This place works almost as a natural selection for people that have this intention to jump off the margin of the map, and we all meet here – where all the lines of the map converge.
I think a fair amount of the population here are full-time travelers and part time workers. They are the professional dreamers.
- Stefan Pashov, forklift driver/philosopher at McMurdo Station
Early morning fog begins to evaporate as our zodiac cuts across the glassy waters of Andvord Bay. Julia Carleton, one of our rock star marine technicians, maneuvers the boat with ease and familiarity. In her standard red work suit and orange life vest, she stands like a beacon against the steely monochromatic backdrop.
We spot the humpback whales immediately. They seem to be waking up slowly, bobbing at the surface. Half a dozen crabeater seals swim in circles around an iceberg. We watch a group of 20 penguins jump like fish out the water. Behind them, two more humpback whales arch their tales.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen whales or other animals on this trip—we spotted lots of humpbacks on our way to Palmer Station, and we saw several penguins waddling around on Joinville Island, but today is different.
Today we get to witness the bona fide abundance of life at the bottom of the world.
“I can’t believe how many animals there are!” Julia says, turning in every direction. She has spent the past seven years working in Antarctica, but (as she and so many other people have told me) the magic of this place never fades.
After so many months of preparation and weeks of transit, the full force of this incredible reality finally hits me: this is what it’s really like to work in Antarctica.
We spend over four hours on the water, working as a seamless team. Julia asks Dave, Emma and I about our backgrounds and how we ended up on this expedition.
We spend a lot of time talking about the plethora of wildlife, but I'm curious about what else makes working in Antarctica so special. Julia, like all of the marine techs, is happy to answer my questions. “I love being immersed in a community of new people where everyone is totally all-in and dedicated to the cause,” she says. “You don’t get that at home.”
This was a quality I noticed our very first day aboard the Laurence M. Gould. Whether it's your first time in the Antarctic, or your 50th trip down here, you are part of a team.
Three days later, Emma and I spend the afternoon photographing minke whales from the Solas while Michael Tepper-Rasmussen (TR) drives. In between epic whale sightings, I ask TR about his experiences working in Antarctica. He tells me about spending a winter at Palmer Station.
"Was it tough?" I ask. "Spending the whole winter there?"
"It was really special," he says. "The community there is close-knit, especially in the winter, and we had a great group of people. It's similar to what you find on a ship down here - it's like a family."
I tell TR about how quickly I fell in love with Palmer Station at the beginning of the trip.
"I'd really like to spend more time there," I say. "I'm going to apply for some positions and see if I can get down there for a season."
"You should," TR says immediately. "They would be lucky to have you."
A few days later, during a break from editing photos, I skim through The Antarctic Sun and click on the the 2017 archives from Palmer Station. I read about the start of the summer season (in the beginning of December) and the station's annual Thanksgiving celebration.
In preparation for the annual Thanksgiving feast, community members decked out the galley with festive adornments and, as is tradition, volunteered to bake an assortment of pies. Those back home who might pity those of us unable to spend the holidays with our families – don’t. We were well fed by our two incredible chefs, Mark Mican and KC Loosemore.
When we arrive back at Palmer Station a week later, I spend some time talking to KC. I met him briefly during our first visit and his quiet charm and innate hospitality (not to mention his incredible cooking) made a wonderful first impression.
But the coolest thing about KC, I come to learn, is how naturally he has followed his passions: cooking great food, and traveling to remote corners of the planet.
"Food and adventure have always been a part of his life," he says.
He tells me about working as a cook for a fishing lodge in southeast Alaska, and taking cooking classes during his travels through places like Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore. He first came to Antarctica in 2014 to spend 14 months working at McMurdo.
"Wow," I say, in disbelief. "The very first time you came down here you stayed for 14 months?"
"Yeah," he says, with a small grin.
This is an attribute I've seen among many Antarcticans—they commit. Why dip a toe in the water if you can jump in?
After McMurdo, KC tells me he did a stint at the South Pole before coming to Palmer. I ask if he’s planning to come back to Antarctica.
“Absolutely—if they’ll have me.”
I can’t see how they wouldn’t. Everyone at Palmer Station raves about KC’s cooking, and as he tells me about his plans for the rest of the 2018—including driving across the U.S. to sample BBQ, working in the Arctic for a few months, and then taking a trip to Malaysia—I marvel at the ease with which he balances maintaining a career in Antarctica while finding ways to explore so many other parts the rest of the world.
And this is another attribute that rings true among just about everyone I talk to down here. Antarcticans don't just go to Antarctica. They go everywhere. Yet they don't seem scattered or exhausted (as I sometimes feel after back to back travel.)
On our second to last day on the ship, I ask Julia about living a transitory life. When she's not working in Antarctica, she splits her time between Atlanta and Maine, as well as regular trips to other places around the country and the world.
"How do you do it?" I ask. "How do you find balance?"
Julia furrows her brow, seemingly stumped by the question. She’s quiet for a minute, then says, “it’s just so necessary. How do you find balance without going away? Going away and coming back is the balance.”
Check out the rest of The Pago Files
Curious about the blog title? A pagophile is any living organism that thrives in ice. Pago is a word of Greek origin, meaning cold, frost, freezing; fixed or hardened.