by LT Marshall Branch
Wow! A lot has happened since I last wrote. As some of you may have heard, there was a helicopter accident out here last month. It was not a Coast Guard helicopter, but we assisted in the rescue of the people in the helicopter. They are doing fine now and happy that so many people helped them when they needed it.
I have also had the distinct privilege of being involved with some of the science that we have been supporting. The first amazing experience was the flight to Beaufort Island, a small island about 10 miles north of Ross Island. We were taking two teams of scientists to the Adelie Penguin Rookery there, including Dr. David Ainley
(www.penguinscience.com/project_person.htm), a noted authority on penguins. We landed on the ice about 200 yards from shore and walked to the rookery where 100,000 Adelie's noisily squawked at our arrival. It was amazing to see! They would walk right up and stare at us as if they were trying to figure out what we were. They would even walk right up to the helicopter and peer inside! I have attached pictures to this and following emails so you can get a feel for the experience. We spent about 4 hours at the rookery, wandering through the penguins and taking pictures as the scientists tagged the young Adelie's for future identification.
Later the next week, I was lucky enough to be assigned a flight to take Dr. Ainley and his assistants to Cape Crozier, an Adelie rookery on the east side of Ross Island and at the base of Mount Terror. It was a beautiful location with a dramatic hillside that terminated into a small channel that threads between the Ross Ice Shelf and the B-15 Iceberg. 300,000 penguins call this rookery home and the channel is teaming with Minke and Killer whales. We landed on a glacier and hiked down its face to the rookery. While we were there, Dr. Ainley graciously included us in their efforts to tag penguins and my partner and I became "Penguin Cowboys". We were tasked with herding groups of the penguins to the scientists for tagging. It was a lot of fun and an extremely memorable experience (and a lot tougher than it sounds! those little guys are quick!). Dr. Ainley also asked me to pass to all of you that he has a website at
http://www.penguinscience.com . Many of you have expressed interest in asking the penguin scientists questions about the curious creatures they study. You can ask Dr. Ainley directly on his website or at
Finally, I was fortunate enough to fly Dr. Brent Stewart (http://www.hswri.org/stewart.htm) and Dr. Pam Yochem
(http://www.hswri.org/stewart.htm) of the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute of San Diego to the White Island Weddell Seal Colony. They were both extremely friendly scientists who were kind enough to allow our involvement in their research. Once again, the flight mechanic and I teamed up to help herd the seals towards a proper location so that the scientists could acquire samples and take measurements. These seals are a LOT bigger than they look. Imagine a large cow with flippers. That's a Weddell Seal. As we started to circle behind one of the larger ones, Dr. Stewart calmly reminded us to stay away from the head. Despite those big, soft eyes that they look at you with, they will bite when they feel threatened! OK, we'll stay by the tail. Of course that was a little risky too. The day before, my roommate (another Coast Guard pilot) had gone out to this same location and a seal whipped his tail so hard, it knocked his feet out from under him and he tumbled to the ice. I wish I had a picture of that to send!
The ice down here is thicker than it has ever been. The POLAR SEA has faced tremendous odds tackling approximately 20 times more ice than icebreakers in the past had to conquer. They already had one 5-ton steel blade shear off one of the three propellers (called screws). Now only two of the screws are working. Despite all these difficulties, the crew of the POLAR SEA has worked 24 hours a day to carve away over 40 miles of hardened ice from McMurdo Sound! If you wonder what that is like for the crew, imagine placing about 20 bricks into your clothes dryer at home then turn it on. Now rest your head on top of it and try to go to sleep. That is what they have faced, but they continue to push on. The Coast Guard Icebreaker HEALY has also made it down to Antarctica to assist in clearing a channel for the supply ships. Hopes are high and the crews of both ships continue to push for success. Please keep them in your thoughts.
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