Gould are busy times at Palmer Station. New staff and visitors are arriving for the first time and old hands are returning. There are hardy welcomes and emotional farewells; the ship rarely stays more much more than a day before departing for a research cruise or a return voyage. There's cargo to unload, including scientific equipment, baggage and the first fresh vegetables reaching Palmer Station in two months. As the Gould is sailing again almost immediately for a month of research, there are crates of gear to load urgently.

I am promptly given a safety lecture. The nearest settlement of any kind is a tiny Ukrainian base called Vernadsky, 12 miles away. But Palmer has no boats suitable for getting there and Vernadsky is not equipped to assist Palmer in an emergency. The next nearest people are 200 miles away. So a fire here would be a serious matter. In case of a fire, staff are instructed to muster, or gather for a roll call, at the base's boathouse.

I also receive a grand tour. Palmer Station, with a maximum of 46 residents, is a small place, but there's a lot to see. The base is like a very small town, completely self sufficient as long as it has plenty of diesel fuel and fresh food. There is a power plant that makes electricity to light the lights, convert seawater into fresh water, and to run equipment. There's the boathouse, with 14 inflatable rubber Zodiac boats. There are sleeping quarters, a dining hall, a clinic, as well as wood, metal, and electrical shops. Of course there are also laboratories, as the purpose of Palmer Station is scientific research. I put my wallet and keys away because other than a small store open just twice a week there's no place to buy anything and hardly anything here is locked.

Soon after arriving I attend Boating I and Boating II, the two courses required before anyone can operate a Zodiac, the only mode of transportation here. They look like toys with big black sausage-like pontoons, but these durable inflatable vessels, popularized by Jacques Cousteau, are the best craft for the conditions here. They can nose through clumps of basket-ball-size ice chunks without slowing down and land safely on rocky shores. Before long, I am at the stern of a Zodiac gunning a 55 horsepower engine. It's hard to get the knack at first. To turn left, you have to pull the tiller right. We are taught how to find islands in the fog and how to land in heavy swells. If foul weather prevents us from returning to the base, the boat has a waterproof trunk of emergency gear. Each of the islands in the permitted boating zone has an emergency cache with more gear in three big plastic trash cans.

Palmer occupies a rocky outcrop on the southern rim of Anvers Island. Behind the base, just several hundred yards from the pier, the glacier, called Marr Ice Piedmont (an ice piedmont is a cap of ice that covers an entire continent or island), rises up steeply. Apart from a city-park-size, boulder-strewn area behind the base, called the "back yard," the glacier is the only place to go on foot. Even there, travel is restricted to a narrow path about a mile and a half long, as anywhere else the glacier is riddled with treacherous crevasses more than 100 feet deep, often hidden by snow drifts.

In this tiny plot, more than three dozen souls spend months together at a time, with no chance to travel, apart from limited boat excursions, and with few visitors. The social life is intense. You are likely to eat breakfast next to your physician, brush your teeth with the cook and soak in the hot tub with your boss. On Saturdays everyone takes part in a base-wide cleanup called "house mouse." Someone asked me when I arrived what I planned to do for the weekend and, at first, I thought, "What can you do?" But in their spare time people here are constantly occupied. They watch videos on a large screen in the lounge, read books, write emails, play board games and cards, and take excursions to nearby islands. They play pool and chew the fat in the bar. The freezer there is always stocked with crystal clear hunks of ice found floating in the harbor.

It took thousands of years since it was formed until this ice calved off a glacier and ended up in the fridge. Perfect for chipping off into drinks, people here call it "bar ice." In their free time, inhabitants of Palmer give workshops in batik, Spanish, and woodworking. There is even a weekly science lecture series. On my first Friday evening, half the base parties into the wee hours of the morning. They perform a carousing ritual dubbed the "tent crawl," progressively visiting each of the tents where a half-dozen or so staff members make their quarters. Now, weekend over and thoroughly briefed, I'm ready to learn about what brought me here. Penguins.

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