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Fen Montaigne

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photograph by Maria Stenzel


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Field Notes From Author
Fen Montaigne

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    Spending a month at Palmer Station, Antarctica, was the high point of my research. The Antarctic Peninsula is perhaps the most beautiful place I've ever seen—9,000-foot (2,700-meter) mountains plunging into a sea teeming with bird life and marine mammals. I never lost the sense of being in one of the world's last unspoiled places. Every day I accompanied penguin biologist Bill Fraser and his team as they surveyed penguins and other seabirds, and the vistas—regardless of time or weather—were always varied and stirring. Powerful weather systems frequently swept over the area, ushering in constantly changing cloud formations. And in the clear, Antarctic air—far from civilization—I could sometimes see the peninsular mountain chain extending 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the south.

    This story took me to Hudson Bay to study polar bears, to the Austrian Alps to study high-altitude plants, and to Antarctica, so it's difficult to conjure up a bad moment. The only low point of my travels was getting seasick one afternoon in the infamous Drake Passage that separates Antarctica from South America. The swells were mild for the Drake, only about 12 feet (4 meters). But the Lawrence S. Gould, the ship that often transports scientists and support staff to Palmer Station, was pitching and rolling. I was sick for a few hours.

    An odd tradition has developed over the years at Palmer Station. When the Lawrence S. Gould drops off its cargo and passengers and eventually leaves Palmer, newcomers to the station come under intense pressure to dive into the frigid Antarctic water as the vessel pulls away. I succumbed to this mania on two occasions, jumping off the large, rubber dockside bumpers into the 35°F (2°C) water. Oddly, it was not as bad as I expected. Indescribably cold, yes, but if you scramble out of the water after a few seconds, as I did, you're left feeling invigorated. Afterwards, the swimmers gather in the station's hot tub to relive the experience.


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