Since 2011, I have been spending November to April each year working for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands, Antarctica. I work as a Zoological Field Assistant on the penguin and seal long-term monitoring programme. Before this, I spent 2.5 years on the sub-Antarctic island of Bird Island, South Georgia, in the South Atlantic.

This blog gives readers an insight into my day-to-day life in the Antarctic, from my first trip south in 2008 to the present day.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Signy Webcam

We have had a webcam running at Signy this year, and had been hoping to get it connected to the BAS website for everyone to see.  Unfortunately this is out of our hands, and has not yet happened so we have come up with an alternative from here.  The images from the webcam can be found here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/keqdquv3zqa3zmz/AABE0o_5tCJXq3ZJbBNskgS6a?dl=0  There is a new image every 30 minutes.  It is worth noting this links to a large number of images so can take a while to load up.  The view is from the front of the station looking towards the generator shed and jetty.   

After a lot more mild wet weather, we finally had a nice sunny day earlier in the week and managed a trip to the west coast to do some maintenance work on the hut there.  There are some lovely icebergs grounded in the shallower waters along the west coast.  The smaller bits are often used by leopard seals as places to haul out for a snooze.

All of the Adelie penguins have now gone.  They will head south to the ice edge where the adults will moult and regrow a new set of feathers.  The chinstrap chicks are enormous.  The youngest look like this:

Those that are a bit older look like this:

And the ones that are only a week or so from fledging look like this:

One day this Macaroni penguin showed up.  In the past, a few of these have been known to breed at Signy, but I have never seen any breeding in my time here.  However, a few are seen each year, looking for a nesting site or a mate. 

The last few days I've noticed it is starting to get dark much earlier here now, and its still not fully light at 6am any longer.  Although this means winter is on its way here, it also means the opposite must be happening in the UK and it will therefore be spring when I get home in a couple of months.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Out into the Big Wide World

Firstly, BAS has developed a new virtual tour of Signy research station, which can be found on the BAS website at: https://www.bas.ac.uk/project/virtual-antarctica/virtual-antarctica-signy-demo-vr360/  The pictures for this were taken the day we arrived so there is a lot of cargo in the wrong places, but it does give the general idea of how things are.  I think it is likely to be quite good, as long as you have faster internet than we do here!  Enjoy!

The end of January sees my  Adelie chicks starting to fledge.  The adults leave too so in the space of about 10 days, the colonies go from being full of birds to strangely silent.  Here is the big colony at Gourlay at the start of the week: 

At this stage the Adelie chicks are fully feathered and have lost nearly all of their fluffy down (in this picture you can also see the younger chinstrap chicks behind):

This chick looks fat and healthy and probably weighs only slight less than its parent.  This is probably its final meal from its parents before heading out into the big wide world alone.  It will hopefully return to Signy to breed in a few years time. 

It always amazes me that the chicks somehow know the time is right to leave behind the safety of the shore and leap into the sea and swim away.  It only takes them a couple of seconds of bobbing and splashing on the surface like ducks before they realise they can dive under and vanish completely.  This is the last we see of them.  It is critical that they get this bit right as leopard seals and giant petrels cruise the shoreline, picking off any weaklings.

By the end of the week, the colony in the picture at the start of this blog was almost empty.  The birds around the edges are largely chinstraps, with just a couple of tiny clusters of adelie chicks remaining.   

My study colony has only 2 birds left in it, and the colony is now an empty space littered with numbered nest marker bricks.  All of the neat little nests of stones have turned into one big dirty mess.  One of my jobs in the coming weeks will be to clean the bricks up for next year, but I think I'll let the rain do a bit of the work for me first.

Meanwhile the chinstraps will be with us for a while yet. 

The smallest of these are still very cute.  But the majority are much bigger than this now.  They have about a month to go before they too will head for the sea.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Late January

By late January, everything is moving on.  We are past mid season which is a milestone mentally as it becomes necessary to start thinking about plans for once the season is over and writing job applications- until this point it is so far ahead that not much can be planned.  At Signy there is still a lot to do.  The weather has been pretty dismal in the last couple of weeks, with warm temperatures giving us several days of heavy rain, and frequent fog.  This hasn't been great for pictures so apologies that most of these are not very bright!
Last week we visited the gentoo penguins up at the North end of the island to count all of the chicks.  The chicks are getting quite big.


The gentoo chicks are lovely.  Unlike the Adelies, they seem to have the sense to move out of their guano-covered colonies as soon as they are big enough, so they manage to remain clean and tidy.


The shag chicks at North point are also getting quite large.  They are brown at present but will change colour when their feathers grow. 


The chinstrap chicks are also growing well.

On Friday the RRS Ernest Shackleton came to visit. 


It came to take away two of our scientists, Alex and JB, who have been with us since just before Christmas.  Alex has been working with me, flying a drone to conduct a whole island aerial surveys of chinstrap penguins. 



At this time of year the Antarctic fur seals turn up in large numbers.  They are usually sub-adult males who are not big enough to hold territories on the breeding beaches of South Georgia.


This one was special.  It has a red flipper tag, and the number on it tells us that it was tagged as a pup on Bird Island in the 2012/13 season!  What are the chances of him turning up on Signy in a place where I could spot his tags!

There are some strange creatures in the Antarctic waters. 


This crustacean (identified as the amphipod Paraceradocus) washed up on the beach one day and was brought in for a photograph before being released.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Time Flies

Somehow it has already reached the middle of January without me noticing!  Work is very busy which makes the time fly.  Wednesday for us will be mid-season.  Last night for the first time we commented that it was starting to get dark at 10:30pm- it was the first time I've noticed that the nights are starting to draw in a bit, although we are almost a month past the longest day now so it is not suprising.  Hopefully that means you've started to notice the days getting a tiny bit longer in the UK!     

Over the weeks the Adelie penguins have been very busy feeding their ever growing chicks.  When the chicks get large enough to be left alone, both parents spend their days at sea fishing.  The chicks which now look like big balls of fluff, form creches, huddling together for warmth and protection.

On days when it is snowy or rainy the colonies are filthy from all the penguin guano and the chicks end up rather grubby!

The chicks are very mobile and very comical, providing endless entertainment.

A month behind the Adelies in their breeding cycle, the chinstraps have now just finished hatching.  The chicks are still quite small and are being guarded by their parents.  This one has two - on a cold day they bury their heads under their parents where it is warmest, and often just two bottoms can be seen! 


These two penguins were investigating a Weddell seal sleeping on the rocks.



The skuas have chicks now too.  Some of these are getting quite big - fed largely on a diet of eggs and baby penguins.  Young skuas are very mobile and start exploring their surroundings as soon as they hatch.  They are fiercely defended by their parents against anything that may harm them.

And to finish, here are a couple of pretty ice formations that had formed over a semi frozen stream last week.


Sunday, 7 January 2018

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to everyone back at home.

We had a white Christmas, but the sun shone too making it a very pleasant day.  We all enjoyed a good Christmas dinner.

Some of us had a walk out to the bottom of the glacier in the sunshine.

Christmas involved some tasty treats including mince pies, trifle, and a large Christmas cake, made and iced by me, but then cleverly finished by Catrin who did an excellent job of making marzipan sculptures to go on the top.

 Boxing Day some of us were back to work.  The days are long at this time of year, and the weather can be stunning.  The sun shone on our trip over the icecap to the west coast by skidoo. 

Nothing is prettier than the view across to Coronation island on a bright day. 

Some of the icebergs were looking particularly nice.

With temperatures just above zero and no wind, the green moss banks were snow free and it felt very summery!

A content looking Weddell seal was also enjoying the sun.

Things can change rapidly- the next morning we awoke to winter again.

The next couple of months are probably the busiest for me.  The Adelie and gentoo chicks are getting big, so there are tasks like chick weighing and fledgling counts to be done.  Meanwhile the chinstraps have started hatching and the fur seals, which also get counted, are starting to arrive.  There is much to be done!