Breaking Ice with Skuas, Seals, Penguins, and Whales

This evening at 6 p.m., the Palmer cast off its lines, weighed anchor, started its great engines rumbling, and set off through the pack ice. After a few safety briefings, everyone flooded out onto the decks for a display of sea ice and wildlife like nothing I have seen before. The temperature was about 30 degrees, but a chilly wind blew over the bow. I put on my warm clothes: a red safety “float coat” over my jacket, a wool hat pulled down over my ears, and the soft fleece mittens my mom had sent me before the trip began. Read on through the slideshow to find out what we saw today:

As everyone filed back into the ship, microbiologists, chemists, engineers, and computer programmers alike were abuzz over what they’d seen. It was 10:30 at night and many had hours of work to do before bedtime, but no one was complaining. Being witness to these animals—living in such numbers in such an outlandish world—was a treat as well as an inspiration.

These hundreds of seals, penguins, and whales are marvelous examples of why we’re here. They wouldn’t live in the Ross Sea if these waters weren’t teeming with plankton, krill, and fish. Our ship’s science team has come here to take a microscopic look at these rich waters and learn why and how they’re so productive. When they’re finished, we may find we understand the penguins and whales better, too.

Now it’s 3 a.m. and we’re back among the ice floes. The Palmer shears past loose floes with a thud and a scrape down the hull; we occasionally lurch to one side on big impacts. Outside, patio-sized sheets of ice roll on our bow wave. As they pass by the portholes, I can see they’re criss-crossed by the footprints of penguins.

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About Hugh Powell

Hugh is a staff writer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is on special assignment with the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. He has previously written for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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