It is 7:30 a.m. (we’re on Chile time) and the smell of freshly baked
bread fills the galley at Palmer Station, the only U.S. polar station
north of the Antarctic Circle, and the only one on the Antarctic
Peninsula. Groups of people gather around a few tables enjoying what I
have to describe as a gourmet buffet breakfast where no trimming is
spared: omelets made to order; still-fresh fruit from the latest
visit of the ARSV Laurence Gould; hot muffins; one or two exotic dishes
from last night’s dinner — all topped off by a cappuccino that no coffee house in the world need envy.
Not every polar station has a Cordon-Bleu trained chef.
“The toughest part is the planning ahead,” says Head Chef Stacie
Murray, who decided long ago to use her superb training to pamper the
palates of people working in extreme locations. She has spent
time cooking in Greenland, the
North Pole, and the South Pacific. “I have to make sure I order every
winter what I will be needing for the Summer. And that includes the
food, cooking utensils, pots and pans, glassware, etc.” If she
forgets to add something to that shopping list, she’ll likely have to
do without it until the next season, or at least the next boat load.
Stacie’s logistics challenge is but an afterthought for the 36 to 44
scientists and support personnel who enjoy their meals as they scan the
spectacular Arthur Harbor in search of whales, seals and penguins. This
is how the day begins for a scientist or contractor working at Palmer
Station. After the splendid breakfast, pepole head off to
the lab or the office; others embark on Zodiac boats to
collect water for its microbes, krill, or phytoplankton, or data on seabirds.
These scientists constitute the four LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) groups currently
working on Palmer and administered through an NSF grant by the Marine
Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. LTER’s mission is to gather,
season after season, data on how this amazing ecosystem responds to
How can you tell it has warmed up? I ask Z — Zenobia Evans, the jovial maintenance & construction coordinator at the station.
“See that peak behind the Marr glacier, on whose piedmont sits Palmer Station?”
I gaze at a small tabletop that is now bathed in the loveliest pinks and yellows of the Antarctic sunset.
“It used to be almost invisible behind the glacier’s dome. Now you can see it well”.
I go to bed (late as usual; I blame the never-ending light)
still mesmerized by the beauty of this place. I can see
the glacier without having to lift my head from the pillow. Its
tortured surface and cobalt blue crevasses make me think of Nathaniel
B. Palmer, possibly the first American explorer to sight the
Peninsula, in the 1820’s.
The discomforts those sealers and explorers went through to survive
down here contrast almost absurdly with my navy blue comforter and
Stacie’s roast beef ‘au jus’.