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, 29 January 2015


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.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Adelie Penguins

Our Christmas and New Year Celebrations already seem a long time ago.  January is probably my busiest month and despite my best intentions it has been a few weeks since I wrote anything on here.  Everything seems to be growing at a very rapid rate.  Already my Adelie penguins that were just hatching as I arrived, are only a couple of weeks from leaving the colonies and jumping into the sea for the first time in their life. 

Below are a few photos taken of one of the big Adelie colonies at Gourlay, at various stages througout the breeding season.  Note how the colony turns slowly pink with the penguin poo over the season.  This is due to the enormous quantities of pink krill eaten.

Patiently waiting for the eggs to hatch.

Caring for their small chicks.

Large chicks form loose creches for protection/warmth while their parents are out fishing.

And below are the birds themselves:
Incubating eggs.

Young chicks being guarded by their parents.

Half-grown chick still being guarded by its parent.

Large chicks, moulting their fluffy down to reveal the slaty grey and white adult feathers underneath.  You can see they are still a bit smaller than the more strikingly black and white adults at this stage.