Plan B Day, Part 2: A visit to Vernadsky Research Base

November 21, 2019 • 8:45 am

This morning’s location on the Roald Amundsen’s map shows us (the circled ship) headed for Telefon Bay on the donut-shaped Deception Island, where we hope to make a landing after breakfast. [JAC: we did; I’m just back.]The zoomed-out view in the second map shows us heading back north, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. I cannot see land from my cabin window (on the starboard side).

Deception Island harbors an active volcano (its eruptions damaged several research stations in 1967 and 1969) and lots of birds. As Wikipedia notes:

Deception Island has become a popular tourist stop in Antarctica because of its several colonies of chinstrap penguins, as well as the possibility of making a warm bath by digging into the sands of the beach. Mount Flora is the first site in Antarctica where fossilized plants were discovered.

CHINSTRAPS! I’ve now seen three species of penguins (gentoos, Adélies, and chinstraps), and I hope to see King penguins when we get to the Falklands. [JAC: There were no chinstraps, just a few glum-looking gentoos.]

The Panomax ship’s camera shows the weather overcast but fairly calm today, and the harbor at Deception Island, almost completely surrounded by land, is one of the safest around, so I suspect we will go ashore.

Tomorrow’s report, though, will show our visit yesterday to the penguin rookeries on Cuverville Island, as today’s post is about our visit to the Vernadsky Ukrainian research station on Tuesday (part 2 of the “plan B” day report).

I’ve had to reduce the resolution of these photos even more than usual, as the ship’s internet keeps rejecting larger ones. (Note that each of these posts takes several hours to deal with the photos, so look at them!)

The Roald Amundsen moored in an iceberg-filled area when we visited Vernadsky Station yesterday afternoon. Here are a few of the views from our ship and then from the Zodiacs when we made a circuitous trip around the bergs and islands to get to the station:

A panoramic view of the area around where the ship remained Tuesday afternoon:

That weird cubic iceberg that I keep seeing as we traverse this area:

There were many other bergs as well. In fact, our Zodiac got lost as we threaded our way through them, and we had to radio back to the ship for guidance:

Another cubic iceberg!:

After some time in a Zodiac (it was a warm and glorious afternoon), we finally made it to Vernadsky Research Base.  I was delighted to find that its several buildings were surrounded—indeed, inundated—with penguins. I cannot get enough bill time with these adorable yet tough birds.

A bit about Vernadsky Research Base from Wikipedia:

The Vernadsky Research Base (Ukrainian: Антарктична станція Академік Вернадський) is a Ukrainian Antarctic Station located at Marina Point on Galindez Island of Argentine Islands, not far from Kiev Peninsula. The region is under territorial claim between three countries (more Territorial claims in Antarctica). The single Ukrainian antarctic station is named after Russian and Ukrainian mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky (1863–1945) who was the first president of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

The Faraday station existed for 49 years and 31 days (7 January 1947 – 6 February 1996) operated by FIDS and BAS.

The research base was established in 1947 at the Wordie House site on Winter Island by the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (today British Antarctic Survey) as Argentine Islands. The primary purpose of the station was to research geophysics, meteorology, and ionospherics.

Ukraine took over the operation of the base in February 1996, which was sold by the UK for a symbolic one pound. The cost of disassembling the base with good environmental practices and standards would be too costly. The National Antarctic Scientific Center of Ukraine continues a programme of meteorology, upper atmospheric physics, geomagnetism, ozone, seismology, glaciology, ecology, biology and physiology research.

Before a friendly Ukrainian scientist came out to take us through the station, I walked around and photographed the penguins. There are hundreds of them, almost all gentoos (see below). Penguins and research stations tend to co-occur, probably because penguins (except Emperors) make their rookeries on bare rock so their eggs won’t freeze, and scientists and explorers also make their huts and stations on bare rock. This was convenient for the early explorers who ate the penguins when food was short, but now the birds are protected. How nice it must be to live in surroundings like this!:

The scientists made a cute “danger: skuas” sign. These penguins just came back from fishing, hopped out of the water (I have a video), and are walking up to the station:

Gentoos everywhere!

A friendly meteorologist, who spoke very good English, came out to greet us. He said the station harbored 9 men and 2 women, and that he’d been there since April. I’m not sure whether the station operates year round. He gave us a bit of information about the activities the scientists engage in (see above), and then took us inside.  The yellow sign behind him says “welcome!” in several languages.

The Station is important because it was where the Antarctic hole in the ozone layer was found in 1957 and 1958, when the British occupied the station. (Monitoring ozone is still an important part of the station’s activities.) As the British Antarctic Survey reports:

. . . the effect of man-made chemicals, especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), on the ozone layer were raised by Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland. Their pioneering work was recognised in 1995 by the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Read more about why that work was important by consulting the link just above.

The station even has a chapel, which looks to be Russian Orthodox. It was closed so we couldn’t go inside:

Like many remote places, this one has a sign with distances and directions to cities all over the world. Note that they’ve misspelled “Sydney” and that the sign is topped with a dog sledger:

The entrance to the station, bearing an “Adelie House” sign (even though there are almost no Adelies on the base):

. . . and the official station sign:

When researchers go out and come in, they move their nametags so that the Station can keep track of people. Here’s the nametag board in Ukrainian; note researchers “Whaler” and “P.C.”:

The corridor running the length of the station. We had to take our boots off so as not to besmirch the immaculate facility, which was also quite warm inside.

A photo on the wall showing a visit by the reviled Bill Gates and his family nine years ago:

The biological laboratory, complete with a hood and an aquarium. I didn’t get much of a look as I had to trot along after the guide:

The gym. You need to keep fit to work at a place like this.

The room where they store skis and snowshoes:

The station’s kitchen. I don’t know if they have a regular cook or if they take turns making the food.

The station has a small room where they sell tee-shirts, penguin keychains, and these patches; it’s billed as “the world’s southernmost souvenir shop”. I probably would have bought a tee shirt (see below), but I had left my money on the ship (the Station takes only cash):

They had some nice tee shirts, too, though they were pricey:

And you can even get your passport stamped. I didn’t know that, and at any rate my passport was aboard ship in the custody of the Purser. Look at these cool stamps!

Slate has an article on the famous Vernadsky Base bar, billed as “the southernmost bar in the world”. And indeed, it is a real bar, though the pump handles on the bar are fake. I think they serve mostly vodka. Slate says this:

This tiny, one-room social area is located among the same research facilities where scientists first discovered the hole in the ozone layer. During the station’s British ownership, some of the carpenters repurposed a shipment of wood, meant to provide the station with a new pier, and built the small bar in a close approximation of a traditional English pub. The interior contains rustic wooden beams and aging pictures of famous Antarctica explorers above the seats.

In 1996, the Ukraine purchased Vernadsky for a mere one British pound. (It would have cost a lot more to dismantle the base, so they figured, why not?) The bar, newly decorated with Cyrillic signs and tchotchkes, became a firmly Ukrainian establishment where you can drink and cavort with researchers during the off hours.

In addition to the standard libations, the bar also makes its own vodka using the surrounding glacial ice. The drink can be purchased for three dollars a glass or it is free with the donation of some womens’ undergarments to display behind the bar. Judging by the decor, there have been a number of free drinks.

Again, I would have had a shot if I had brought my dosh. As far as the undergarments go, I didn’t see any, for that would be an affront to the women who now work at the station. The Slate article has a picture of the bar when it sported lingerie.

Many of the passengers did bring money and enjoyed a stiff shot of vodka. Made with glacial ice, too!

There were two bartenders on duty to service the many passengers who visited from the MS Roald Amundsen:

I peeked at the bar’s sound system. It was full of old CDs including music by Queen, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Charles Aznavour, and Neneh Cherry. No Beatles!

And there was also an old phonograph with a Black Sabbath album on view. Are these researchers metal heads?

Afterwards, waiting for the Zodiac to return, I photographed the penguins. Here’s a lovely gentoo:

A group of gentoos about fifteen feet from the station:

There was one imposter penguin: a stray Adélie. He trotted around the gentoos, who didn’t seem to like him, as they chased the Adelie a bit.

A snowy sheathbill (Chionis albus) waiting to eat penguin poop:

And a South polar skua (Stercorarius maccormicki). We saw both the sheathbill and skua on earlier landings elsewhere.

And so it was back to the Amundsen after an hour. You can see our ship in a bay that had to be approached by going through a passage to the left:

The Roald Amundsen, which has many noms but no vodka (actually, they may have it; I haven’t consulted the bar menu):

Tomorrow I have a gazillion pictures of gentoo penguins from our Wednesday visit to one of the largest rookeries in Antarctica: on Cuverville Island. Stay tuned.

39 thoughts on “Plan B Day, Part 2: A visit to Vernadsky Research Base

    1. Thanks for the id. Those are indeed strange arthropods. I read that the largest species live in Antarctic waters. I wonder if that’s what they have: The Southern Ocean giant sea spider (Colossendeis megalonyx).

  1. Going by the magnetic name tags, I’m happy to confirm that Vernadsky station has Bogdan P. as the resident cook (кухар) and Anton O. as mechanic (механік).

  2. Have to wonder how long the duty is for those going to the stations? Maybe six months to a year? In the American service, unaccompanied tours are generally a year. When they are this remote, maybe less. Accompanied tours are standard three years. Some great photos.

    1. I think you can choose to stay longer. I imagine they do most work in the summer as being in the dark that long would be horrid.

      1. My experience is all I have to go on and one year tours are the unaccompanied while three years applies to accompanied tours. Because of the remoteness and or period of darkness, that could cause some differences. But for the U.S. it is the accompanied verses unaccompanied situation that determines the length of tour. You can request extensions to the three year tour (generally asking for two more years) and it may or may not be given. On the one year tours, I don’t think those are extended.

          1. I know the people who apply to go to the NZ base go through extensive psychological testing to ensure they’re suitable people for that sort of situation. People they determine wouldn’t remain stable, especially when they’re isolated over an Antarctic winter, don’t meet the selection criteria.

    2. Hmmmm just looked at the average winter and summer temperatures and they are pretty mild really – not typically going past -10C.

      1. It is more or less right on the ocean – so “lake effect”, and it still only 65 S. (So the equivalent of middle of Iceland only). Further south than Iqaluit is north, though.

  3. Do they accept American currency? Just wondering in case we get a chance to visit. would love a shot at the bar!
    The penguin pics are spectacular!

      1. LOL, true! I’m Canadian but I’ll be bringing Argentinian Pesos and USD. The Hurtigruten ships HI ake Norweigan Kroner but I won’t have to worry about that as they also take credit cards.

  4. The view now from the webcam is really quite something. I see low, sweeping, black hills in every direction. The effect of being in an ashen caldera. Beautiful.

  5. About an an hour ago I posted a comment with a link to an NPR story about scientists working in Antarctica. After I clicked “Post Comment” the comment was posted with an “awaiting moderation” notice.

    When I checked back, the comment had disappeared. Why? I wrote nothing objectionable, had only one link which was to a reputable article that I thought would complement this WEIT post.

    What happened?????????

    For what it’s worth I’ll post the link again and see what happens

    1. Another off-color remark, a question: why is the first term of the scientific name for the south polar suka “Stercorarius” instead of being applied to the snowy sheathbill, which truly is a stercoraceous avian?

    2. I think WordPress can be finicky about links. Maybe it thought there was something weird in it so put it in moderation.

  6. Splendid photos and commentary. I suppose you could have borrowed some money from a friendly passenger and promise to pay them back once aboard. Maybe that’s a pain in the arse. But one of those t-shirts and/or a shot of glacial vodka would be hard to pass up (for me, anyway).

    Nice that they still use vinyl. I don’t recognize the eponymous Black Sabbath album…maybe it’s an import.

    I’m guessing high winds are the cause of the ubiquitous cubit ‘bergs. Those are real eye catchers.

  7. When you get to the Falklands you may be able to see 5 species of penguin: King, Gentoo, Magellanic, Rock-hopper, and Macaroni. We saw at least 3 of them when spending 2 weeks on Sea Lion Island counting elephant seals several years ago. We were told that Rock-Hoppers and Macaronis are hard to distinguish. We were able to spend half a day with a colony of Kings on East Falkland. They were remarkably bold and curious about two strange, unfeathered bipeds in their midst.

  8. I have kept all your wonderful postings of this trip. Your photos and commentaries are brilliant, and I feel that I no longer have a need to do a similar trip! Just one question: what kind of camera do you use for the photography? With thanks.

    1. Hi Don,

      Thanks for the kind words. I’ve always used the same point and shoot camera, a version of the Panasonic Lumix, which has a Leica lens. It’s the Lumix DMC-ZS50, and it’s not expensive. I like it especially because the lens can zoom up to 30X. And it’s small enough to put in my pocket, which is where it usually is.

  9. I had a suspicion, so checked. Sidney isn’t misspelled. When Ukranian for Sydney (Сідней) is changed from Cyrillic letters, you get Sidney.

  10. More connections to Ukraine. I am learning a lot about that country these days, when I knew so little before. They seem to be in the middle of everything.

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