It’s one of those sunny, low-wind days we pray for each night when we go to sleep in our tents before a long day in the field. I’ve just been dropped off by a helicopter in the rocky land between two glaciers, along with a few survival bags in case the weather turns and we get stuck there for one or more nights. Which glaciers? I ask. My teammates shrug and no one is precisely sure. Four of my teammates head off hiking towards the mountains to dig holes in the soil in hopes of finding microscopic animals contained within them. I hang back near the survival bags with the remaining teammate and begin unfolding my drone to get a closer look at the glaciers. After filming the textures of the land and ice from multiple angles for 90 minutes, my batteries are spent, my hands are cold and my stomach is growling. I land the drone, fold it up into my bright yellow Pelican case, and pull out an expired granola bar to keep my hunger pangs at bay.
The helicopter isn’t due back for a while still, so I begin pulling out my other camera equipment just as someone from the team radios us. “You want to film some springtails?” I think about it for a moment, calculating how much time we have before the helicopter is due back, how far away of a hike they are, and how long it will take me to set up my macro-filming kit. I look over to my teammate who has been spotting my drone’s flight path who looks very excited to do something more than pointing to a black pixel in the sky every few minutes. “Alright, we’re coming over,” I radio back and hurriedly unload my kit – a Canon R5C, a Laowa Venus Periprobe Lens, a Zeapon motorized rail, a pivoting camera mount, and a small tripod.
Springtails look something similar to ants but they’re even smaller. They’re hexapods or micro-arthropods that are technically not considered insects. These springtails in particular don’t even have a functioning springy-tail anymore. We rush over to our teammates, cradling my equipment in my arms, and crouch down on hands and knees over a small rock they’re patiently staring at. I ask where the springtail is and my teammate points at a place on the rock. I squint. I don’t see anything. He points again. I still don’t see anything. “It’s that black spot that’s moving right there,” he says. I take off my sunglasses and look for a few seconds as I see what looks like a black spot no bigger than the tip of an extra-fine point pen move in a linear direction. I’m pretty sure I exclaimed something to the effect of oh-my-god-you’re-kidding-me – they’re THAT small!? My macro lens is great but it’s no microscope. I crouch down even further and begin setting the tension on my equipment to try to get a frame on the springtail, but one after the next quickly crawls into a crack before I can even meter my exposure settings. I think of the BBC nature documentaries with the behind-the-scenes footage of filmmakers spending endless days camping out to get a single useable shot of an animal and their delighted-but-annoyed reactions. I’d love to be one of those people one day, but I admit to myself that I’m already pretty much that person whether or not the BBC hires me eventually.
The springtails seem happy, crawling around on rocks in the sun, scattered throughout the area. From my perspective, they don’t seem to mind not having a functioning springtail anymore and can scurry around just fine. Another teammate a few feet away points to a black and white freckled rock where she found one and I shook my head no. I am not going to even attempt to film a tiny black pixel that could appear and disappear against a black and white patterned surface.
Finally, after much pointing and squinting and fiddling with my equipment, I get three shots with springtails in frame, in focus, and with adequate exposure before I have to pack up for the incoming helicopter. I’ll have no idea if they’re any good until I load them onto a laptop with a proper screen, but at least they have potential.
The incoming helicopter radios us to get ready. We throw all our backpacks into a pile several feet away from a makeshift landing pad in the sand, throw our parka hoods over our heads, shift out sunglasses to fit snuggly, and huddle over our gear facing away from the pilot. The chopping of air gets louder until our backs get pelted with a storm of tiny sand particles, pitter-pattering against our parkas until the helicopter fully lands. We’re loading in hot today, so the helicopter won’t be shutting down. We load our cargo and cram in. The six of us are headed back to McMurdo Station. It’s my eighteenth helicopter flight of this season and possibly my last day in the field on this expedition.
A screenshot of my footage of springtails.
A springtail is at the edge of a shadow cast by a fingernail, just hugging a crack in the rock. Can you see it?