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.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

The Signy team: Jen, Matt, Iain, Gareth, Me, Rob and Hector (photo: Matt Jobson)

We had a very nice Christmas at Signy this year.  The weather for both Christmas Day and Boxing Day was lovely which meant we could make the most of not having to work.  On Christmas Day we had a big Christmas dinner, then set out to build a 12 foot snowman.  This turned out to be too high to reach to put a head on the top, so the snowman ended up being a snow pinacle (I guess to people with less imagination it could be considered just a large pile of snow), but it kept us entertained for a while.  Afterwards we spent some time skimming stones across the bay to hit the icebergs- icebergs are pretty slippery so if you can actually get your stone to bounce onto it, it will then skim across the top and into the sea on the other side (you have to realise we have no TV and pretty much no internet, and all our families and friends are on the other side of the planet, so we have to invent our own entertainment from the resources we have available!).  On Boxing Day it was warm enough to sit outside in tshirts without getting cold which was very pleasant.  At night we made the most of the weather and had a BBQ.  Over the two days we also managed to squeeze in an awful lot of turkey, mince pies, Christmas cake and trifle. 

Thankyou to everyone back home who sent me cards and little parcels to open at Christmas.  They are always much appreciated.   

Here are Christmas greetings from me and my penguins at Gourlay.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Mid December

Well, according to my diary it is nearly 4 weeks since we caught our first glimpse of Signy this season.  I can't believe where the time has gone.  The team at Signy has now settled in well and it really feels like home. 

Signy Base, with Coronation Island behind.

Everyone has been very busy- the tech team have been installing a new seal fence (to prevent the elephant seals taking over the base), getting our 3 new freezers up and running, and getting to grips with various new bits of machinery.  Next on the list for them is the installation of a brand new fire alarm system throughout the entire base.  Our field assistant has been checking out the icecap routes for crevasses to ensure it is safe for us to cross, training us all up in our snow and field skills and helping me and the other scientists with their work.  Jen and Gareth, our two scientists have been busy in the field measuring the intensity of light reflected from penguin poo as part of a project to try and identify/count penguins remotely using satellite photographs.

Adelie penguin colony, patiently waiting for their eggs to hatch.

I have been busy visiting my penguin nests to see how they are doing.  The Adelies are hatching fast and about three quarters of them now have chicks.  The chicks are gorgeous little balls of grey fluff when they first hatch, but this doesn't last long and they soon cover themselves in penguin poo and aren't half as endearing.  The chinstrap penguins are busy laying eggs.  I have spent a lot of time counting penguin eggs and chicks, and in addition have done a number of other tasks-removing and replacing temperature loggers that have been placed around the island over the winter, taking penguin blood samples, collecting shellfish samples, doing beach debris surveys and retrieving tracking devices from penguins.

The weather has been quite cold, and on a calm day the sea sometimes begins to freeze over.  This is great for pretty photographs, but makes it pretty chilly if you are outside working for long periods of time.

Pancake ice starting to form between the brash ice in the bay on a chilly morning.

Aside from work we have a nice social life on base.  We take it in turns to cook the evening meal which we all eat together.  On Saturday nights the chef of the day produces a special 3-course dinner then we have an evening of games (darts, cards, dominoes etc).  We have also started playing Bridge each week (usually on a Friday night).  Sunday and Wednesday nights are movie nights, and whoever is on cook for the day gets to choose what we watch.  As it is now almost mid summer it stays light til late in the evening, and some nights we are treated to a very nice sunset.

Sunset and the moon over Coronation Island.

I hope everyone back home is enjoying the countdown to Christmas.  Here we have managed to avoid the Christmas shopping rush, but we will be thinking about getting the trimmings up in the next week or so.  last week I made Christmas cakes, which are now sitting on the shelf maturing, ready for Christmas Day. 

Thats all for now.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014


For me, the first task of the season is to head over to my main penguin study site at Gourlay, which is about 45 minutes walk from Base.  I intensively monitor 100 chinstrap nests and 100 adelie nests here throughout the season, visiting them every couple of days, to obtain laying and hatching dates for each nest.  From this I can then tell when to do larger scale counts around the rest of the island.  To make sure I check the same nests each time, I have plastic nest marker bricks which have to be put out into the colonies at the start of the season.  Moving 200 bricks takes quite a long time as they are stored in our work huts over the winter, but it certainly keeps me fit!

Here are my numbered bricks waiting to be allocated nests...

Here are my chosen penguins with their bricks (they have to be this big to prevent the penguins stealing each others and swapping them around- which I'm sure they do deliberately to confuse me!).

When I walked across to Gourlay today I couldn't help feeling a tiny bit smug about life.  Here is why...  This is my commute to work.  You can just see the red flags marking the route.  My options are either to walk, or to ride on my childens plastic sledge to get there.  Not a traffic jam in sight! 

Upon arrival, this is my "office" at Gourlay...

This is the view from my office...

And this is one of my workmates...

In the evening I head back to a cosy warm base, a comfortable bed, and a tasty dinner made by whoever is the cook for the day.  Life could be much worse!  On Non-Gourlay days, I visit other areas of the island for various reasons, collecting samples, doing counts and surveys, or if it is blowing a gale and driving snow outside I might remain on base catching up with data entry and sometimes even updating my blog!   

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Signy 2014-15 season

Well, here is the usual promise to try to keep my blog going more successfully this year- lets see how we get on.  I arrived at Signy earlier in the week, and yesterday we finally got the internet up and running and I have managed to find a little bit of time to write something on here.

We left the UK on 11th November and flew to Punta Arenas in Chile, where we joined the BAS ship the James Clark Ross.  We spent 3 days in Punta before finally setting sail southwards, towards Signy.
The Jetty at Punta.

The crossing of the Drake Passage was fairly calm and uneventful and time was spent onboard the JCR doing lots of eating, lots of crosswords, chatting to the new Signy team and watching the albatrosses circling around the ship.

Satellite images had shown large amounts of sea ice around Signy and the South Orkney islands so we had no idea how easy it would be to get to the research station (or base).  But on arrival, the sea ice all moved out and meant we could access it with relative ease.  A few big floaty lumps of ice at the end of the jetty meant a lot of our cargo had to be dropped further along the beach and then man-handled around to the base, but this didn't cause too much trouble.  Upon arrival at a base that has been closed through the Antarctic winter since we left it last April, there is much to do.  Luckily, the JCR was calling at Signy first, before going on to Bird Island, KEP and doing a science cruise.  This meant there were lots of eager bodies on the ship, all keen to dig snow and lug heavy boxes around.
Opening Signy- Digging snow and hauling cargo.

First tasks include digging out mountains of snow to clear the walkways and allow access to the buildings.  After this, shutters can be removed from the windows, and once the cargo starts coming ashore, food can be unloaded into the freezers, shelves, and store rooms, and all the rest of the cargo can start to be unpacked.  This year, we have 3 new freezers, and a large amount of high fencing pannels, to keep the elephant seals from taking over the base.  Getting these to where they were meant to be was no easy feat and we were glad of all the extra hands.  While this was going on, any techies aboard were kept exceedingly busy, first with getting the generators running, then the heating system, followed by the water system and finally communications (email and phone).  This all takes quite a while as all systems have to be drained down and emptied for the winter, and everything then has to be warmed up slowly to prevent things from going wrong. 

Finally, yesterday (24th), everything was up and running and the JCR headed off in the direction of Bird Island.  It was a good job they left when they did as this evening the sea ice has filled the bay and it would have made getting out rather tricky now!  The 7 remaining Signy folk settled down to unpack boxes and start getting things into some kind of order.  Tomorrow I will head over to my penguin study site at Gourlay and start laying out my plastic bricks in my penguin colonies, to mark out the nests I will be monitoring throughout the season. 

The JCR sets sail from Signy for Bird Island.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

End of the season

I fell miserably behind with my blog this season, and am now back in the UK after a busy but very enjoyable season. I am working for the RSPB for the summer, tracking seabirds at various uninhabited islands off the North West of Scotland. I'll be back at Signy in Autumn 2014 and hopefully will be able to pick up on the blog then, so watch this space...

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Catching up...

Again I have fallen miserably behind in my blog updating.  I do mean well- I'm just super busy and it always seems to end up at the bottom of my list of things to be done!  I'll start with a picture of a daily sight from our kitchen window...

Young elephant seals play-fighting in the water.

Here on Signy all is well.  We had a nice Christmas and managed to take a couple of days off to celebrate.  We had a christmas tree and decorations and ate lots of traditional Christmas food, including the full Christmas dinner of turkey and trimmings, plus we made mince pies, trifle and Christmas cake.  Christmas cards and parcels from family and friends were opened and we spent Christmas morning out sledging and learning to snowboard (which I was dreadful at!).  It was all very nice.

Our Christmas Dinner (left to right- Yoga, Matt, Norm, Me, Bruce, Mark, Stef).

The JCR came to visit the day after Boxing Day, and took away two of our scientists, and brought 3 more, bringing us up to 8 on base for a while.  This was quite busy but nice, as it meant the cooking duties don't come around as often!  We celebrated New Year with a BBQ and champagne.

2014 so far has been quite busy with ships.  In addition to the JCR visiting at the start of the year we had a cruise ship, the Bark Europa to visit in early January.  This is no ordinary cruise ship, but a beautiful tall ship, on which passengers pay for a working holiday of sailing the ship and visiting the Antarctic all in one.  We were lucky enough to get on board for a quick look around.  I think if I was to visit the Antarctic as a tourist it is definately the best way to travel!

The Bark Europa at Signy.

On 13th January the Shacketon (BAS's second ship) called to take away some cargo and 2 of our scientists.  This puts us back down to 6 people on station.  The Shackleton brought us some fresh fruit and veg which made a refreshing change.  We are now about half way through our season and this is likely to be the last ship we see until the Shackleton returns to close the station in mid March and take us home.  Between now and then I have a lot of penguins and seals to count, chicks to weigh and krill to measure.  I also need to continue the process of finding myself a job for the summer.

Thats all for now, I will leave you with a photo of summer twighlight over Coronation Island- this was taken just before midnight.  Best wishes for 2014 to everyone at home.