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.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Midwinter

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.

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