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Dispatches from Antarctica: Penguin Day

The NOVA team's attempt to film a penguin colony didn't quite go according to plan.

ByCaitlin SaksNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Photo courtesy Arlo Perez

November 3, 2018:

The penguins. They were the most anticipated part of the trip—the most crucial thing to capture. It was clearly laid out that for NOVA, getting footage of penguins was priority #1 for this project.

So, of course, Penguin Day was the day on which nothing went according to plan.

The Adelie Penguin colony near McMurdo Station is a helicopter ride away, on Cape Royds. Barren and moon-like, the cape’s craggy hills of dark volcanic rock are covered in patches of snow. Patches, because it’s so windswept. The formidable active volcano Mt. Erebus looms in the background.

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We flew late in the day—a dazzling helicopter flight lit by the golden evening sun. For the first time, we saw a wall of a glacier plunge to meet the sea ice, icebergs lodged in the sea ice like islands of ice trapped in yet more ice, and… the open ocean, which was not far beyond Cape Royds. The penguins, after all, need the ocean for food, and they migrate with the ice edge, coming here in summer to nest, lay eggs, and raise their chicks.

When we touched down… that’s when things started to go off course.

It was WINDY here. We met with the two adventurous women who call this landscape home for several months of the year, and who welcomed us into their camp: Jean Pennycook and Katie Dugger. They had a humble accommodation: a wood-frame with thick fabric covering it. Something like a cross between a hut and a tent.

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Photo courtesy Arlo Perez

The penguin colony was about a 10-minute walk down from the camp, and we aimed to collect footage that evening with that nice sunset light. But the cold here is different from the cold in McMurdo. The Cape is more exposed to the Southern Ocean. The wind lashes and bites. Our hopes of flying a drone here quickly blew away. Better to have blown hopes than a blown drone. I was immediately chilled to the bone. Recalling my Antarctic Field Safety Training about how to keep warm, I pulled out my only food—an energy bar that was frozen solid and tasted like cardboard—the grossest thing I have eaten in a long time. It didn’t help that it was three years past the expiration date—we were told “expiration dates aren’t really a thing here.” I had to gnaw off a bite and let it sit in my mouth for a minute just to get it warm enough to chew. Zac’s fingers—which had to be exposed to control the camera, were so cold that he had to stop to take frequent breaks.

But, it was stunning. My brain couldn’t make up its mind—was I enamored or distressed? A bit of both, I guess. We filmed for as long as we could bear. In addition to being cold, it was late: 11 or 12 at night.

When we got back up to the camp we settled in for the night. The boys were out in a tent, which they had proudly pitched. Arlo perfected his trucker’s hitch under Zac’s tutelage. (Something about 30+ mile per hour winds is a great motivator for learning how to tie knots to keep your tent down.) Preferring not to be the third person in a two-person tent, I slept inside the hut with the lady scientists… though I was a bit disappointed to not get the Antarctic Camping experience. (The other tent was too complicated to set up in these winds.)

As evening gave way to early morning, the winds picked up. The fabric walls of the tent thwapped without mercy, waking me up around 4 or 5 am. I was cold most of the night, as the limited heat is turned off at night. And, apparently, I climbed into my sleeping bag upside down, so the hood part was not zipped up correctly. Beginner’s mistake. By 5:30 we were all awake inside the hut, and our hosts told me I should go get the boys. The winds were gusting above 50 miles per hour—that is the kind of wind that rips tents away. They assured me that Zac and Arlo would be freezing and would want to come in.

In fact, they were sound asleep, enjoying their rugged adventure.

But soon they came in. We turned the heater on in the hut and made coffee and toast for breakfast, the wind thwapping at the hut all the while.

There was no way we could film in this.

So began the waiting game. We, ironically, had access to the internet and Skype because Jean had it arranged for her own outreach efforts. I called my 10-year-old niece—and the look of wonder on her face was worth this entire trip. I took the tablet outside briefly and she got to peek at Antarctica in its most raw and fearsome form. I felt like a hero—it was the most amazing feeling of the day. We also Skyped back to the NOVA home office to say hi. That was fun; but it also served as an unhelpful reminder of how important the penguin episode is. “It’s not that cold!” they exclaimed.

Until you are in Antarctica, you can’t understand it. It isn’t just the cold. The wind is a menace unto itself—gusts easily pick up with no trees or vegetation to break them. Not only does it make it effectively colder, but it makes filming nearly impossible. The camera buffets and gets blasted by dust. To film, you need to stand in one place and can’t move—nearly impossible in these winds. Sound recordings are rendered unusable thanks to the wind noise. Our clothing is heavy and bulky, like wearing spacesuits, making every movement cumbersome. Our hosts—also our guides into the penguin colony, were not going out.

As my concerns were mounting, so was my anxiety. It was paralyzing. This was the most important episode—the penguin episode. But Antarctica had other plans. Now there was surely no time to capture the crucial footage as I had planned it.

A solution began to materialize. This was now the story: this storm is the reality of doing science in Antarctica. We’d interview Jean in the hut, not outside. And we’d get as much footage as we could of the penguins once the winds died down. It wasn’t ideal, but this is the real Antarctica. Roll with the punches (or the winds, rather). Adapt on the fly. “It’s a harsh continent” is how early explorer Robert Falcon Scott described it. Someone quotes him on this every day here.

And this plan worked. We turned the hut into a television studio. And, by the time we finished, the winds were back into the manageable under-30 mph range. We geared up and headed out to the colony. But first we chowed down on some of Jean’s homemade soup.

Our challenges were not over yet. We got about 30 minutes of filming with the penguins. And then, a radio call from McMurdo: more weather coming. We either had to leave now or stay the weekend—two more days.

Decisions.

Staying the weekend would cost us in footage for other episodes, but we were still just on the line of having enough of the penguins. NOVA really wants penguins! As a team, we usually consult with each other. We creatively collaborate. But at this moment an immediate decision has to be made, and it’s a catch-22. There just needs to be an executive decision.

Gulp.

I decided pulling out was best for the project overall. We mobilized quickly and hauled back to camp. What should have taken two hours of packing camera gear, we accomplished in 20 minutes. We threw batteries and microphones, tripod plates and camera mounts into the closest bag. We got help from Jean and Katie to quickly pull down the tent. We had no idea what was packed where—but it was all packed (we think). And then we waited for the helicopter to arrive.

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And waited…

And waited...

We called Helo Ops to get an update. Weather had moved in, we’d need to stand by. Maybe we would be spending the weekend after all… “Welcome to Antarctica: Hurry up and wait!”

By now, the cameras were totally disassembled and put away, so all there was to do was toast the Antarctic winds, and chat with Jean and Katie about Antarctic lore.

Luckily, the helicopter did make it out to get us after a few hours. Funnily enough, we ended up leaving at exactly the time we had originally planned. Only we spent most of our trip Far From Penguins… experiencing what it is really like to work in Antarctica.

Science Editor Caitlin Saks and Digital Associate Producer Arlo Perez are in Antarctica for the next month reporting about science research in Antarctica as a part of NOVA’s “Polar Extremes” project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Joining them is Zac Fink, field director and director of photography.