Albany couple found love among the penguins of Antartica – Times Union

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Before leaving Antarctica, Nicole McGrath and Cole Heinz were assigned to break down a camp in the South Pole in 2016. They’re pictured here gazing at the Southern Lights, or Aurora Australis.
Nicole McGrath and Cole Heinz pose with their camper van in New Zealand.
Nicole McGrath and Cole Heinz had their first date at Hut Point, an abandoned outpost.
Nicole McGrath and Cole Heinz met each other at McMurdo Station in Antarctica in 2013.
Cole Heinz and Nicole McGrath relocated to Albany, New York in November 2021.
Cole Heinz and Nicole McGrath met and fell in love while working at McMurdo Station, a U.S. research facility in Antarctica.
Nicole McGrath and Cole Heinz initially sought to work in Antarctica to spur a sense of professional direction. While there, they found each other.
These penguin wedding cake toppers adorned the cake when Nicole McGrath and Cole Heinz were married in 2017.
ALBANY – They came to the coldest place on earth and left with red-hot hearts.
When Nicole McGrath and Cole Heinz independently made the decision to touch down at McMurdo Station in Antarctica for jobs, each hoped the stints would usher in a new beginning and a renewed sense of professional direction. 
Instead, they found each other.
Both were seeking new paths in life and learned the U.S. research facility hired support staff to augment its team of scientific researchers: No scientific experience required, but rather an ability to withstand sub-zero temperatures.
Now they’re married and live in Albany with their 2-year-old daughter, Samantha. 
The path to get here was a decade in the making. 
Amid the economic fallout of the Great Recession, Heinz initially sought to work at McMurdo for a single season before moving on to something else. 
“That one season ended up being four deployments,” Heinz said. 
Several seasons later, McGrath, now 33, landed in 2013 as a dining attendant. It was a trek that almost didn’t happen amid a shutdown of the New Zealand government, which facilitated military transports to the station. 
Before that, she spent six months backpacking around Australia. After majoring in book publishing, she was also searching for meaning and an escape from the low-paid jobs she was accustomed to.
The bracing cold was a formative experience for the Miami native.
“The doors opened and it was blindingly white,” McGrath said. “There’s ice everywhere and the cold hits you like a punch in the face.”
When she reported for her first day of work, Heinz was tasked with training her in the kitchen.
It was his birthday, so he was allowed to start his shift an hour later. He walked into the kitchen wearing a Dallas Cowboys cap.
“There’s the guy who’s training me,” McGrath said, “and he’s kind of cute.” 
Heinz, a Dallas native, was also attracted and sized her up.
By this time, Heinz was in his third season at McMurdo, and the meeting wasn’t exactly a chance encounter: Another couple working on the base said they’d rearrange kitchen tasks so the two would meet, assigning her to cleaning pots and pans.
“I had no idea what their intentions were,” Heinz said, who is now 37.
When they broke for lunch, one table was full so they sat at a new one.
“But no one came to join us,” McGrath said. “It was just the two of us.” 
The couple first recounted their story to CNN Travel.
The connection was instant for both of them. Joking led to flirting. The pair bonded over their sense of humor and lack of familiarity with cold climates, which they quickly began exploring.
Their first date was a hike to Hut Point, an abandoned outpost used by British explorer Robert F. Scott over a century ago.
“Pretty much from then on we became a couple on ice,” McGrath said.
While Antarctica isn’t exactly known for its human inhabitants, McMurdo Station is a major logistical hub teeming with personnel. An entire ecosystem has emerged to augment the work of researchers, all living in dorm-like settings spread across multiple buildings.
At times, the population reaches as high as 900 people. To accommodate them, there’s a bar, cafe, gymnasiums, a theater room, live concerts — and perhaps the world’s largest collection of random 1980s VHS tapes, the couple joked.
“If you want to be social, there’s more than enough to do down there,” Heinz said.
But with spotty Wi-Fi, there were few modern-day distractions and they found pleasure in the natural wonders. 
Ross Island is ringed by mountains and snow and the pair explored the labyrinth of trails, finding quiet moments to get away.
Love blossomed amid the penguins. 
“It’s desolate and beautiful in a way,” McGrath said, recalling the ice crevasses and Royal Society Mountain Range breaking up the solitude of a landscape bereft of all signs of life. 
Eventually, the summer season ended and McGrath was set to return to New Zealand in February. But Heinz was scheduled to stay on through the winter, a set of circumstances that led to tough decisions and existential searching.
For a while, their relationship seemed to be on ice. 
Living on the base could be like a reality show and existential questions surfaced: How would their relationship work outside of that insular, closed system where life is easy and you can spend time together? Where there were no bills and life was relatively predictable? 
Heinz ultimately decided against staying on for the winter season and followed her back to New Zealand.
He couldn’t imagine life at McMurdo without her.
“After forming that bond we did so quickly, she became my best friend from Day One,” Heinz said.
McGrath felt the same way. “I didn’t want to spend a day not being able to talk with him,” she said. 
Once they left the base, the couple purchased a camper van from Dutch travelers and spent the next six months exploring New Zealand.  
Several more assignments followed at McMurdo – including a stint together at the South Pole in 2016 where they were assigned to break down a field camp together under the haunting green glow of the aurora australis, the southern counterpart of the aurora borealis.
By then, they knew they wanted to be together. 
“I’m pretty sure I shed a few tears out there,” Heinz said. 
They wed in Miami in 2017 with an Antarctic theme – replete with penguins topping the cake — and relocated to Austin, Texas, where McGrath went back to school to study planning. 
When it came time to choose their next chapter, they opted to move to somewhere cold.
The city of Albany beckoned and they relocated in November. McGrath works at an office of the Federal Highway Administration and Heinz at Collins Aerospace while he pursues his bachelor’s degree.
And while it isn’t Antarctica, a trip to the nearby Adirondacks in winter may scratch that  Antarctic itch.
One unexpected Capital Region connection: The Air National Guard unit that supports air transportation to Antarctica is based in Schenectady, a link the couple relishes. 
“It kind of feels like we’ve come full circle,” McGrath said.
Pete DeMola reports on the city of Schenectady and the towns of Glenville, Rotterdam and Ballston Spa. He previously reported for the Daily Gazette and Sun Community News in the Adirondacks, where he won the New York Press Association’s 2015 Writer of the Year Award for his investigative reporting. He previously lived in Beijing, where he reported on pop culture for several domestic publications and social media companies, as well as worked for a record label. He’s a 2005 graduate of Syracuse University. You can reach him at