research station

November - new arrivals & a big ellie fight by Jerry Gillham

November marks the real start of summer on South Georgia as it's when the bulk of the seasonal visitors arrive - the builders, museum team and this year just four new BAS staff; two technicians, boating officer and doctor taking over from those who were departing.

To celebrate 365 days on South Georgia we headed up to Deadman's pass with plastic cups and a bottle of cheap sparkling wine.

To celebrate 365 days on South Georgia we headed up to Deadman's pass with plastic cups and a bottle of cheap sparkling wine.

We were visited by cold water swimmer Lewis Pugh, raising awareness about the oceans. He swam one kilometre round the bay in just his little speedos. Read more about him in the  National Geographic article here . I like the first sentence: it's his most dangerous swim, but not his first. Just in case anyone was in doubt, if you've never swam before I don't think anyone would advise doing 1km in sub-Antarctic waters as your first attempt.   The most interesting thing for me was seeing how the cold water was affecting him, someone who has an almost supernatural ability to withstand cold water. Within a few hundred metres you could see his technique dropping off and toward the end it looked like he was more just flapping his arms than any recognisable stroke. I guess he was relying on will power and practice to carry him through where it appeared that his body just wanted to stop and rest.

We were visited by cold water swimmer Lewis Pugh, raising awareness about the oceans. He swam one kilometre round the bay in just his little speedos. Read more about him in the National Geographic article here. I like the first sentence: it's his most dangerous swim, but not his first. Just in case anyone was in doubt, if you've never swam before I don't think anyone would advise doing 1km in sub-Antarctic waters as your first attempt. 

The most interesting thing for me was seeing how the cold water was affecting him, someone who has an almost supernatural ability to withstand cold water. Within a few hundred metres you could see his technique dropping off and toward the end it looked like he was more just flapping his arms than any recognisable stroke. I guess he was relying on will power and practice to carry him through where it appeared that his body just wanted to stop and rest.

The weather wasn't great in November but we managed a trip up the ridge near to station, attempting to summit the taller peak behind Mt Duse. Unfortunately it was one of those that we looked at but decided against in the end.  A combination of loose rock, no proper kit and being quite far from the nearest emergency services meant that, although it looked do-able, the sensible option was definitely to give it a miss.

The weather wasn't great in November but we managed a trip up the ridge near to station, attempting to summit the taller peak behind Mt Duse. Unfortunately it was one of those that we looked at but decided against in the end.

A combination of loose rock, no proper kit and being quite far from the nearest emergency services meant that, although it looked do-able, the sensible option was definitely to give it a miss.

Shortly after we returned from our trip to St Andrews (see last months blog) I had one of the best wildlife days I've had on South Georgia. In the morning we'd been out in the boats, dropping people off over at Husvik for some field work. Dave and I had been in the RHIB and got some amazing close views of Humpback Whales as we turned off the engines and drifted for a while. 

Then that afternoon I was just chatting to Paula in the dining room when we both noticed these two big bull elephant seals facing off outside the window. Normally it's all an act with them, the smaller one quickly realises it's not worth getting involved in a scrap and backs off, but these two were pretty evenly matched and it became clear both were intent on claiming this patch of beach for themselves.

Then that afternoon I was just chatting to Paula in the dining room when we both noticed these two big bull elephant seals facing off outside the window. Normally it's all an act with them, the smaller one quickly realises it's not worth getting involved in a scrap and backs off, but these two were pretty evenly matched and it became clear both were intent on claiming this patch of beach for themselves.

They were fighting long enough for me to run to my room and get my camera, and then again to get a longer lens. Stood out on the veranda we were joined by Jamie and Josh, all just marvelling at the craziness of something like this happening right in front of our eyes.

They were fighting long enough for me to run to my room and get my camera, and then again to get a longer lens. Stood out on the veranda we were joined by Jamie and Josh, all just marvelling at the craziness of something like this happening right in front of our eyes.

They reared up facing each other, if they'd been on the shore they'd have towered well over me, then slammed into each other, trying to grab a mouthful of skin and blubber around the neck with which to pull their opponent down. The noise of them clashing as well as the redness of the blood (extremely high in haemoglobin for all those deep dives) on them and colouring the water was extremely visceral.

They reared up facing each other, if they'd been on the shore they'd have towered well over me, then slammed into each other, trying to grab a mouthful of skin and blubber around the neck with which to pull their opponent down. The noise of them clashing as well as the redness of the blood (extremely high in haemoglobin for all those deep dives) on them and colouring the water was extremely visceral.

The station is not on a major elephant seal breeding beach, I think we had about 100 pups out front this season so at best these guys would have a harem of 20-30 females. Not bad but considering some proper beachmasters have numbers into the hundreds it shows how strong the urge to mate is.

The station is not on a major elephant seal breeding beach, I think we had about 100 pups out front this season so at best these guys would have a harem of 20-30 females. Not bad but considering some proper beachmasters have numbers into the hundreds it shows how strong the urge to mate is.

Although it doesn't look like it from these photos the darker one was the eventual winner and we saw him, slowly recovering from his wounds, on the beach for the next fortnight. We didn't see him in any more scraps though occasionally a younger bull would approach his harem, he'd lift his head at which point the new arrival could presumably tell a hard bastard when he saw one and quickly retreat into the sea.

Although it doesn't look like it from these photos the darker one was the eventual winner and we saw him, slowly recovering from his wounds, on the beach for the next fortnight. We didn't see him in any more scraps though occasionally a younger bull would approach his harem, he'd lift his head at which point the new arrival could presumably tell a hard bastard when he saw one and quickly retreat into the sea.

July part 1 - Petrel, SAR and boating by Jerry Gillham

Despite it feeling like a quiet month in the aftermath of midwinter and still in the midst of the cold, short days it turns out quite a bit happened in July, or at least I’ve got plenty of photos from what did happen. So I’ll split the months blog into two.

The month started with a fun ascent of Petrel Peak, Fraser, Paddy, Vicki and I fought our way through the snow and occasional ice patches to reach the summit.

Kicking steps up the snow slope, it never looks as steep as it feels when your legs doing all the work.

After the climb out the valley you hit a fairly flat bowl. Petrel has two peaks, the most interesting and photogenic is the pointy one directly ahead of us in the middle of the photo.

Fraser contemplating the route to the summit. Petrel looks impossible from virtually every angle. From here we headed up to the ridge on the left, along and up that, then below the peak itself and back at it from the far (easier) side.

Up on the ridge, Petrel looks closer and marginally more accessible, but that ridge to get there gave us some problems and needed quiet a lot of route-finding and doubling back. Paddy's photo. Note July has been a month for experimenting with facial hair - this look is certainly better than one that will feature in July part 2.

Vicki and Paddy looking at something in the distance. In the background is the higher of the two Petrel Peaks (by a couple of meters); covered in loose rock and ice and not much of a fun climb even in good conditions, we decided this day it wasn't worth it.

Paddy, Vicki and I ascending the pyramid summit. In the summer we were amazed at how simple this route turned out to be. With snow and ice it was a little tricker. Summit height is about 600m. Fraser's photo.

We didn't hang around at the top as we could see the clouds closing in. It didn't start to snow until we were down in the bowl and approaching familiar ground. Still, the hard snow on these steep little slopes were good for a) sliding down, practicing ice-axe arrests and b) getting some good practice walking in crampons, as here. Fraser's photo.

Search and rescue practice is an ongoing training exercise. We’ve done a few tabletop scenarios and doc schools but this was the first time we put them all together and went out in the field. To complicate matters the casualty in this session was the doctor and I was pretending to be a visitor meaning Vicki, as deputy station leader, was responsible for co-ordinating the incident while Kieran was the lead first aider. They, and everyone involved, did extremely well and Fraser was safely recovered all the way back to the surgery. Even though you know these are only practice sessions they are still always stressful as there is a lot to remember. However well it goes there are always things you learn and little improvements you find you can make. There are so many different factors that could occur there is no one fix-all response so you have to do a lot of dynamic planning and responding and best reason for doing these practice sessions is to give you that confidence and ability to keep a calm head in a real emergency.

Fraser had 'broken his leg while playing on the old whaling station'. I was sent out as the quick response, taking the bike and pedalling round to meet him with a big orange blanket and some warm clothing. Shortly afterwards the main team arrived and splinted his leg up.

As we could have an incident anywhere off station we practiced bringing him back on the boat. Loading him from the jetty was relatively simple - next time it might be a RHIB pick up and mid-water transfer.

With several people managing holidays on separate peninsulas and the krill trawlers (which need inspecting by the government officers) there has been quite a bit of boating this month.

This was a weird day to be out - the snow fell so heavily it was sitting in a layer on the surface of the sea. Clearing it off the boats took a while but driving through it was simple enough...

... until it got sucked up into the cooling system and the engine overheated. Kieran watching on as Matthew fixed it.

One last thing Matthew wanted to do before departing was test whether he could take the jet boat into Moraine Fjord. This channel, although it is over 100m deep in the middle, can be just 4 or 5m and forested with kelp at the mouth. Normally we only take the RHIBs in there but with one due to go out for servicing we need to have a plan to use the jet as a back-up boat in case of any problems. So, with permission from Cambridge, we set out one sunny day on a test run.

Cutting through the line of kelp, hoping not too much gets sucked up into the jet units.

In front of the Hamberg Glacier. We kept our distance in case of calving events but didn't catch any. Shortly afterwards we did get a leopard seal swim past, checking us out.

Stepping out the boatshed door on 19th July it took me a moment to work out what was different, then I sussed it - the sun was shining on my face while I was on station. Although we don't get anything like the full days of darkness that's expected further south we are in the shade of Mount Duse, so it can be two months without the sun on base. Feeling it's warmth again is something special.

Tied up alongside here is the Fisheries Patrol Vessel, coming in to pick up pax and post in between searching for illegal fishing.

Holiday - some peaks, some hut time by Jerry Gillham

Getting the chance to spend time on the adjacent peninsulas is one of the major perks of being at King Edward Point. We get a few weeks of holiday each year and have a large travel area to explore full of rarely summited peaks, secluded bays and comfy huts.

Matthew (boating officer), Neil (field guide) and I headed over to Corral Hut on the Barff Peninsula for a break shortly after midwinter. The hut is close enough to the shore so packing light isn’t a priority, we tried to keep it to a minimum but with ski kit and clothing for every eventuality it requires a couple of trips to unload it all.

Corral Hut - a fairly new build so weatherproof, comfortable and big enough for three.

Dropped off just before lunch on Monday we were able to make a brew and unpack before Neil and I headed up a local couple of peaks; a bit of a scramble with some spectacular skies and cloud formations adding to the great views.

The first challenge was crossing the mostly frozen river, it took quite a bit of walking up and down the banks before finding somewhere secure enough that you didn't just fall through.

Dramatic mid-afternoon skies over Ranger Ridge, looking north west toward the tip of the peninsula and the entrance to Cumberland Bay. We'd be back here later in the week.

Despite no need to pack light we’d not prepared food, instead relying on dehydrated ration packs. The Mountain House ones we use contain the occasional dodgy batch but each one I had was great, admittedly topped up with a dash of tabasco, bit of cheese and, in the custard, a few crumbled biscuits.

It's been over two months since the sun shone on station, so I took my opportunity to relax in its warmth in the evening window of opportunity. Neil's photo.

The weather on Tuesday morning was calm and bright if not sunny. We headed out early aiming for Black Peak, at 807m one of the highest in the travel area. Going was fairly heavy as the snow, not enough to merit skis, was of the sort that offers you hope that it will be frozen enough to support your weight before breaking through the crust two out of every three steps. 

Jackets on as the wind picked up.

Looking ahead to Black Peak, the second dark triangle from the distant right.

The further we pressed on the stronger the wind got, blowing straight at us, testing how much we really wanted this peak. As we got closer I found I was putting on more and more layers - windproof under my jacket, bigger gloves, buff, glasses, hat and hood - to keep the cold out. When we reached the first top it was difficult enough to stand up. I tried taking a few panorama photos but was being buffeted about so much I couldn’t hold my hand steady enough. 

The unnamed summit beside Black Peak, which is the one we're looking across to in this photo. Beyond it you see down to the fjord and part of the Nordenskjold Glacier.

We traversed the short ridge to the top of Black Peak proper, climbing up the exposed ridge to avoid the potential wind-slab on the snowy side. It was a short celebration at the top before we quickly started heading down.

Views of the glacier, Mount Paget Massif and Cumberland Bay from Black Peak. I think I've said it before but looking back from this peninsula you really get the impression that King Edward Point is the only barely habitable speck of land at the edge of the world.

Quick summit selfie. Neil's photo.

About 45 minutes later the clouds gathered and it started to rain on us. Hard and wet, I had good but lightweight waterproof gear that I knew probably had an hour at best before I started getting wet, and that was less time than walking that we had left. Thankfully it lightened and then stopped before then and by the time we got back I was pretty much dry again. Still, very glad to be back at the hut with the primus stove and tilley lamps going, warming the place, drying our kit off and heating some much-needed food.

A picturesque sunset with which to finish the day.

On our evening call back to station we were told the weather for Wednesday was looking wet and windy. It was decided we wouldn’t worry about an early start and in the end it was so unpleasant outside we spent all morning and early afternoon sitting round the hut, reading and drinking coffee. 

Hut life. Neil's photo.

It did clear up later though and I went over to explore Sandebugten, the next little bay around the corner. Only a short walk but some very pretty scenery and views down to the huge Nordeskjold Glacier at the head of the fjord.

Thursday was a better day again, though at -5 significantly colder. We again started early and headed up the valley and over the pass Neil and I had descended on Monday. Our intention was to check out Ranger Ridge, a small (max height 409m) but challenging looking ridge toward the very tip of the peninsula. 

Back at Ranger Ridge.

I feel I should edit the face of God (or at least WG Grace, as Python did) into the sun on this one.

In getting onto the start of the ridge we decided to ignore the potentially easy option and test ourselves with a bit of scrambling / climbing. This turned out to be a bit more than we were expecting, and though was accomplished easily enough took longer than it normally would - partly regularly brushing snow and ice off the steps and partly through repeated testing of every hand and foot hold. The rock here is not good for climbing, being constantly exposed to freeze-thaw conditions it splits and crumbles at the slightest suggestion sometimes. 

Neil scrambling up the first part of Ranger Ridge, looking down on Lurcock Lake.

Traversing the ridge was fine though even here there were more technical bits than expected. As we approached the first of the two main peaks we suspected they were more than just South Georgia steep, they were actually impassable. Neil and Matthew are both significantly more experienced climbers than me and I was prepared to wait it out or look for a way around if they wanted to press on, but the sensible option was clearly to call it a day. 

Point of turning back.

There’s nothing like considering what could go wrong to make you err on the side of caution; flaky rock, snow and ice, no additional climbing kit, not many hours of daylight left, chances of being rescued if something went wrong: practically zero. We call it lining up lemons on the slot machine of doom - when too many things, even little things, are going against you they can easily club together into one potentially fatal omnishambles so you need to know when to draw back.

Descending the ridge proved as problematic as the ascent looked, with plenty of walking backwards and forwards to find the best route down. With the rock as it was it took a lot of waiting for each person to move on their own, rather than risk kicking debris down onto them.

Slowly finding a route down.

Once back on flat earth we had a quick snack, agreed that we’d made the correct decision as if we’d had to come down that with an injury or in the dark we’d have been in real trouble. We headed toward the coast and back round through tussock, bog and meadow. Nearer to Corral we dropped onto the shore and had to dodge patches of ice and an alarmingly high number of big male fur seals, unseasonably up on the beaches, maybe checking out potential places to try and hold a harem.

A complete change of scenery to tussock, bog and meadow.

Reindeer tracks. Although it's several years since they were here they've left their mark. We took care looking for evidence that any remained but nothing. It shows how long it takes the slow-growing vegetation to recover.

Friday we had a leisurely breakfast and cleaned up the hut before being picked up. It was wet and grey but as we were ferried back across to station the sun broke through and we got a quick bask in it before getting home.

Start of winter by Jerry Gillham

Midwinter, the biggest celebration in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic, is almost upon us. Everyone has been spending the last few weeks (if not longer) working on their gifts, trying to tie up odd jobs so they can enjoy some time off, and trying to make the most of the start of winter. 

May was a pretty quiet month. With the toothfish ships at sea and the krill ships not arriving until next week (probably right in the middle of our celebrations) the boats have been off the water for a bit of maintenance. A few pairs of people have been off on holidays and on station we've been counting everything. Our annual indents cover all the field kit, stationary, comms, computing, domestic, cleaning, food & catering goods. Sometimes you can work with a few other people to get big chores done, other times you just put some music on and start looking through draws, making piles of pens.

Here's a few random photos from the last couple of months that haven't fitted into any other blogs:

One of the tasks we had in March / April was supporting a party doing asbestos and oil assessments of the old whaling stations at Husvik, Stromness and, pictured here, the largest one at Leith. These sites are fascinating but prohibitively unsafe so we're not allowed to get much closer than this.

Young rebels, Bob (mechanic) and Dave (electrician) having ridden their bikes round to Grytviken to consult with builder and former BAS technician Andy. It's only about a kilometre around the track between King Edward Point and Grytviken but it can be the longest part of any long walk and if you're doing it repeatedly it's nice to be able to mix it up a bit with the bike.

A day out exploring Repeater Ridge and making a try of Mount Spencer started with a walk over to Maiviken. Fraser (doctor), Vicki (fisheries scientist) and Bob looking at the route ahead, with Fraser preserving his energy by not wasting time turning round.

A steep ascent up the scree left us sweating and panting but gave great views down on Maiviken, the study bay for the gentoo penguins and fur seals.

We didn't get to the peak of Mount Spencer as the ridge pretty soon got quite technical - a bit too much for flaky rock and no kit. Still found it a challenge to traverse around the edge.

Another day out and exploring the edge of our travel limits with Fraser, Matthew & Paddy (boating officers). We are restricted to a few small peninsulas but it still makes a very expansive area - you'd have to be here a good few years to experience it all. This direction we found another technical ridge marking the end of our day's walk. From here we got a great alternative view down to Upper Hamberg Lake, the glacier above it and the peak at the back is Mount Sugartop.

A decent bit of snow on the ground, but a grey day so Vicki, Dave, Paddy, Kieran (zoologist) and I went off to do a short hike up the small, local Brown Mountain. It turned out to be a great day for some ice axe training that quickly turned into a sledging competition.

"Now, this is where we keep all of our meat. You got 15 rib roasts, 30 ten-pound bags of hamburger. We got 12 turkeys, about 40 chickens, 50 sirloin steaks, two dozen of pork roasts, and 20 legs of lamb."

Today. We had this big dump of snow earlier in the week but today was the first time I've got out in it. Partly because of work but mainly because that slope at the other side of the bay is above the only track out of King Edward Point and is rather prone to avalanches, so I let it settle a bit first.

It's still deep, fluffy snow so I opted for the board rather than the skis. Turns out it's still too deep. I got a couple of good runs down when sticking in a rigidly straight line but pretty much every time I tried to turn, which I'm not very good at anyway, it dug into the deep snow too much and threw me on my arse. Still, it's not a bad way to spend a lunchtime.

The Saturdays by Jerry Gillham

During the summer season we crowd around the dinner table at meal times, discussing our day, points of interest and news from home. In winter however, when it's dark from early evening and there's only four of us, things get more informal. TV dinners become a regular thing and meal times vary depending on when people fancy eating. Routine though is the best way to stay sane so we keep up our formal three-course meals on Saturdays.

It's nice to be able to put more thought into what you're making, maybe try something new for starter, put aside a day to preparing a memorable evening. Here's the menu from my most recent Saturday cook:

Starter: Italian-style spring rolls.

Slightly odd, they were inspired by a Gino D'Acampo recipe and by the fact that I had some spring roll casings that I'd managed to bring from the Falklands (I've never seen them anywhere else but there, they sounded like a good idea for something different).

They didn't necessarily turn out as I'd intended. One of the problems was that when dropped into the fryer the air inside them expanded rapidly and burst them open.

A few exploded spring rolls.

A few exploded spring rolls.

One of the better ones. There was enough for one good one each (which was roughly a 30% success rate - don't think I'll be opening my own Chinese / Italian restaurant).

One of the better ones. There was enough for one good one each (which was roughly a 30% success rate - don't think I'll be opening my own Chinese / Italian restaurant).

Main course: Gnocci roasted pumpkin and tomato sauce and chorizo (or chorizo-style quorn). Garlic bread.

This was a course I had much higher hopes for. I've made my own gnocci before but only about once a year because of the huge faff it is, despite taking as many short cuts as I can (mash tinned potatoes in the blender, mix with flour in the bread maker). Nevertheless it does allow you the joy of brightening up the meal with food colouring.

Tri-colour gnocci in the collander.

Tri-colour gnocci in the collander.

Ok, I was pleased with how this course turned out.

Very happy with this meal, however I won't be cooking it again for a while.

Very happy with this meal, however I won't be cooking it again for a while.

Dessert: Double chocolate brownie in white-Russian ice cream.

We've been experimenting a bit with our ice-cream maker this season, and what is more natural to make into ice cream than The Dude's drink of choice? Like many of our attempts I didn't leave it long enough to freeze properly so it was better the next day, that that was left over. The brownie recipe is heart-stoppingly calorific, so just a small chunk is enough, and it makes a great snack for taking into the field on subsequent days.

You have to spend all day exercising to work off a piece this size (that is a normal size bowl and teaspoon).

You have to spend all day exercising to work off a piece this size (that is a normal size bowl and teaspoon).

 

Entertainments

It is the responsibility of the chef to come up with the entertainments for the night too. Often this will be a board game or a quiz... something to bring everyone together having a laugh. We have variously appropriated Monopoly, Cluedo and Guess who to give them more Bird Island relevance.

Recently Tim hosted a Saturday Nintendo night, with a set of challenges based around wii games and costumes essential.

Usually Saturdays require a more formal attire, but rules can be waived in special circumstances. [Photo by Ian Storey]

Usually Saturdays require a more formal attire, but rules can be waived in special circumstances. [Photo by Ian Storey]

We had to wait a while for the new Star Wars film so its screening was always going to be a special occasion.

We had to wait a while for the new Star Wars film so its screening was always going to be a special occasion.

More ice than we could ever have gin for. by Jerry

Since the ship called a few weeks ago we've seen winter close its icy grip on the island. Normally a Bird Island autumn is damp (like the rest of the year) with slowly dropping temperatures, but this year as the nights close in the island has frozen and become covered in snow already.

We awoke one day last week to find our bay filled with ice. With not so much on the hills and little in some of the other bays it became apparent that these were all chunks of a smashed up 'berg, destroyed by the rough weather and funnelled straight at us.

Looking back from the end of the now surrounded jetty.

The amount of ice on top of, as well as surrounding, the jetty was impressive. It's very rare the waves even crash over the top of it so to dump all this there it must have been pretty severe.

It was more obvious to identify the edge of the jetty than it seems from this photo.

As may be expected, van-sized chunks of ice being repeatedly battered against the jetty didn't do it much good. It took a few days to clear enough to be able to carry out a proper investigation. Aside from a bit of buckling of the scaffold planks and the odd pole less straight than before it's stood up pretty well. The biggest relief was the lack of real damage to the grey water pipe.

Over the next few days the snow fell a bit more and we had some excellent opportunities to get out and enjoy it.

Walking in these conditions is so much different from summer. The streams are frozen so you need chains or spikes to safely get up them, the meadows and bogs are frozen too so you can walk straight across them without sinking in. However some of the muddiest bogs amongst the tussack grass don't freeze over properly, just hide themselves beneath a tempting layer of flat snow.

Watching the wildlife cope with the new conditions is always interesting. The fur seals generally love the snow, pushing themselves along, rolling over and rubbing it into their fur. But the route to and from the sea has become difficult for some.

The skuas were largely relying on carrion on the beaches for their meals. With that all buried they face a tough time.

The wandering albatross chicks are fully prepared for winter, their thick down layer will protect them through anything.

The penguins love it of course, although this gentoo looks confused about the high tide.

It's rare you can get photos of penguins stood on clean, white snow. It doesn't take long for them to mess it up. So I've enjoyed watching the evening arrival of the gentoos heading up the beach to their nesting grounds.

Although far outside of the breeding season the gentoos still gather at their nesting sites in the evenings, although attendance varies hugely depending on things like weather and food availability. They can still be very territorial, building up their nests and fighting with others who get too close.

Having a bit of fun with the larger bits of ice.

Jerry.

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.
  

Food and how we eat it by Jerry

Continuing my theme of updating the day-to-day normality of life on a sub-Antarctic research station, here's a blog all about our food.

Bird Island has no permanent chef, instead we take it in turns to cook. We try to make Saturday nights formal (or dressing up) with a three-course meal. Other trends develop through the year too; Sunday roasts, Friday chip shop night, snacks for film nights.

We have limited fresh produce, only arriving when the ships come by, so may be as few as three times a year. And by fresh I mean may have been at sea for a month. So we tend to go for long-lasting root vegetables, chopping and freezing them as needed. Thankfully the ship chefs often take pity on us and send over a box of crunchy, fresh stuff.

Fresh tomatoes! Sian and Lucy can't hide their excitement (photo by Alastair Wilson).

All fresh produce has to undergo a rigorous bio-security check, searching leaves for any invading alien species. Broccoli and lettuce, veg with lots of hiding places, has recently been banned from our order list.

The cool shed that serves as our vegetable cupboard. Everything is checked on a weekly basis for mould. It's amazing how long eggs will last if they're turned over each week (so long as you don't look back into the shell after breaking it).

Everything else that comes in is either frozen, dried or tinned. As it's just after resupply our shelves are full so here's a few pics and notes:

Tea, coffee, milk powder (you get used to it) and jaffa cakes. Yeah, essentials.

A whole shelf of herbs and spices for livening up any meal.

Poppadaums, pickles and coconut milk. Starting point for one of our many epic curry nights.

Fruit juice, pasta, crisps and huge amounts of flour.

Freezer 1. Cheese, butter and loads of veggie foods.

Freezer 2. Non-veggie stuff. We do have another freezer almost exclusively full of frozen veg, and a small area of ice cream.

The kitchen is not huge but easily big enough for one or two people to work in and is very well stocked with everything one could possibly need to whip up an exciting meal.

Tim, hard at work peeling potatoes, modelling the kitchen.

Amongst the well-stocking is a super bread-mixer. Baking bread is a duty of the daily chef and coming in to fresh bread is one of the joys of living here. People take great pride in their bread, whether it's the consistent quality of theirs or a specific recipe they use (I like making one with a bit of apple, sultanas, pistachio nuts, ginger and cinnamon in it).

Ordering food is a difficult task for the winter station leader. You'll always run low on something, whether because you don't order enough or you get a tech that eats an unexpectedly large amount of ketchup. We had to ration certain things in each of my winters - jars of olives, fruit juice concentrate, tins of tomatoes. It can make cooking interesting when you have to start improvising and working in so many substitutes a simple recipe becomes something completely different. One of my more successful experiments was blitzing and tin of baked beans in the blender to make a tomato topping for pizzas.

It's always pleasing seeing the efforts people go to with their cooking, whether they're confident and trying something extravagant or hating the whole process but unwilling to let people down. And every meal concludes with a round of thanks for the chef, who then has the joy of watching everyone else doing the washing up and tidying away.

Wine, beer and gin.