Questions from schoolchildren / by Jerry

A short while ago I got asked some questions from some year 6 schoolchildren (that's what? 10 or 11 year olds?) taught by a friend's mum. I was interested in the sort of thing they would ask me, what their impressions, excitement or concerns would be. It turned out they had some really good questions covering a range of topics, not all of which were that easy to answer. Here are the highlights:

Traveling to Bird Island

How did you get there and how long did it take?
How do you get there?

It’s a long journey down to Bird Island. I started from Cambridge on 4th November and flew down from Brize Norton, which is an RAF airport, though we were on a comfy commercial plane. After a 9 hour flight we stopped at Ascension Island (in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, near the equator) to refuel and then had another 9 hour flight down to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. There we joined a ship, the RSS James Clark Ross.

The crossing to Bird Island is normally three days but we had drop some people off further south first, then do some marine science on the way back north, so it was actually 24th November when I arrived – a three week journey!

Have you travelled into the Antarctic?
Have you gone to the Antarctica and if you have please can you tell me what you have done there and if you have gone to Antarctica please can you send me some pictures of Antarctica?

I’m afraid I have not set foot on the Antarctic continent yet; it is something I hope to do in the future. However the official Antarctic Circle is at 60° south and I crossed that on my journey down. We dropped a number of scientists and other staff at another station, one that was covered in snow and surrounded by miles and miles of ice.

It was amazing being on the ship, slowly moving through a sea of ice as far as you could see. Most of it quite flat, small chunks that made a bumping and grinding noise as the ship pushed them aside, but frequently we would see huge icebergs in the middle of it all, standing like blue hills. It was all quiet apart from small numbers of seals, penguins and small birds following the ship.

What were your first impressions when you arrived?

The weather was grey and cloudy as we approached Bird Island so instead of seeing it on the horizon and getting gradually closer it suddenly appeared out of the mist looking huge and inhospitable. The cliffs and steep slopes had a thin layer of snow on them so you couldn’t see any colour; it was all just grey and white with waves crashing at the shore. I didn’t think I’d made a mistake in coming but I did wonder if I had underestimated how difficult it would be. Luckily later that day the sun came out, the snow melted and it looked much nicer and welcoming.

 Life on station

Where do you stay and what's it like?

The station is located on a small beach beside a sheltered cove. During summer the beach becomes covered in fur seals that can be noisy, smelly and quite aggressive but are also very cute and fascinating to watch.

We have a few different buildings but the one we live in is called Prince House. There are 5 bedrooms so sometimes people have to share but you get your own for most of the time. We have a large kitchen with lots of modern appliances and a dining room / lounge area with comfy seats and a big screen for watching films on. There are offices and laboratories for our work and a very warm porch for leaving our wet outdoor clothes in. We have a laundry, medical room and large food stores too. In the other buildings we have further store rooms, a workshop for any building work and a big shed housing the generators that provide us with power.

Our station is quite small but it is modern, clean and warm, most of the time we just wear t-shirt and shorts when indoors. Every Friday we have scrubout, where we are assigned a room or two that we are responsible for cleaning.

Is it ever warm in the summer?
What kind of clothes do you wear?

You get used to it being cold so when the temperature gets over 5°C in the summer it feels warm, especially if you are somewhere sheltered from the wind. Walking up and down the hills can be very warming with no wind to cool you down and there are a few occasions when I’ve done it just in a t-shirt.

Most of the time we wear thermal undergarments, a thin jumper, then good quality waterproof salapets and jackets. During winter a thicker jumper or extra layer is often needed, especially if you’re not moving about much. The ground is often very wet so we have big walking boots that keep the water out and thick socks to keep our feet warm. Feet, heads and hands can easily get cold so I always carry thick gloves and hat with me even if wearing thin ones. Finally, sunglasses and suncream are sometimes essential if it is very bright, with sunlight reflecting off the snow or coming through more powerfully due to the hole in the ozone layer.

What other people are on the island?
Have you made any good friends?

This season (November to April) there are seven of us on Bird Island. Five are scientists recording data on the penguins, seals, albatrosses and other birds. A technician, who is a cross between a plumber, electrician, mechanic and builder, keeps the station running, ensuring we always have electricity and water as well as fixing all the things the scientists have broken. And I am here as the station leader, responsible for overseeing the smooth running and safe working of the station and team.

During the winter this will drop down to just four people – the technician and three scientists. I have spent two winters down here and have made some amazingly good friends. When you spend over six months with just three other people you really get to know them, to love their good sides and tolerate their bad sides, like you do your family. In such a small group everyone has to be responsible for their actions and be aware of their role in the group. So you help each other out and you know you can trust each other. I’m looking forward to having some group reunions and seeing those people in what we call ‘the real world’, the world outside of Bird Island.

What do you eat?
How can you cope without eating fresh food?

We actually eat very well down here with plenty of variety of food. With no permanent chef on station like some of the larger bases have we take it in turns cooking each night. We try and make Saturdays a special occasion with a three course meal and sometimes dressing up. Chef for the day also has to make fresh bread, so there is always a delicious smell when you get back in from the hills.
We have a few rooms full of food; mostly tinned, dried or frozen as well as a limited supply of fresh ingredients. Things like potatoes, onions, carrots will last a long time in a cool, dark place but they aren’t quite as fresh as the ones you find in the supermarkets.
There is very little we can’t make with our ingredients, a cookbook and a little improvisation. Pizzas, curries and chips are always very popular but we will always appreciate someone experimenting with something a little different. Ingredients do start to run down over winter so sometimes have to be rationed, or used in unusual ways (for instance you can make a decent pizza topping out of baked beans if you run out of tomato paste).

One of the things we miss the most is fresh fruit and salad; when I returned home last year I would sit and eat a box of cherry tomatoes like other people eat crisps. We remain healthy and get our vitamins from other food, but it is something I look forward to about getting back.

Did you spend Christmas on the Island? What did you do?

I have spent three Christmases on Bird Island and they are often strange days. It is a very busy period for work; lots of seals giving birth, albatross nesting and penguin chicks hatching so we all have jobs to do. We try and fit our Christmas around them so we will bring out our decorations the week before and put up the plastic Christmas tree. Then on Christmas day someone will cook a big breakfast before we all go out to do our jobs for the day. Whoever has free time will dip into the kitchen throughout the day to help with the main meal or make a cake. Then we dress smartly for our big evening meal, a traditional Christmas dinner with crackers and party hats. After food we may play a game or have a party but we have to be up early the next day to carry on with more science work.

We give each other cards and open the few small presents we may have been sent from home but it’s not a big present-giving time. The main celebration in Antarctica is midwinter, June 21st, which marks the point at which the days start getting longer again. Further south, where the sun never rises in the winter, this marks the point at which they start counting down to seeing it again. Midwinter parties can last all week with many games, competitions and challenges. On the British bases we do a sort of secret Santa where everyone makes a present, often spending months over it, for one other person. There are some amazing examples of arts and crafts that get handed over and they are treasured for what they mean as well as a gift.

Do you miss your family? How often do you contact them?

Yes I do miss my family, and my friends, especially at times like Christmas and birthdays. Sometimes it feels like we are a family down here as we have to live so closely with one another and at times, if someone is feeling down, we depend on each other like a good family would. I am lucky though that, although we have very slow and internet no mobile phone signal, our communications are good; I can easily phone home on a land-line and I try to send a short email or photo to my parents each week.

What would happen if one of you gets ill?

Good question. We don’t have a doctor on station like they do on some of the larger bases. Instead we have all been through some quite intensive medical training and do regular training sessions on how to deal with injuries. We have a cupboard full of medicines and several doctors always available at the end of a telephone for advice. The biggest problem here is dental; one year I had to have a three week, 2,000 mile trip to the dentist to get a tooth pulled out. That was a long time to be in pain. Make sure you brush your teeth properly.

What do you do in your spare time?

Working hours are often dictated by the animals’ behaviour so we can busy every day for weeks at a time and then suddenly more relaxed. If we have a day off and the weather is nice I like to go out with my camera to photograph the wildlife, or explore areas we don’t normally get to see. If the weather is poor I can write to people, practice a musical instrument, try some painting or woodwork or just relax with a book or TV show.

We have regular film evenings and sometimes people give talks or show photos of holidays. We have a draw full of games that are really good for relaxing and enjoying time with other people.

Working on Bird Island

How do you get around the island?
Have you ever got lost on the island?

We get everywhere by walking round the island. It is not very big (about 5km long by 1km wide) but it is steep and the terrain is difficult to walk across. There are paths that we try to stick to to avoid causing unnecessary damage or erosion but they are not easy to follow and frequently lead through mud, ponds and lumpy tussac grass. Imagine walking up slippery steps of different heights, some of which are hidden under overhanging grass. And some of them have seals hiding amongst them.
Often we walk up the slope by following the streams. These are only shallow and rocky so give good grip. During winter you can put spikes on your boots and walk straight across the frozen marshes.

Sometimes the fog comes in very thick and if you’re in an unfamiliar part of the island it can be very disorientating. I have never got properly lost but I have headed in what I thought was the correct direction only to emerge where I thought there would be a path and instead there was a cliff.

Have you discovered any new species of animals? What?

Sadly I haven’t, though I think if I collected a lot of the insects that live deep within the soil I may have a chance to. The most exciting discoveries I and others have made are when you see a bit of animal behaviour that you haven’t heard about anywhere else.
Seeing a pair of birds working together to steal an egg out from under a larger, more dangerous bird was one such thing, as was seeing a leopard seal with a penguin it had killed and was apparently saving for later rather than eating straight away.

Do you have any weapons to protect yourself from animals and if so which weapons?

I’m sorry, we don’t get any weapons, but you are right in thinking that some of the animals we work with can be dangerous and we have several different bits of equipment for defending ourselves. The fur seals are probably most dangerous as they are fast, heavy and the big males regularly injure each other while fighting. We spend a lot of time training people how to walk around them without disturbing them to remain safe, but we also carry long broom handles known as bodgers. These are never for hitting them with but it is something to hold in front of you so if you do get it wrong and one does try to bite it will only get the stick.

The albatross and other birds can also give some nasty injuries if you get it wrong while working with them. They are not being aggressive but have such large, powerful beaks that a quick peck can draw blood and easily bruise. Think of a welly boot with the foot cut off – we often use something like that over our arms to give an extra layer of protection.

Do you have any pets and what are they called?

We have to be very careful about what comes onto Bird Island as any non-native species could disturb the ones that live here. So we don’t have any usual house pets. Also we try not to disturb the local wildlife outside of what is required for science so we’re not allowed to take the seal pups or penguins as pets, no matter how cute they look.
However there are some individual animals that we get to know and they do get names. There is a skua (a bird like a large, brown seagull) with a broken wing who has lived near the station for a few years now. She is called Scratchy because she scratched the scientist who caught her to see if she could do anything to fix the wing.
As the wandering albatross chicks are sat on the same nest for around eight months and are one of the few wildlife around in the winter some of them get names, especially if you walk past them every day. One this year, known as Christopher, got his development regularly updated on Twitter.

Have you ever dug down beneath the surface?

At times I have, yes. Usually what you find is rock or smelly mud. I was collecting old bits of penguin eggshell from years past by excavating some of the stony ground where they breed and I was surprised by the large numbers of insects living under the rocks, surviving off dropped food, dead penguins and droppings.

My job

What do you do in your job?
What do you do on a day to day basis?

As station leader I am responsible for ensuring everyone is able to do their jobs efficiently, safely and correctly. If anyone has a problem they usually come to me to try and sort it out. I am the main point of communication between the station and our bosses in Cambridge, the ships and other bases so I can organise getting any supplies that are needed.
A large part of my job is managing cargo; the incoming deliveries and preparing waste for appropriate shipping and recycling. Recently I have been working on emergency evacuation plans – ensuring we have enough supplies to survive comfortably if the base burned down and we had to live in a hut or tents. I also organise training for the others, whether it’s refreshing medical knowledge or what to do in an emergency.

Do you like your job and why?

Yes, I enjoy my job for several reasons. Firstly I get to live in an amazing place. I have always liked wildlife and the outdoors and here I feel like I am in the middle of a David Attenborough documentary.

I enjoy the lifestyle; working with a small group of people who all help each other, no worries about money, travel, fashion. Almost everything I need to be happy is here.
The job itself is also very varied which keeps it interesting. I could spend one day in the office going through health and safety forms, then the next helping count albatrosses, then boxing up recycling, then out repairing footpaths.

What was your job before, was it anything to do with the job you do now?

I previously worked on small islands around the UK – the Farne Islands off Northumberland, Skomer and Skokholm in Pembrokeshire and the Shiants in western Scotland. Many parts were similar to what I do now. Although there were no penguins or albatrosses I did a lot of science work monitoring and recording British seabirds such as puffins. In those jobs I would often work with volunteers or visiting members of the public, something that we don’t get on Bird Island, but one thing about living on remote islands is that you have to learn to get on with the people around you. You also have to be resourceful and adaptable – if you need something it may not be able to be delivered straight away so you have to learn to deal without or make do with what you have. I think learning that set me up well for living down here.

Do you like living in the cold?

I still get excited when it snows and enjoy crunching through it when freshly fallen, seeing ice on the ponds and feeling well wrapped up when you can see your breath in the air. So yes, I do like living in the cold. Although I am very happy that we have a warm base where I can relax in just a t-shirt, I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much without that.
There are things I miss about the warmth though – swimming in the sea, sitting outside eating an ice cream, being able to go for a walk without having to spend 10 minutes putting on several layers and big boots.

Bird Island and the wider world
Does global warming affect Bird Island?

Good question, though a complex one. I will try and answer it as clearly as I can.
One of our jobs here is counting the numbers of seals and birds breeding each year. This has been done for the last few decades so we can look at how populations have changed since the 1960s. As most of these are long-lived species (some albatross can live to over 50 years) it takes this long to be able to say whether there are any trends in terms of more or less of a species. Over this time period albatross numbers have drastically reduced, dropping to roughly half the numbers there used to be.
Proving that this is due to climate change is very difficult because the way the atmosphere, ice sheets, ocean and wildlife interact is very, very complicated. There are many other factors too, for instance fur seal numbers have increased massively in that time, but that is because humans stopped hunting them.

However what we think is happening is that with the earth’s temperature, especially the sea temperature, rising this is causing the ice sheets to melt and break apart quicker. The underside of those ice sheets is the main place where krill breed and grow. Krill are tiny shrimps that are the basis of the Antarctic food web. Everything that lives here – whales, seals, albatross, penguins – either eats krill or eats something that eats krill, everything depends on it. So if there is less ice there will be less krill and less food for everything else.

Have there ever been any earthquakes or natural disasters on the island?

The South Sandwich Islands are about 500 miles south west of Bird Island and sit on a geological fault so do experience earthquakes from time to time. We are a bit far away to feel their effects but we do have the possibility of tsunamis, tidal waves.
In my first winter we got a phone call in the early morning telling us there had been a tsunami warning and we had 20 minutes to get up the hill. So we quickly pulled on lots of warm clothes, grabbed the emergency satellite phone and headed up the icy stream in the dark. Luckily nothing happened; we just had to wait an hour before we were allowed back down. But it is something we prepare for with emergency drills and supplies located away from the main base.

I would like to know what it is like to live with penguins around you?

It’s brilliant. You can never be bored or unhappy while watching penguins as they’re so entertaining. Sometimes if I have been working with them for a few days I have to make sure I don’t get complacent about it so I spend a bit of time just sitting, watching and enjoying them. Instead of watching the soaps we will frequently sit around the window on base watching the penguins and seals.

There are down sides to being surrounded by penguins though. With a fishy diet their colonies do smell pretty bad and if you’re working there it can be a difficult smell to get rid of. The macaronis especially are particularly noisy and aggressive. You can’t be friends with them.

What's it like living there? Please send pictures?

I love living here. There’s something different to see or do every day, the people are friendly and helpful, the wildlife is entertaining and the views are spectacular. Hope you like the photos.