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.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to everyone back home.  I hope you all have a very happy Christmas and New Year.

(Left to right: Matt, Stef, Norman, Mark, Yoga, Bruce and Myself.)  All modelling the latest Signy summer fashion...

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Signy 2013/14 Season

I’ve told a number of people that I will try harder this season to keep up with my blog, so here goes...  I spent a pleasant summer looking after Noss National Nature Reserve in Shetland, which involved living on a small island, driving powerboats, monitoring seabirds and being nice to visitors, before returning to Signy in the autumn.  We left the UK on 10th November, and flew down to the Falklands (via Ascension Island), where we boarded the RRS James Clark Ross, to take us to Signy.

The JCR at KEP.

We spent a couple of days exploring in the Falklands before setting sail.  This season we are going in via South Georgia, which is always nice as we get to see Bird Island and King Edward Point (KEP) again.  It took us 3 days to get to the base at KEP on South Georgia.  The seas and weather were kind to us and we all enjoyed a comfortable passage.  The ship was quite full (there were four of us in my cabin) as there were staff going to all three bases (KEP, Bird Island and Signy), plus the oceanographers who will remain on the ship for a scientific cruise once all the bases have been restocked and everyone else has got off. 

The church at Grytviken, South Georgia.

The rare sight of Bird Island in the sunshine.

We spent approx 3 days at both KEP and Bird Island, dropping off the new staff, and resupplying the bases with all the supplies they will need for the coming summer and winter - this involved working both on the ship (to get all the boxes onto the island) and on the bases (receiving and unpacking all the boxes that have come off the ship).  It is good fun but hard work.  It was lovely to be back on Bird Island and I was particularly pleased to be allowed off base, to act as escort for people needing to check the condition of the field huts, ropes and footpaths, in various locations, giving me an excuse to visit many of my old haunts around the island.  At KEP we had time to explore the old whaling station at Grytviken and have a wander out to Penguin River, which is a picturesque floodplain in the neighbouring valley, and backed by gorgeous snowy peaked mountains.  KEP put on a big BBQ for us on our final evening, then we set sail for Signy.


Penguin River, South Georgia.

After 3 more days at sea, and small amounts of scientific cruise work, we arrived at Signy.  Signy is a summer only base, so has not been visited since we left in April.  As a result we have no idea what condition we will find the base in upon arrival.  At this time of year Signy is usually just at the edge of the sea ice, which retreats as the summer goes on, so we do not know if the bay will be locked into the ice or in open water.   This year, a strong earthquake was recorded only about 60miles from Signy, only a couple of weeks before our arrival.  Despite all this, we arrived to find Signy pretty much as we had left it, and set about the 3 day task of reopening the base and settling in.  With the help of people from the ship we soon had the pathways clear of snow, the generators running, the food stores restocked and the boilers working.  There was even time to give people a chance to see the penguins at Gourlay on the third day.  The ship finally departed on the fourth day, leaving us to finish unpacking boxes and make a start on our work. 

Monday, 4 February 2013

A few random pictures

A sunny day on the Gourlay snow slope.

Chinstraps posing for the camera.

The JCR visiting Signy.

Christmas Dinner on Signy (From left- James, Andy, Matt, Richard, Bruce, Marie, Mick and me)

Home, on a sunny day.

Friday, 25 January 2013


Chinstrap nest after heavy snow.

The journey to work.

Field hut at Cummings.

Adelie penguins.

Evening light.

Blog update

As we’re now half way through the season, I’m well overdue with writing on here.  It’s been a pretty busy season so far, and the combination of collecting data, entering it into all the databases/spreadsheets, giving a hand to the visiting scientists, and applying for summer jobs back in the UK, has given me little time for things such as this.  Our slow internet connection means it can take the entire evening to put about 5 photos on here.  But, enough excuses...

Once the ship had left (way back at the start of December) my first task was to set up my chinstrap and Adélie monitoring plots.  This requires lugging 100 numbered bricks to each colony and putting one at each nest.  Anything smaller than a brick, and the penguins will steal each other’s and move them around, which makes keeping track of them tricky!   I visit my 200 nests every 2 days throughout the breeding season and use them to represent the species as a whole.  So basically, if all my chinstrap study nests have finished laying eggs, I can assume that all the chinstraps on the island have laid too, and then know it is time to do my counts.  For each species (Adelie and Chinstrap) I have large colonies around the island, and these will get 3 counts (an egg count, a chick count and a fledging count) during the season.  I also do the same for the Gentoo penguins.  The colonies are scattered around the island, which gives me lots of excuses to get out and about all over the island.  

So when people ask me what I do, and I say I count penguins, it is strictly true.  However, counting penguins only takes up a small part of my time.  I also do a similar thing for the Blue eyed shags and giant petrels.  I count the seals around the base every 2 days, and later in the season count every single seal on the island, I weigh the penguin chicks when they are ready to leave for the sea (to see how healthy they are).  I collect penguin diet samples (vomit) and spend a lot of time in the lab sifting through it, extracting krill and fish otoliths (ear bones) which I then study down the microscope to see the age and sex of the krill and the species and size of fish.  All of these tasks are part of Long Term Monitoring and Survey (LTMS) work- this data has been collected for years at Signy, and shows us long term trends in penguin/seal numbers and breeding success.  The diet samples give us an idea of what is going on in the food web, as krill is the main food source for most large beasties down here and can help explain why the penguins might be having a bad/good year.  Adding another year to this dataset is the main reason I am here.

When I am not doing all of this, I might be busy cooking (the daily cook makes the bread and cooks the evening meal), cleaning, or helping one of the visiting scientists with their work (such as helping Marie dig snow pits on the Gourlay glacier to take ice and snow samples, or attaching tracking devices to penguins, or collecting lake shrimps for scientists back in Cambridge). 

Or if I’ve really finished all of that, occasionally I might update my blog!