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, 17 December 2017

Something different

At present I am very busy with fieldwork with a lot to squeeze in between now and Christmas.  This season, in addition to the usual long term monitoring work, we are conducting a whole island Chinstrap survey.  Although approximately 1500 birds are monitered every single year as part of the standard monitoring, in addition, every 10 years every bird on the island is counted.  This year we are also conducting this survey using a drone to investigate its potential for surveying inaccessible places in the future.  It is keeping us busy, but is fun to do.

The survey gets us out and about all over the island, to the little nooks and crannies that we don't usually visit.  We still have some pretty ice around.

Whilst out and about on the chinstrap survey, it has actually been the Adelies who have been the most photogenic as the chinstraps are just sitting dutifully on their eggs.  There is much more activity in the Adelie colonies.  The chicks are already suprisingly large!


This pair is almost too big to fit underneath its parent.  It is good to see many nests still with two chicks- in a really poor year they can only find enough food to rear one.


Whilst out surveying we came across something quite special.  Spot the odd one out! 


This Adelie is leucistic, meaning it has a pigment disorder resulting in a partial loss of pigmentation in its feathers.  This form of leucism is known as Isabellinism- where the bird has a uniform reduction in the pigment melanin all over, giving it a honey colour everywhere that should be black.  It has brownish toenails and an almost red beak.  It is not an albino, which would have no colour at all and pale eyes.


It looked perfectly happy with its fellow colony buddies.


Finally to finish, here is some more ice in the bay.


On base we are starting to prepare for Christmas.  We put the Christmas tree and decorations up yesterday and my Christmas cakes are maturing, waiting to be iced.  The temperatures are hovering around minus two- probably warmer than the UK at present!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Moving on

The season is moving on- we have been here for almost a quarter of our time already.  In another 10 days we'll have reached the longest day here.  It doesn't really get dark at night much these days which is rather nice.

The wildlife is also busy progressing through the season.  The Adelie penguins now have small chicks.

They are guarding these closely from predators like skuas and giant petrels.

The chinstraps nest about a month later than the Adelies.

They have just finished laying their eggs and now begin the process of incubating them.

We had a nice visitor one day to the beach in front of the station.  This little Weddell seal came to visit and seemed very content snoozing on the beach.

Meanwhile, on station things moved on too and we had the second ship visit of the season- the RRS Ernest Shackleton, which called yesterday.  It is too big to get to the jetty (so people and cargo are moved in small boats) but it has a shallow draft so can get much closer than our other ship, the James Clark Ross.

The Shackleton brought four new scientists.  This bring the number of people on station up to eight, which is the maximum we can fit in.  It feels much busier than it did til now as there were only 5 of us for the first part of the season.  Claudia, who has been with us from the start but has now finished her science here, left on the ship.  She has been collecting small crustaceans from the lakes and shorelines around the island.  Here are the original team- Matt, Iain, Me, Catrin and Claudia.  

(the orange boilersuits are not compulsary, but they are a firm favourite for wearing around and about- rather like wearing a duvet!) 

This will now be the last ship we see until early February when there will be another change of personnel, who will join us for the remainder of the season.  The next couple of months will be the busiest- there is much to do!

Friday, 1 December 2017

Antarctica Day

Happy Antarctica Day!

December 1st is Antarctica Day.  This day celebrates the signing of the Antarctic Treaty on 1st December 1959.  The Antarctic Treaty, signed by 48 nations is a perfect example of global cooperation between nations, designating the whole of Antarctica as a "natural reserve, devoted to peace and science".  The treaty sets aside all claims of territorial ownership by the various nations, and prohibits military activities and mineral extraction.  Conventions passed by the treaty nations protect the Antarctic as a whole, enhancing scientific discovery, monitoring the status of the continent and its wildlife (my job) and regulating fishing and tourism to sustainable levels. The treaty has resulted in successful cooperation between all nations, working together for the greater good and is as strong now as when it was first signed.  

If you are interested, more information (an interesting read) can be found at https://www.bas.ac.uk/about/antarctica/the-antarctic-treaty/the-antarctic-treaty-explained/ 

It seems a shame to me that we can't use this as a model for the rest of the world!

We can't celebrate Antarctica Day without some penguins, so here are a few pictures.  The Adelies are currently still incubating and the colonies are clean and tidy with each bird sitting on their nest of pebbles, patiently waiting for their eggs to hatch.

Its a long job, so snoozing is often a good way to pass the time...

Yesterday when I went to visit my study birds, it was exceedingly windy and the birds had all turned themselves round to face the wind.  This made them look particularly neat and tidy.

From the front the Adelies look rather intimidating!  Not something to be messed with.  Especially the one in the middle of the picture!


The first egg was just showing signs of hatching yesterday with a pea-sized hole in the shell and a tiny beak showing through.  It will hatch fully today- what better day to arrive into the world than on Antarctica Day!

Friday, 24 November 2017

Settled in

With the ship gone, it was time to settle in and start work.  Within a few days of it leaving, the rest of the boxes were all unpacked and the research station was fully up and running.  Everyone settled into their various roles and routines. 

My first job was to head across to Gourlay to my penguin colonies there.  This is where I do the majority of my monitoring work.  It is about an hours walk from the research station.  The Adelie penguins were here long before we were, and are already settled on eggs.  These should start hatching any day now.  For such a noisy bird, the colonies are suprisingly quiet at this stage. 

There are a lot of Adelies at Gourlay...

It is important to try and work out what stage in the breeding season they are at, so I can conduct the rest of the seasons counts at the correct stages through the breeding season to enable them to be consistant over the years and therefore contribute to the longterm datasets.  Their arrival times can vary by several weeks depending on a range of factors such as the amount of sea ice and the condition of the birds themselves.  Once the eggs start to hatch, we will be able to determine when the eggs were laid.    

Away from Gourlay, we had a day trip to Northpoint, which is (as expected) the northern most point of the island. This is where the gentoos nest.  They were also settled on their eggs.

The Blue-eyed shags also nest at Northpoint.  They have spent a lot of time neatly constructing nests and are just starting to lay eggs now.  Being able to fly, they have the advantage of a wider choice of nesting materials and often build with seaweed.  Their nests look much softer and more comfortable than those of the penguins!

There weren't many chinstraps around when we first arrived as they breed later in the season.  The first males were just arriving, to defend their nest sites from rival males and start building a nice pile of pebbles, ready to impress their partners who arrive a few days later.

We have quite a lot of sea ice at present which looks particularly nice on a sunny day.

The sea ice constantly changes.  As the wind direction and tides change, the sea ice moves around so every day is different.  These penguins were in the bay at Foca Cove, which was full of sea ice when we visited. 

Here is Claudia for scale...

We have been quite lucky with the weather so far, enjoying some beautiful sunny days and some lovely snow.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Arrival

After three slightly bumpy days at sea we arrived at the South Orkney Islands, a small group of islands in the southern ocean.  Signy, the island upon which I spend my summer, is one of the smaller islands in this group.  We arrived on a cold day.  The information screen informed us that the sea temperature was -1.32 degrees centigrade.  I always think its strange that water can be below zero degrees and not be frozen solid, but that is the case with salt water.


With the air temperature pretty chilly too, the aft deck was covered in ice where the waves had been washing over it and freezing immediately. 


The rest of the ship looked like some kind of ghost ship with everything white and ice covered.


It was going to be a cold day for working!  The first cargo tender arrived to offload people to start the process of opening up the base for the summer.  Jobs to be done were to dig out the walkways and doorways to the buildings, to remove shutters from the windows and to start the process of getting the services up and running.  On days like this, everyone, regardless of their reason for being onboard, mucks in to get the job done. 


These jobs all take time and have to be done in the right order.  Generators have to be warmed up properly before they can be started and buildings need a chance to warm up before things like communications can be switched on.  The first day went very well, and by the end of the first day we had heating, lighting and flushing toilets on station meaning we were able to spend the first night ashore in our Signy home.

Day two dawned a complete contrast with glorious blue skies and sunshine.

The digging continued...

This pipe is critical to life at Signy- it brings sea water into the generator shed where it is pumped up to the main building for flushing toilets, or diverted to the Reverse Osmosis plant which converts it to drinking water.

By the end of day two we had started making fresh water, all of the cargo was ashore and being unpacked, and the base was starting to feel much more homely.
The ship finally left us with a fully functional base at the end of day three. 



This year there are only 5 of us for the first part of the season, but we are back up to eight people with the next ship call in early December.  There is much to do in the next couple of weeks- unpacking all of the cargo that has come ashore, stocking the foodstore, tidying up, and starting the science that allows us to be here in the first place.

It is great to be home!

Friday, 3 November 2017

A New Season

Back in the UK the clocks were put back an hour.  For me this is time to migrate down to the Antarctic for the summer season, avoiding the long dark UK winters nights.  This year I am returning as usual, to Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands.  This season is significant as it will be my 10th summer season in Antarctica- an entire decade of penguins! 

We flew from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire late on Sunday night, via Cape Verde, and onwards to the Falkland Islands.  We saw little of Cape Verde except the airport building, but it seemed a pleasantly warm place with temperatures reaching 25 degrees at 7am so I expect it was going to be a warm day!  When we arrived in the Falklands we were transported by bus to the ship, the RRS James Clark Ross which was moored just outside Stanley.  Everything happened quite fast this year so there wasn't time to get much sightseeing done in town before we set sail round to Mare Harbour on the other side of the island, where we took on fuel.  Here there was time for a short walk out with my camera. 

It is spring in the Falklands:

Everything is looking quite green (for the Falklands anyway!):

The vegetation is quite sparse with some bizarre plants:


There were some birds around.  These Turkey Vultures were feeding on a dead goose. 

This is a male black-throated or white-bridled finch:

We are now at sea, heading down towards Signy.  Below you can see the ship heading away from the jetty as we left the Falklands:

The crossing has been largely uneventful, but a little bumpy which makes simple tasks somewhat tricky.  It is difficult to sleep when sliding up and down the bunk, and even eating becomes hard when you have to chase your meal around the plate and prevent it from escaping. 

This afternoon it has calmed down a bit and the journey is becoming more comfortable.  It has started to snow and the temperature last time I checked was minus 7.2 degrees centigrade.  With 25knot winds, this is starting to feel rather chilly!  Good numbers of albatrosses have been following the ship for most of the journey:

They hardly ever flap their wings, instead gliding effortlessly and gracefully along behind the ship with seemingly no effort at all.  I think they hope we are a fishing vessel that might throw them something tasty.  They are notoriously difficult to get a decent photograph of when standing on the swaying deck of the ship!  This was the best I could manage on this occasion:

We are due into Signy first thing tomorrow morning so if we are lucky we will awake to icebergs and the snowy peaks of the South Orkney Islands (or possibly dense icy fog!).  It will then take us about 3 days to get us up and running and ready for the coming season.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Home Time

I will finish my blog this season with a couple of pictures of Weddell seals that never quite fitted into any of my other posts.  Weddell seals always seem to look content and I think have to be pretty close to the top of my favourite Antarctic creature list.  Not only do they look cute, but they also don't make much noise, nor do they smell, nor do they bite! 

We spent the last week getting everything packed up and ready to leave.  On Sunday 19th March, the RRS Ernest Shackleton appeared, ready to take us home.

Closing down the station was done at a more leisurely pace than usual this year as there were surveyors onboard who wanted to take various site measurements in preparation for a planned new research station to be constructed in a couple of years time.  The ship hung around while the surveyors surveyed and we closed the station over a four day period.  It can be done in a day and a half if needed, so a lot of sitting around waiting occurred! 

Eventually everyone was ready to leave and we set sail.  Our first engagement once onboard was a rendez vous with the other BAS ship, the RRS James Clark Ross, to transfer a member of the ships crew. 

The JCR is the ship that brought us down in November.  It would have made a nice photograph of them both together, but as we were on one of the ships this was not possible.  The closest I got was this one of the JCR from my cabin porthole on the Shackleton! 

It then took us three days to sail back to the Falklands, where we moored just off Stanley.  Stanley is where the majority of the Falkland Islanders live and is a colourful little place stretching along the seafront.

We had three days in the Falklands, before flying back to the UK.  For the summer I will be once again working at Foxglove Covert Local Nature Reserve in Yorkshire, which has a blog of its own.  If you have enjoyed this blog, it is worth checking back again in November to see if I will be returning for another season.