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, 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!

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