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.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Arrival

After three slightly bumpy days at sea we arrived at the South Orkney Islands, a small group of islands in the southern ocean.  Signy, the island upon which I spend my summer, is one of the smaller islands in this group.  We arrived on a cold day.  The information screen informed us that the sea temperature was -1.32 degrees centigrade.  I always think its strange that water can be below zero degrees and not be frozen solid, but that is the case with salt water.


With the air temperature pretty chilly too, the aft deck was covered in ice where the waves had been washing over it and freezing immediately. 


The rest of the ship looked like some kind of ghost ship with everything white and ice covered.


It was going to be a cold day for working!  The first cargo tender arrived to offload people to start the process of opening up the base for the summer.  Jobs to be done were to dig out the walkways and doorways to the buildings, to remove shutters from the windows and to start the process of getting the services up and running.  On days like this, everyone, regardless of their reason for being onboard, mucks in to get the job done. 


These jobs all take time and have to be done in the right order.  Generators have to be warmed up properly before they can be started and buildings need a chance to warm up before things like communications can be switched on.  The first day went very well, and by the end of the first day we had heating, lighting and flushing toilets on station meaning we were able to spend the first night ashore in our Signy home.

Day two dawned a complete contrast with glorious blue skies and sunshine.

The digging continued...

This pipe is critical to life at Signy- it brings sea water into the generator shed where it is pumped up to the main building for flushing toilets, or diverted to the Reverse Osmosis plant which converts it to drinking water.

By the end of day two we had started making fresh water, all of the cargo was ashore and being unpacked, and the base was starting to feel much more homely.
The ship finally left us with a fully functional base at the end of day three. 



This year there are only 5 of us for the first part of the season, but we are back up to eight people with the next ship call in early December.  There is much to do in the next couple of weeks- unpacking all of the cargo that has come ashore, stocking the foodstore, tidying up, and starting the science that allows us to be here in the first place.

It is great to be home!

Friday, 3 November 2017

A New Season

Back in the UK the clocks were put back an hour.  For me this is time to migrate down to the Antarctic for the summer season, avoiding the long dark UK winters nights.  This year I am returning as usual, to Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands.  This season is significant as it will be my 10th summer season in Antarctica- an entire decade of penguins! 

We flew from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire late on Sunday night, via Cape Verde, and onwards to the Falkland Islands.  We saw little of Cape Verde except the airport building, but it seemed a pleasantly warm place with temperatures reaching 25 degrees at 7am so I expect it was going to be a warm day!  When we arrived in the Falklands we were transported by bus to the ship, the RRS James Clark Ross which was moored just outside Stanley.  Everything happened quite fast this year so there wasn't time to get much sightseeing done in town before we set sail round to Mare Harbour on the other side of the island, where we took on fuel.  Here there was time for a short walk out with my camera. 

It is spring in the Falklands:

Everything is looking quite green (for the Falklands anyway!):

The vegetation is quite sparse with some bizarre plants:


There were some birds around.  These Turkey Vultures were feeding on a dead goose. 

This is a male black-throated or white-bridled finch:

We are now at sea, heading down towards Signy.  Below you can see the ship heading away from the jetty as we left the Falklands:

The crossing has been largely uneventful, but a little bumpy which makes simple tasks somewhat tricky.  It is difficult to sleep when sliding up and down the bunk, and even eating becomes hard when you have to chase your meal around the plate and prevent it from escaping. 

This afternoon it has calmed down a bit and the journey is becoming more comfortable.  It has started to snow and the temperature last time I checked was minus 7.2 degrees centigrade.  With 25knot winds, this is starting to feel rather chilly!  Good numbers of albatrosses have been following the ship for most of the journey:

They hardly ever flap their wings, instead gliding effortlessly and gracefully along behind the ship with seemingly no effort at all.  I think they hope we are a fishing vessel that might throw them something tasty.  They are notoriously difficult to get a decent photograph of when standing on the swaying deck of the ship!  This was the best I could manage on this occasion:

We are due into Signy first thing tomorrow morning so if we are lucky we will awake to icebergs and the snowy peaks of the South Orkney Islands (or possibly dense icy fog!).  It will then take us about 3 days to get us up and running and ready for the coming season.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Home Time

I will finish my blog this season with a couple of pictures of Weddell seals that never quite fitted into any of my other posts.  Weddell seals always seem to look content and I think have to be pretty close to the top of my favourite Antarctic creature list.  Not only do they look cute, but they also don't make much noise, nor do they smell, nor do they bite! 

We spent the last week getting everything packed up and ready to leave.  On Sunday 19th March, the RRS Ernest Shackleton appeared, ready to take us home.

Closing down the station was done at a more leisurely pace than usual this year as there were surveyors onboard who wanted to take various site measurements in preparation for a planned new research station to be constructed in a couple of years time.  The ship hung around while the surveyors surveyed and we closed the station over a four day period.  It can be done in a day and a half if needed, so a lot of sitting around waiting occurred! 

Eventually everyone was ready to leave and we set sail.  Our first engagement once onboard was a rendez vous with the other BAS ship, the RRS James Clark Ross, to transfer a member of the ships crew. 

The JCR is the ship that brought us down in November.  It would have made a nice photograph of them both together, but as we were on one of the ships this was not possible.  The closest I got was this one of the JCR from my cabin porthole on the Shackleton! 

It then took us three days to sail back to the Falklands, where we moored just off Stanley.  Stanley is where the majority of the Falkland Islanders live and is a colourful little place stretching along the seafront.

We had three days in the Falklands, before flying back to the UK.  For the summer I will be once again working at Foxglove Covert Local Nature Reserve in Yorkshire, which has a blog of its own.  If you have enjoyed this blog, it is worth checking back again in November to see if I will be returning for another season.  

Monday, 10 April 2017

Pictures

I am now back in the UK and thought I'd conclude my blog for the season with a couple of pictures.  However, having looked through my pictures from the last couple of weeks, I seem to have far too many nice ones, so it looks like there will be two final blog posts instead of one.  Here is the first.  

The final two weeks at Signy gave us some lovely weather.  Each day had new interesting clouds and patterns...

Each morning had a sunrise...

Each evening the sky turned pink as the sun set...

Clear skies left behind a starry night.  It is only at the very end of the season when the nights really start to draw in that we get to see the stars.  And then, only when its clear, which is pretty unusual!  Below you can see Orion.  I like Orion as it is the only constellation that I have spotted that I recognise both in the Northern and the Southern Hemisphere (although there must be more than this one).  At Signy, Orion is always low in the sky, and laying on his back.  You can see the three main stars of his belt in the picture below, but then you have to turn him upside down to see what is normally seen in the UK.

In the picture below, towards the centre right you can spot (not very clearly I know) an upside down kite shape.  This is the Southern Cross.  It can be used with the pair of brighter stars below and to the right of it to work out which direction is South.

Occasionally at Signy it snows what I consider to be "proper" snowflakes.  The kind you draw as a child but never really see.  It seems to be true, that they are all unique in shape.  It would also appear to be true that they are very hard to photograph, so please excuse the quality of these images.  The patterns seemed to show better in black and white.


Friday, 10 March 2017

Two Weeks Left

We have had a fairly mild summer at Signy this year, which has meant quite a lot of grey foggy days and rain instead of snow.  While this doesn't look as pretty, it actually makes working much easier, as it is easier to walk around the island and doesn't feel as cold.  However, winter decided to return to us this week.  We had almost a week of blizzards and gales.  Below you can see the change from summer to winter at Gourlay.

Now the storm had passed we are all able to get out doors again and finish of the last bits and pieces of fieldwork before the end of the season.  We have only a couple of weeks now before the ship comes.  For me this involed a final trip over the icecap to count the giant petrel chicks.

An enormous flat iceberg has been hanging around just off the North coast of Signy for most of the season.  In the wild weather, this finally seems to have collapsed into three smaller, but still fairly substantial bergs.  Whilst out, we took some time to walk to the Northernmost point of the island to look down on it from above.

From down at sea level it was truly enormous- Note the small person for scale!

The chinstrap penguin chicks have now also fledged, so the colonies are very quiet.  The colonies are not completely empty as the adult chinstraps and gentoos have returned to moult and grow new feathers, ready for next year.

With the last of the chicks gone, it is time to turn my attention to the end of season duties, such as counting everything on station so we know what to order for next year, packing up cargo, waste and biological samples to be sent out on the ship and starting to close down the station for the winter.

The Shackleton, the ship which is coming to pick us up, is currently at Bird Island, South Georgia.  You can follow its progress to Signy by looking at the ships webcam at:

https://www.bas.ac.uk/data/our-data/images/webcams/rrs-ernest-shackleton-webcam/ 

or by following the ship tracker at:

http://www.sailwx.info/shiptrack/shipposition.phtml?call=ZDLS1

It is currently due to arrive at Signy around 20th March, but this is subject to change. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Fledglings and greenery.

The weeks continue to fly by, spoiling my best intentions to update my blog on a weekly basis.  Since I last wrote the Adelie penguins have been keeping me busy.  All except the youngest few have now gone.  Here is one of the colonies just before they started to leave.  Most of the fluffy down has fallen out, leaving the blue/grey and white feathers underneath.



It always amazes me how the fledglings know what to do when the time comes to leave.  None of them have ever been near water before yet they hop down to the water, hang around for a while, then simply jump into the sea, flap around for a couple of seconds, dive underwater and vanish completely.  That is the last we see of them.  These three were about to leave- you can still see small amounts of fluffy down on top of the head of the middle one.



The adult adelies have also gone, heading South, down towards the Antarctic continent, where they will moult their worn feathers on the ice and grow new ones ready for the winter.  The colonies are very quiet without them.  The chinstrap colonies are still very busy and noisy.  The chinstrap chicks are now enormous balls of fluff, creched together for protection while both parents are at sea collecting food for them.  It will be a couple of weeks yet before they fledge.



It has been a warm summer this year, and most of the snow and ice has melted from the lower valleys and slopes.  This gives the mosses, lichens and algae a change to grow.  Some areas are suprisingly colourful and somewhat un-Antarctic looking!  Here are a few pictures from a sunny trip earlier in the week, to show that Antarctica isn't always a black and white frozen landscape.

A picnic in Three Lakes Valley



An assortment of mosses and lichens (I will not pretend to know which species they are)











A waterfall



And to finish, the Orwell Glacier in the sunshine