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


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.