Our Far South: McMurdo Sound

Our Far South: McMurdo Sound


Scott Base, as South as we go:

McMurdo Sound, Mt. Discovery. Photo Anton van Helden, copyright Te Papa

In a place where the sun sets at 12.30 and rises at 2.30 sights just get more and more incredible. At 1am the sea around the boat started to freeze, the water became grainy and and looked like grease, slowing as the ship carved through it, the ripples and wake of the boat like just flowing golden syrup in the setting sun light.

When I awoke we were anchored off McMurdo Station with Scott’s Discovery hut to our left and Observation hill to our right. We were surrounded by ice. As the first of the crews made their way by zodiacs, carving a fine channel to the shore, I watched for whales off the stern of the boat. What a sight, whale after whale apearing and blowing in the distant channels in the ice.

McMurdo Station. Photo Anton van Helden, copyright Te Papa.

They appeared to be Minke whales and Sei whales. The minke whales, the smallest of the rorquals at about 8m were dwarfed by their biger cousins the Sei whales that are about double the size.

Soon it was my turn to go ashore. The outboard churned through the icy water making a giant slushy. We were greeted by two of the over wintering team from Scott Base, and transported on the right hand side of the road to Scott Base. They drive on the right because the Americans at McMurdo Station maintain the roads.

Scott base is contrastingly petite compared to McMurdo Station, which is like a small town. Scott base with it’s uniformly green buildings, is supplied with energy from the nearby wind turbines, that produce enough power to not only run the base but contribute to the running of McMurdo Station as well.

We visited the conservation lab where they are working on the objects and materials removed (and to be replaced back in) the huts from the heroic age of exploration.

Made me think about Robert Clendon, Te Papa’s object conservator who had done this work in the past.

Scott Base. Photo Anton van Helden, copyright Te Papa.

We climbed to the top of Observation hill, where there stands a memorial to Scott and his team who perished in their ill fated trip to claim the South Pole.

It also afforded the crew a good vantage point to watch minke whales in the waters of McMurdo sound.

Discovery Hut was remarkable, as the conservation teams had obviously worked hard to maintain it as much as possible as it was. The environment down here being cold and dry providing the conditions to keep 100 year old mutton!!

On returning to the boat I spent some time whale watching and saw to my absolute amazement a large pod of Arnoux’s beaked whales in the free water on the far side of ice channel, breaching and porpoising. I estimate that there would have been between 20 and 30 animals. I tried to take photos, but sadly they are not the best, but still a record. Watching them through the binoculars was a spectacular sight.

The decision was made to spend the evening cruising the sound and looking for animals on our trip upt to Cape Royds where we would spend the night. Well that was some trip, perfect still conditions and animals at every turn. Weddell seals and a couple of Crabeater seals, appearing as if from nowhere in the channels in the ice created by the ship. as we broke the ice we got very close to a very confused lot of Emperor penguins.

Ross Sea at midnight. Photo Anton van Helden, copyright Te Papa.

On the trip up the sound we saw minke whales spy hopping through holes in the ice, killer whales in small pods, adelie penguins running like mad across ice flows. It was an incredible night.

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