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Alaskans in Antarctica: Fields share their adventures

Posted: April 17, 2013 - 4:09pm  |  Updated: June 14, 2013 - 1:49pm
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All images provided and taken by Carmen or Conrad Fields
Eryn Field sits with a curious king penguin chick (a.k.a. “Oakum Boy”) and king penguin colony in January at St. Andrew’s Bay on South Georgia Island.

There’s a popular saying about being in the right place at the right time. For local wildlife biologists Carmen and Conrad Field, the right place was the Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge across Kachemak Bay from Homer, and the right time was the summer of 1989.  

Working as naturalists at the lodge, Carmen and Conrad had the opportunity to interact with many guests. Over a week in July, they got to know a German gentleman who owned one of the only two ships that were then taking visitors to Antarctica. A working relationship quickly formed and the Fields spent the following autumn on the Amazon River, shuttling guests from ship to shore and back via inflatable Zodiac boats. After the Amazon trip, they worked on the ship for the next two years, traveling to wherever it went, including Antarctica, New Zealand and Indonesia.

This introduction to working on ships has led to annual, seasonal employment for them both. Together, they’ve worked as naturalists and lecturers on vessels frequenting Indonesia, Africa, New Zealand, Russia, Japan, the Canadian Arctic, Chile and Antarctica.  

“In our twenty-four years together, there hasn’t been a season when at least one of us wasn’t working on the ships,” Carmen said.

To date, Carmen has traveled to Antarctica 61 times; Conrad, 72. 

This year, thanks to special permission received from the company they work for, Zegrahm Expeditions, their 7-year-old daughter Eryn joined them for her first trip to the Southern Ocean. Before and during the trip, Eryn made lists of things to see and was surprised by everything, like the variety of penguins. 

“I didn’t expect the kings to be so stubby and short,” she said, laughing,  “and I was surprised when one came up and nudged me.” 

Of particular joy to Eryn was the time she spent with Scottish geologist Tom Sharp, looking at rocks and learning how to break shale open, nurturing her love of geology.

As a science project for school, Eryn tracked and graphed air and water temperatures during one portion of the trip to gauge when the ship crossed the Antarctic Convergence and officially entered the Southern Ocean. Eryn proudly shares that she now knows what her parents are doing when they head south.

Working as Zodiac drivers, lecturers, and naturalists, Carmen and Conrad form part of the ship’s expedition team. Teams are typically comprised of an expedition leader, expedition director, historian, geologist/glaciologist, and several biologists with varying specialties, including ornithology, marine mammals, botany, and marine invertebrates. During their expedition in January, Conrad covered marine invertebrates, whales and whaling history, while Carmen lectured on seals and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s failed 1914-16 British Antarctic Expedition. 

Guests aboard the ships are primarily multi-national retirees. Many are repeat passengers and people checking Antarctica off their bucket list. There are few young travelers and even fewer families with young children. Well-known passengers have included Jack Hannah from the Columbus Zoo, Jim Fowler from TV’s Wild Kingdom show, Canadian conservationist and TV personality David Suzuki, and Canadian author Pierre Berton.

While traveling in the south, Carmen and Conrad see penguin chicks hatch, elephant seals fight for territory, fur seals give birth, and albatross chicks take their first flights. This past season they encountered seven different types of penguins and in just one hour saw ten species of whale; whales common to Alaska, including humpback, minke, fin, sei, sperm, and killer whales. 

Of all the species they encounter, the seals are a family favorite. They commonly see leopard seals, Antarctic fur seals, Weddell seals, crabeater seals and southern elephant seals. For Carmen, they’re a favorite because of their interesting behavior and life history. For Conrad, it’s because they’re approachable.  For Eryn, it’s because they came up close to her. 

During the twenty-four years that they’ve been going to Antarctica, Carmen and Conrad have seen many changes. Like in Alaska, most glaciers in Antarctica are receding. Over the years, they’ve witnessed a remarkable retreat of ice in all of the places they visit. Certain penguin colonies, most notably those of Adelie Penguins, are visibly smaller than they were twenty years ago, shrinking as the warmer air temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula affect availability of food and suitable habitat. Other changes include seeing more giant, tabular icebergs that have broken off from the continent, and being able to take people out to places that were formerly inaccessible due to ice. 

The Fields return to Antarctica season after season for many reasons. 

“Each time we go is different because of weather, season, sea conditions, and wildlife encounters. We know what to expect, but the experience is always different,” they share.

Sometimes they make landings at places no one has ever been to, and shipboard life is never the same. The tour company hires an experienced team, and the attitude onboard is that the trip is not a cruise, but an expedition full of unanticipated surprises.

For Carmen and Conrad, the ‘coolest’ aspect of traveling to The Ice is comparing it to their home and to other familiar places. 

“Being down there”, says Conrad, “gives us a new way to look at our home. We compare the natural histories of Alaskan and Antarctic seabirds, seals, whales, and invertebrates, noting the similarities and differences.”  

A challenge for them is re-entering ‘normal’ life back in Alaska, especially when they’ve been gone for longer periods.   Normal life for Carmen includes her work as a coastal science educator and naturalist with the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, and for Conrad, its his work as a freelance botanist, naturalist and artist.

And so they make their plans to return. Conrad will be venturing to the Bering Sea, west coast of South America, and Antarctica in the coming year, and Carmen plans to return to Antarctica in 2014 or 2015. 

Carmen, Conrad and Eryn hope that more people will seek to discover Antarctica, in person onboard a ship like the Sea Adventurer, or through literature and media. From the fascinating and abundant wildlife to the brilliant ice, Antarctica’s magic will surround you. 

Hosted by the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, Carmen, Conrad and Eryn will present a free program on Earth Day, April 22nd at 6:30pm at the Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center.  

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