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.


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.