Day One: A trip to Santiago

The TSA agent at the podium had dark, slicked black hair and half-rim glasses. She had a youthful look. But she didn’t have any sympathy for my joke.

“When is it going to start getting busy in here?”

“It got busy at 3 am,” she dead panned.

I can’t blame her. It was a pretty lame joke. Better luck to the person behind me.

Out of this crowd of people going to all ends of the Earth, I’m headed for a flight to Palmer Station, Antarctica. The windows in the airport volunteer that it’s the heat of summer in Seattle, with bright blue skies and a sun that rose at 5 am. But in the Southern Hemisphere, it will be the opposite. At 64.77 S, Palmer isn’t quite below the Antarctica Circle, but it’s close enough to experience a minimum of 3 hours and 44 minutes of twilight during June .

Antarctica is an environment of extremes, with brutal winters, parching deserts, and complete swings from 24 hours of light in summer to 24 hours of dark in winter. The creatures that live on the continent and in the surrounding oceans have developed unique and fascinating adaptations to survive life in this unforgiving climate. These adaptations and their interactions are the subject of the 10th annual Antarctic Biology Training Program (ABTP), a six-week course funded by the National Science Foundation. The ABTP is designed to give early career scientists an introduction to the extreme life of Antarctica.

Back at the airport, the team assembled (to an extent). Coming from all over the world, with a rendezvous in Santiago, were’ hopping from Santiago to Puerto Montt, then Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas. A port town at the southern tip of Chile, Punta Arenas is home to the US Antarctic icebreaker the R/V Gould – our taxi to Palmer Station.

Our flight passes over Nicaragua en route to Santiago.

For nine hours, we’re underway to Santiago. Boeing Dreamliners shouldn’t be classified as anything less than a national treasure, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. I submit in favor of my position the fact that the windows can change tint at the push of button. You tell me we're not living in the future. Some light research suggests this is done by running a charge across a special reactive film). My opinion of the flight might be tainted by having an entire row to myself, but this could very likely be the highlight of the trip thus far.

The flight from Dallas to Santiago crosses two oceans and two continents, passing over the Gulf of Mexico, the isthmus of Central America, and the Eastern Pacific before finally landing in Chile. The sun is setting to the east, and the soft blues of the Gulf below us are loosely blanketed with fluffy whisps of pinkning clouds while dim lights of lonely ships twinkle through. It’s one of those humbling, distant views of the world that provides an excellent backdrop for a good night's sleep.