Journey Back to the Ice


One of the most common questions we get asked is, “How do you even get to Antarctica?” A lot of people think we get there by ship, because now you can take a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula! But that journey begins from Chile, and it means crossing the Drake Passage, which can challenge even the most seasoned of sailors. (I’m talking about some serious seasickness.) And that would put you on the opposite side of the continent from where we work. Thankfully, we get to Antarctica by plane. Or, really, several planes.

This journey south began in sunny San Luis Obispo, California, where I took a short flight to San Francisco. On the way to the international terminal I checked the boards for my next flight, but it wasn’t listed anywhere! Before panic set in, I asked an agent at the fancy lounge (which I was not allowed to enter, because I am not fancy enough) where I needed to go. She told me I was in the right terminal, but my flight wasn’t on the board because it didn’t leave for another nine hours! It was right about then that I wished I was fancy enough to partake of whatever was going on in that lounge. Marine mammal science isn’t always glamorous.

So I begin to look for a place to hunker down for a nine hour wait. I did find eventually find a table to plug in my computer so I could entertain myself for a while. Then Linnea joined me on her journey from Juneau, Alaska, which started even earlier than mine! We had a chance to catch up while we waited, many hours, for our flight.

From San Francisco, we took a 14-hour flight to Aukland, New Zealand. Just my luck, I had a dreaded middle seat in the middle aisle. I squeezed myself in, inflated my travel pillow, and tried to get some sleep on our red eye flight. Around 3am local (New Zealand) time, the pilot cheerfully woke us all for breakfast so we could all be ready to land.

Aukland is where we clear customs, so we got our passports stamped with a visa, gathered our checked bags from baggage claim, and proceeded to be herded like cattle through the customs lines. Then we checked our bags right back in, and waited for our flight to Christchurch.

When there are no delays, we spend two nights in Christchurch. On the day in between, we go to the Clothing Distribution Center to try on our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear, which is provided to us by the National Science Foundation. This includes the big, red parka with our name on the front pocket (now it’s getting real!). Then we leave bright and early the following morning. Amazingly, we had no delays! After our two nights in Christchurch, we flew to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, in approximately 5 hours. Through the windows of the plane, we could see the ice edge extending to Cape Royds at the edge of Ross Island. The extent of the sea ice is great news for our project; now we have to hope that it grows thicker over the next few weeks…

The plane landed on the ice runway at Phoenix airfield, on the ice shelf in McMurdo Sound. The cold air (-40°F, which is also -40°C) bit our faces as we filed over to Ivan the Terrabus, our shuttle into town. One hour later, we rolled up in front of the Chalet, where we had our brief orientation.

It’s funny how coming back to McMurdo feels very familiar, even though this is only my second season on the ice. It’s like coming home. We see familiar faces, share meals in the galley, and get right back into our daily routine. I can’t wait to start our science adventures and take you along with us!

Written by: Heather Liwanag

Heather Liwanag