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, 24 December 2015

Friday, 11 December 2015

Starting work

Once Signy research station is up and running it is time to start some real work.  My first job is to head across to Gourlay, which is a rocky peninsula about a hours walk from the station.  Here, large numbers of Adelie and Chinstrap penguins nest, and this is where I do a large amount of my work.



First job is to transport my numbered bricks from their winter storage in the hut out to my selected colonies.  For this, a plastic sledge is handy (which also sometimes doubles up as my taxi to work).



The numbered bricks are laid out throughout the colony, each marking a nest, and a map is drawn.  100 nests of each species are chosen.  The contents of these nests are then checked every couple of days throughout the season, giving me very detailed dates and information about eggs laid, chicks hatched, nest failure dates etc. 



Although the birds all look the same, if you use a bit of imagination, you can see lines of nests through the colonies, which combined with the helpfully numbered bricks, makes it relatively easy to keep an eye on who is who.  When the birds are incubating, the colonies are neatly ordered, with one bird per nest, and each nest located just out of pecking distance of its neighbour.  The photo below shows this quite well.  



Penguins constantly modify their nest mounds, stealing stones from their less observant neighbours to make their own pile bigger and neater.  This means my nest markers have to be quite substantial, to prevent them from being stolen and moved around the colony by the more ambitious penguins.

My work is part of a long term study to monitor penguin breeding success.  There are around 85,000 pairs of penguins at Signy in total- counting all of these every year would be impossible.  Instead I count the contents of a number of smaller colonies.  By counting the same colonies each year, we can see what the population trends are without having to count the whole island.  For each of these colonies, I count three times during the season- an egg count, a chick count and a fledgling count.  This tells us how the birds are doing through the season (for example, if they only lay one egg instead of two, they may be in poor condition upon arrival, probably as a result of poor feeding over the winter; if lots of the eggs do not hatch, this may show poor weather during incubation, where eggs are left exposed; if not many chicks fledge it may represent poor food supplies during chick rearing). 

The timing of breeding, varies quite a lot from year to year- if there is a lot of sea ice the birds may arrive late and the timing of the whole season shifts backwards.  This is where my nests with marker bricks come into play- by collecting such detailed information about a small group of birds, I can ensure the counts are done at the same stage each year.  For example, the egg count is done 7 days after all of my study birds have at least 1 egg.        

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Arrival

After a couple of days moving very slowly through the ice, we finally arrived in a small patch of open water, just off Signy Island, where our research station is situated.  The first day, which felt very wintery, a handful of us went ashore in small boats, to check out the situation and see how things were.  Lying on a tectonic plate boundary, the area is prone to small earthquakes and this, coupled with being left entirely unattended for the Antarctic winter means we had no idea what we might find when we first visit the station. 

This year all was well.  All the buildings were how we had left them.  The snow had drifted deeply around some of the buildings, so first jobs were to start digging to get into the buildings so we could open up the station.







At night we returned to the ship as the station was still cold and dark.  The next day, we all went ashore to start opening up the station properly.  This is hard work and requires a lot of people.  Although there are only 8 of us staying at Signy, there are plenty of willing people, bound for other destinations or part of the Science cruise, on the ship who are keen to dig snow, move boxes and generally help out to get things up and running.

First jobs are to continue digging and to remove shutters from the windows to give us some light.  Meanwhile the techies get started warming up the generators.  The temperature at Signy can get down to -30 degrees centigrade during the winter so we cannot just switch them on.  After a few hours, once they are warm and dry, these can be tentatively fired up.  Once we have power, the heating systems can be started, as can the lighting, and the sea water pumps which allow us to have flushing toilets. 

While the techies are busy, our next job is to get the cargo ashore.  This is all the food (fresh, frozen and dried), science equipment, personal bags, and supplies for the station; enough to last the entire season.  This all has to be brought ashore and man-handled to the right building on station.

The sea around Signy is too shallow for the ship, the James Clark Ross to get very close.  Therefore all cargo that comes ashore is brough in the Cargo Tender- a small landing craft with a crane.   Often the tender can get to the small jetty at the station, but this season the sea ice was still in the bay so everything had to be dropped further along the shore and moved along to the station (you can see the sea ice in the bay, on the left in the picture below). 



Luckily, we have a couple of skidoos, and the large volume of snow this year meant we could use these, making the whole process much easier!  



By the end of the day we had most of the cargo, heating, lighting, and toilets so were able to move off the ship and into our new home.  The Reverse Osmosis Plant, which produces freshwater from seawater, was up and running, but it takes a few days for us to produce enough to be able to fill the tanks and start using it so water is pretty scarce. 

The next day was spent unpacking boxes while the ship waited offshore.  It was too windy for them to launch the boats.  The day after however, the final cargo was brought ashore and everything was finished.  The ship sailed off, heading for South Georgia, leaving 8 of us ashore, and we settled down to the rest of the unpacking, and to get started on the science we have come here to do.    

       

Friday, 27 November 2015

The journey

The journey from the Falkland Islands, down to Signy is usually a 3 day crossing.  We left Stanley on a beautiful calm evening, heading South East across the Drake Passage towards the South Orkney Islands. 





After a couple of days of fairly bumpy seas, we hit the colder Antarctic ocean currents, and ice started to appear.  At first, just little pieces, but then increasingly larger icebergs appeared.



Icebergs are made of fresh water carved from glaciers, and can float around in the ocean for several years.  In the winter, the surface of the sea itself freezes, locking these big bergs into the sea ice, until it melts the following spring. 

Signy lies just at the outer edge of the northern limit of the Antarctic sea ice, so it, and everything south of it, is linked to the frozen Antarctic continent during the deepest of winter months when the sea ice extent is at its greatest.  In the summer the sea ice melts and Signy is surrounded by open water. 

As the research station is uninhabited during the winter, upon arrival at Signy in the Spring, we have no idea whether it will be still locked into the sea ice, or have open water.  This year we reached the edge of the sea ice only a few miles from Signy. 



The ice was breaking up, but still very densely packed in a lot of places, making progress exceedingly slow as the ship picks its way carefully through.  One day we covered only 4 miles. 



At the back of the ship the ice quickly closes back in after passing through it, leaving a very real sense of being in the middle of nowhere.



At night the ship continues, with the aid of bright navigational lights. 



After two days of ice, we finally reached Signy, which conveniently had a small area of open water around it, allowing us to access the research station by launching the small boats.  Upon arrival, our task was to get the research station up and running and ready for the coming science season.    


Sunday, 22 November 2015

Signy 2015-16 Season

My trip this year began on 5th November, when I left the UK and flew South.  Dates and timings always change at the last minute, and in the end we flew to Sao Paulo, then on to Santiago, then continued South to Punta Arenas, and finally across to Stanley in the Falkland Islands.  In Stanley we joined the ship, the RRS James Clark Ross.  The James Clark Ross (JCR) belongs to the British Antarctic Survey and is mainly a scientific research vessel, but also transfers people and equipment (like us) to their respective research stations.



Stanley is where most of the Falkland Islanders live and is a colourful little town, stretching down to the sea and a small sheltered harbour. 



It is spring in the Falklands and it is always nice to arrive here from a wintery UK to be greeted by tiny lambs, young birds and spring flowers, even if it is still very cold and blowy.  Below are a few common species to be found here.  This is a family of Flightless Steamer Ducks.



The Male sunbathes nearby.



A male Kelp Goose.



A Turkey Vulture.



Nesting Gentoo Penguins and sheep- a combination that I still find rather bizarre!


 
After a few days in the Falklands, we finally set sail for Signy, South Orkney islands, Antarctica, where I will spend the next 5 months.  More about that coming soon...

Monday, 6 April 2015

Home time...

This year our season came to a rather abrupt end.  With 4 weeks to go, we were suddenly informed that there was concern about the amount of sea ice around, making it tricky to pick us up- as the Ernest Shackleton was in the area, it was decided that they should pick us up early.  This gave us 4 days notice, to close down the station, tidy everything up, finish the science, pack all the boxes to be sent out, and get on the ship.

This meant I had a lot to do- my first task was to get the rest of my penguin nest marker bricks out of the pond and wash them, then stack them into the huts.  I managed to make a hole in the ice big enough to fish them out.



My next task was to start boxing everything up to send out on the ship.  Every piece of cargo has to have paperwork to go with it, and every box has to be labelled on all sides with various information.  As I am Science coordinator, this means I am responsible for shipping out all the lab equipment and biological samples, as well as the medical equipment and various other things.  My lab became my temporary cargo packing area and was a little chaotic for a time, but by the necessary date, it was all neatly labelled and stacked ready for the ship.



We had a final day of fieldwork to complete, which allowed me to finish the giant petrel chick counts.  Afterwards we brought back all the flags that mark a safe route over the icecap.  We also managed to squeeze in a full base spring clean, before starting to decomission the services.  First to go was the reverse osmosis plant which creates our fresh water from seawater.  We have enough water stored to last a couple of days so we can take this apart a few days before leaving.  In the last couple of days, the rest of the water systems are drained down, and every bit of pipework hoovered out to prevent pipes freezing over the winter.  Shutters are placed on the windows and the elephant seal fence is taken down.  All remaining food is packaged up and brought down to the main building as it remains the driest over the winter.  There is a lot for everyone to do.

We were treated to a lovely sunrise on our last morning at Signy.  A moment of calm beauty before the ship arrived and everyone started running around doing useful things.



On the final day, all cargo and waste gets put on the ship, the generators are switched off and serviced, the heating system is turned off, and finally, once the base is shuttered, cold and dark, we lock the door and board the ship.

Here is team Signy heading home (from back left: Rob, Stacey, Iain, Francesco, Keong, Matt, Roberto and Hector), with Signy behind. 



And to finish the season, here is a final (and very lovely) iceberg just off the tip of Signy.
 

We arrived back in the Falklands on 19th March after a rough but uneventful crossing of the Drake Passage.  I have now returned to the UK, where I will be spending the summer working at Foxglove Covert local nature reserve in Yorkshire.  Check back in November to find out if I will be returning to the Antarctic next season. 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Winter arrives...

After what feels like months of rain and wind, Signy suddenly decided to throw some different weather at us for a change.  The temperature dropped to about -6 degrees and the rain turned to snow.  We awoke one morning to the most gorgeous day, with a good three inches of fluffy, powdery snow covering everything, big blue skies and gusts of wind that made flurries of snow sparkle and form little rainbows.  Signy had changed from summer to winter overnight!  Recently, sea ice has also started blowing in again from futher South, which had been absent for a few weeks now.  All of this, plus the shortening day length has added to the feeling that winter is now well on its way.   


We were treated to some heavy and dramatic lenticular (lens-shaped) clouds over Coronation Island on this day too, which made for some dramatic photographs.  Here is Roberto is a snow flurry.


And here are some of the clouds forming over Coronation Island (you can't see the lens shape, or the way they pile up on top of eachother very well in this picture unfortunately)


Workwise, things are finally starting to calm down a little.  My chinstrap penguins have just started fledging, and in another couple of weeks every one will be gone.  I am being kept busy with chick weighing.  I have also moved all my nest marker bricks (with a little help from my obliging field assistant!) back to the work huts ready to be cleaned.  After this they will be stacked into the huts ready for putting back out into the colonies next season.  The problem I currently have is that the pond where I normally wash my bricks has just frozen over- half the bricks are now frozen into the pond, and the other half are sitting on the ice, waiting for it to melt so they fall in.  I am hoping for another week of mild weather to enable me to finish this task!

Our two Italian Scientists Roberto and Francesco are also hoping for a tiny bit more summer- they are mapping the vegetation and geomorphological features on Signy.  If it snows too much they can't see what they are trying to look at! 

Now that the nights are drawing in, it means that we don't have to stay up ridiculously late to see the sun set.  Here are some good clouds we had at sunset a few nights ago. 


Thats all for now.  Its only about 5 weeks now til the ship comes to pick us up.  Not long now til we need to start thinking about cargo to be sent out and all the things that need to be done to prepare Signy for being left alone for the winter. 

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Mid February

It's already mid February and I'm trying to work out where the season has gone to!  It is now only 7 weeks til the ship comes, and we close down the station for the winter and all head off for the Falkland Islands, then onwards to the UK.  The ship visit is much later this year, in previous years we would only have had about 4 weeks left- I am glad that we get some extra time at the end of the season this year as it is normally such a rush.

The summer season is drawing to a close for the wildlife.  Already the last of the Adelie penguin chicks have gone and the colonies are empty.  Many places seem strangely quiet without them.  Here is the big Adelie colony that I've shown pictures of throughout the season, taken a few weeks ago- you can see that the chicks have wandered out of the pink nesting areas and are all over the place.  Today it is completely empty and the rain we have been having is slowly washing away all of the pink poo. 


When the above picture was taken the chicks looked about like this:


From there, it is only a week or so before they look like this, and are ready to leave.

It's suprising how quickly they change from a ball of fluff into a very smart looking little penguin!  It is always a little sad to see them go, having watched them all grow up, but this year the Adelies did very well and produced high numbers of fat healthy chicks which is great to see. 

The chinstrap penguins are still around, and their chicks are getting enormous and fat and fluffy.  Below is a picture of them earlier in the season. 


Today they are much bigger- some are already losing their down, and starting to show their adult feathers underneath.  On some, you can see the see the chin strap pattern which gives them their name, just starting to show.  They will be with us for another 4 weeks yet, before they too head for the oceans.     

With other species, the chicks are growing well too.  Here is one of the young snow petrel chicks, old enough to have been left by its parents who will be out foraging for food to feed it.  The snow petrels nest in tiny cracks in the cliffs so the chicks are well protected from the weather and predatory skuas. 

The weather this season has been very variable, and the latter part of the season has been very mild, wet and windy.  This makes working outside not much fun.  I much prefer it to be cold and snowy.  However, today is sunny which makes a nice change and I am going to head across to Gourlay to start moving my 150 numbered nest marker bricks back to the huts.  These are no longer needed now my penguins have gone, and all have to be cleaned in the pond by the hut and then left in the hut over the winter (to protect them from the winter weather) ready for next season.  With the adelies gone, my workload has eased a little, although I will be busy with fieldwork for another 3-4 weeks yet, as there are still all the giant petrel chicks to count, all the seals to count, and chinstrap chicks to weigh.  


Saturday, 7 February 2015

Signy scenery

For the last couple of weeks on Signy the weather has been very mild, foggy and rainy.  This does not help with taking very good photographs!  However, here are a few of the nicer weather moments on Signy so far this season.

 
Me on a day out to the West coast to count Giant Petrel nests.


Sunset at Northpoint.


Sunset with rainbow (which I've never seen at Signy before), just behind the research station.


Sea ice at Signy.


A whale skull on Signy (with me for scale!)- remnants from when Signy used to have a whaling station. 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

error...

The more observant of you may notice that there are actually no giant petrels at all in in the giant petrel picture from the previous post!  Below is the picture that I actually meant to put in.  The previous one just shows the nice green mosses and scenery of the west coast, with giant petrels flying over.     

Other wildlife

Contrary to popular belief, penguin counting is not my only role at Signy- I work with other species as well...

Snow petrels have to be one of my favourite birds of all.  These beautiful delicate little birds nest in cracks in the cliffs just behind the base and fly around in the evenings when there is less chance of being knocked out of the air and devoured by the skuas.  As my bedroom is at the end of the building, I can usually hear them calling to eachother through my bedroom wall at night.  A previous scientist attached tiny little tracking devices to these birds to see where they go to, and part of my work is to go round all of the nests to check for trackers, and retrieve any devices I can find.
 
Nesting snow petrel.

Blue-eyed shags also nest at Signy.  Like the penguins, I count the nests and chicks each year to see how they are doing in the long term.  As with the snow petrels, some of the birds had tracking devices attached last summer, this time to see how deep they are diving.  My role is to retrieve the devices this year.  The devices are tiny, and attached to small plastic leg rings, which are visible from quite a distance, making it easy to work out which ones to catch.  Unlike penguins, shags have the ability to fly and therefore are much harder to catch! 
 

Blue-eyed shags nesting.

Every 5 years a whole island Giant petrel survey is carried out to see how the population is doing.  These are large birds, that many people would consider ugly, but I am very fond of them, having worked closely with them during my time at Bird Island.  The giant petrel survey is good fun as it involves walking the entire Western side of the island, and visiting places that I don't usually get to visit.  The weather was gorgeous the day we did the survey- I think we overestimated how many clothes we needed to wear and underestimated the amount of sunscreen!
 

Giant petrels nesting in the boulders on the West coast.

As the season progresses, Signy gets increasingly large numbers of fur seals.  These are mainly young males and they can make moving around the island rather tricky as they are very agile and keen to bite.  Once a season, every seal on the island is counted.  This is no mean feat and requires everyone on the island to count separate areas, and takes at least two days.  Usually we count between 15 and 20 thousand fur seals, plus several hundred elephant seals, and a handful of leopard seals and weddell seals.
 
Fur seals that have to be negotiated every couple of days on my route to Gourlay.

Two days ago, we had another ship visit, the Protector, a British Naval ship.  Its visit was a very speedy affair compared to the Shackleton a couple of weeks ago, and the ship arrived and was gone again in 20 minutes.  The Protector dropped off three new scientists, bringing our numbers back up to 8 people on station.  They will now be with us til the end of the season.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Ship visits

On Thursday 15th January the RRS Ernest Shackleton came to visit.  We awoke to find her parked just outside, in the bay.  The Shackleton is one of the BAS ships, and had come to take away our two visiting scientist, Gareth and Jen who have been with us since the start of the season.  The ship had a successful day here taking away a lot of our waste, and delivering various bits and pieces to our field huts around the island.  They also brought us some welcome new fruit and veg which although having spent a month on the ship was in much better condition than that which we already had.  We had hoped to go onboard for dinner at the end of the day (its not very often that you can have a night out somewhere down here!) but large chunks of ice were rapidly filling the bay by evening and the Captain was worried we might all get stuck onboard, so we didn't get to go in the end.


The Shackleton parked in the bay (the view out of the kitchen window).  The big tank in the foreground is an old whaling boiler from when Signy used to have a whaling station.

With the ship gone, we are now down to only 5 people on station.  This seems rather quiet, and the base has taken on a kind of family atmosphere which is nice.  On the negative side, smaller numbers means cooking duties come round much more often, but on the plus side, Matt and Hector have taken advantage of the quiet period to completely strip out the bathroom and renovate it.  It will look very smart when it is finished, but is a little inconvenient whilst in progress.  Later in the week the Protector is due to arrive (due to being a British Navy patrol vessel, and therefore rather secretive, they won't tell us exactly when they are coming!).  It is dropping off three new scientists who will bring our numbers back up to 8 on station.  This will complete the Signy team for the rest of the season- we will all be leaving together when we close the base for the winter in April.