Since 2011, I have been spending November to April each year working for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands, Antarctica. I work as a Zoological Field Assistant on the penguin and seal long-term monitoring programme. Before this, I spent 2.5 years on the sub-Antarctic island of Bird Island, South Georgia, in the South Atlantic.

This blog gives readers an insight into my day-to-day life in the Antarctic, from my first trip south in 2008 to the present day.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!!!

This is just a note to wish everyone who reads my blog a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year. Thank you all for the Christmas greetings you have sent. I hope you are all enjoying the winter snow that sounds to be plentiful this year. Sounds like you will be getting more of a white Christmas than me this year. Yesterday was Midsummer’s day here and we enjoyed an unusually calm sunny day with temperatures of +6 degrees! It makes such a refreshing change when after days of fog, the skies clear and the sun shines. If this miraculously coincides with a calm day the combination is a gorgeously warm and beautiful day. Sadly today again it is raining (which is why I am inside writing this instead of outside with my camera!). In summer temperatures are normally just above freezing so we usually get rain instead of snow (although snow can and does occur at any time of year).

It always seems odd having Christmas in the middle of summer. Still, it’s never very warm so it’s not too unlike the UK. The main difference is that it barely gets dark at this time of year. This is the second of my three Christmases down here- only another one before my time here is done, and I’m back to wondering what to do next with my life! But, I’ve still got another 16 months to decide that so I’ll not start worrying yet!

Christmas is looking like being a festive affair- the Christmas decorations are up, as is the tree. I made a Christmas cake a few weeks ago and decorated it this week. Last night we sat down to make a list of things we intend to eat over the Christmas period- I don’t think we will be going hungry! There are 10 of us on base at the moment which i think is a nice number to have for Christmas festivities. Small amounts of work still continue despite it being Christmas (nest checks etc) but this just helps work up an appetite for the next meal! Christmas celebrations will begin tomorrow night (Christmas Eve) with mulled wine and mince pies at the Seal Study Beach where all the seal research is carried out. Here there is a raised gantry, where we can sit above the seals and enjoy them without getting bitten!!!

Its busy here- the beach at the front of the base is full of sounds and smell of fur seals and their pups. They lay all around the base, and some nights they are almost deafening as the females and pups call backwards and forwards to each other. All the penguin chicks are just starting to hatch elsewhere on the island as are the grey-headed and black-browed albatrosses. The last of the wandering albatross chicks are just leaving the island, after sitting on their nests for over a year, slowly changing from a tiny fluffy chick into the smart birds they look now. As it takes over a year for a chick to mature, Wanderers only breed every two years. The next cohort of birds have already arrived, and have just started laying eggs- these will hatch into the chicks that will stay with us through the winter and leave next Christmas.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

One year later...

Today is my first Bird Island anniversary. I arrived here exactly a year ago today! It is scary just how fast the time has gone! In another 10 weeks, i shall be half way through my time here! I'm currently very busy with fieldwork, but this should start to ease up soon as the last of my Southern giant petrels finish laying eggs and the same with the gentoos. So i shall try and write a bit more then. Here are a couple of pictures to keep people amused until i get a few more minutes to spare.
The young wandering albatrosses that have been growing all winter are learning to fly and will leave the island in the next few weeks.

My first Northern Giant petrel chicks are just starting to hatch. Here is one of the first ones.

The gentoo penguings are busy laying eggs.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Albatrosses and penguins

The Grey-headed albatrosses have returned to breed.

One white-capped albatross breeds with the black-browed albatrosses. Its partner is a black-brow too.

The white-capped albatross.

Light-mantled sooty albatrosses have also retuned to breed.

And these were the first two of my macaroni penguins to return last week. They have been away at sea all winter. Soon Big Mac will contain around 80,000 birds!

Bits and bobs.

Ice formations on the grass.

Pectoral sandpiper- just visiting- made a nice change from the usual species!

One of my Northern giant petrels on her egg.
Black-browed albatross colony, with the base behind.

My field hut at the Little Mac penguin colony. Provides an ideal holiday home.

Icebergs and elephant seals

Ewan, Me, Derren and Jose on a passing iceberg (Ewan's picture)

A lesser spotted southern ocean Mermaid (photo as requested by Mr Bell).

First birth of the season- elephant seal pup with its mum (only hours old).

Male elephant seal bull who is guarding the female and pup.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Busy times...

I’ve just noticed how long ago it was since I last wrote anything for my blog. I’ve also got loads of pictures to put up on it which I also haven’t got round to doing. But writing this is at least a start!

Here things have got quite busy. Winter seems to be over and spring is nicely on its way. Two weeks ago, the fisheries protection ship came, bringing the first new people since the start of winter in April. It brought Dirk (my line manager) and Grant (an electrician) who are both here for a month to do various bits of work with us and on base. The ship also brought us the first fresh fruit and vegetables we have had since April, and the mailbag. The arrival of fruit, post and new people is always a bit exciting- a bit like Christmas, with lots of new and exciting things to open and eat. For a few days we enjoyed luxury items such as lettuce and tomatoes, grapes and bananas, but these have travelled a long way to get to us and never last long. We still have plenty of longer lasting fruit and veg that will keep until the next ship, which is only a few weeks away.

The snow has been melting fast. All that remains has been compacted down into hard icy lumps and the pretty whiteness has disappeared. We do still get the odd snow shower every now and again, but with temperatures hovering between –1 and +2 degrees, nothing lasts long. The warming temperatures have caused the sea ice way south of here to start melting and breaking up- this releases all of the big icebergs that have been trapped in it for the winter, some of which travel in our direction. If the wind/tides are right, these sometimes get grounded along our coastline, where they slowly break up into pieces, sometimes filling the bay with chunks of ice.

Some of us are now very busy out and about each day doing fieldwork. The days are getting much longer, often light until past 9pm. The grey-headed and black-browed albatrosses have returned to their colonies to breed. The macaroni penguins have started returning this week. The colony at Big Mac looks rather empty so far- I counted 55 individuals today. In a few weeks time, the colony will be quite different- with around 80,000 breeding birds (thankfully I don’t have to count them all when there are that many)! The gentoo penguins are gathering up piles of rocks to form into nests and the giant petrels are happily incubating their eggs. The first birth of the season was a tiny elephant seal pup, which arrived about a week ago. The fur seals will not return to breed for a few weeks yet, but soon the beach in front of the base will be full of males defending their harems of females and pups.

Only another two weeks before the JCR ship arrives to bring in our summer staff, increasing us to 10 people on base. Then we will all be busy working until April, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the vast quantities of wildlife that surrounds us everywhere we go on this tiny little island.

Friday, 18 September 2009

End of winter/start of spring...

The rest of August remained pretty cold and snowy. We had some gorgeous clear days and had a few excursions out, including climbing up to the top of La Roche, our highest peak and going camping in the little cave on the hill behind base. One night, José, Derren and Ewan went to sleep in the field hut at Little Mac, so I had a nice night of peace and quiet on the base by myself. During the daytime, we continued to work on our annual reports and other tasks but all made the most of the winter being our least busy time. Evenings were spent playing bridge and other board games, watching movies and random TV box sets, and one night, a darts match against Halley (one of the other BAS bases on the Antarctic continent), via webcam. As the evenings got longer, we played cricket on the beach and had a BBQ and bonfire in the snow, where we were joined by a Gentoo penguin that came and sat by the fire for most of the evening.

The start of September seemed to bring the end of winter as birds started returning to the island that had been absent for the winter. The skuas have started returning and the Grey-headed albatrosses have just started to appear. By mid September, the South Georgia pipits were singing loudly, advertising their territories. It makes a nice change to hear songbirds, when nearly everything else on the island are seabirds. The nights are noticeably longer- its not fully dark until after 8pm now which is lovely. The temperature is hovering just above freezing, which means all the snow and iced up streams are starting to melt. Its not too late for more winter conditions though- this might just be a short-term warm patch, with more cold periods and snow to follow- we shall have to wait and see.

The 10th of September was the start of my summer field season. Although the penguins aren’t thinking about breeding yet, the giant petrels are, so my summer work begins. Since this date, I have been out daily to check all the nests in the study area for eggs. The first egg was laid on 13th, which in my mind means the start of spring! Today I have 6. By the end of the season I shall have 500-600! I will now check nests daily until all birds in the study area have eggs, then will continue to monitor them until the chicks finally fledge at the end of the season.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Seals of Bird Island

A young elephant seal- around most of the year. Very small numbers breed in summer.

A young male fur seal- around all year. Thousands breed on the island in summer.

Leopard seal- our winter visitor. Comes to eat my penguins on cold snowy days.

Another leopard seal.

And another leopard seal.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Yet more pictures...

Me, in the partly frozen/slushy sea (Derren's photo).

View from the top of La Roche, looking over to South Georgia on a rare gorgeous day.

Sunset in the snow on the way down from La Roche.

Me on the top of La Roche (Derren's photo again).

Friday, 14 August 2009

Mid August...

I’m feeling rather pleased with myself today as for some reason I’ve managed to update this only a couple of weeks after the last time! J This last couple of weeks, the temperature has finally dropped nicely, to around -6 degrees, which is a bit more like what we should be expecting at this time of year. It is cold enough that on days when there is little wind (uncommon when you live on an island just 3 miles long in the middle of the Southern Ocean!) the sea in the bays turns to a strange slushy consistency and starts to freeze into pancakes along the shoreline. It has also been calm enough for the snow that has been falling regularly to settle and form a nice solid base layer that should no longer just blow away on windy days.

Last Saturday Ewan took me out for my very first skiing lesson on the slopes below La Roche. It was good fun and I somehow managed not to break any bones. Hopefully I shall manage to get a bit more practice in the coming weeks. We have a snowboard here too, but I think I’ll try and master the skiing a bit better first before attempting anything else new! Sadly I wasn’t graceful enough for pictures… but maybe next time.

On days of driving snow when we are looking for excuses not to go outside, it has got to the time of year when annual reports have to be written, so we are all working away on our Bird and Mammal report to be sent to Cambridge and reports for beach debris, seal entanglements and fishing hooks/devices found inside the albatrosses that go to CCAMLR- the convention that protects the Southern Ocean environment and ecosystem. We have also been busy doing jobs that would have been Dave’s if he had still been here- such as fixing things that have gone wrong, cleaning and disinfecting the water system, testing the fire pumps and alarms, and servicing the generators. It makes a nice change to do something practical- a bit different to the usual science!

The bay in front of the base has been full of wildlife in the last couple of weeks. One day we watched a leopard seal killing a young fur seal in the bay, which attracted lots of gulls, giant petrels and cape petrels. There have been masses of terns feeding along the coastline, sometimes accompanied by up to 15 snow petrels. These little pure white petrels are gorgeous, and like many petrels, dance on the water to feed. They have been feeding close to shore, so we managed to get some lovely pictures. Some days they fly so close you could almost reach out and touch them. No one here has seen them in such numbers before- they are normally seen as a little white thing shooting past along the cliff top, gone before the camera can be taken out, and unusual enough to be mentioned at dinnertime.

We have installed a new sunshine recorder on our weather station. Today it has recorded 33 minutes of sunshine already, which means its time I stopped staring at my computer and went outside with my camera.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A few wintery scenes....

Ice around the jetty.

Strange ice formations that resembled trees.

La Roche, with South Georgia behind on a sunny day.

Ice forming on the Jetty (with the still functional jetty bog behind).

Top Meadows with Willis Islands in the background.

Flagstone pond, frozen over, with Tonk behind.

A few birds...

Snow petrel in Main Bay.

King penguin on Freshwater Bay in front of the base.

Young Antarctic tern on Freshwater Beach.

Snowy sheathbill (known as a Mutt around here) on Freshwater Beach.

Chinstrap penguin at Evermann Cove (we don't get many of these).

South Georgia Pintails- our endemic, carniverous duck.

Friday, 24 July 2009

and a few more pictures

The sea begins to freeze on a cold day (the base in the background)

Giant petrel, sheathbill and skua prints in the snow

Leopard seals

Wanderer chick in the snow (base in the distance)

White morph southern giant petrel in the snow. Most southern giant petrels here are greyish- we had 6 white ones breeding on the island this year. The white morph becomes more common at lattitudes further south.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

A few pictures

A winters day

Young wanderer enjoying the sun

Dave, Jose, Ewan, Derren and me, enjoying Dave's picnic bench midwinter present for Derren

Otoliths (ear bones) from 3 species of fish (the ones on the right are about 3mm long). I have spent many hours in the lab sorting/identifying/counting/measuring thousands of these!


June 21st was Midwinter’s Day. With temperatures rising to +3 degrees a few days before the 21st, we celebrated an almost snow free mid winter. However, this was our least busy time of year, so we took a full weeks holiday and despite the disappointing start, the weather turned lovely and snowy again by the middle of the week. We celebrated mid-winter with the giving of gifts we had made for each other and the opening of surprise parcels from home. We cooked an enormous dinner and held the 2009 Bird Island Midwinter Games, including tossing the haggis, welly wanging, archery and tossing the caber, all dressed in the finest Scottish outfits. Later in the week we had our traditional mid-winter swim in the sea, followed very quickly by some time in the hot tub where we thawed out our frozen fingers and toes. We also had a darts match via web cam with the base at KEP and a midwinter bar crawl with different themed bars around base.

Towards the end of Mid-Winters week, we said goodbye to Dave, our wintering technician who has not been well and is returning to the UK. The fisheries patrol vessel made a special visit to pick him up, and we were waiting for about a week for the conditions to be good enough to get the boat in. Despite the wait, he still left in rough seas and driving snow. He will be sorely missed. The remaining four of us (all scientists/zoological field assistants) are now filling the gap and learning about servicing generators, changing water filters and all other aspects of how the base work. There will just be the four of us now until the first ship calls in October.

After our midwinters holiday we all got back to work. Jose and Derren have been working with the wandering albatrosses, deploying GPS’s (which track where the albatross has flown) and stomach temperature loggers (which tell us when the bird has been feeding, by recording the increase in stomach temperature which occurs when a bird has fed and is starting to digest its meal) and collecting diet samples from both adults and chicks. This ties in with the gentoo diet sampling myself and Jose have been doing, and the seal scat samples analysed by Ewan to give a good idea of the diet composition of a range of higher species in the Antarctic food web. Jose has then spent hours in the lab sorting out the samples he has collected. I have also spent many hours in the lab measuring otoliths from my penguin samples collected during the summer (I’ll stick a picture on later to give an idea of what they look like).

When the ground is snow-covered, Bird Island is visited by hungry Leopard seals. These powerful hunters enjoy eating my nice little Gentoo penguins, before hauling out onto the snow to sleep. Each seal has a unique pattern of spots and part of Ewan’s winter work is to photograph these, to identify the individuals from a photograph catalogue collected through the years, in an attempt to understand a bit more about the behaviour of these animals.

Besides work, life continues to progress through the season. Earlier this week, whilst standing outside the lab, the sun peeped just over the hilltop, and shone directly onto my head (it didn’t get high enough to reach my knees!). The base faces south, and as we are in the Southern Hemisphere (therefore the sun is in the north) for a couple of months the base gets no direct sunlight at all as it is in the shade of the rest of the island. On dull days however, it is still past lunchtime before it gets fully light.

We currently have a lovely dump of thick snow. If the temperature is low, our snow usually falls as tiny crystals of ice. This is fine, but we frequently have gales which then blow it all away and as we are on a small island, there is no more blown in from further down the road to replace it! Still, the recent snow has been lovely big flakes with no gales, and our home is looking beautiful.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Winter Pictures

Home on a snowy morning.

Gentoo penguin in the snow.

Adult male Antarctic fur seal guarding the snow covered beach.

The base from North Valley.

Wandering albatross chick in the evening sunshine.