On December 29th we boarded a LC-130 at the South Pole that would take us back to McMurdo Station. I didn't realize how much I had become attached to this place and the people there until I made the final round of goodbyes in the galley during lunchtime just before I left. Nothing could have prepared me for how hard it would be to leave this inspiring continent. With a heavy heart I embraced each of my team members at the "Welcome to the South Pole" sign. It felt like just hours before I had stepped off the plane and taken my first shallow breaths at the South Pole. Now, almost four weeks later, I was doing the process in reverse.
Thomas Meures and I stepped onto the plane as the only passengers onboard the flight. We buckled our seat belts and stretched out in the spacious cargo nets. Our plane gained speed as we approached the end of the runway, but we did not take off. Instead, our pilots made a quick u-turn at the end of the runway and took off over the station, making a low, tight bank as we ascended slightly above the ground. Looking down I could see every snowmobile, outbuilding, and person on the ground as we slowly creeped into the sky. I couldn't help but think to myself that I desperately wanted to find a way to go back.
Once we were in the air, the crew chief asked if I wanted to make my way up to the cockpit. I jumped out of my seat and stood next to one of the pilots in the front of the plane. As I gazed out the window he pointed out peaks of mountains that have never been climbed and shouted out the names of ridges we were flying between. Amazed, I asked him how long he'd been doing this. He shared that this was his last flight from the South Pole after 20 seasons of flying. His co-pilot was making his last South Pole flight after 21 seasons. I couldn't believe it. No wonder he had memorized the names of these peaks, it was like flying over the back of his hand!
It was the most beautiful flight I have ever been on. As we approached the coast, we flew low between the mountain peaks and took a beautiful banking turn as we made it out over the ice shelf. From the back of the plane I had a fantastic view of the most spectacular icebergs I have ever seen. As beautiful as pictures are of these amazing features, nothing can compare to the feeling you have when you can see these sights with your own eyes. At this time in the season, the ice on the Ross Ice Shelf is breaking up, which can present incredible views of wildlife that uses the breaks in the ice to hunt for food.
From the sky we saw a pod of 10 orcas, countless Weddell seals, and a waddle of 8 penguins! We landed in McMurdo and spent four days over the New Years holiday before we got on our final flight back to Christchurch, New Zealand. We spent our time hiking, sight seeing, and touring some of McMurdo's facilities. The weather was the warmest we had experienced in over a month at just below freezing.
On January 2nd (my birthday!), we took the 8 hour flight back to New Zealand. I was allowed to sit in the cockpit for take-off on this flight, and I saw incredible views of Mt. Erebus from the air as we left the continent. After seeing these views, how could you not want to find a way to go back?!
As much as I am happy to return to my classroom and resume a normal life, a part of me will always be in Antarctica. There are so many things that I learned about science, about humanity, and about myself. I hope to bring that back to my students and share with friends and family. It has been a pleasure sharing this adventure, and I hope that I was able to share even a small amount of the magic that is Antarctica.