January 17, 2003
It's mid-morning and I'm in the "back yard," the rocky area behind Palmer
Station. Bill Fraser, base-manager Joe Petit and Polly Penhale--a
representative from the NSF--are waiting for the arrival of a Lynx
helicopter, one of two "helos" carried aboard the British ice cutter
Endurance. The vessel is owned by the British navy, but the Endurance is a
scientific research ship. It is making a cruise down the Antarctic
Peninsula and stopped at Port Lockroy, the site of a historic research hut
only about 20 miles from Palmer. Port Lockroy is now of minor significance
as a research site. But its wood-frame cabin is of historic interest.
Built in 1947, it's the oldest remaining British structure on the
Antarctic Peninsula. Reportedly, it is the most visited tourist attraction
in Antarctica, supported in part by T-shirt sales.
The Redcoats Come. They Make a Delivery.
Ian Moncrieff, captain of the Endurance, rang up the station a couple of
days ago requesting permission to land a helicopter at Palmer. In the
distance we hear a low buzz, and soon the chopper is looping over our
heads. It drops slowly onto a circle of mud that has been cleared of
boulders. Three people in full battle gear and laden with huge packs
scramble out cargo doors. One is literally a "redcoat" -- dressed in a
bright red survival suit. The others are wearing camouflage, including
weird helmets reminiscent of Rocky the flying squirrel's aviator's cap.
For a second, I wonder if this is an expeditionary force, coming to retake
our base for the empire. Palmer was originally a British research station,
called Base N. It was abandoned in 1958 and occupied by the U.S. in 1964.
And if Ernest Shackleton's misadventures weren't enough, the war over the
Falklands showed how important polar territories are to the British
As it turns out, the visit is more benign. Last year, Bill Fraser asked
Captain Moncrieff to do an aerial survey of some nearby islands for Adelie
colonies. The officer couldn't accommodate Fraser's request then, but
Moncrieff, an avid birder, remembered the entreaty and has offered to do
the photographic survey now. Moncrieff, who is one of the helo's
passengers, unties his boots and strips off his waterproof gear. He points
out a spoon tucked into his pack. It's an important piece of equipment, he
says wryly, if he has to bivouac and eat military rations. Underneath his
flight suit he's dressed in his captain's uniform, with four epaulettes on
each shoulder. Moncrieff briefs Fraser on the flight. While they talk, the
helo returns to the ship to bring back two more crew members who couldn't
fit in the first flight. The Endurance, as it turns out, has two seamen
named Palmer. Moncrieff wants a picture of them at Palmer Station.
When the chopper returns, Fraser dons the British-issue survival suit and
takes off. While he's out, Moncrieff and his entourage visit the base. The
tour includes a stop at the bar, where the visitors look approvingly at a
plaque with the Endurance insignia left by the ship on a previous stop. To
the mortification of the guides, they can't locate a commemorative photo
the ship left last year. They make a stop at the gift shop as well.
Moments later, the chopper comes back, having successfully completed its
mission. The ship's photographer snaps a shot of the Palmers and the
visitors take their leave. However, we haven't seen the last of them.
Several hours later, in the middle of dinner, we hear the chopper's low
rumble. Fraser goes to meet them. The photographer has already developed
the pictures from the survey in the ship's darkroom. Rather than wait
until they stop at the station in several weeks on their journey home,
they decided to drop off the shots today, making, perhaps, the world's
most expensive home delivery.
Read the January 14th entry
Read the January 13th entry
Read the January 9th entry
Read the December 29th entry
Read the December 23rd entry