Monday, December 18, 2006

On Hut Point Ridge

Yesterday, Dec 17th, I headed out to the west-side of town to Hut Point where a historic hut erected by Robert Scott's Discovery crew in 1901 still stands. It was from here that Scott carried out some of his early Antarctic expeditions. Also at Hut Point is a cross commemorating George Vince's death who disappeared over higher up on the ridge in a nasty storm in 1902.

Scott's Hut at Hut Point with McMurdo and Ob Hill to the East.

Hut Point looks out over the sea ice and the Ross Ice Shelf across to the Trans-Antarctic Mountains that form the skyline fifty miles away. The sea ice appears blue and relatively darker than the thick white Ice Shelf. This is because as summer warms this part of the globe the sea ice starts melting and thinning and thus making it slightly translucent. This is good news for Antarctic seals who can easily break through the ice.

As I sat at Hut Point on that windy day, two Weddell Seals surfaced through one of the holes in the ice at the edge of Hut Point Ridge and began basking in the afternoon sun.

Weddell Seals off Hut Point.

As the sea ice breaks up around the ridge it forms an interesting pattern of cracks and thin blue ice running parallel to the shore, which I suspect may be due to the effect of tides, but I am not certain about this. But, in any case this is a treacherous situation and one is advised to keep off such ice!

Sea Ice starts to melt as the austral summer progresses.

Today, Dec 18th, was unusually calm and so I ventured out again this time for a longer walk up the Hut Point Ridge. However, I left later than I would've liked and had to head back early in time for lunch!

But, it was a nice walk and I got some nice pictures. I almost walked over a Skua's nest near one of the trails and it was a warning squawk from the partly camouflaged bird that alerted me of its presence.

A Skua nesting at Hut Point Ridge.

A Skua is a large (wingspan > 4 feet), predatory and opportunistic gull-like bird found around Antarctica that will feed generally on dead or dying penguins, penguin's eggs. But, in McMurdo it will not hesitate to attack a helpless scientist carrying food from the Galley to his office! There are no trees in Antarctica (surprised?) so, these birds lay their eggs on the ground in a nest made of the local volcanic building stones. Their dark colour and mottled plumage effectively hides them from view even in plain sight. This is not apparent in the picture as I have the sun shining straight on it providing a better contrast, but I was walking toward it from the opposite direction and uphill and so, the bird just blended in with the dark rocks! It was startling to hear that squawk coming from a few feet ahead of me with no apparent squawk-producer!

A little further up along the ridge is another memorial, this one in the form of a statue of Mary placed on a pile of boulders and housed in a cage topped with a cross. The Lady of the Snows, also called Roll Cage Mary marks the tragic demise of Richard Thomas Williams, the 22 year old US Navy officer with the 1956 Byrd expedition who fell through sea ice in his tractor while carrying supplies from a ship 30 miles off shore. The Williams Air Field east of McMurdo is also named in his honour. These memorials testify to the harsh and unforgiving nature of the Antarctic which early expeditions had to face to establish human presence on this most remote part of the world.

The Lady of the Snows.

Today, living in the Antarctic is much more sophisticated and many of the dangers of living on the ice have been recognized. Strict regulations, excellent support personnel and infrastructure at the US Antarctic Program make accident prevention a priority thereby providing a relatively safe place for scientists and staff alike to work and enjoy this beautiful wonder.

A USAP helicopter appears to fly by Mt. Discovery (fifty miles away) as it approaches McMurdo.

McMurdo station seen from Hut Point.

Looking out to the Ross Ice Shelf from Hut Point Ridge.

I pose again for a snapshot on Hut Point Ridge.

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