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.