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, 11 November 2010

Spring arrivals and more...

Day-old gentoo penguin chicks.

The North Stacks and North Cliffs on a sunny day.

Young wandering albatross practicing using his wings.

More little gentoo chicks.

Strange cloud formations over South Georgia.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Some writing to go with the pictures....

Yet again I have failed miserably to keep this up to date!

Spring has been progressing nicely here. The days are getting much longer which is refreshing after the long winter’s nights. The wildlife is all returning to the island to breed and all the field assistants are now spending long days in the field measuring, weighing, counting and monitoring their various study species.

For me, this is the giant petrels and the penguins. The Macaroni penguins started returning to the island in October, and the huge 80,000 strong colony at Big Mac is rapidly filling up. The males return first, to guard the nest spot they occupied the previous year, and the females follow a couple of weeks later. They are just arriving now. The gentoo penguins were early this year, and have been incubating eggs for a number of weeks now. The first tiny chicks were spotted yesterday and their little squeaks can now be heard throughout the colony as they beg for food. Many of the Gentoo’s have 2 eggs this year, which is a sign that they are in good condition and bodes well for a successful breeding season.

The fur seals have started returning this week too. This is a definite sign of the start of spring. The large males turn up first, and fight for territories on the beaches around the island. The beach upon which the base is situated is no exception, and this is therefore the start of the period where moving around outside the base requires accurate footing and a brave heart! The females should also start turning up any day now to pup. Soon the beach will again be full of the cries of the pups, the “hoof choof hoof choof” of the territorial males, and the calling of the females.

On 31st October, the BAS ship the James Clark Ross, arrived at Bird Island for first call. This is the first ship call of the season and they delivered us everything we will need for the coming year. This was quite a big operation this year, as we are having 2 new generators, some new sets of doors, a new set of batteries for the night time power supply, as well as all the food, beer, fuel, science kit and domestic supplies that will be needed for the coming year. More noticeable to the winterers was that the ship also delivered us 6 new staff. This brought numbers on base up to 10 people, which is quite a shock after only being four for the previous 7 months.

Two of the new staff were particularly significant to me… I have been the Winter Base Commander since February, and the arrival of the new Summer Base Commander meant I have now handed over the reins of responsibility to someone else. Although this position was a good experience for me, I found I was always conscious of the responsibility. Now I am left with a free feeling, knowing I am now no longer responsible for whatever may happen here! J The other significant arrival was Ruth. Ruth marks the beginning of the end of my time here, as she is the new penguin assistant, who has arrived to spend the summer with me learning the tricks of the trade, to continue the job after I leave. It’s hard to believe my time is almost up, and as we begin our work together I am constantly reminded of all the photographs I still mean to take, and all the places I still mean to re-visit! I still have nearly 5 months on the island, so there’s no need to panic yet, but I need to keep reminding myself that time is short and no opportunities should be passed by!

Spring returns to Bird Island

The Macaroni penguins are back, after spending the winter at sea.

Willis Islands from Top Meadow on a misty spring morning.

Light-mantled sooty albatross awaits the return of its mate.

The gentoo's have settled down to breed and are incubating their eggs.

The Black-browed albatrosses have also returned to their nesting sites.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Some more pictures....

Sunset over the bay.

Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins having a disagreement.

The black browed albatrosses returned to the island this month after spending the winter at sea.

Adult male elephant seal on Main Bay.

Chinstrap penguin.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Late winter...

I keep putting photographs on here but never get round to writing anything! I don’t seem to have written anything since Midwinter, so here is some writing to get people up to date with what’s going on now winter is starting to draw to a close.

Winter is plodding along nicely- the days are getting much longer and the sun shines directly onto the base again now which is nice to see. I have spent much of the winter in the lab measuring and sexing krill and fish otoliths (ear bones) from penguin diet samples collected over the summer. This is all finished now, and I am now writing the end of year report, analysing files from the penguin weighbridge (a platform which weighs Macaroni penguins as they cross it- the idea being that we can weigh them without having to disturb them), and updating the penguin “user manual” which is a full set of instructions of all the work that I do, for my replacement who will arrive in October.

We are currently down to only 3 on base as Mick went to the Falklands about 3 weeks ago to see the doctors, but they’re sending him back fit and healthy and he’s currently on the ship back to us. We are just waiting for calm enough seas for the ship to be able to launch the zodiac to drop him off! Today the waves are breaking into the entrance of the bay, so he won’t be coming back today. And the forecast is for a windy week, which means big seas, so he might be floating around for another week yet! It means the rest of us now do his work, which isn’t too time consuming as he isn’t very busy at this time of year. We do a daily leopard seal round for him, walking along the beaches, and photographing and measuring any seals, on land or in the water for the database. All the leopard seals have a unique pattern of spots so can be identified from photographs from previous years.

There’s more free time in winter for things like going out and taking pictures, or playing in the snow. Myself and Claudia went camping one night in the cave up on Cave Crag which is just behind the base. It was a lovely (but cold) moonlit night, and snowed later in the night, but it didn’t quite reach us tucked into the back of the cave. I am making a chessboard and a set of Bird Island chess pieces (little penguins and seals etc) in the workshop which keeps me amused on nasty days when it doesn’t look very appealing outside. Now I just need to learn to play chess… We also play scrabble and other games on the long winter’s nights and I am very slowly, and largely unsuccessfully, attempting to learn to play the guitar.

My next season’s field work begins on 10th September, with the start of the Giant petrel round- a daily walk around the study area, to map the birds breeding and get their ring numbers (they all have unique leg ring numbers so we know who is who). The Northern giant petrels should start laying around 16th September, and I need to check each nest daily to get the egg laying date. The daily round will continue until the end of November, as the Southern giant petrels start laying once the Northern’s stop. The penguin work will begin in October when the gentoo’s start nesting and the Macaroni’s return from their winter at sea. My replacement arrives in October to take on my job, and we then have a 5 month hand-over period for her to learn the tricks of the trade, before I leave Bird Island in at the end of March. Where did the last 2 years go to!!!

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Wandering albatross chick.

Isabelline Gentoo penguin (the grey one).

Leopard seal wondering if I look tasty.

Pancake ice on the sea.

Pintail ducks with ice on their backs.
South Georgia Pipit.

Claudia in the cave at Cave Crag, where we camped last night.

Kelp gulls and Pintails feeding.

August pictures

Leopard seal in the water.

Pancake ice.

Willis Islands from Bird Island, with giant petrels and a wadering albatross.

The cave at Cave Crag (where me and Claudia camped last night).

Gentoo's coming home for the night after a day at sea.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

And a few more

Icebergs.

Male fur seal enjoying the sun.

Gentoo penguin contemplating which stone to pinch for his nest next year.

Wanderer chick in the snow.

Bird Island on a sunny day.

A few winter pictures

Bits of ice in the bay.

Gentoo having a scratch!

Wandering albatross chick above base.

Ice on the beach.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Another leopard seal

A sleepy, yawny leopard seal.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Leopard seals

The first leopard seal of the winter. With a Mick for scale!

Big teeth on a big leopard seal! We had to postpone our Midwinter dip in the sea due to the presence of this beautiful beasty.

Snoozy happy Leopard seal.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Happy Midwinter!

Happy Midsummer to everyone at home, from the Bird Island Wintering team.

Midwinter is the most celebrated day of the year in Antarctica as it marks the turn of the seasons and the start of the days getting longer. This is more significant for bases who are situated closer to the South Pole, many of whom have not seen the sun for several months, but even for us at our higher lattitude, it will be a refreshing change as the days get longer and the sun no longer rises at midday. In another 6 weeks the sun will once again shine directly on the base, instead of being in the shadow of the mountains. Bases of all nationalities around Antarctica celebrate Midwinter by sending their best wishes and greetings photographs to their fellow Antarctic companions around the continent. Everyone takes time off to celebrate in their own different ways. It is lovely to recieve greetings from bases of all nationalities, who regardless of war or disputes back home, are united into one big Antarctic family on this day.

Here on Bird Island, we have plans for a full week off work, and the type of festivities you might expect around Christmas time. We have all been busy in the workshop, making presents for eachother and are looking forward to a week of good food, snow, movies, games, presents and various other novel types of entertainment. Happy Midwinter. xxx

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Today's Sunset and Moonrise

La Roche by moonlight tonight.

Todays Sunset from the top of Bandersnatch.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Winter begins

It’s been a while since I wrote anything on here so thought I’d better get on and get up to date! Mid April we all ran around madly preparing the base for the last ship call of the season. This is quite a busy time, as it the time when all of the waste from the year gets shipped back to the UK, for recycling or landfill. All empty fuel drums get sent out, and any other kit that has to go back to the UK for repair or replacement. Every box or bag has its own bit of paperwork to complete so it’s all rather time consuming. As Winter Base Commander, the paperwork all falls to me, which kept me out of mischief for several days. After several days of running around and packing things up we were finally ready. Ship calls at Bird Island are always touch and go, as the ship has to anchor offshore, and then launch small inflatable boats and a cargo tender, which are small enough to get into the bay and to the end of the jetty. If the seas are too rough, they cannot launch the smaller boats and loading and unloading cargo becomes very dangerous. This means we have to be pretty flexible, and not get too excited, until the cargo tender actually reaches the end of the jetty!

This was the case this season. The ship turned up, but then called us on the radio to tell us the seas was too rough, and that they were going to go to do Last Call at King Edward Point (another BAS base about 60miles down the South Georgia coast) and then come back to us afterwards. So we sat around and waited for another week.

The ship came eventually, but the suitable weather window was so small that everything had to be done very quickly (sometimes at ship calls, the ship will stay overnight, allowing people on the ship to come and spend the night on the Island. This always makes a nice change as we see so few people here, and usually they are people from the other bases who are going home, many of whom we know, or who we have been playing darts with via webcam earlier in the year). We all got aboard the ship to see the dentist, and visit the shop, and got all the cargo loaded.

The ship took away Derren, my boyfriend, who had been on Bird Island for 2.5 years. His leaving has been quite a change for me, but he had done his time here and was ready to go home and see new places. He seems to be happy enough enjoying the novelty of going to the supermarket and seeing trees and sunshine in the real world! The departure of the ship left only 5 of us on base. Ewan, (who has also done 2.5 years) left about a week later, on board a sailing ship, which came to pick him up. This left only the 4 winterers, and we do not expect another ship visit now until early October.

We soon all settled into just having four on base and the fact that winter is a less busy time for us for fieldwork. This gives us a little bit more time to do our own thing, and there is even time now to take an entire weekend off! Unfortunately, having only four on base means everyone now has to cook once every 4 days instead of once every 10 like in summer.

Time is moving on- we are only 4 weeks away from Midwinter, the shortest day. The base faces south, and there are high cliffs to the North- this means that although the sun shines higher up the valleys, it never reaches the base at this time of year (the sun travels round the North here as we are in the Southern Hemisphere). It gets light around 10.30am at present, which always makes getting up quite hard! We are busy making midwinter presents for each other now and making lots of lists of all the food/medical supplies/lab equipment/clothing/kitchenware/toiletries etc etc that we have on base, so we can order what we require for next season. The weather is getting more wintery. As we are the sub-Antarctic, we are not frozen solid all year and it can get quite warm in summer. We are getting to the stage now where it mainly snows, instead of raining, and the streams are frozen up for several days at a time. It will only be a few more weeks before the ground and streams freeze solid and do not thaw again until spring.

That’s all for now. I will get some more pictures on here soon. I’m going to go to the workshop and carry on with my Midwinter present. Hope everyone at home is enjoying the warm weather!

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Icebergs and penguins

It's only just over a week til the last ship of the summer and we settle down to 6 months of winter with no more ship visits. As a result, we are all busy running around, finishing the last of our summer fieldwork and packing up cargo to go out on the ship. It is the time of year when we send out all of our rubbish, recycing, empty fuel drums and anything else sitting in dusty corners of the base that we no longer use.

We've had some great icebergs recently, and the penguins and seals have a a great time, jumping on and off them and sliding into the sea. I'm not going to write much here as i still have lots to do, but here are some happy gentoo penguins to keep people amused til after the ship has been and i have no more excuses left for not writing anything on here!!!



Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Does anyone want my job?

If anyone wants my job, it is advertised at:
http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/employment/vacancies/job.php?JobID=531

You would get to Bird Island around November, and have a summer season handover with me, before i leave in April 2011. I can't believe how fast the time has gone- it seems funny that my job is advertised already, and that i shall have done 2.5 years by the time i leave!

All is well here. It seems to be raining and very windy a lot at the moment. I am looking forward to the winter when the rain will become snow and everything will freeze. We have lots of big icebergs at the moment, which is great.

Better get on- just killing time til the rain stops so I can go out and put rings on my giant petrel chicks so we know who they are when they come back to breed in a few years time.

Hope spring is finally on its way, back home in the real world!

Monday, 15 February 2010

Ice!

A nice big iceberg that grounded just offshore and got us all excited (we haven't seen many big bergs for a while). The next day it was gone, but there are still plenty of others drifting around a little further offshore.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

A few pictures because its a rainy day

Snow can fall at any time of year... we woke up one morning to this- the seal pups loved it!

The fur seal pups are moulting out of their black fur into lovely soft grey swimming fur. They are quite big now, and very inquisitive, playing and fighting on the beach and in the sea.

Krill- the staple food source upon which most Antarctic wildlife depend.

Gentoo penguin chicks- like the seal pups, these too are getting very big. It has been a good year for krill and all the species that depend on this have done really well. The chicks parents leave them each morning to go fishing and return at night to feed them.

Blonde fur seal pup. We still have a blonde pup living on the beach outside base. Here he has just come back from a swim in the sea.