The long road home from Antarctica The COVID-19 Chronicles

Palmer Station, Antarctica | Ross Nichols

UNDER THE SHELTERING SKY |

By Kathryn McKenzie

In late December, my son left for Antarctica. He’s a marine biologist who is doing a whale study in this vast and intimidating place. And yet I didn’t worry so much, really. It’s not his first rodeo. He’s cautious, well-trained, and surrounded by other people who are looking out for him.

And so I didn’t worry. Until I heard that he might be trapped there due to COVID-19.

Ross and I have been messaging through WhatsApp the past two weeks (which is amazing, when you think about it — technology!) and just like the coronavirus crisis, things have been changing fast. First, he told me he might be delayed getting back, perhaps up to six weeks.

Enlarge

ross-on-the-ship-2019
Ross on the ship | Provided photo

On Tuesday night, I found out he is on a ship — heading north, but where exactly it will end up is a bit uncertain.

Ross has been at Palmer Station, a small U.S. research facility on a peninsula that is closest to Chile. He was housed with about 40 scientists and support staff there, with the researchers studying marine mammals, birds, insects and the very few plants that grow there, mosses and lichens. It’s a place he is now quite familiar with, since it was his third time there.

He is working on his master’s degree in ocean science at UC Santa Cruz, and the whale study that he’s doing is the basis of his thesis. He and his team go out in small inflatable boats in search of minke and humpback whales. Using a long pole, they attach high-tech tags to the whales that measure everything from their heartbeats to how deep they dive to how many times they open and close their mouths. All this data helps scientists better understand whale foraging and other behaviors.

Enlarge

tagging-whales
Tagging whales | Provided photo

This sounds terrifying, and indeed Ross and his team are often quite close to these leviathans, who often raise a giant eyeball out of the water to peek at the boat, no doubt trying to figure out what these weird humans are up to.

People say to me, “Don’t you worry about him, being so far from home and doing dangerous things?” I actually worried about him far more when he was doing other field work, such as his stint on remote Hawaiian islands lugging young seals around a few years back. Now, he is 29, has traveled all over the world on his own, and is used to surviving in harsh environments. In the Antarctic, there’s a well-established system in place to protect researchers, and everyone looks out for each other in this harsh, remote place. In the past, I’ve chosen not to worry.

In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s summer — the time when most of the scientists are on the continent — and Ross was due to come back to the States in April, before winter set in. I was looking forward to celebrating his birthday with him here.

Ordinarily, there wouldn’t be a problem. He would take a ship to Chile’s Strait of Magellan and dock in the town of Punta Arenas, a base for scientific and tourist excursions to Antarctica. From there, he would fly to Santiago and then on to the United States. But then came COVID-19.

Enlarge

whale-team
Whale team | Provided photo

On March 16, Chile closed its borders to keep the pandemic at bay, and other South American countries have followed suit. Understandable. Except that the scientists who were expecting to go home via Chile or other nearby countries were out of luck. Talks were under way between the U.S. State Department and Chile, Ross texted me.

“Honestly, not that bad to be in Antarctica right now,” he wrote. Antarctica remains the only continent with no confirmed cases of the virus.

At this point I still thought he might not get home until next month. But I was surprised to learn on Tuesday that he was already on the ship bound for Chile. I suppose they figured sooner was better than later. Several days before, a group of people from the station had also left, and they were able to get a plane out.

Enlarge

helping-on-penguin-project
Helping on penguin project | Provided photo

What happens now to those on Ross’s ship is anybody’s guess. “We are currently able to get into Chile in order to get to the airport, however we don’t know if any flights will be available once we get there,” he texted.

If there are no flight to be had in Chile, they’ll try the Falkland Islands, a British territory off the coast of Argentina. If that doesn’t work, the ship will head north to California — which could take about a month. “Needless to say, I really hope that doesn’t happen,” Ross wrote.

I’m trying very hard not to be anxious about all this, since there is nothing I can do about any of it. As much as I want to see him in the near future, maybe staying on the ship would be better than traveling through airports. Who knows?

All I know for sure is that the world he’s coming back to will be far different from the one he left.

Enlarge

iceberg
Iceberg | Provided photo

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.

SUPPORT NONPROFIT JOURNALISM

Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites.