McMurdo: Observation Tube

While commuting to the South Pole I was able to spend some quality time at McMurdo. McMurdo is the largest American science base in Antarctica, and there seems to be some solidly held opinions about it. Some say McMurdo is far superior due the entertainment offerings, the unlimited showers, the wide variety of people and amount of people (over 1,000 people in the summer), and the fact they have wildlife -seals, penguins, skua’s (big, naughty food stealing birds that make pigeons look feeble).

Others say that McMurdo is technically not even on the continent of Antarctica, since it sits on the Ross Island surrounded by the Ross Ice shelf and Ross Sea, so all the other arguments are moot. All I know is they have an out of this world Halloween party and the Observation Tube. One of which the South Pole does not have.

Before you can visit the Observation Tube you are required to attend the Outdoor Safety Lecture. Here is where you learn how to recognize what the color of the flag lines mean, how to traverse over transition ice (where the ocean ice meets the land), who has the key to the OB Tube lock, and some other very important things that I missed because I was trying to quietly open a bag of Whoppers I found in my backpack. So, I knew where to get the key and which flag line to follow. I was, however, out of Whoppers (candy is rationed to only two bars a day at the McMurdo store, but that’s another story).DSCN7138

The Observation Tube is a metal tube just big enough to clamber down that is shoved down into the sea ice. At the bottom of the tube sits a small observation area- roughly the size of a two cat litter boxes. You can turn around in the observation area, but only if you take a deep breath first. The “ladder” down the Ob Tube is metal and slick. It’s not so much a ladder as bent horseshoes jutting out of the wall. At the bottom of the tube the metal stairs give way to an  unsecured rope ladder that swings and bangs against the sides.


The ladder looking down and up. It was wicked far both ways.

After you gracefully dismount the rope ladder ( I preferred to drop like a sack of sand and untangle myself at the bottom) there are windows in every direction that look out under the ice.


Before I went to the Ob Tube, there were amazing tales of seals, and octopus(i) –is there a plural for octopus?- and colorful fish. I saw millions upon millions of krill. I kept saying to myself, “OH LOOK! Krill!” and then giggling. There also was a good view of the ice ladder next to the Ob Tube. The sounds in the tube were lovely and serene. Kind of like what a depravation chamber may sound like, or a really good pair of noise cancelling headphones on an airplane.

On the walk out from base to the Ob Tube we crossed transition ice and followed a flag line, so the Outdoor Safety Course came in handy. In the photo on the left the person in the distance is my friend Zondra, and the warming hut and Ob Tube is ahead of her.

Walk to the Ob Tube

It was a lovely experience  marred only by me thinking at one point,

“Wow! You are in a metal tube just big enough to shimmy through and you are twelve feet under a few feet of sea ice in Antarctica! This is amazing! A government contractor built this. OMG! I am going to die. GET OUT!”

Some days my mind is a bad neighborhood that I shouldn’t be in alone.

8 thoughts on “McMurdo: Observation Tube

  1. Hi! finally figured out that I can write back to you in a Blog. I just wrote you another e-mail. Wanted to tell you again these are fantastic and so,so funny. I’m saving them to read again. Wow!!! I’d have had terrible claustrophobia

  2. This is AMAZING!!!! Absolutely amazing! I’ve looked into doing work in Antarctica and would love to know more about what you, personally, are doing down there! Such a foreign place!

  3. Sounds like a fantastic experience. Much better than commuting to work in traffic. But you are right, constructed by the low bidder. Yow. Let me out.

  4. Omg I am going to die! Lol Love it! Probably the closest I will ever get to sea ice. So excited to see and hear more of your adventure lady! Loves!

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