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Antarctic Journal

January 17, 2003

The Redcoats Come. They Make a Delivery.

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Researcher Bill Fraser prepares for an aerial photographic survey.
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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.

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 psyche.

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.

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