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.
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!
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
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!