james clark ross

Science and Whales by Jerry

21st November

Travelling with us are a large number of marine scientists with a disparate array of equipment for sampling everything about the ocean. Probes and nets to measure temperature, salinity, currents and the abundance and biometrics of microscopic life. Far too much for me to explain here,

www.seaweeddownsouth.wordpress.com

 is a good start though.

Just before lunchtime on 21st we reached one of the sampling locations and paused to allow the scientists to do their thing. Getting a few bits together to go out on deck and observe I noticed, through my cabin window, a distant whale spurt. Outside we realised we were surrounded by them and as we waited, roughly stationary for about an hour, we got some amazing views of these humpbacks feeding all around the ship. Close enough to hear their exhalations, feeling like we could reach out and touch them. Truly thrilling, these photos and videos (

https://vimeo.com/148031681

) will sum it up better than I can.

Team talk before launching the net.

Harnessed up, standing at the very back of the ship ensuring a smooth launch.

Humpback whales!

Incredible views so close to the ship.

Pulling in a mooring buoy containing dozens of measuring devices.

Jerry

Signy by Jerry

16th to 19th November

Unlike the other British Antarctic survey stations, Signy operates for the summer only. Sitting just south of 60 degrees it endures a full Antarctic winter and upon arrival the base staff never quite know what to expect. Six of them got ashore that first day, cutting through the choppy sea on the small RIBs, to check it out, returning to the ship in the evening with tales of snowdrifts and flooded stores.

The following day was calm and sunny, suitable for a larger group of twenty or more of us to get ashore and get working. First up were the important people: the station staff and the technicians looking at getting all the generator, boiler and water systems up and running. Afterwards the manual labour, including me, got our jolly ashore.

With the bay full of ice the tender couldn't get to the jetty so we were unloading at a point on the shore around 100m from the station. From there the cargo was lifted onto large sledges and towed by skidoo over to wherever it was needed, whether for immediate use and installation or stacked up to be sorted through later.

Station damage over the winter was minimal as everything had been well secured before departure. Much of our work involved digging away at the snow; uncovering buried equipment and clearing it from where it had drifted up against the buildings, opening walkways and reducing the chances of flooding once it starts to melt. This last necessity was exemplified by the state of one of the store rooms. Marks on the doors and walls showed it had flooded to an impressive 30cm at one point, but we were greeted with a solid 10cm of ice on the floor. A team of ice breakers, shovelers and moppers were deployed and had largely cleared it by lunch time. Enough to restart one of the big freezers which happily worked, cooling itself and melting much of the remaining ice in the room.

Perched on the jetty eating chips sent over from the ship, we reflected on how nice a day it was. Piles of clothing littered the site, evidence of shed layers from people expecting the worse now working in single layer thermals and passing round the sun cream. The brilliant white of the ice-packed bay was broken only by lounging elephant seals, while the glaciers, cliffs and peaks all around us were a reminder of what a potentially inhospitable place we were in, despite temporary comforts.

Normally if the weather is good at relief we would work until dusk but we were called back to the ship mid afternoon, leaving the Signy crew to enjoy their first night on station. The reason was the sea ice. That big barrier we'd sailed through had been pushed south by the winds and had crept up on our current location. When we left it before it had taken another hour to get to Signy, a distance of maybe ten miles. This time it was a couple of hundred meters, just the distance back to the ship that was sat right at the edge of the pack, ready to cut off though it to find a larger area of open water suitable for spending the night.

The wind picked up the following day, pushing a barrier of ice across the entrance to the bay and preventing us from getting ashore. It was touch and go after that but we managed to get a tender in and unload the remaining cargo; the fresh and frozen food as well as the all important bond. Once everyone was happy the base was up and running properly, with all systems checked and approved, we were heading back through the ice on our way north.

The first humbers brave the conditions to take station staff ashore for an initial inspection.

Better weather for our visit ashore on the tender, full of food (in the blue boxes) and an array of science, domestic, technical, engineering and personal kit.

The RRS James Clark Ross sitting smartly in the bay.

Shovelling snow. A popular pastime on Antarctic bases.

Transporting goods from the landing site to the station. A long way man-hauling or a short way by skidoo.

Breaking for lunch on the jetty.

Vital early job; attaching the sewage pipe.

More digging.

Directing the tender in to the improvised landing site.

Happy station staff, left for another summer.

Signy station.

Jerry

Enter the Ice by Jerry

15th and 16th November

We hit the ice on 15th November. There were a few large 'bergs around the previous evening so many of us were up on deck early, excited at the increasing number and variety of sizes and shapes. Huge, flat-topped blocks, smaller amorphous chunks and the most dramatic ones with spires and turrets rising like something from a gothic fairy tale, evidence of where they'd been eroded by the waves and then rolled over. Dotted amongst these were the first bits of land we'd seen in three days. Bleak, dark islands. Just rocks in the ocean, perilously steep and ice-covered with emotive names like Inaccessible Island.

On the horizon what looked at first like a silvery line, possibly a reflection of the distant sun, resolved itself as the edge of the brash sea ice. It was a very definite line, before which there was open ocean carrying ice fragments and after which was compacted ice fragments with the occasional stretch of open water. There was tremendous excitement on deck as we all crowded round either the bow or the top deck viewing platform to enjoy the moment, around 11am, when we heard the first crunch of ice being pushed against ice as we edged our way into this new domain.

Irregularly shaped blocks of ice measuring ten to thirty meters across, standing just fifty centimetres clear of the water, dominated the surface. The gaps where they don't tessellate being filled in with the broken fragments that have been sheared off when they grind against each other. It's the gaps we want to aim for, slipping between the big blocks rather than trying to break them apart. As we got further in the gaps got smaller and the big blocks closer together. Progress slowed and by the afternoon it wasn't unusual for us to be stopping, reversing slightly and altering direction by a few degrees before pushing forward again. In our wake the open water marking the route we'd taken quickly closed up as the ice spread itself out again, possibly in smaller fragments carrying a little red paint.

An unanticipated but pleasing aspect to being in the ice is how smooth the journey feels. Gone are the nausea-inducing rolling seas, replaced by a smooth, slow glide interrupted by jolts that rock the ship like airplane turbulence. We made a maximum three knots through this, compared to the twelve we can do in open water.

The last hour in open water gave us our first views of whales on this trip. Distant spouts of, we think, minkes. Leaping clear alongside the ship, travelling in small groups were a few penguins; gentoos, chinstraps and, once we got into the ice, adelies. We saw more of them standing in small groups on the larger bergs or moving through the ice field like trains of ants crossing a particularly broken up patio. Dotted around too were crabeater seals, sleeping peacefully or putting their heads up to see this big red monster carving through their domain.

Twenty four hours later we broke free, back into open water. The way the ice has these very definite boundaries, controlled by wind and ocean currents, seems bizarre. There's no gradual change, it's an instant jump from one world to another.

The cloud-covered peaks of Coronation Island had been visible for some time but as we drew closer to Signy, our first port of call, the mountains seemed to get bigger as the cloud got heavier. Eventually we pulled up within reach of our destination, surrounded by spectacular steep slopes and glaciers plunging into the sea.

One of the first really spectacular icebergs.

A line of white on the horizon slowly resolving itself into the edge of the ice.

Eerie towers rising through the broken surface.

Pushing its way slowly through the ice, the RRS James Clark Ross.

Crabeater Seal.

Adelie penguins, pushing themselves along on their bellies.

Snow, reducing the visibility until it was nearly complete white.

Meanwhile... inside the ship.

While the cracks are useful for us to push our way through on the ship for some of the residents they provide more of an obstacle to a smooth journey.

The mountains of the South Orkneys near Signy. Spot the crabeater seal on the nearest ice.

Some of the 'bergs were large enough to have little lumps and valleys to hide in.

Looking over the pointy end of the ship to where it was breaking through the ice.

Adelie penguins, up to no good.

Love those little white rings around the eyes.

Snow petrels accompanied us the whole time we were in the ice, whizzing round and round the ship, looking for marine crustaceans near the surface where we'd disturbed it.

At times it looked like you could have got out and walked across the ice. I think if we were here at the end of autumn, rather than spring, I'd have been concerned (and secretly excited) at the prospect of getting stuck.

Amazing colours of the icebergs (mostly white and blue).

This is a long exposure photo of us edging through the pack at night. 

When traveling through the ice at night these two huge spotlights move around as the skipper picks out the smoothest route. This is a long exposure photo of us edging 

Nearer the edge of the pack the gaps between ice get bigger and the channels open up.

Groups of chinstrap penguins accompanied the ship heading through the narrow channels of open water.

One cheeky adelie hanging out with the chinstrap penguins.

Absolute mirror-calm seas gave the place a somewhat spooky air. I spent a long time thinking about Scott, Shackleton and the others, but also people like James Cook and James Clark Ross himself, after whom our ship is named. They were amongst the first people to sail these seas, back when whatever was over the horizon was truly unknown.

It's difficult to get into pictures just how it feels to be in this environment, with ice as far as you can see, Even in a big, modern comfy ship you feel a sense of vulnerability. Like, if the weather turned against you there is nothing you could do to prevent it.

Jerry

The Falkland Islands by Jerry

7th to 12th November

Having been through the Falklands before I was keen to explore some new parts, specifically some of the hills to the west of Stanley. Saturday was clear and sunny so the ship's doctor and I headed that way, through the town and all the way to the end of the inlet upon which the harbour and town is based. That in itself took about an hour and a half. Striking off across the moorland which makes up the majority of the island terrain we headed in a fairly straight line for the top of Mount Tumbledown. The exposed rock, reaching out of the grass at the top, belies a series of ridges running across the northern part of east Falkland. 

Views from the top of Mt Tumbledown.

Scrambling though this we got spectacular views back down to the ship and west across the rest of the island. As we sat and ate our lunch we were approached by a confident turkey vulture watching us with interest.

Turkey vulture in the foreground, cloud rolling over Stanley in the background.

Further along we came to a memorial to those killed on the mountain in the 1982 war. While we were enjoying scrambling round in shorts and t-shirt on a sunny day, with minimal kit and provisions, it was difficult to imagine it any different. Yet it was impossible not to try and imagine being up there cold and wet, sleep-deprived, desperate and under fire. Whatever your thoughts on the conflict itself, the horrors those on Mt Tumbledown and the surrounding peaks endured is quite a thing and should not be forgotten.

The memorial cross on Mt Tumbledown.

As we arrived back at the ship a few hours later we met the rest of the station staff and marine scientists who had travelled down on the long, long flight via Chile. Understandably everyone was in need of a good shower and long sleep, but that didn't prevent us exploring and enjoying the rest of our time around Stanley.

I managed to paddle in the sea at surf bay and two trips round to gypsy cove, seeing a total of five Magellanic penguins and a few Peale's dolphins as well as the smaller Falkland songbirds. One of those trips was called short due to heavy rain while the second needed a quick March to get back to the ship just two minutes before shore leave was cancelled. 

An informative sign at Surf Bay.

I managed more paddling in the sea at berthas beach while the ship was refueling. Commerson’s dolphins were surfing back and forth along breaking waves, their little black and white bodies showing up in the clear blue waters.

Dramatic clouds over Bertha's Beach.

Further along the beach a small colony of Gentoo penguins walked up the sandy beach and through a grassy field, dodging sheep to get to their nests. The combination of penguins and sheep is an amusing and confusing sight.

Gentoo penguins amongst the sheep.

Before our proper departure we had to return once again to Stanley to pick up a replacement crew member, covering for illness, before we could properly set off south on Thursday evening.

Off to sea!

Waving goodbye to Stanley and the Falkland Islands,

Jerry

See you in spring by Jerry

Last minute things: check I've got my passport. Check I've got my travel documents. Check I've got my... ah, I'm sure it'll be fine. The main job now is to pack it all into a couple of bags and fill any remaining space and luggage allowance with luxuries (not necessarily those defined as such by UK tax).

I've done some saying goodbye to people, but others get missed as proposed last-minute get-togethers fall through, so a 'bye' email or text will have to do.

My final few bits of training and meetings have been carried out these last few days at work and I'm pretty confident I've done everything on my list (though I have lost the list so can't be 100%). The last few weeks at BAS HQ have been a little strange as the building gets less and less busy with people departing southwards. The most frequently asked question around the canteen is 'when are you off?' as people get impatient, seeing photos and updates from friends already down there.

The next few days will see me get a minibus from Cambridge to Brize Norton, plane via Ascension down to the Falklands, then join the ship, the RRS James Clark Ross. My previous experience on the JCR is a happy one with minimal sea-sickness. However other travels have indicated that this may have been a fluke, so I'll be taking myself a sea survival kit; scopoderm patches, bottle of water, packet of biscuits, plenty to read, watch and listen to. Fingers crossed I'll be able to get out on deck, looking out for albatrosses and whales, but I'll be prepared for spending a lot of time lying in my bunk.

On previous trips down I've been straight in to Bird Island, a three day crossing, but this time I'm excited to be going via Signy, the British Antarctic Survey's station on the South Orkney Islands. It'll be as far south as I've been and I'm hoping to see loads of ice and some new penguins. The base there is summer-only so we'll hang around while they get it all up and running again, which will hopefully give us some time to experience the area a little.

Then it'll be up to Bird Island, maybe calling in at King Edward Point, South Georgia on the way to say hello to a few friends.

I've been spending the last weeks before departing doing all the stuff I won't be able to over the austral summer; running and mountain biking in the hills (https://vimeo.com/143548558), getting my culture on (galleries, gigs, plays) and eating fresh fruit and veg.

Jerry

Arrivals / departure by Jerry

1st December

Although it's not been too long since I last updated quite a lot has happened. The fact that I'm writing this while looking out of a ships cabin window over King Edward Point, South Georgia will attest to that.

A lovely sunset looking out to the JCR anchored off the bay during first call.

The first major change was first call. Thankfully a few days late which gave us the time to complete tidying, cleaning and paperwork for outgoing items the RRS James Clark Ross arrived at Bird Island and before we knew it out home of four people for the last eight months was full of 30 or so folk, many of them known to us from our time in Cambridge or from the journey down last year. Over two days of dubious weather they brought in all our fuel, food, kit and equipment for the next season. Several tons of timber also came ashore for infrastructure rebuilding later in the year. But of course the main change has been in the base personnel; Cian and Jess, the new seal and albatross assistants, Rob the new tech, Manos, who's in to upgrade the computer servers and Adam the new base commander. While Hannah and Steph will have a few months to pass over their expertise in the animal monitoring, Craig had two days to tell Rob everything he knows about keeping the base running – the generators, the electrics, the plumbing and a hundred quirks and tips to keep everything working. Craig headed off on the JCR for an exciting few months helping open the base at Signy then heading down to carry out some work at Rothera. It was sad seeing our winter team break up as it's been such a great time.

The ship returns on the nicest day ever.
A rising wind meant the last trip for the tender back to the ship was a bit hairy and they headed off to unload cargo at South Georgia. They were back a few days later though to pick up all our outgoing waste and recycling and they picked one of the nicest days Bird Island has ever witnessed. Blue skies, sun and flat calm waters meant everything went smooth and quick and after a morning rolling empty fuel drums we were able to get out up the hill and enjoy the spectacular views and the chance to carry out work unhindered by rain, although I soon learnt that shorts are not suitable attire when monitoring White-Chinned Petrels due to their velociraptor-like claws.

The RRS James Clark Ross just before heading away for another year.
Enjoy the view toward Willis, it's not like this very often.
As I'm staying down south for another year the BAS doctors decided it was necessary for me to take a break. Partly to go and see a dentist again, after last years trip, and partly to stop me going mad. I wasn't sure what sort of break they had in mind; a while on South Georgia or the Falklands? Turns out I'm heading all the way back home.

I'm obviously looking forward to seeing friends and family, catching up on things I've missed like live music and sport, and non-stop eating of fresh food. I am sad to be leaving Bird Island, especially at such an exciting stage in the breeding season – the first Gentoo chicks were born two days before I left, Wandering Albatross are courting and Fur Seal puppies are starting to cover the beach – but I'll be back before everything departs. I've been spending the last week or so racing round to get as much done as possible and showing the others how to carry out bits of monitoring I'm leaving with them.

Gentoo penguin with fat little chick.
Giant Petrel chick enjoying some sunshine from underneath its mum.
Wandering Albatross pair cuddling up. 
Fur seal puppy chewing on its own flipper while cuddling up to its mother.

As might be expected it's not an easy, short trip. I was picked up by the the fisheries patrol vessel Pharos a few days ago and spent a few days lying in my bunk feeling seasick before we pulled in to King Edward Point.

More to come soon.

Jerry