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Sheltering Science at the End of the Earth: Part 3

December 12, 2023

No one can be voted off the island, so scientists found ways to keep spirits high and relationships strong.

The Cape Shirreff team celebrates Christmas outside. In the left top corner is a green camp building with a red window cover leaning against the wall and four blue water storage barrels pushed up against the wall. There is a white door with nine small windows, and a white window to the right of the door. In the foreground are wooden decking, several camping chairs, a trash bag with wrapping paper, some plastic bins and cardboard boxes that are serving as tables, and some plates, mugs, and gifts. In the cent Christmas festivities at the Cape. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Sam Woodman

Life Outside of Science

The scientists at Cape Shirreff bring all the equipment, gear, and provisions they need for the entire field season at camp opening. After that, they are on their own until they close camp several months later. Provisions include some fresh fruit, vegetables, and perishable treats, but mostly comprise non-perishable items that can last at least 5 months. Because the camp is so remote and isolated and days can be monotonous, food often provides the morale boost that tired scientists need at the end of a long, cold day.

Meal preparation at Cape Shirreff is on a rotating schedule. Those who have spent multiple seasons there know they’re lucky when someone among them is gifted in creating inspired dishes using canned or dry ingredients.

“I remember once cooking so many hand-made gnocchi with meat sauce,” said veterinarian and field biologist Nicola Pussini. “We ate gnocchi for a week.”

A man stands at the stove in the kitchen of the old Cape Shirreff Field Camp. He is stirring food in a pan on one burner, and there’s a large pot of water on the other burner. In the background are a sink, two windows, and several shelves containing spice bottles, kitchen utensils, and other various containers.
Nicola making gnocchi. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Wayne Perryman

Meals become especially important during holidays that might be cause for loneliness or homesickness. Many of the scientists who have done tours at Cape Shirreff remember holidays as some of their best times at the camp.

“I remember Thanksgiving and smoking the turkey and a salmon in the smoker, gathering to eat at 5 p.m. and being catatonic by 8 p.m. We'd pull down the projector screen, put the window covers on and watch silly cartoon movies until we were sleepy enough to go to bed,” said field biologist Naira de Gracia.

The camp dining room decorated for Christmas. A long table with a multi-colored striped tablecloth is in the middle. A map of Livingston Island, a book, and a Tupperware container are on the table. Against the walls, tables and desks with bottles of water, laptop computers, and notebooks surround the table on three sides. There is a window in the right wall, and various photos, maps, and graphs hang on the walls, while storage bins are on high shelves. A strand of multi-colored Christmas lights hangs near t
Winding down at the end of the day. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Sam Woodman

“Christmas at Cape Shirreff was a special time. The smoker got some action, the interior Christmas lighting found its purpose and the crew shared gifts. These were not expensive or extravagant gifts, but they were so thoughtful and so personal that they meant everything,” said NOAA Corps Officer Andy Reynaga.

“From decorating the tree with our assorted knick-knacks that we collected over the years to celebrating with our fellow Chilean researchers, Christmas was always such a fun time at camp. Once we even took the tree outside to open presents and have freshly baked cinnamon rolls on the deck on Christmas morning,” said NOAA Research Biologist Sam Woodman.

Two women sit at the kitchen table in the Cape Shirreff field camp. The table has a dish towel with an old map of Antarctica on it in the foreground. The table is cluttered with mugs, glasses, and Christmas gifts. The woman in the foreground is holding up the Taylor Swift Ultimate Fan Book 2020 that she received as a Christmas gift, while the other woman smiles and claps.
Christmas at the Cape. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Andy Reynaga

Despite spending months at a time in such close quarters, scientists at Cape Shirreff enjoy their down time together. Cape Shirreff has an email system, but the internet service doesn’t support web browsing. Cellular phones also don’t work at the camp. Without the distraction of personal devices and social media, binge-watching movies or TV shows is a favorite pastime.

“We had the honor of watching what was voted the worst horror movie of all time shown at Cape Shirreff,” said NOAA Scientist Wayne Perryman. “It was a Norwegian horror flick called ‘Dead Snow.’ Surprisingly, everyone sat through the entire movie, and actually enjoyed most of it, but a motion picture that includes chain saws used to dismember zombies, and unlimited gratuitous violence, just deserves a special rating.”

“Sometimes we just need a midday pick-me-up. For several weeks one year—actually, most of the field season—several of us would watch the So Shiny/Tamatoa scene from the movie Moana most days around lunchtime. The field camp walls would echo with our out-of-tune singing, and we would hum our way through the rest of our day,” said Woodman.

New Days, New Ways

Over the last 28 years, science at Cape Shirreff has evolved in response to changing environmental conditions, stagnant budgets, and rising costs. Cape Shirreff used to open each year in mid-November and close in mid-March, capturing the entire reproductive cycles of the penguins and fur seals that return to Livingston Island each year to raise their young and to mate. Since 2019, Cape Shirreff has opened several weeks later and closed several weeks earlier, shrinking the window scientists have to monitor breeding success and estimate population sizes. With less time each year and new science questions to address, the program has embraced new technologies that maximize data collection over shorter periods.

To observe key events in annual reproductive cycles before the camp opens—penguin nest-building and egg-laying, for example—scientists have installed a network of rugged, outdoor trail cameras at penguin and fur seal breeding sites. These cameras take pictures at programmed intervals while the camp is unoccupied. When scientists return in spring, they change the batteries and retrieve the memory cards with thousands of images of predators returning to Cape Shirreff after a winter away.

Three people are bundled up against the cold and stand outside on a patch of ground covered in small rocks in the snow. There is a tripod on the right side with a yellow bag underneath it. A small yellow Pelican case is mounted on the tripod, and one person stands looking at the screen inside the box. The middle person is wearing the joystick controller around his neck for the Uncrewed Aerial System (UAS) he’s flying, and he’s looking up. The person on the left is standing close to the middle person and loo
Doug Krause and Jefferson Hinke piloting the Unoccupied Aerial System. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Perhaps the most exciting advancement at Cape Shirreff has been the Unoccupied Aerial Systems program. In 2012, after 6 months of technical and practical training, Krause and Hinke were certified as the first civilian NOAA UAS pilots. Since 2012, scientists at Cape Shirreff have used small hexacopters with high-resolution cameras to photograph penguin colonies and fur seal breeding beaches from the air. UAS can cover large areas, and even areas inaccessible on foot. Scientists use these images to monitor changes in populations without hiking around and disturbing the animals.

Scientists can even use aerial images of larger animals, such as leopard seals, to estimate their size and mass. Leopard seals used to be rare visitors at Cape Shirreff, but their numbers have increased over the last several years as their preferred ice habitat melts away. With dwindling sea ice and less access to Antarctic krill, they have resorted to feeding on fur seal pups. More than half the pups born at Cape Shirreff each year are eaten by leopard seals, causing a massive decline in fur seal numbers at the South Shetland Islands.

A New Era

The new field camp at Cape Shirreff means that shorter field seasons will still be productive, without the distraction of repairing damage and scrubbing mold each year. Although some chores will always be a part of daily life at Cape Shirreff—taking shifts emptying the “toilet bucket” in the latrine, for example—others will fade into memories the scientists look back on and laugh about in the years to come. While they may not remember all of the maintenance tasks fondly, those who spent the most time there will always remember the original camp as both imperfect and awesome at the same time.

The old Cape Shirreff field camp in the dark. In the foreground, the silhouettes of the buildings are visible with lights on in the windows. The silhouette of a rock mesa is visible just behind the camp, and the moon is low in the sky and visible just to the left of the mesa. The sky is a very dark blue (not quite black) and wispy clouds are visible.
Old Cape Shirreff field camp at night. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Doug Krause

“In terms of comfort, ease, safety, and mental and physical health, the new camp will be huge. It will be nice when I don’t wake up and look up and see a big chunk of black mold and think, ‘Oh, that’s going into my lungs,’” said Krause. “But at the same time, I don’t even know if I can be there for the demolition of the old camp. I can’t be the first person to knock down a wall or unscrew a screw. I will help, but it won’t be easy. There are parts of the camp, including things I built with my own two hands, 17 or 18 years ago, that I’m not going to be able to…yeah. Honestly, it hasn’t set in. I’m going to need some moments, for sure.”