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Dispatches from an Antarctic co-op: The Journey South

About Me

My name is Jake Grondin. I’m a rising junior in the College of Science, majoring in Biology, with minors in Physics and Math. I am one of two co-ops currently residing at Palmer Station, Antarctica working in Professor Bill Detrich’s lab. In this blog I will be sharing my experiences on this incredible continent, and I hope you will continue to read along.

This co-op is one of the reasons I came to Northeastern, and I’ll start by saying it is most definitely not for everyone. As a research assistant, I work in the labs and stay on station through the Antarctic winter. Even though I’ve only been here for a short time, Palmer Station has become a very special place to me, and I am thrilled to be able to share this continent with the rest of the University and beyond.

The Journey South

The trek to Palmer is not an easy one at all. It starts months before your deployment date even arrives. In order to make it to Palmer, you must first physically qualify, or PQ. The process ensures that Antarctic travelers are not in any imminent danger or at risk for harm. On station we have a doctor, but his clinic is more like a very basic Emergency Room. Any emergencies requiring evacuation will take days to actually reach a hospital. For this reason, the PQ process is quite thorough. It consists of bloodwork and labs, vaccines, written approvals from a physician and dentist, and a full medical history. All of this doesn’t ensure travel; after filling out nearly 30 pages of paperwork, you may asked for more appointments and then be denied. I had to get additional clearance from a cardiologist and take a pulmonary function test before I was PQd. Once PQd, the fun can actually begin.

 

The other co-op Maggie Streeter, myself, and our boss Nathalie Le François before boarding the icebreaker, the LMG, to Antarctica. Photo by Jake Grondin

The transit portion takes about a full week. Maggie Streeter (the other co-op on station) and I started our travels at Logan, where we flew from Boston to New York City, to Santiago, Chile, and then to Punta Arenas, Chile, where we spent the night and met the people on our “cruise” (as it’s named) to Palmer.

Typically, a “cruise” lasts about four days as the Laurence M. Gould (LMG) takes us across the Drake Passage, known for its incredibly rough seas. We live on board, with roommates and small bunks that are simply holes in the walls. With a lounge, gym, laundry room, and dining hall, it feels quite homey, until you realize that the paintings on the walls, cupholders on the tables, and pieces of furniture in your room are bolted to the walls. Thankfully our travel was quite smooth, a rare blessing for us newcomers. On the last day of our cruise, we were able to see our first glimpses of Antarctica, the mountain of Smith Island (pictured). Palmer was then soon to follow, and we were greeted with smiling faces eager to meet the rest of their winter crew.

Smith Island, our first glimpse of Antarctica

Right now, there are only 38 people on station, with a total of 20 of us “over-wintering,” or staying throughout the winter. We came down on the last boat to arrive until October. The LMG will depart once more in mid-June, but then we won’t see any new faces until it comes back in October with the summer crew.

These first few weeks have been quite the ride. Life on station is much different than anywhere at home. We all work six days a week, with scientists determining their own schedules (we often work seven days a week), no janitorial staff are present so everyone shares cleaning responsibilities, and finally, internet is so slow here that websites like Netflix, YouTube, and Spotify being all but blocked.

Our final arrival to Palmer Station. Photo by Jake Grondin

Later blog posts will go into more detail about my research and life on station, so please stay tuned!

Follow along with Jake’s co-op on his Instagram!

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