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.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to everyone back home, from all of us (and the elephant seals!) at Signy.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Visitors

There are only five of us at Signy this year.  This is a bit unusual as we have eight beds available on station and often all of them are full.  The number of people here depends on a couple of things- firstly, how many scientists have projects planned for the season, and then whether the ships travel itinery matches up with the scientists work plan and therefore whether the project is feasible.  We do have two more scientists joining us in January bringing us up to seven on station. 

Given the low numbers, a visit from a ship can suddenly seem a bit of a shock as the base transforms into a bustling hive of activity and people.  The feelings are rather mixed.  Part of you feels like your home is being invaded by tourists who wander through your living space, upsetting the fine balance of life that you have established with your fellow station members.  The other part of you is quite excited, for they bring great enthusiasm and excitement, and sometimes new people or supplies.

Last week two ships visited.  The first visit was from the Bark Europa.

The Bark Europa is a cruise ship with a difference.  Unlike modern cruise ships, with all their luxuries, the Europa is a tall ship, over 100 years old, that had sailed all the way from Ushuaia, Argentina, using only the power of the wind.  Originally a light ship, protecting a hazardous stretch of river in Germany, she was re-rigged as a Barque in the 1980's as a sail training ship.  The tourists onboard all muck in together, working alongside the crew and trainee sailers on their exciting voyage.

After a tour of our station, they kindly repaid the favour, allowing us onboard for a tour of their ship and a cup of tea.  There seemed to be an awful lot of ropes!  Here is me, Doug and Iain onboard.

Both inside and out the Europa is beautiful.  I suspect in a sea of icebergs, with all sails up, it must be quite a sight!  Later they set sail, heading south towards the Antarctic Peninsula.

A couple of days later, one of our own ships, the Ernest Shackleton, came to visit.  We awoke to find her parked almost on the doorstep!

The bay is too shallow for the Shackleton to reach the jetty, so they launched their small boats.  The Shackleton was dropping of our new Scientist Jes and taking away our generator mechanic Doug, who has been here since the start of the season.  It also brought us a new batch of fresh fruit and veg, and various bits of cargo.  Onboard this time were a group of people bound for Halley research station, and they came ashore to help with cargo and have a look around.  Again, we went onboard, this time for lunch and a chat with the captain and his crew. 

Once the ships had gone, normality resumed and we settled back into work.  The next ship we will see is the James Clark Ross (which we arrived on in November), around the end of January.      

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Chicks

Time at Signy seems to pass very rapidly.  Already we have been here a month, and in that time things have changed enormously.  The photo's on my previous blog, show the state of things shortly after we first arrived.  Now three weeks later, everything has moved on.  The Adelies complete their entire breeding cycle in only 4 months, arriving mid October, and leaving Signy around Mid February.  It is a race against time for them to rear their young and get them to sea early enough in the year so they have a chance of surviving the winter.

When hatching time approaches, the second parent returns to the nest.  The colonies suddenly start to look much more busy. 

The adelie chicks started hatching about a week ago, and on my visit to Gourlay yesterday, approximately one third of the eggs have now hatched.  You can see this one is just starting to hatch.  It will probably be a couple of days yet before the chick fully emerges from the egg.

Once hatched, they continue to be guarded by one parent or the other.  Without this protection they are very vulnerable and perfect snack size for a hungry skua.  The other parent will spend the day at sea catching krill or fish, and return in the evening to swap shifts with the guarding parent. 

This Adelie has two chicks.  In a good season, where food is plentiful, both chicks are likely to survive, but if food supplies are scarce, only the biggest will successfully fledge.

In other news, on Tuesday one of the BAS ships, the RRS Ernest Shackleton is coming to visit.  They will take away our generator mechanic Doug, and bring in a new scientist.  The weather is forecast to be kind to us, so we may be able to get on board to see a change of faces, and some fresh salad!  The Shackleton then continues southwards, down to Halley.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Bricks

Anyone who has followed my blog in previous seasons will be familiar with my numbered nest marker bricks. 

My first job of the season is to lay these out through my penguin colonies to individually indentify 100 nests of each species.  I will then visit each nest every few days throughout the entire breeding season to get laying, hatching and fledging dates.  These nests are important as they act as a representation of the island as a whole, so I know when to do the large scale counts.  For example, when the birds in my study nests have finished laying it is time to do the island wide egg count.  Because the arrival dates for the birds can vary quite considerably, the date varies from year to year and the results would not be comparable if the egg count was always done on a set date in the calendar year.  The whole point of me being here is that it is a long term monitoring site, and my role is to collect this years data for the longterm dataset, which for Signy now spans 40 years.        

When i arrive at Signy, the breeding season is already in full swing.  The Adelie penguins have been back at Signy since early October, and by the time I arrive they are busy incubating eggs.

Their neat little nests are built from pebbles.  Although both parents incubate the eggs, only one bird is needed at a time.  Their behaviour gives you a clue as to what they are doing- the birds in the picture below that are standing up will be failed breeders- either ones who somehow didn't quite get something right, or ones where the predatory skuas have pinched their eggs.  They will not breed again this year.  The laying down birds will be incubating eggs.

 

This one has two eggs and is standing up briefly to adjust them and check they are still there.

The chinstrap penguins always breed about a month later than the Adelies.  When we arrived the male birds had already arrived and were fiercely defending their chosen nest sites from fellow penguins. 

Nest building requires dedication.  Leaving the nest site for too long leaves the risk of someone else coming along and taking it over, resulting in some fairly vicious fighting.  Alternatively they may return to find a neighbour has pinched all of the carefully chosen stones for their own nest.  It is not uncommon to watch one bird wandering backwards and forwards stealing a neighbours stones, while someone else is doing the same with their own nest. 

Now, a couple of weeks later, the females have also arrived and the chinstraps are in the middle of the egg laying period.  The Adelie chicks should start hatching any day now, but I haven't seen any chicks yet. 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The start of a new season.

Once the ship had left us it was time to start work.  Most of my early season work is at Gourlay peninsula which is about an hours walk from the research station.  To get there I walk up one of the glacial valleys.  You can see the piles of rock debris (called glacial moraine) which has been left behind as the glacier slowly melts and retreats inland over time).

Then I cross the large snowfield...

And then drop back down to sea level on the other side where there are usually some young Elephant seals sleeping on the beach...

Then I contine onwards to the huts. 

I have two huts.  The one on the left is the living hut, with two bunks, food supplies, a paraffin heater which can be lit to keep the place warm and a couple of stoves and tilly lamps for making cups of tea and for lighting.  It is a cosy place for a night out.  The other is the work hut which smells of penguin, and is where I keep all of my penguiny clothing, catching nets, and work gear.  It would be a much less pleasant place to spend the night!

At Gourlay there are lots of penguins.  Here are just a few of them!  I'll tell you about my work another time else I will end up with too many pictures here for our internet connection to cope with.

 On the way home I spotted a ship.  Down here you tend to get the feeling you are the only people for miles around so it is always slightly odd to realise that there are other people close by!  It appears to be a cruise ship but it was too far away to see which one.

 

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Heading South

My journey began on Sunday 6th November.  My parents kindly dropped me at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) HQ in Cambridge, where, with a number of other South bound colleagues we piled into the minibus for RAF Brize Norton.  The aeroplane tickets stated very precisely "Distance: 7875.02miles, Duration: 19hours 30mins".  I wonder who had measured it so accurately.  It was a decent flight down, with a 2 hour stop in Ascension Island to allow the plane to refuel part way there.  We arrived at Mount Pleasant airport in the Falklands on Monday evening, taking another bus along the bumpy roads to Stanley, the capital of the Falklands.
Here we joined the BAS ship the RRS James Clark Ross, which was to take us to Antarctica.  With a couple of days to spare in the Falklands we had time for a little bit of exploring.  Although it was overcast and windy, so not good for taking particularly inspiring photographs, I still managed to find a few telltale signs of spring... 

Here are some Falklands lambs


A family of Crested Ducks


A Pale Maiden flower (the Falklands National Flower)  


This is a Rufous Breasted Dotterel

The beaches in the Falklands are vast and empty, and can look rather bleak on a grey day.  But it was a relief to be able to stretch our legs and have a good walk after being stuck on a plane for many hours. 


A typical Falklands landscape can also look pretty bleak, but there is something very nice about it too.


On 10th November we set sail from the Falklands, heading out into rough seas.  The next few days passed in a bit of a blur, involving holding on tightly to your meals to prevent them from escaping from your plate and spreading themselves across the table, battling up and down the stairways, and failing miserably to do things like have a shower with the water falling in all directions except downwards.  Even things like getting dressed are more easily done sitting on the floor because when standing, one hand is always needed for hanging on to things!  The photo definately doesn't show the pitch and roll of the ship, but it was the best I could do.

After three days we finally arrived at our destination, Signy Island, where the ship was able to get a bit of shelter and we were able to get ashore to open up the station. 

The JCR moored just off Signy, once we were ashore.


We arrived to very little snow, and no sea ice, which made opening up the station much easier than last year as we didn't have to dig our way into the buildings.  Everything was brought ashore from the ship in the small cargo tender and unloaded.  Here you can see just a few of the items- the biggest box is a new fridge, the other wooden one is a new generator, and the grey boxes are filled with random smaller items such as washing up liquid, toothpaste and printer cartridges.

Starting up the station went well, aided by lots of extra help from other people on the ship who are continuing Southwards for a Science Cruise or continuing to be dropped off at Rothera Research Station.  After three days, we had all the basics set up (heating, lighting, water, communications) so the ship sailed off, leaving just five of us to unpack and settle down to work.   


Friday, 4 November 2016

Migrating

The time has come to migrate South, back to my winter work at Signy. I fly on Sunday 6th November, from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. The flight takes us directly to the Falkland Islands, where we arrive on the evening of Monday 7th. There we will join the BAS ship, the James Clark Ross (JCR), which will take us down to Signy. This year the ship is calling at Signy first, before the other research stations, so we should only be on board for about three days.

The JCR webcam can be found at:
https://www.bas.ac.uk/data/our-data/images/webcams/rrs-james-clark-ross-webcam/
The ships tracker can be found at:
http://www.sailwx.info/shiptrack/shipposition.phtml?call=ZDLP

Once we arrive at Signy it will take about 3 days for us to get the research station opened up and ready for the season. After this, assuming all is well, the ship will leave us to get on with our season.

See you in the Spring!

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Home Time.

The RRS Ernest Shackleton is due on Thursday lunchtime.  It will be taking us away (probably on Saturday) when we have finished closing down the station for the winter.  We have spent the last week or so boxing up cargo, recording everything we have here (so we know what needs to be ordered for next year), and starting to close the station down.

We are travelling home via South Georgia and Bird Island- you can keep track of my progress by looking at the Ships webcam which is updated hourly and can be found at: https://www.bas.ac.uk/data/our-data/images/webcams/rrs-ernest-shackleton-webcam/ and on the ship tracker website which can be found at: http://www.sailwx.info/shiptrack/shipposition.phtml?call=ZDLS1 

It has been a long and busy season, but a good one.  I managed to keep up with the blog until nearly the end- apologies for the lack of posts in the last few weeks however!  The recent weeks have flown by.  My penguin chicks (and most of the adults) have all gone, and many of the seals have departed for the winter too.  Every creature that needed counting/weighing/measuring has been counted/weighed/measured and I am all finished and ready to start my northwards migration.

I will leave you with a few seal pictures to complete my Signy Season.  A big pile of snoozing elephant seals.



A small Antarctic fur seal.



And finally, a very content elephant seal, using his companion as a pillow.



I am looking forward to getting home in time for Spring!  See you all then!

Friday, 26 February 2016

A day out

On Saturday the RRS Ernest Shackleton came to visit.  She was on her way down to Halley, and stopped off to help out with a few bits and pieces on the way.  One of my tasks this year was to visit Moe Island and Lynch Island.  These are two small islands, just off Signy, that are ASPA sites (Antarctic Specially Protected Areas).  They are designated for the pristine nature of their flora and fauna.  One is particularly noted for the abundance of grass!



Visiting the islands is normally not allowed, but every few years the condition of the islands has to be assessed and we were issued a special permit to land.  Their condition largely does not change, but the steady increase in the number of Antarctic fur seals around Signy is considered a threat to the vegetation as they spend a lot of time hauled out on land, and can cause a lot of damage.  To visit the islands we needed boats, so we boarded the Shackleton, then used their small inflatable boats to reach them.  It was great to visit some new islands- here is Signy, looking across from Moe Island.



We had a fantastic day out boating over to each island, landing, completing the survey and then boating back to the ship.  Whilst on board we circumnavigated the whole of Signy, caught up with familiar faces and had a couple of nice meals.  Most notable was the presence of things such as cucumber, tomatoes and grapes- none of which I have seen since November!  

For me, the highlight of the day however was the boat trips to get us to there.  The icebergs around Signy are incredible, and from a small boat, the icy pinnacles seem to stretch right up into the sky, in shining shades of silver, blue and grey.  Here are just a selection of the best, but they sadly still do not do justice to what it was really like.







Note the small boat for scale in these two...







I find icebergs utterly mesmerising.  To be able boat around these beautiful towering giants made this day one of the definate highlights of the season.     
  

       

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Suns, Moons and Clouds

I have got a little behind with my blog in recent weeks, so here are a few random images to keep you entertained until I get time to give a proper update!

On a sunny day at Signy, we sometimes get halos forming around the sun.  These occur when there is a thin layer of cirrus clouds in the upper atmosphere- cirrus clouds are made from tiny ice crystals, instead of raindrops, and these refract the light to form the halo.  According to the internet the correct term for it is the 22 degree halo, as apparently this is its radius of the circle- I've never actually tried to measure it!



Sometimes we get low lying layers of mist at Signy.  These occur when the air at ground level is colder that that above it, and are known as temperature inversions.  Some days it looks like a dull grey day down by the sea, but if you climb up onto the icecap you can look down upon the top of the fog bank, and the islands peaks all stand out above it, in bright sunshine.



This is the moon in Anarctica.  Yes, it is exactly the same one as at home, however, as we are at the bottom of the earth, it appears upside down.  If you look at the moon at home, then turn around and look at it upside down, through your legs, you can see how we see it here.  The stars also appear to be upside down, and we largely get a different set of constellations, although we do see a few familiar ones such as Orion (upside down), low down in the sky near the ground.  Higher in the sky we get different constellations such as the Southern Cross.



All of these however require clear skies!  In reality, all too often here it is exceedingly windy, cold and snowy.  On these days I tend not to take my camera out with me, so my pictures are always misleadingly biased towards the sunny days! 

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Ice

One of my favourite things about Antarctica is the ice.  People frequently say to me "well I'd love to see Antarctica, but I don't think I'd like the cold".  It is cold, but without the cold none of the ice would exist, and the beauty of the place would be completely lost.  Ice comes in beautiful shapes, forms and colours.  The ice at Signy changes daily, moving with the large ocean currents, the winds and the tides, and for me is a constant source of wonder. 

Ice plays a significant part of our lives here.  If there is too much ice in the bay the ship can't get in and we have to find another way to drop off people and supplies.  Here is the bay, still full of sea ice when we arrived this year.  Too thin to walk on, yet too thick to drive boats through.



The salty sea ice tends to break up fairly quickly in the spring, which allows the larger freshwater icebergs, carved from glaciers on the Antartic continent to drift northwards to us instead.  This creates new challenges because bergs can ground in the bay, squashing our water inlet pipes, meaning we cannot generate fresh water.  



On a sunny day, the ice turns various shades of blue. 



Generally, the clearer the ice, the older it is.  Some of it will have fallen as snow on the Antarctic continent thousands of years ago, slowly getting compressed over the years until all the bubbles have been squashed out of it, forming completely clear glassy lumps.



The action of the waves then forms beautiful scalloped surfaces on the ice, which can create lovely patterns.





Even small chunks of ice can look pretty.  This one is only a couple of inches high.  The water in these is very pure, and if placed in a gin and tonic (or other drink!) will pop and fizz as the compressed bubbles escape.  



The wildlife enjoys the ice too.  Weddell seals can frequently be seen sleeping on the ice, and penguins use them as a place to haul out of the water or as a means of travel.



A good iceberg sunset is hard to beat.