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Three Helicopters and a Floating Rock

November 25, 2014

Helicopter 1

As we recall from last time, Amy was really excited for the limnology team to fly their samples back to Mactown. The NSF helicopters are a precious resource; only five of them available for the entire Antarctic operation, and expensive to operate. And they are essential for the science. Some experiments require live lake samples immediately flown out to the lab in Mactown to run experiments; otherwise, the microbes die and are useless. All experiments generate samples stored in bulky ice or dry ice containers; sometimes multiple helo runs are needed to take them all.

Here is the awesome Bell 212 helicopter that descended from the heavens to the helipad to pick up everyone and everything. Helicopters are the gods of this region; we had to watch a training video, on approaching the helo with your head bowed (to avoid the spinning propeller overhead) and never to so much as look at the invisible tail propeller. So this visitation from above was truly exciting. We all pitched in to haul up the samples and sleepkits, and computers in backpacks uphill to the sacred helipad. Here’s how it looked:

But wait–what’s that second little helicopter? Helicopters are notoriously difficult to catch on video; they just pick up and go without notice. To capture two helos landing together, out in the middle of nowhere, is like getting visited by Zeus and Athena at once (you can tell I miss Michael). The second one, a tiny A-Star, came to pick up a sling crate from this lake to cart off to another frozen lake. The A-Star actually landed on the ice. Rachael ran out on the ice to hook the sling load, and the A-Star took off with it. A short while later a third A-star landed on the ice to cart one scientist with gear from one lake to the next; after that I lost track.

While all the gear and samples were being loaded, the helicopter pilots came down to the Jamesway to chat (and keep warm, as they don’t wear Big Red). The pilots are totally awesome professionals, dedicated to picking up people and samples from one lake and depositing them at the next one, or at Mactown; it’s a lot to keep straight. Also (for Wendy’s benefit) they are extremely good lo0king.

One of the pilots spent a long time on the radio checking to make sure they were taking the right stuff to the right places. At this point is where our good luck ran out.

First, the pilots discovered a huge oil slick spreading on the helipad, and a tank was empty of oil. So the helo wasn’t going anywhere until a mechanic was flown out. Steve Arnett–Where are you? Since I’m here, this is a Kenyon operation; you need to send Dave Boughter out here to fix this helo.

Then we learned that in Mactown the weather had turned. There was snow and zero visibility, and all helos were cancelled for the rest of the day. Interestingly, we could see the weather for hundreds of miles around; first, looking west into the mountains, you can see the weather is clear. Then, looking east toward McMurdo (about 75 miles) you can see the snowstorm. As for here in the Dry Valleys, weather only varies from wind to more wind.



The camp members swore they’d never seen a broken helo at Bonney Camp before. The pilots got out somehow, but the rest of everybody had to stay another day. The grad students planned new experiments, edited manuscripts, and watched The Big Bang Theory.

Meanwhile, Rachel’s team had a big day planned collecting samples from West Bonney. We will compare the population density and species at different depths of water. As we traveled the ice west, the banks got steeper, with piles of rocks like a child’s tower of building blocks. Occasionally there was even a rock “floating” atop the ice. You can see this one, carved by the wind into beautiful forms. It’s about the size of a Volkswagon.


A small amount of thought leads to the conclusion that, despite the high salt concentration of deeper water (the Bonney lakes started out as part of the ocean thousands of years ago) it is not possible for the volcanic rocks of this region to actually float on water. The inescapable conclusion is that this rock must have got onto the ice from somewhere, most likely by rolling down the mountainside. I notice many similar rocks perched on the mountainside above our tents, but Rachael insists these will never roll down into our camp.


Out on the ice, a “polar haven” is a small hut above a hole in the ice, where samples can be collected. Chris and Rachael sent down a Niskin bottle, a bottle with a hole at each end so the water flows through. After the bottle reaches the right depth, a “messenger” weight goes down to release the latch and close both ends so the water can be hauled up. For this operation I ran the winch; it was fun though it wore through my glove liners.


Back in the green camp lab, Wei concentrates samples by filtration, 1000-fold. There are a lot of samples from all the different depths, and filtration takes a long time. These samples hold crucial information for Wei’s PhD thesis.

Wei filtering

Now I can search the samples for interesting microbes, using the Cellscope, on loan from Frankie Myers at Berkeley. The Cellscope is completely portable; it uses a cellphone to record a sample at 200X. It was designed for telemedicine from remote regions. Thanks, Frankie!


From West Bonney, the Cellscope reveals these curious little algae (cells enclosing round organelles). These cells associate with each other, for an unknown purpose. Perhaps, like our team in the Jamesway, they somehow support each other living in brine at 4 degrees C, with what little light penetrates the ice.


The limno team is frustrated but in good spirits after their day of revised plans. They post a parking ticket on the grounded helo.

Next: Thanksgiving in a Tent
Index: Antarctica

  1. November 26, 2014 2:10 pm

    wow, cellscopes, polar haven winching, rolling rocks, and busted helos…who knew there was so much going on in the least-inhabited place on earth? stay safe, Joan!

  2. Merriman Hunter permalink
    November 28, 2014 2:26 pm

    Hey, thanks for the updates & the great media! Keep it coming 🙂

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