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.

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.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

January

In the summer, Signy benefits from long hours of daylight.  This means that to get a nice sunset, you have to wait til quite late in the evening.  As the season wears on however, the sunrises and sunsets start occuring at more civilised times of day!  We were treated to a beautiful evening of pink pastel colours a few weeks ago.



We have also been lucky to have some lovely weather this season.  The view from Signy is second to none when the sun is shining and the sea is full of ice.



January is always a busy time at Signy, both for myself and for the wildlife.  The chinstrap penguin chicks are busy hatching, and the Adelie penguins are busy rearing their chicks, some of which are now very large.  It will only be a few more weeks til the Adelie chicks leave the colonies and head for the sea.  Already the most advanced of these are starting to lose their grey fluffy down to reveal their feathers underneath.  When it is cold they huddle together for warmth and protection.



On a hot day the chicks overheat in their thick fluffy jackets, and can often be seen sprawled out flat in the colonies panting, trying to keep cool.



The Giant petrel chick have just started hatching too.  These birds can be either white or grey with the percentage of white birds increasing the further south you are.  This adult is waiting for its egg to hatch.



The sea ice brings in the Weddell seals.  When fully grown they can look rather odd- as if their head and flippers aren't quite large enough for their body.



But when they are youngsters, they have to be one of the most endearing creatures around, with their smiling cat-like faces and soft spotty grey fur.





 

   

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Happy New Year!

Firstly, thanks very much for all my Christmas emails and greetings.  They are always lovely to receive when UK Christmas is so far away!  I hope everyone had a nice Christmas and 2016 has started well.

It's been a busy few weeks here.  Just before Christmas, the RRS James Clark Ross (the ship that we travelled down on) returned to Signy.  It stayed for the day, refuelling the station.  This involved pumping fuel from the ships tanks, into a big rubber flubber in the cargo tender, then bringing it to the jetty and pumping it back out again, into our large fuel shed.  Here you can see the full flubber in the bottom of the tender waiting to be pumped ashore.  We couldn't do this the day we arrived here as the bay was still frozen into the sea ice so we couldn't get the tender to the end of the jetty.



At the end of the day, the JCR left, taking away 4 of the Signy residents (who had finished their science), and exchanging them for 4 new ones.  With only 8 of us on station at any one time, taking away half of them feels a bit odd to begin with but it is suprising how quickly the new faces settle in and become part of the Signy family.  The ever changing group is just a normal part of life here.   

Christmas followed only a couple of days later and we all took some time off to celebrate.  On Christmas morning, some of us ventured out onto the Orwell Glacier to see if we could find any crevasses large enough to abseil into.  We didn't find any quite big enough but it was a nice adventure anyway.



Afterwards we returned to base for a very large Christmas dinner.  With roast turkey, christmas pudding, a tree and decorations, mince pies, christmas cake, and snow falling outside, our Christmas contained everything you would want it to, and we all enjoyed it.

Back at Gourlay, the penguins didn't seem to realise it was Christmas and continued busily rearing their chicks and going about their daily business.  This meant that once Boxing Day was over I had to get back out to work to keep up with them.  The Adelie chicks that were so tiny only a week ago are growing at a very rapid rate.
 


The Adelie breeding season is very short as their nest sites are under snow for most of the year.  This means the chicks seem to grow visibly bigger on a daily basis.  As soon as they are large enough to defend themselves from predatory skuas, the adults will stop guarding the chicks, and instead the chicks form creches, huddling together for warmth and protection.  This allows both parents to spend the day at sea, searching for food to bring back to their chicks in the evenings.



The Skuas are also busy nesting, taking advantage of the abundant food supplies available to them in the form of penguin eggs and small chicks.  While this may seem harsh, the skua chicks have to eat something, and I personally think they have to be one of the nicest chicks on the island.



Skuas are fiercely protective of their young, who unlike penguins, are very mobile as soon as they hatch.  The parents will stay with the chicks as they explore their surroundings, defending them with and open-winged display of aggression.