Thursday, January 16, 2014

15 January 2014: the International Antarctic Centre, Christchurch

A trip to Christchurch would not be complete without visiting the International Antarctic Centre.  Christchurch has long been a jumping-point for expeditions to Antarctica, and it continues to be so: the United States, Italy, and Germany all have facilities here in Christchurch that serve as the final stop before the trip to McMurdough Station, or other destinations, in Antarctica.

Our visit today was facilitated by Laurel, who gave us an introductory presentation on the Centre and led us between the different attractions.  We learned about the international contingency located at the official Antarctic Centre next to the layperson centre and a little about the penguins that we would see one-on-one later during our visit.  After our introduction, we joined a large group of children and adults waiting to see the feeding of the Little Blue Penguins (one of seven species found around the New Zealand islands).  Although this was a site specifically for Antarctica, the centre hosts a population of Little Blue Penguins that are no longer able to survive in the wild around New Zealand.  Nearly all of the penguins at the Centre were brought in because they were permanently injured (blinded after being hit by a boat), had amputations due to boating injuries or predator attacks, or otherwise.  All the penguins have identifying tags (left-wing tags for males; right for females (because 'females are always right' according to our host, Dianne) and stories about their lives.  Dianne's description of the soap-operatic lives of the penguins I think shed some light on the complexity of social life for wild animals.  Too-often we distill species characteristics into stereotypical sound-bytes; it is not often we hear about the intricacies, the nuances, of wild animals.  We heard how one female left her mate to pair-bond with another female. One male currently has 5-6 girlfriends, something unusual for a species that would otherwise be classified as monogamous.  Dianne fed all the penguins in the viewing tank and then we had the opportunity to go 'backstage' with the penguins.

Dianne first showed us around the water treatment facility that is responsible for cleaning the water in the penguins' tank.  The complete cleaning of the water takes place regularly, particularly because the water is soiled rather quickly with the feces of the penguins.  The penguins actually are in a freshwater tank, despite the fact they survive in the wild in saltwater.  Dianne told us that the use of freshwater simplifies the management of the tank, as saltwater tanks take a great deal of special management.  Additionally, because of the earthquakes that have taken place recently in Christchurch, the replacement of freshwater that is lost due to cracks in the tank can easily be done with local supplies, whereas saltwater replacement would much more difficult.

After our tour of the maintenance facility, we got to see a Little Blue Penguin up-close and personal!  We were introduced to a little bugger of female, Horatio.  She had quite the attitude, according to Dianne, and we got to see her 'tude in action when Dianne tried to pick her up from her pen.  We learned a little more about the biology of the penguins and then were off to our next adventure, the Hagglund all-terrain polar vehicle.

The Hagglund vehicle was designed by the Swedes for extreme polor conditions. The two constituents that comprise the vehicle are the driver cab (with some room for some passengers) and the passenger cab.  Our group piled into the cabs and off we went through a crazy course of steep hills, rough terrain, and a 3m-deep pool.  I was nearly motion-sick from the wild ride, but the students seemed to love it.  Sean Harrison (Business, 2015) was riding-shotgun, and his voice could be heard in the background as the driver gave us descriptions of the course were tackling.  The 10 min trip seemed much longer, but we survived the trek and were back on the ground.  The trip gave us some insight into the intensity of polar existence and how simple the major vehicles used to transport Antarctic are on the inside.  I've considered going to Antarctica for a visit, not necessarily to do research, but just to see the continent...this has made me think otherwise!

We had two final events in the centre: the Antarctic storm and the 4D movie that shows a trip across the Drake Passage (the stormiest pass on the planet) and then scenery across the continent.  The simulated Antarctic storm was easily the most entertaining of the two activities, particularly because the men in our group decided to go shirtless during the pseudo-storm.  The room in which the storm takes place starts at 32F, and then the as wind speed rises to 30mph, and the windchill drops below 0F.  As the storm picked-up, the shivering and howling (from the men) increased until the wind stopped blowing and the storm was over.  Many of us were laughing during the event, while we were shivering, and all had fun!  The most-striking part of the storm was how the room became darker and the sound increased.  These two conditions are supposedly what occurs when storms occur in Antarctica and they seem pretty accurate given what I've read by early explorers. The field conditions I experienced while working as a field technician on an island in the Columbia River were harsh, but nothing like the conditions we were subjected to in the storm room!

To contrast our experience in the Antarctic, we decided to take in one last bit of summer sun by visiting a nearby beach.  We need a tan before we leave for the snow and cold of New York!

Horatio, the female Little Blue Penguin who we were introduced to during our 'backstage' pass at the Antarctic Centre.

Our group after our ride on the Swedish-made Hagglund polar explorer.

Our MSMC men braving an Antarctic storm at the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch.  Go Knights!

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