To Antarctica, Part 7: Drills (big and small), Skidoos (and ski-don’ts), ice SCUBA (-2˚C), and Seals (Weddels!)


The Hof-men, gearing up for a day out in the field

First off, I’ll answer a question I’ve gotten a lot: How’s the food?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAActually, the food is pretty good. It’s buffet-style, with usually enough options that you can find something that you like. There is now 24-hour hot pizzas to go, as well as an amazing baking staff that makes lots of pastries from scratch! Anyways, moving on to the meat of the post…


October 12 – Hole-drilling!  We use  holes in the sea ice to access the seas underneath in order to install/retrieve instruments or collect animals. As biologists, getting to our critters is a crucial part of our work here, so getting these holes drilled is a top priority!



This is the massive drill that we use to drill the holes in the 6 foot deep sea ice. It’s called a redrill, and is dragged by a tractor our to our site. Contractors from Fleet Operations work the drill and make the holes for us.

Our first hole is right outside of station, about a mile out onto the ice. This is the perfect site to make sure that the redrill is working properly, and to get a good first practice run at the drilling!

After successfully drilling the hole, we drag a hut over the hole. This serves two purposes:

  1. The warmed hut keeps the hole from freezing back into ice!
  2. The warm hut is a perfect place to work!



Ready for diving, netting, etc…

After dragging the hut over the hole, we clear out the ice and snow with nets. 30 minutes later, we have a perfectly blue hole, perfect for science!

That’s one hole drilled! We get back in our Pisten Bully and rocket off on the sea ice (top speed 12mph) to the next site – 2 hours away.



The day continues with picture-perfect weather. Blue skies, white snow. It’s impossible to capture the wide expanse of the flat scenery around you as you trundle across the frozen seas of McMurdo Sound.

Unfortunately, one of our three hole-drilling sites was inaccesible due to sea ice cracks. As the tides push the sea ice up and down, and glaciers, icebergs, and vehicles move the sea ice around, it develops cracks that can become unsafe to cross. In order to analyze a crack, we drill into the sea ice to measure the thickness and run the necessary calculations for each vehicle.

Making my advisor drill the hole while I take a photo!

Making my advisor drill the hole while I take a photo!

We instead drilled two of the three holes and headed home after a successful day out on the sea ice! I came home absolutely exhausted at 10:00pm, and passed out after eating lots and lots of pizza.

October 13 – Skidoos and dives!

We started the morning with snowmobile training! We learned how to inspect the skidoos before riding, and how to maneuver safely with them across the sea ice.


Jay, posing by his sweet ride



We will be using the snowmobiles to travel to distant sites on the sea ice on a regular basis, in order to collect and analyze plankton samples.

After snowmobile training, we surface-tended for an under-ice antarctic SCUBA dive! Amanda, a postdoc in our lab, was getting certified to SCUBA dive here  in order to collect the Antarctic sea urchin for her own research projects.


Diving in these conditions requires a significant amount of gear and preparation. Divers here use drysuits, which form watertight seals at the neck and wrists to keep your body entirely dry. Fleece and synthetic garments under the drysuit keep the diver warm even when surrounded by near-freezing seawater. Some divers even wear electronically heated shirts!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The dive went great – both of the resident Antarctic divers were very impressed with Amanda’s diving. She is now authorized to dive for her own project here in Antarctica.

October 13 – Seals

Today, we decided to organize our field gear and set up our dive hut! You might remember that first hole we dug on Sunday with the hut on it?

The ocean glows from under you as the ice transmits a blue-tinted light. When you block all of the windows in the hut, you end up with a spectacular irridescent light coming from below. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt isn’t uncommon for Weddell seals to use our dive holes for breathings. Weddell Seals are remarkably adapted for deep diving, and can stay under for as long as 80 minutes on a single breath. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPrevious post: Part 6: To Antarctica: -50˚C wind chill, Sea Ice training

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