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.

Friday, 21 December 2012

First Call pictures

 
The JCR at Signy


Getting Signy ready for the season (connecting the Poo pipe!)


The cargo tender dropping supplies on the beach.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Signy

The JCR arrived at Signy on the evening of Saturday 24th November. At first light the next day the small boats were launched for an initial investigation of the sea ice conditions. At this stage we didn't know whether the bay would be clear of ice or frozen in- opening up the base could be two very different stories, depending on conditions. As Signy is a summer-only base there is no one there forewarn us of the conditions. As I'd been there last season, I was in the lucky position of being in the first party ashore.

As we rounded the corner, we found that the bay was full of ice (chunks just a bit bigger than the boats, and therefore too big for them to shunt out of the way!) There was no solid ice, meaning we couldn't use the skidoos to transfer cargo from the ship, and the jetty was blocked by big chunks of ice, meaning we couldn't get the cargo tender up to it either! This is apparently the worst situation for opening up the base.  After a bit of investigation, it was decided that we could get the tender in against the shore just round the bay from the base. This meant all cargo was dumped on the shore line and then had to be man-handled across the shore to the base. Larger bits and pieces were taken using the skidoos. We managed to get a lot of man-power off the ship to help with all of this, but the whole thing took nearly 3 days.

Mick, our techy was very busy the first day, getting the base up and running- no easy task for a base that has been sitting cold and empty in the Antarctic winter since we left it last April. First jobs were to get the shutters off the windows/vents, and fire up two portable generators, to warm up the main generators that power the base. These were soon up and running, allowing us to get lighting and heating to the main base. A big problem this year was the amount of ice in the outbuildings (the
generator shed, food stores etc). This seemed to have formed a layer about 3 inches thick on the floor of each building (although the main living accommodation is raised up and was therefore fine), which all had to be removed and dried before new supplies could be put in. Richard, our computer man successfully got our communication systems up and running, so by the end of day 1 we had heating, lighting, telephones, power and flushing toilets. The only thing missing was fresh water (which we were able to get from the ship).

Day two (Monday) saw the arrival of all the food, science kit, personal belongings, and other supplies required for the season, also the delivery of some nice new plastic bricks for marking my penguin nests. Lots of help from the ship ensured the vast majority of this was all unloaded into the stores. Willing helpers dug paths through the snow drifts to allow us to move around base, and get doors open. By the second night things were progressing well. The Reverse Osmosis plant however (which creates fresh water from sea water), which we had a lot of trouble with last season, again decided not to play ball, and we worked through the night to try and fix it. After replacing a pump, 2 gauges, and a relay during the night, we had narrowed down the problem to the relay but run out of ideas. The following morning the ships engineers came ashore and managed to bypass the relay and start generating fresh water. Mid afternoon, the wind changed direction, and all the ice blew out to sea, leaving the jetty free and accessible! Typical, as we had pretty much finished moving everything by hand!

Late afternoon, the last of the cargo was dropped off at the jetty and the ship, happy that the water problem was finally sorted, headed off, leaving the remaining 8 of us to start our season. The ship was keen to get on with its scientific cruise work, but does not leave until we are happy that everything is up and running properly. We all spent the rest of the day unpacking boxes and tidying up.

The next day I was employed as Mick's assistant to get our lovely fresh water from the generator shed to the base itself. Water is produced slowly, at about the rate that would come out of a bathroom tap, so it took most of the day to get the main tank full. Once we had enough, we were able to pump it to the tanks in the living accommodation, and to the water heater, then connect or bleed all of the taps/showers etc, and fire up the boiler. By bedtime, we had both hot and cold water and everyone was able to have a well needed and deserved hot shower!

The following day (Thursday), we were ready to start work properly!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Photo's from the journey

See the writing in the post below for more information about the journey south- I couldn't get them to to work together
Partial solar eclipse in the Falkland Islands

 Bird Island

The JCR at King Edward Point

The JCR approaching Signy

Me just off Signy

Back again...

When offered the chance to return to Signy for a second season, I couldn’t resist.  In my summer gap, I migrated as far North as I could get in the UK, to work for Scottish Natural Heritage, doing seabird monitoring and looking after Hermaness National Nature Reserve which is situated at the Northern-most tip of Shetland.  Hermaness lies at the same latitude in the Northern Hemisphere as Signy does in the South (about 60degrees), so I enjoyed yet another stint of long summer days, but again never really felt the heat from the sun!  I’m starting to realise what it feels like to be an Arctic Tern; these birds do the same migration every year (although they have to rely on their own wings, rather than my easy option of getting on a plane!). 

I left the UK on 11th December, by travelling down to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire to catch the MOD flight to the Falkland Islands.   This is a 17 hour flight to Mount Pleasant Airport in the Falklands, with at 2 hour stop-over at Ascension Island about half way through the trip.   The RSS James Clark Ross (the JCR- our BAS research ship) was moored at Stanley in the Falklands and we were stayed on board.  We had two days around Stanley, before the ship sailed, and managed to squeeze in a night at the pub, a walk out to Gypsy Cove to see the Magellanic penguins, a partial solar eclipse and lifeboat training before setting sail. 

The JCR sailed south east, and 3 days later arrived at Bird Island (at the Western end of South Georgia).  It was the first ship call of the season so we dropped off lots of cargo (food, base supplies and scientific cargo) to keep the base equipped for the next year, and collected all the outgoing waste.  It was lovely to get back to Bird Island, as it was my home for so long.  I managed to get out and about on the island, to help replace some of the fixed ropes used to access some of the albatross study colonies, and helped out with unpacking/unloading cargo around base.  We spent two days at Bird Island, and then continued on to the base at King Edward Point, which is at Grytviken, further east along the coast of South Georgia.   Here we did more unloading of cargo, and had just enough time to visit the old whaling station and museum, before setting sail in a south westerly direction for Signy (part of the South Orkney Islands).

Three days later, after some exceedingly rough seas, we arrived at the edge of the sea ice.   Signy is locked into the sea ice each winter, which extends northwards from the Antarctic Continent.   If it has been a winter with a lot of sea ice, Signy can still be locked in when the ship first arrives.  By the time I had arrived last season, the ice was long gone, but this year, we found plenty.  The JCR is an ice-strengthened vessel so she can force her way through what looked to me like fairly dense pack ice!  Progress is made by ramming into the larger pieces at full speed, pushing the bow of the ship up onto the ice.  This causes the ship to grind to a shuddering halt, while the weight of her splits the ice into two.  It is all very exciting as the ship crashes and bangs its way through.  After a day in the sea ice, we finally sighted Signy, and the larger Coronation Island behind.  I’ll write about arriving at Signy in the next post and try and get some pictures on here.  Our internet connection is very slow this year and it has already taken me the entire evening to upload this!

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Some final photographs

Interesting Icebergs.

Adelie penguins with chicks (the ground is pink from the penguin poo).

A peaceful morning and an obliging fur seal.

The coast at Cummings.

The journey home.

Photos.

 Signy Base

 
 Me with the base behind on a lovely sunny day

 The Orwell Glacier and Waterpipe field hut.

On a trip to Cummings

Gentoo chick starting to moult its down to reveal its feathers.

Back home again.


I realise it’s been a long time since I last updated this.  Most of you must be wondering whether I’m still at Signy, or home, or even still alive!  My season seemed to get very busy, and I didn’t get as much done with my blog as I’d hoped.  So I think the easiest thing now is to put a final few photo’s on here and a last bit of writing, then call it a day for now anyway. 

The New Year was busy with work, which continued at a steady pace until the end of the season.  The rapidly growing penguin chicks had to be counted, and 250 of each species weighed before they fledged.  This required dedicated volunteers who didn’t mind ending up covered from head to toe with penguin poo.  My helpers Matt, Mick and Bruce this season did a sterling job!  It is also the season for penguin diet sampling, so I spent many days in the lab sorting penguin vomit and measuring the krill they had been eating (size/age of the krill can tell us a lot about the health of the Antarctic ecosystem).  

From the start of the year, I counted all seals around the base every second evening.  The young male fur seals in particular altered life around the island, as even in the small area behind the base they grew from 0 to 890 seals.  My walk to Gourlay to check my penguin chicks required extra care to avoid these mischievous and often grumpy beasties.  Later in the season we did a full island seal count of all species.  This was a whole base job, requiring everyone to do their own share and produced a total of over 13,000 seals (mainly fur seals and elephant seals, but a few Weddell seals and leopard seals too).  This gave people the excuse to get out and see different areas of the Island that they wouldn’t normally get to, and despite being hard work, I think looking back, most people would say they had enjoyed it!

Later in the season was indent time.  This is the time of year when everything on the base has to be counted, from tins of beans to pencils, to produce a list of what we have and therefore what needs to be ordered for next year.  It’s surprising how much stuff a small research station has when you start trying to count it all!  

I left Signy on 18th March on the James Clark Ross.  Because Signy is a summer-only base, this involved several days of winterising the base before the ship arrived.  This meant all the heating and water systems and the generators had to be closed down properly, to ensure they will survive the winter and will be in a fit state to start up again next year.  Mick, our tech services man was very busy in the last few days making sure all this happened properly and in the right order. 

The journey home was a bit bumpy but fairly uneventful.  It took about 3 days to reach the Falklands.  We had a couple of days there, which included a nice day out walking in the hills with Paul and Bruce, and a meal out in the Malvinas Hotel one evening.  We then flew back to the UK, stopping overnight in Ascension Island.

Upon return to the UK, I had to work fast... I had 3 weeks from landing in the UK, to starting my new job for the summer.  In that time I needed to unpack, repack, find a car and visit various people.  But, it all fitted, and I am now happily settled in my new job as warden for Hermaness National Nature Reserve in Shetland. In less than a month, I travelled from 60degrees South, to 60 degrees North.  I am now the most Northerly female resident in the UK, living at almost exactly the same latitude in the Northern Hemisphere, as Signy was in the South! 

I’ll sign off here, and leave you with a few final Signy photographs. 

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Photos

The work huts at Gourlay, where I mainly work.

Some of the neighbours (young male elephant seals).

The Ernest Shackleton by moonlight.

My commute to work (you can see my footprints over the ice).

A Signy sunset.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Signy photos

A wintery looking sunrise at Signy.

Adelie penguins.

Chinstrap with chick.

Ice.

Weddell seals on the ice floes.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Christmas Dinner

The Signy team, 2011/12... From left to right, Mick, me, Norman, Matt, Bruce, Wen, Paul.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Signy life

I finally arrived at Signy on 18th December. Back in September, I had spent 3 days in Cambridge, learning what my job was to involve, with Mike, who was doing the job before me. Mike was at Signy when I arrived, and we had a one day handover, to get me up to speed before he left on the ship that I had arrived on. The first days were taken up with base inductions, getting to know people and learning how life works on the base. There are 7 of us on Signy this season, which will reduce to 6 at the next ship call in the middle of January.

Signy is further south that Bird Island and is therefore a bit colder. It seems to snow instead of rain, which is rather nice. The base is surrounded by a number of young male elephant seals, which appear to be noisy and smelly neighbours, but they are entertaining to watch and fairly harmless. The terrain is steep, with lots of rock and scree, and a large ice cap in the South East corner of the Island. This makes moving around the island a little tricky as there are two-person travel regulations for anywhere on or over the icecap for safety reasons, meaning its essential to find a spare person to take with you if you want to go somewhere to do some work.

My main penguin study site is on this side of the icecap and is a 45minute walk from base. My job is to continue the long term penguin and seal monitoring work on the island for the summer. This involves regularly monitoring 100 Adélie and 100 chinstrap penguin nests, which act as a representative sample for the whole island population, and allows me to work out when the chick/egg/fledging counts need to be done on the rest of the island. I also do regular seal counts, and work with other species including giant petrels, snow petrels, cape petrels, and blue-eyed shags.

The Adélie chicks are getting nice and fat- they are grey, but are currently very muddy from running around in the penguin colonies. The chinstraps have just started hatching and are almost pure white.

We spent Christmas in much the same way as people at home probably did: with Christmas lights and a big Christmas dinner, cake and pudding, mulled wine and mince pies and some Christmas movies. We were lucky enough to get a white Christmas (it snowed for most of the day) but sadly it was a bit too warm and didn’t settle. As it is the middle of the summer here it is the breeding season for the wildlife so we are all very busy and unable to take much of a break from working. New Year was nice too, and involved a big buffet tea, champagne and letting off a few flares.

I hope everyone had a good Christmas and I wish you all a Happy New Year for 2012.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

More pictures from the journey

Adelie penguins enjoying the ice.

Rothera at Midnight.

Weddell seal.

The JCR at Deception Island.

Chinstrap penguin.