Icy Inverts 2004
Daily Journal of the R/V Laurence M. Gould
Dec. 3, 2004 --- Position  Lat/Long: S063° 31.220 W056° 45.382
[Air Temp:-1.8C / Wind: 20-23k / Wind Chill: -19.3C /Water Depth: 191 meters]
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Esperanza Station –
We Walked on the Antarctic Continent!

Icebergs are still a great presence here. We’ve taken many pictures by now, and we’re no longer running out on deck for every one we pass – but they’re still appreciated.

November 2004
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December 2004
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There was one particularly large iceberg looming on the radar that I swear must have had its own zip code.  It was in the path of our passage toward a narrow cut, and we had to go around it.  Every so often we see penguins riding the icebergs. They swim right up to the berg, ‘fly’ out of the water, and thwap! - stick to the side of an icy slope as if their tummies were made of Velcro.

We had a large sea-bottom haul in the early afternoon, using the Blake Dredge again. So large was this load, in fact, that it was simpler to empty it out on the deck. We shoveled heaps into large buckets for rinsing and transferred sortable loads to the sorting table on deck. It took about 3 hours just to clean and sort the conglomerate of seaweed, mud, and many, many critters, most of them brittle stars, but also lots of tube worms (a main focus for a couple of scientists here). Dr. Thomas Dahlgren pulled apart a glass sponge for closer inspection, and found several amphipods (relatives of sand flees) living inside. [See Image 1] I think it would make a lovely holiday centerpiece, don’t you? And as long as Martha Stewart is indisposed…. We worked feverishly on finishing the job of sorting and pickling, other-shift personnel getting involved also, because we had a deadline, places to go and people to see…

The highlight of the day was our evening stop at Esperanza Station at the very tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Esperanza (meaning “hope”, named by the first inhabitants of the site in 1903) is an Argentine military and research base, with about 60 inhabitants including 21children and teenagers. We were invited, through our captain’s relationship with the base Director there, to come ashore and share a meal with the village. Captain Mike had a special mission of his own, which was to deliver presents to the children, including tee shirts and toys, and to open communication between the base and his son’s elementary school back in Florida. There are teachers, craftsmen, a doctor, and scientists there, all living in communal and relatively primitive housing [see Image 2]. The base is a cluster of around 20 similar, small barn-red buildings with black roofs, all facing in the same direction – a formation not so unlike the large population of Adelie penguins that share the landscape there! [See Image 3] Each building that was not a home was a functioning workshop for the community. One is for “auto” repair (they have a small fleet of all-terrain snow cats as far as I could gather – this is rugged terrain!), another for carpentry (carpinteria), and still another for electronics. We saw the chapel and the infirmary. There was a really small trailer-like unit that was the laboratory for all of the science that happens there. (I think a good deal of this is penguin-watching, but some geology, too.) The school/gym is quite modest with tiny classrooms, desks all clustered together, but despite their close quarters the teachers and children appeared to have good relationships! There was even a small computer room with equipment that appeared to have been donated by Intel. Did I mention that amidst the cluster of buildings was one huge DirectTV satellite dish? Spare me.

It was a flat calm, easy steam to this site. Captain Mike was pleased with the window of weather and lack of ice in the area – a shift in the wind would have pushed ice into land, prohibiting our access to it. Not unusual at this time of year.

They started shuttling us (and several containers of hot food!) from the LMG to the Esperanza dock around 6:30 p.m. It was cold but pleasant, with a light snow falling. Did anyone notice how quiet it was? No boat engine. We walked a pathway through a rocky area littered with penguins in their nests, penguins standing watch, and penguins just kickin’ back because, there was nothing really for them to do but watch us watching them. Several birds had eggs in their “nests” (a bit more orderly arrangement of smaller rocks), and they would stand up and roll the eggs with their beaks, then settle back down. They didn’t seem bothered by our presence at all, which is good, because to disturb them or take anything from their space (feathers, rocks, eggs, bones, etc.) would draw fines of up to $25,000 for each offense.

We gathered at the Casino, where the villagers had graciously and painstakingly set 3 long tables for dinner for everybody. The families walked down the road to the Great Hall, little girls dressed in tights, dresses and party shoes for the occasion, little boys on their best behavior. Our hosts had set the Great Hall with 3 lo-o-o-ng tables with linen, ample glassware, and nice Argentine wine. Within a short time, the language barrier was overcome and there began a cacophony of at first polite and then familiar chatter – after all, time was a-wastin’. We found creative ways to communicate (mine was to sit with someone who spoke pretty good English), and became warmly acquainted in this relatively short time. I learned from my tablemates (Juan and Gabriele) that the entire group of people at this station commit there for only one calendar year, changing with another whole community in January. And the major draw? – the pay is very good. Juan has done this 4 times (says this is his last), and after this stint he will be able to buy a house. His role on the base is “Doctor” (which includes dentist and druggist), and his profession at home is – optometrist. ‘Close enough for government work’ takes on a whole new meaning here. I’m sure he did a fine job, as everyone looked well fed, happy and healthy.

Wouldn’t you know it, just as Captain Mike was getting ready to call the return to the LMG, Latin dance music came on and the partying pace kicked itself up a notch! We were destined to a delay in departure, as the dance floor filled and became the single pulse of a diverse congregation of happy, friendly and genuinely grateful revelers.

We ultimately had to say goodbye, lots of email addresses were exchanged, friendly embraces all around, and the shuttling back to the ship began. Although I saw it as a pleasant reprieve from what had now become our daily routine, Raul (the Argentinean observer on LMG) that this was especially good for the station-keepers.


 He said they have some occasions of people becoming depressed with this long term of relative isolation, and getting back to their home lives can be difficult. He saw this visit as a good segue for our hosts to ready themselves psychologically for the return to more urban life. Bonus! Our pleasure, entirely!

From here we steam to the King George Island and the South Shetland Islands via the Bransfield Strait. I think we’re in for a treat…

Dinner Menu (shipboard, 12/3):