Student stories: Strange Yuletide experience in Antarctica

Christine Olarte, an environmental resource management major in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, spent the ultimate white Christmas in the far southern latitudes last winter. 

For three weeks -- from Dec. 21, 2008, to Jan. 11 -- the current senior from Harrisburg enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime Yuletide experience in the land of ice and snow. With a group of 15 other students in a program led by Michigan State University, Olarte first flew to Argentina for informational sessions prior to a two-day boat ride to Antarctica. The preliminary week in Argentina consisted of lectures on wildlife, weather and protocol, and field trips into the mountains.
 
In the middle of this week, Olarte spent a Christmas to remember. "I had Christmas Eve dinner in a gas station because it was the only thing open," she said. "We hiked the Andes mountains the day after Christmas to visit a glacier. We even went into an ice cave where part of the glacier was melting."
 
Once the ship reached Antarctica, students took a small motorized raft two or three times each day making landings. "We'd kind of just hop islands, and sometimes we'd see leopard seals and different kinds of penguins."
 
Their first landing was to an island with a quarter million penguins breeding. "As you can imagine, it was really loud and it smelled pretty bad," she remembers. "Birds pretty much rule Antarctica simply because with wings they can cover a greater distance. Whales and seals can swim, but there are no land mammals down there. The seals might come up on land to sunbathe but they predominantly live in the water."
 
Olarte saw and heard ice falling from glaciers into the ocean, toured research bases and just reveled in the uncommon surroundings. "When we were down there it was summer, so it was light 24/7. We take for granted the sun going up and down every day," she said. "Surprisingly, we got rained on a lot. I don't think it's supposed to rain so much there."
 
Ironically, one of her most pleasant memories from the faraway excursion involved a down-home tradition -- a barbecue, but with a twist. It took place on the boat deck.
 
"It was weird because you usually associate a barbecue with warm weather and summer, but we were surrounded by mountains and ice and there were humpback whales breaching in the water," she said. "It was a really neat experience."
 
Looking back, Olarte struggles to explain how incredibly beautiful Antarctica is and the feeling she had while visiting. "The sun doesn't really set but dips at night so you get these strange half sunsets," she said, "and seeing the animals in their natural state almost takes you back in time."
 
"When you're down there, you see how a human fits into nature, instead of being around all these man-made things. It was hard for me to return and get back into being a student and being so rushed again."
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Last Updated November 18, 2010