A Listener on the Luminous Southern Icescape

For the scientists and researchers at Argentina’s Antarctic research station, the frozen continent is a strange and solitary dreamscape, writes Federico Bianchi in this affecting Anfibia profile of a day in the life of a researcher in one of the most isolated laboratories on the planet.

It is Monday February 17, 2014 at around 8:30 in the morning, and the biologist Emiliano Depino wakes up and does not remember what he has dreamed. Perhaps it is because the landscapes in Antarctica are so intense that our dreams are ashamed to reveal themselves. Through the window, he sees the still gray of the cove, the white ground: It looks like there is no wind. It is not going to be one of those days where nature takes control and man obeys unequivocally. He walks out of his room in the “new” housing — a sort of container with rooms on either side of the hallway — and, before going to bathroom, knocks on the door where biologist Maricel Grana Grilli sleeps. She does not answer.

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At the end of the hall in the small kitchen, he heats water for tea and eats the same crackers he has been eating day after day until he is sick of them. He breakfasts quickly, almost like completing a chore. Very rarely does Depino wake up to have breakfast in the main lodging, around 200 meters from his room. There, starting at 7:30, the head of the base made a few announcements and one of his assistants read the weather forecast, the prognostication for whiteouts around the base, the wind speeds. And there they had quiche, jam, cold cuts and coffee, but the biologist has preferred to forgo these delicacies to sleep in a bit more.

After washing his mug, he returns to the room he shares with the biochemist Lucas Martinez Alvarez. He checks that all of his gear is ready: the memory card, the batteries, the cables, the camera, the recording equipment. He packs a light and high calorie snack of walnuts and almonds in a backpack.

From the telephone in the hallway he dials ‘3’ and then ‘5’ and hears a gravelly voice say: “Kitchen.”

“We’re not going to eat on the base. We’re about to head out for the shelter. Are than any leftovers from last night’s dinner or any sandwich meat?”

“For how many?”

“Three.”

“How long until you leave?”

“Half an hour.”

“Come by here before you leave,” says the voice on the other end.

Through an open door, he sees Maricel up now, preparing the nets, the pump, the vials for blood samples, the GPS.

Depino goes back to his room. Had he been to breakfast he would have found out the forecast predicted a 17 knot east wind, clouds down to 240 meters, good visibility (12 kilometers) and a temperature of -3 Celsius. One gets bundled up in Antarctica without asking questions: chill factor -7.

He puts on thermal underwear, three pairs of socks, one of top of the other. Then, Goretex pants. A thermal shirt, another thicker thermal shirt and sweatshirt; a parka, a hat to cover his ears, and gloves. Depino is not particularly sensitive to the cold but he knows that below zero temperatures feel like wind blowing through your veins.

Before leaving, he struggles into his boots, which come almost to his knees. He removes the metal latch that locks the door and isolates the team from furious gusts, and when he stepps out into the snow he felt on his face that he was in Antarctica.

He walks to the kitchen of the main lodge, listening to his footsteps on the ice. There, the latch again, boots off to keep the floor dry. He goes to the kitchen in his socks where one of the helpers gives him a black garbage sack. Inside, kilogram and a half of cured pork, bread and two packages of assorted crackers.

In that white geometry, thousands of square kilometers of around, the main building and the new building, the gas tanks with the word “Carlini”, the German laboratory, the Argentine laboratory, all shine orange. Isolated but close to each other, like the 50 scientists, the 25 soldiers that from January to March share life on the Argentine base, located meters from Potter Cove. Because later, during the rest of the year, there are only 16: a scientist and 15 soldiers who spend their time thousands of kilometers from their homes.

“Radio, radio.”

“…”

“Radio, radio for Emiliano.”
“Yes, Walter here. Good morning Emiliano.”

“Good morning Walter. There are three of us leaving for the coastal shelter.”

“Copy.”

“Let us know when you arrive. Over and out.”

“Great. Over and out.”

He runs into Maricel Grana Grilli at the door of the laboratory. He checks the gear and before starting to walk makes a comment about a dense, dark gray cloud that seemed nailed to a point in the sky.

Despite Depino’s 6 feet 2 inches, the skua flying overhead must see him as a black dot that moves slowly, leaving tiny tracks.

Emiliano Depino walks the six kilometers to the shelter almost without even thinking about it. He feels the biting cold on his face, but his body heats up and the sweat pours as soon as he starts to move. Up ahead is Maricel: orange parka, backpack, and black boots, curls tossed by the wind.

To the right, the glacial ocean of the Antarctic, dotted with chunks of white ice that from far away appear soft, turquoise. Along the coast, a few penguins dart into the water. Others stand still, waiting for who knows what imminent thing, or maybe they are just stopping to intuit (animals do not think), to abstractly perceive the passing of what we call time.

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Depino must be careful of the motionless sea lions camouflaged amongst the rocks, sleeping or pretending to sleep. Their bites can cause a serious infection. To the left, hills heaped with snow. Close to the coast, the enormous elephant seals, now in a period of lethargy, sit side-by-side, brutal and inoffensive.

Grana Grilli keeps a steady pace a few meters away from Depino, who listens to his breath come and go, looks at the landscape spellbound, and little by little loses himself in his memories, fragments of stories that stack up like transparencies to be viewed in backlight. He thinks about his grandfather’s enormous bird cage: cardinals, hooded siskins, European goldfinches, and grosbeaks. The unruly flapping that rose up each time the boy, many years ago now, entered with a homemade net fashioned from an orange onion bag. The birds flew from one side to the other, iridescent, trying to escape the boy who wanted to trap them to feed them.

He walks and thinks, Depino, about the technique for grabbing those quick and fragile bodies made of feathers, a technique many of his biologist colleagues learned when they were older and he learned as a boy, from his mother’s father, grandfather Nelson. Or their calls or where they eat and drink water, or when each species reproduces, indispensable facts for someone trying to trap them.

On Fridays, Depino thinks as he walks, he would carry to school in La Plata — the school where his mother worked as an English teacher — a backpack with his books and another bag: fishing pole, hooks, pants, t-shirt and socks, and after class he would get in the Peugeot 504 with his two grandfathers and head straight for the countryside.

From back seat, Depino, with his high voice, would ask: “And why do you have to leave the bird in a cage lit up by such a bright light after catching them, grandpa?”

His maternal grandfather Nelson and his paternal grandfather Hector would take turns responding. As usually happens with old men, each question unfolded into an answer that stretched out nimbly and evaporated into the conversation.

“If we put the bird in the cage at 10 in the morning, it will have been spent all day without eating, and if it gets dark or the lights are turned off, it could fall asleep and then would certainly die.”

Depino does not get tired because coming and going from the shelter is a daily thing, unless it is snowing heavily or the Antarctic winds are blowing. The rain does not stop Grana Grilli from doing her work.

Depino walks and thinks about the extensive search for those birds, the trips with his grandfather Nelson to the windmills, to see if they could get lost. Where water dripped, there were puddles. Where there were puddles, there were birds drinking. Or to the bull corral, the ground speckled with the red crests of cardinals. The afternoons, under the suffocating heat of the siesta, hiding behind a curtain with a string in his hand, waiting for hours for the wary pigeons to cross the invisible line of his cloak held up by a stick, dropping the cloak and watching the animals flap their wings in confusion.

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Far off, the sky’s luminosity fades into superimposed gray clouds. It is not clear if there are several clouds, one on top of the other, or if it is just one: enormous, ethereal and all-encompassing, suspended above the cold.

Depino walks and thinks about how as a boy he looked at the pigeons, staring at their marbled gray feathers, their rough dry legs, their animal-like feet; and later he set them free, satisfied with what he had learned after the long wait.

Depino walks and thinks in this distant white landscape dotted with the sound of the wind, the sounds of hundreds of penguins, under the sky’s easy transparence. He thinks about his grandfather, in what he learned and in what he would like to teach him to make his grandfather understand that he just liked to walk in the country, not necessarily to trap birds: It was enough to get close, to be interested in them. But it is hard to change people, and harder when they are old and life has changed them, pushed them around.

Depino finds himself wrapped up in his thoughts walking along an ice cap. After a sound, one of his boots sinks into the freezing water of stream. He backs up — now not remembering his grandfather, the big cage, the birds — and tries to concentrate on the stability of the rock that he must step on so he will not fall over.

Up ahead, Grana Grilli is thinking about who-knows-what. Far off, an intense orange dot: The Elephant Shelter, a modest house, necessary in this desolate landscape, appears beneath one of the hills.

Upon arriving, Depino takes off his parka: Vapor rises off his back as if his skin were a geyser.

After starting the generator and letting the base know everything was okay (‘We’re here, see you tonight’), they drank a few mates. But they did not pause for long: The work had not yet begun and it was doubtful the sun would come out.

They go out together. They know where to look for the nest of the skua, a bird similar to a seagull but bigger and dun-colored. They prepare the net launcher, made with a compressed air pump. They approach slowly until the animals, a male and a female, fly above them, inquisitive.

Depino points, the sound of the wind his cover, and pulls the trigger. The net shoots out and encircles the bird, which falls to the ground fluttering. Grana Grilli approaches and carefully grabs the skua from the ground. He untangles it while he puts tape on the sharp beak…

She hugs it as if she loves it. And in a way, by dedicating her life to the study of these birds, she does love them. Little by little, the immature skua calms down. On his right leg he wears a band, white and blue, with his identification: MJL.

Depino makes up part of Grana Grilli’s team, which is doing a thesis linking the use of space with the skuas’ nutrition during their reproductive period. They band the male and the female and put a GPS on them. They do this three times: When the pair is incubating, when the chicks are born, and when the birds have full plumage. Ten days later, they take the apparatus off and take blood samples.

From that sample, with the help of stable carbon isotopes, they can determine what the animal ate. They measure triglycerides, fatty acids, and cholesterol and evaluate if the fat in its body is being consumed; they measure uric acid and can tell if it is consuming protein or if its muscles can synthesize it: if it has food for itself and its babies and can fatten up or, to give its babies food, it must weaken itself, risking death. These facts are correlated with the movements the animal has made over the last days which is mapped by computer program from GPS information. If the skua goes too far to look for food, the nest is left unprotected and other skuas, scavengers, traitors, attack the young.

Later Grana Grilli prepares some slides with blood to look at the white cells under a microscope. In situations of stress, lack of food, or aggression from predators, the first thing the bird suppresses is its immune system.

MJL looks happy in Maricel’s arms. Later, they put him in a bag made of sackcloth which has a balance at the end: He weighs 1,575 grams. They take blood and add heparin to it so it does not coagulate. At 2pm, they take off the GPS, classified as S26.

Later, they let him go and MJL circles above the scientists before taking off toward the sea. Depino repeats the process of loading and shooting the net, now at a baby, which has a torso 69.12 millimeters long and a bill 41.06 millimeters long. They measure it in silence, maybe so they do not disturb the animal or maybe because they are focused on treating it with care, making sure this contact, perhaps the only this bird will have with humans in its lifetime, is as brief as possible.

Later, the bird MBM will weigh 1,800 grams. His GPS (S39) will be recovered at 3pm.

Ten years ago, on Isla 25 de Mayo (King George Island) there were more than 30 skua nests and, months later, around 30 young. Today, there are 14 nests, and of those only two of the young will survive. They are studying the causes, but believe the decline is from global warming, climate change: krill, which is the base of the food chain, reproduces below ice flows, layers on the surface of the water. If the amount of floating ice diminishes, there are less krill, which means less food for the rest of the animals.

Once the work is done, back at the shelter they eat pork sandwiches, drink mate. Grana Grilli proposes going back to the base, taking the samples to the laboratory and letting Depino do one of the things he likes most: record animal sounds.

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The first year Emiliano Depino arrived in Antarctica he did not have much free time. He did not take books or television shows or movies or anything. And here it is easy to lock yourself in, to sink into yourself. They had already packed up and were ready to leave, but the weather kept them there for ten more days of waiting and nothingness, ten days in which Depino thought even the penguins, skuas and elephant seals had left. And the boat, the Beagle, did not arrive. And the window of good weather they needed to get off the base would not open, and the isolation and the repeated sentences…

What am I doing here?

What
am I
doing
here?

What am I doing?

And the weather got thicker, more dense, almost solid. And thoughts, like satellites in space, spun in inertial circles. Sometimes around one’s head and other times around each other. He thought about his girlfriend, Maria Florencia Lo Castro, about his dad Marcelo, about his mom Sandra, his siblings, Mariano and Florencia, and he did not know what to do. Depino, at the that moment, felt the force of nature.

In the city, he realized, we are accustomed to something different. We honk horns, turn things off and on, go where we want: We decide. In Antarctica, the weather decides. He thinks about a comment a friend made who had wanted to call his dead father on the phone. Depino compares, in a particular way, the isolation of Antartica with death.

This time he came more prepared. This time he brought movies, books, an uncompleted academic paper on speckled rails (small walking birds that fly very little, move on the ground and climb the branches in riverside forests) and, most of the all, the recorder.

Depino started to record bird sounds during a class he took in 2007, his second year in college. Later, his uncle gave him a parabolic recorder made out of a colander, a microphone and a tape recorder.

A year later, in another class, with a scholarship from the Argentine Inter-University Council to “stimulate scientific vocation”, he was able to buy a better microphone. And a friend who also recorded gave him a disk for a parabolic recorder, a disk that an researcher had used in Alaska.

Later, with parts from an electric roto-hammer, the handle bars from a bicycle and some plastic pipe, Depino made the apparatus that today he uses to record sea elephants and sea lions, Antarctic gulls, petrels, frigate birds, penguins, Antarctic doves, skuas and, although unintentionally , the wind. Because here the wind envelopes the land like the skin on our bodies. It does not whistle like it does when it passes through trees but screams, hoarse and savage. It blows tenaciously. It dominates with impunity.

Depino walks, orange against the white backdrop, moving that kind of open umbrella that bounces the sounds to a single point in the middle where, with precision, the biologist balances the microphone.

He sits, pure patience, close to a penguin. He resists the cold: He points and listens. And when he hears something interesting, he presses the button: The recorder captures whatever happened two seconds later.

He points it at a penguin Adelie penguin, which flaps its wings and looks up. With the help of the microphone, Depino hears the quiet tac, tac, tac that comes before the bird’s call, which otherwise would be lost in the racket. The microphone is so sensitive that he has to go alone and be careful: Clothing rubbing together, footsteps, or a sneeze can all ruin the recording.

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And it is difficult: Sometimes the penguins do not make their call, or they peck at the microphone, or there is too much noise. They have neither complex nor varied calls, nor a specific time they do their calls like other species. Not like the wind, always the wind.

Days later, in his room at the base or in the lab, Depino will listen to the recordings. He will select the best ones, format them (between -12 and -3 decibels, with a quality of 24 bits and 96 hertz) and he will email them to a lab at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, where there is a global bank of bird calls. They clean them up, removing the background noise and improving the sound, and then return them to their author as well as put them in the public library under his name.

But not now, because he has just realized that this Adelie penguin is on the defensive, making a low sound like goose cawing. He does not get lost in his memories but instead concentrates on the sound of the animal and enjoys it.

After a few minutes, he speaks into the recorder. He states: the species, the situation, the date, the GPS coordinates, the animal’s behavior, the climate, if there was a lot of wind or a little wind or if it was a natural call or a response to one of his imitation calls. Because some species will sing freely and when they see a biologist dressed in orange arrive they will cry out loudly, repeatedly. And it must be specified: It is not the same.

Later, he goes back to the shelter. He gets his equipment and heads for the base. He lets them know he is leaving. He walks, looking at the landscape. Shortly after arriving, evening falls on the Shetlands and the light seems to get narrower. Far off, behind a few clouds, the sun sets and the ice is tinted pink, then yellow. Depino takes pictures sitting at the lighthouse: He focuses on the dark shadows on the blazing horizon.

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Later, after entering the base, he feels the exhaustion in his body that accumulated throughout the day. He leaves his clothes far from his room: smells of skuas, penguins, sea elephants. Little by little, he relaxes. He might talk to his roommate Lucas for a while, or walk around the base, see if anyone wants to chat and drink mate. Or maybe he will go to the gym to see if he can find an opponent for ping pong.

In a bit, still early, dinner will be ready. Later some cards or a board game, a book or a movie, falling asleep slowly and maybe dreaming: of a pale and improbable land, as far off as it is unbelievable.

Federico Bianchini Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard.