Friday, December 22, 2017

Traveling Australia

Sunset from our dive boat on the Great Barrier Reef!

After I got off the Ice, I think I needed to clear my head a bit. Being at the South Pole for a year can have a mental impact, but more than that, we had the delays getting out as I mentioned in the last post. That being said, now I have been traveling a bit, and I think I am going to try to blog a little more frequently. Of course I have said that many times, so we will see how things actually go. Also, I have updated the name of the blog. Originally, my intention was to focus a little more on science, but given that most of my posts have been about and will be about travel, I have changed it up a little for the time being, not that I am particularly thrilled with the title anyway, but it will do for now. Also as a side note... Photo album links at the bottom for those who want more pictures!

Starting out - Cairns

As I stated in my last post, I wasn't able to spend much time in New Zealand, due to my flight delays out of Antarctica. After we made it to New Zealand, I spent my time getting ready for the rest of my travel. The first stop, and the topic of this post, was Australia! I have been a scuba diver for number of years.  During grad school, however, my diving along with many of my other hobbies slowed way down. Right before I was offered the position at the South Pole, I decided that it was a good time to get back into it a bit. I went down to the rock quarry in Pelham, Alabama and did a quick refresher and got a few dives in.  I was gearing up for more diving over the next couple months, when I got the call about the job at the South Pole... So my diving stopped AGAIN! Though that was a small price to pay for the most amazing job in the world. While at the South Pole, I decided that I would have to go diving when I got back, and where better to dive than the Great Barrier Reef? So in my post-ice travel planning, the first stop became a dive trip in Australia. I talked to a few people and one company was recommended, Prodive. Actually, it was only thing I booked while in Antarctica, outside of my plane tickets. I didn't even start booking hotels anywhere until I got off the Ice.

So my first stop on my tour home was Cairns, Australia. I got in a few days before the dive so I could relax and wonder around the town a bit. I ended up hitting up a few pubs throughout that time, including an Irish pub that at one point had Sweet Home Alabama playing. I also decided to hit up the local aquarium before my dive. I'm glad I did! I got a few interesting pics while there, primarily for my nephew who was in a bit of a shark phase a while back.

A hammerhead shark I saw in the Cairns Aquarium

Getting ready for a dive on the Reef!
The dive trip itself was a 3-day 2-night live-aboard. That means, that I was picked up at my hotel on Monday morning and they took us to a boat that we lived on for the next couple days of diving. We ended up getting 11 dives in, including 2 night dives. Here is where I have to make a small confession. At the start of the trip, I had around 50 to 60 dives under my belt (if I remember correctly). I was even a certified rescue diver through SDI/TDI. That being said, all of my dives were in rock quarries up until this point. So my first ocean dives were on the Great Barrier Reef! I enjoy diving in quarries, espcially when they are the only nearby place to dive, but diving the Reef was amazing. There were even a few others on the boat who actually got their dive certifications on the trip.  That is an epic place to learn how to dive. One common question I have been asked about my dives so far is "did you see any sharks?" Yes, I saw sharks, but sadly, I didn't get any pictures of the ones we saw. Mostly, they were trying to get away from us! We saw several very interesting fish and
coral structures. We also saw a few turtles, as you can see below. It was an amazing experience.

A turtle we saw while diving

Everyone in Australia was getting ready for Christmas!

After the dive trip we went back to Cairns where I spent another couple days relaxing and planning. At this point, I actually had no idea where I was going next. I even had to extend my hotel an extra night so I could figure things out. I toyed with a few ideas, but then settled on a quick hop to Sydney and then Adelaide. Honestly, the biggest reason I wanted to go to Sydney was to see the Sydney Opera House. IceCube has some collaborators in Adelaide, so I figured I would show up and see if they were around. I figured between Cairns, Sydney, and Adelaide I'd get a little bit of varied Australian Experience.

The iconic bridge across from the Opera House... I think this is where they shoot off fireworks during new years!
Me with the Opera House in the background

Sydney was actually pretty nice. It is a much bigger city than I realized. I hit the ground running there. The truth is I am probably spending way too much money on some parts of travel, but since this is supposed to be an epic travel vacation, I figure I can live with it to some degree, but in order to mitigate the costs a bit, I decided not to spend to much time in Sydney since it was so expensive.  I was able to get a pretty nice tour of the Opera House early on my first full day in town. It turns out the Royal Botanical Gardens are right next to the Opera House, so I went there as well. It was a great time. Other than that I did a little exploring and hit up a couple local bars/pubs. It was a pretty laid back trip.

A view from the tour inside the Opera House

Another inside shot of the Opera House
An interesting bird I saw in the botanical gardens
A sundial in the botanical gardens


After Sydney, I flew off for a few days in Adelaide, which has a much smaller feel to it. I actually went to the mall there on one day since I had to get a few things. While I was there, I was able to meet up with a few of my IceCube friends Sally, Gary, and Ben. The truth is that ever since I heard IceCube had people down in Australia, I kinda wanted to visit. Thankfully, they were actually in town when I got there! I probably should have checked ahead of time, but where is the fun in that? It was really great to see them and hang out with them for a couple of evenings. Another surprise along those lines was meeting up with a fellow winterover Rick. He and his girlfriend happened to be passing through Adelaide on their way from Darwin down to Sydney. I was able to hang out with them and have a couple drinks as they passed through town. That was great and totally unexpected!

I was told these were pretty iconic for Adelaide
Another Adelaide Icon
Sunset on the beach with Gary and Sally

While I was at the South Pole, a couple of guys there gave a wine class that I partcipated in, and one of the regions they actually mentioned was called the Barossa Valley near Adelaide. So, one day while I was there I joined a tour of the Barossa Valley that included a couple of wine tastings including one at the Seppeltsfield winery and the Wolf Blass winery. The truth is, I still don't know much about wine and am not very sophisticated in respect to wine, but it was a fun time. At Seppeltsfield they had a port (which I think they call a tawny for legal reasons since port has to come from Portugal?) that was aged 100 years. They didn't let us taste that one, but I did get a picture of the bottle of ~$2000 AUD port.

This was NOT on the tasting menu... around $2000 AUD for that bottle!

But they let us take a picture with it, and I was very careful not to drop it!

Me at the Wolf Blass Winery

On the last part of the tour we visited Hahndorf which is one of the oldest German settlements in the area if I remember correctly. It was ok... nothing spectacular. On the way back, however, the bus driver told us to keep our eyes open in the top of trees on the side of the road as there might be Koalas up there. One lady with a sharp eye spotted one. The bus driver actually pulled over, and we all got out of the bus to look and take pictures. It was actually pretty awesome.

For Martin! (kind of an inside joke)
Getting ready for Christmas!
Overall, it was a pretty amazing trip in Australia. There were a few things I didn't get to do, but due to the way I am traveling, I am a little limited on time in many of the places I am visiting. I also have the problem that my drivers license expired while I was in Antarctica, so I can't exactly rent a car right now! That being said, I don't really have any regrets about my time there. Hopefully, one day, I will make another trip down under and experience even more of such an amazing country!

And as promised... here are the links to the full albums!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

397 Days in Antarctica

The IceCube Lab in the Sunset

I have been thinking about this last South Pole post for a couple weeks. Part of the reason it has taken so long is that I needed to clear my head a bit. Also, as you'll see below, the last couple weeks were a bit of a challenge, and I wasn't quite ready to post on it. In all honesty, I don't really know what I want to say, so I'll start with some simple facts and go from there. If I am not mistaken, I arrived in Antarctica on October 27, 2016. I spent a few days at McMurdo before heading off and arriving at the South Pole on November 2, 2016.  I then spent the next 385 days at the South Pole, leaving on November 22, 2017. I then spent another week in McMurdo before finally arriving back in Christchurch early on November 28, 2017. I spent almost 397 full days in Antarctica.  Now to answer a couple of the more common questions I have received after returning to the real world:

1.) How was it?

Honestly, I loved my time at the South Pole.  It was one of the greatest adventures of my life, and probably one of the best years of my life. Yes, there were times when it didn't feel very adventurous, and there were challenges here and there, but overall, it was an amazing time.

2.) Would you do it again/go back?

Yes. The problem is that it may not line up very well with my future career, but if given the opportunity, I would return in a heartbeat.

That being said, by the time I left it was time to go. While I loved my year down there, the last few weeks were very difficult, and probably not for the reasons most people would suspect. As it turns out, there is one drawback to being a scientist at the South Pole: we don't leave as early as the rest of the crew. I spent a year in one of the most isolated places in the world with very few people. In fact, for 8.5 months, there were only 46 of us.  No one in or out.  No mail. No planes. Limited contact with the outside world over some pretty poor internet. We kind of became like a family.  Then, we opened the station at the end of the season, and a bunch of new people came in. This wasn't so bad at first. The bad part was when most of my South Pole family left. Over the course of a few days, 38 of the 46 winterovers left the station, leaving 8 of us to train our replacements. The first big flight out was by far my hardest day there. A large group of 32 or so people left on that first big flight and the station was filled with probably over 70 to 80 new people.  I honestly didn't think it would hit me as hard as it did, but something about all my friends leaving and all the new people taking over the station was really difficult for me to process. So, I hunted down a few of the remaining winterovers to get away from the crowd of new people taking over. We basically hid for a while trying to get away from all the new people.

After a couple of days, we were all ready to go, and then the weather hit. We ended up stuck on station way longer than anticipated. Almost all of us had our travel plans very messed up.  I was supposed to stay for a couple weeks in New Zealand and travel there, but by the time I made it back, all of my time was gone, and it was off to Australia. I was one of the lucky ones. The others lost thousands of dollars in missed travel and experience they had scheduled.  It is one thing to plan for delays, but it is hard to anticipate over 2 weeks of delays.  Day after day, we saw more of our travel plans get ruined. On top of that, we finished with our work, so we literally had nothing to do but sit around and wait and continuously check the weather. Suffice it to say, we were grumpy and depressed, and there was quite a bit of drinking, and a few really terrible movies (for example mutant/zombie sheep attacking people in New Zealand... yeah it was that bad), to kill time.   Finally, there was a small break in the weather, and we made it out of the South Pole, but then we got stuck in McMurdo. I spent my second Thanksgiving in a row on the ice.  At this point 7 of the 8 of us still on the ice hid ourselves away and ate in our room.  I love South Pole, but I really don't like McMurdo.  We didn't know anyone there. We weren't supposed to still be there.  It was time to go, but we were stuck.

Finally, we made it out on a late flight from McMurdo to arrive in Christchurch very early in the morning. We were exhausted. I spent the next day and a half getting ready for my trip to Australia. I had one full day in Christchurch before my flight, and it was mostly spent running errands. I had to buy pants, mail some packages, and I even got a haircut. I did take a few long showers, but I didn't make it to the botanical gardens. Still, it was amazing to finally make it. Then one by one, the last of us started going our separate ways. It was a bittersweet time.

Overall, as I said before, it was one of the greatest years of my life. The last 2 or 3 weeks were really rough, but in the end, I guess it was worth it as I'd still go back. When I started grad school, I stumbled my way into doing research on the IceCube Neutrino Observatory down at the South Pole. At the time I started, I had no ambitions to go to the South Pole or anywhere else in Antarctica. Then the opportunity presented itself for the first time a few years ago for a short trip. Since that time, Antarctica as become more and more a part of my life.  For me, it was one of those places that you just fall in love with. Now after this last year, I can't imagine what my life would be like had I gone a different route. I'm still trying to figure out my next few steps, but in the mean time, I have already had some amazing travel up in Australia.  Maybe now that I have finally gotten this last post up, I can start posting more of my other travels for those who are interested.

Over 400 days of beard...

I feel human again!