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Author: Susanne
Date: April 4, 2012
Temperature: -24.7°C
Wind Speed: 19 knots
Temp with wind chill: -60°C
Sunrise:8:29AM
Sunset: 5:20PM


We all have a special connection with Antarctica, whether it is through a love of the environment and wildlife or in the stories of the early explorers. I always listened in admiration to people who had an even closer connection by being related to members of the early expeditions such as Captain Scott's grandson, Falcon Scott.


After my first season with the Trust in 2008, The Mariners’ Museumhttp://www.marinersmuseum.org, America's national maritime museum, where I worked, hosted an exhibit on some of the early American expeditions and displayed Antarctic material from the collection. One of my favorite pieces was the figurehead from the Bear of Oakland. A fantastic name like that has to have a great story, but little did I realise it would create my personal Antarctica connection.

 

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USS Bear after World War II


The vessel Bear was constructed in Scotland in 1874 as a precursor to modern icebreakers and over the years was used for sealing, commerce, and exploration of the polar regions (most notably on the Admiral Byrd expeditions). Many sources regard her as one of the most enduring and notable polar exploration ships.  She was eventually sold to Oakland, California as a museum ship earning her the name Bear of Oakland. The Bear was originally owned by W. Grieve and Sons in Scotland, which is where my connection lies. The surname Grieve has a strong Scottish history in my family and while I haven’t yet been able to trace myself to the Bear, I still find it very serendipitous!

 

What is your link to Antarctica?

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Arrived in Panama to collect populations of a widespread tropical tree known locally as Casique or Berba and scientifically as Brosimum alicastrum. The taxi driver to my hotel was quite old, his eyes well cataraxed and very grumpy. A little surprised but realising that taxi permits are probably applied as loosely as they are with respect to Mini Cabs in London I got in. Polite conversation resulted in me asking him how long he had been a taxi driver, "eighty years" he replied sullenly. "No I meant how long have you been driving a cab? Not how old you are" I replied. "I am 100 years old and have been driving a cab for 80". So there you have it, albeit self certified, I could have ridden with the oldest cab driver in the World!

 

Onto business today. We had to withdraw our collection permit and apply for an export permit. A bureacratic feast that took all day. It entailed visiting four offices, paying two fees, one at one office and one at an office the other side of town follwoing after an hours queue. Despite the need to fill out many forms and procedures, everybody I met was very polite, friendly and helpful. At the National Authority for the Environment office I was even given a desk and computer to write out some of the forms I had forgotten or didn't realise I needed. I would be very surprised if any Government Office in the UK would do the same for a visiting researcher. So a big thank you to Alexander Montero, Dario Luque and Israel Tejada of the ANAM Office!

 

As a consequence I made it to the National Herbarium quite late but with enough time to chat with Mireya Correa, legend in her own right with the Panamanian scientific and Neotropical botanical communities. She very kindly invited me to give a talk this Thursday but also mentioned that one of my collections from Panama in 2006 looks like it is a new species of Verbesina (Sun-flower family, Asteraceae). Below is a picture I took of it at the time of collection. I remember it quite well as I was surprised to see this genus including trees (below):

 

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Below, a ship passing through the Panama Canal close to a potential collecting site for our project:

 

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We arrived back at INBio and our dormitory last night, a little euphoric, very tired and having feasted at Taco Bell! Today we had a very interesting meeting with the Director of INBio, Carlos Hernández and later lunch with the vice rectors of the University of Costa Rica and the Universidad Estatal a Distancia (Costa Rica's and Latin Americas's biggest equivalent of the Open University) to talk about a training course Neil Brummit and I are giving tomorrow on Species Conservation Assessments.

 

This is Neil's main area of work and my role will be mainly to translate from English into Spanish. There has been a lot of interest and we will be working with participants from Costa Rica's Conservation Areas Network (including National Parks), INBio, the University of Costa Rica and the Universidad Estatal a Distancia.

 

We were finally able to make it back to the herbarium to try and identify some of the 'mystery' plants we had collected. Top of the list for being striking was the dark flowered epiphyte in the potatoe family:

 

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We were pretty sure it was in the genus Schultesianthus but could not remember ever having seen such a dark flowered species. Well, five minutes in the herbarium and we had located it! It is Schultesianthus crosbyanus, first collected in Panama in 1966, described in 1973 as in the genus Markea and moved to the genus Schultesianthus in 1995. Strangely, the only known locality for this species in Costa Rica was where we have just been collecting.

 

 

 

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After a year's planning we are finally heading off! I spent saturday and much of sunday tidying up my house and packing my suitcase. Trying to fit my equipment and field clothes within the 23 kg of luggage allowance is not easy. Especially as I have brought my alpine sleeping bag just in case we make it up to the top of the mountain which is at an altitude of 3,400 m. Decided not to pack my wellies as they weigh too much. I may end up regretting this though....

 

Tomorrow I leave home at about 6.30 in the morning, get the Tube to Heathrow from where we will fly to New York, change planes and arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica at 9.30 in the evening (their time) all in all about 21 hours travelling. And in case you were wondering, yes we travel economy.

 

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I have just finished doing a videoconference with a group of schools who will be following our field trip to the Talamanca Mountains in Costa Rica next week. It was really fun and as usual we had some very good (and difficult) questions.

 

The plan is that we will share our scientific field work, which to be honest is one of the must fun parts of our work at the Museum, with the public and a pre-arranged group of schools. We will be running Nature Live sessions from the forest using an Inmarsat video satellite link, which will let us talk to visitors in the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

As well as blogging about the trip we'll also be answering the questions of teachers and school children who have been invited to sign-up for our schools link. If you know any teachers who might want to get involved and get access then please get them to contact Grace from the Museum's Learning Programme by email (videoconferencing@nhm.ac.uk).

 

So, we leave here Monday morning and by Wednesday we should be collecting our first moss, lichen, algae and plant specimens!

 

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One Planet

Back in December I took part in a radio programme being produced by the BBC World Service series 'One Planet'. Fellow interviewees were polar explorer Paul Rose and marine biologist Katrin Linse. The programme marked 100 years since Amundsen had reached the South Pole and the premise was that this marked the ending of a golden age of exploration and that since then mankind had touched every corner of the planet - leaving nowhere in the world left to explore.

 

Well given that I spend several weeks a year exploring the Talamanca Mountains on the Costa Rica/Panama border and caves in the south western Chinese province of Guangxi this seemd a bit of a provocation. To Katrin and Paul who continue to visit places never seen by people before (Antarctica is very big!) I think that this also jarred a little. I suppose it's true that there are maybe fewer people heading off into the unknown for years at a time but it depends on what you consider exploration to be - setting foot on never before seen places or documenting the biodiversity, geology, cultures of a place for the first time.

 

Given that the point of most exploration has been to discover and amass new knowledge with the aim of feeding the scientific process or to make money (think rubber, chocolate, quinine), exploration probably represents never ending cycles of discovery that form a key part of the scientific process and the development of our civilisation. For example, improvements in DNA sequencing technology and the tools to analyse DNA data means that we are now discovering whole rafts of microscopic organisms that we were just not able to discover before (see the article in this link). Well that's my feeling anyway!

 

The programme was broadcast at 3 am on 30 December, so probably not many people in the UK got to listen. The podcast for this edition is, however, available online until 30 January so if you are interested in hearing how the discussion went then go for it!

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Had a meeting with Tom Simpson of the Nature Live Team to plan our outreach activities for the trip. We are planning a two-pronged approach:

 

For the public...

For schools...

School pupils of a wide range of ages will be engaged with the trip through the 'Nature Live Adventurer' Nature+ page (closed to the public) where they can discover what is happening on the trip, post questions and engage in live chat room sessions with Tom while he is in the field. They will also have the chance to meet Alex and Tom with pre and post trip Video Conferencing sessions from the museum/s Attenborough Studio.

 

We are taking a mobile video broadcasting system and communicating using a satellite over Ecuador. This is a first for us and it will be interesting to see how it works. We are hoping to be able to iron out any snags and use this as an opportunity to develop a system for deployment on other Museum trips. Below is a picture taken last year of myself and very gifted Costa Rican botanist Daniel Santamaria. We hope to be able to broadcast from sites such as this next month! punto 2.JPG

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On February 6 a team of us, four botanists and a host of the Museum's Nature Live programme are heading off to Costa Rica to explore the flanks a remote area of tropical forest known as 'El Valle de Silencio' (The Valley of Silence). This area forms part of the La Amistad Binational Park that is shared between Costa Rica and Panama and within which the Natural History Museum has been working for almost 10 years! We will be spending about two weeks camping and making collections of flowering plants, ferns, mosses, lichens and algae in an area of unspoilt forest at an altitude of between 1800 and 3400 m. So far we have obtained our collection permit, permission to film in the Park, plane tickets and located a team of porters to help us get our food and equipment into place and we are getting very excited! Below is a picture of the forest taken on a visit last year.DSC_9387.JPG

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Our current exhibition from the Natural History Museum, Scott’s Last Expedition, has given me the opportunity to check out our own Antarctic collection to see what we have. And we have a surprising amount of material relating to Antarctic exploration, covering some four centuries. We have maps and charts, including a wonderful map of Captain James Cook’s three Antarctic voyages which dates to 1784. We have documentation of the first French contributions to Antarctic exploration – that of the Dumont D’Urville’s 1837-1840 expedition, which included an attempt to discover the south magnetic pole and claim it for France. And something quite different is the artwork for a costume designed by Frances Rouse for the play Counting Icebergs, about the life of Captain James Cook’s wife, Elizabeth. It has a map of Antarctica and Cook’s voyages on the skirt (see image).

 

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Painting. Costume design for Elizabeth Cook, 'Cross Antarctic Circle' 1985. Maker: Frances Rouse

 

Robert Falcon Scott is of course one of the names synonymous with Antarctic exploration and we have two published volumes from his first British Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904, which included an attempt to reach the South Pole. We have also acquired a fine selection of Herbert Ponting’s more famous photographs from the Terra Nova expedition. Ponting was the first professional photographer to be taken on any Antarctic expedition. He took black and white and colour photographic stills, and recorded short clips, becoming one of the first to use a movie camera and to take colour photographs in Antarctica. But he couldn’t be everywhere, so others were given lessons in how to use the photographic equipment.

 

The museum has a collection of 35 stereoscopic cards which we are gradually identifying and adding to our eMuseum collection. Here's one taken by the Australian geologist Frank Debenham – see the string he’s using to operate the camera? This happy bunch were celebrating Christmas Day 1911 out at Granite Harbour.

 

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Stereoscope card. Second Western Party at the Cape Geology Christmas Party, 1911. Photographer: Frank Debenham

 

Read more about our Antarctic collection.

Explore our eMuseum.

 

Lindsey Shaw, Curator
Australian National Maritime Museum

 

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http://www.anmm.gov.au/scott

 

To commemorate the centenary of the Terra Nova expedition and celebrate its achievements the Natural History Museum, London, the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Antarctic Heritage Trust, New Zealand, have collaborated to create this international exhibition, which will be touring between 2011-2013.