MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica — Penguins and seals on the flight line are an occupational hazard for Air Force personnel working in Antarctica.
Tech Sgt. Carlos Bonilla-Diaz, who maintains LC-130 ski planes with the 109th Airlift Wing, said he often sees the flightless birds and flippered sea mammals when he’s working at Pegasus Field — a skiway carved into permanent ice shelf in McMurdo Sound.
On one recent day, dozens of seals basked on the sea ice surrounding McMurdo Station while groups of penguins popped up through cracks in the ice or holes made by the seals to frolic in the 24-hour-a-day summer sun.
Occasionally, the animals wander onto the skiway.
“If they are impeding the planes, we call the fire department and they form a line and make noise to get them moving,” said the 53-year-old Fonda, N.Y. native.
Lt. Col. George Alston, 44, of Delmar, N.Y. — an LC-130 pilot who has been flying to Antarctica since 1999 — said there are strict rules about interacting with Antarctic wildlife, but it’s easy to get close to animals there.
“They have no reason to fear humans,” he said.
Alston said he thought a penguin had even tried to communicate with him.
“This penguin jumped out of the water and came up to me and did a little dance,” he said. “Eventually he realized I was pretty dumb and went and did the dance in front of some other penguins. I figured he was asking permission to come into the (penguin) circle.”
Servicemembers see minke whales swimming in the channel behind icebreakers that crash their way through sea-ice to reach McMurdo each summer.
Col. Tim LaBarge, commander of the 109th Airlift Wing, said he encountered a pod of orcas after landing on an iceberg during a helicopter tour with Navy officials two years ago.
“One of the (helicopter) pilots started hitting the ice with an ice auger and the killer whales heard it and came back,” he said. “They were 30 feet away from us.”
Tech. Sgt. Michael Gorman, 38, of Latham, N.Y., another 109th mechanic, said he often sees Adelie Penguins and, more rarely, spies larger Emperor Penguins. Another common visitor is the skua, a large brown sea bird which, according to Latham, looks like “a seagull on steroids,”
Master Sgt. Kerri Booth, 41, of Ballston Spa. N.Y., a 109th loadmaster, said the skuas are born scavengers notorious for steeling people’s lunches when they walk out of the galley at McMurdo Station.
The cocky birds are fearless, he said, and appear to know that they are protected by international treaty.