Nine weeks, six Antarctic nations, eight planes, two ships, two zodiacs, one tender, several snow mobiles and skidoos, many treks through deep snow, all types of weather, countless wildlife, abundant ice bergs, samples galore, the Antarctic Olympics, one school, one Antarctic baptism, one erupting volcano, South America, the South Shetlands, South Orkneys, South Georgia, Southern Ocean, Scotia Sea, Falkland islands, Ascension Island, and several thousand miles later I arrived back in the UK.
In addition to all the field sampling for my research this fieldwork campaign has enabled me to make new friends and new collaborations and I am now able to continue along, and also pursue new, avenues of research which would otherwise not have been possible.
I would like to thank all those at the British Antarctic Survey, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Direccion Nacional del Antartico-Instituto Antartico Argentino, Bellingshausen, Jubany, the James Clark Ross and Newcastle University for making it all possible. And thanks also to all the people I met along the way who made the whole Antarctica 2011 field experience so rewarding and enjoyable.
Departure day. Pickup was at 6am to take us to Mount Pleasant for our seven hour flight to Ascension island and a 9 hour flight back to Brize Norton. Again it was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies and blue waters for our nice drive across the gently rolling landscape of the Falklands to the airport.
I came on fieldwork not expecting to need to dress in smart, let alone Christmas, clothing so Christmas morning comprised a walk into Stanley to buy a Christmas frock ready for drinks with the Captain at noon. The JCR ukulele and recorder duo (aka me on my Antarctic recorder and the Doctor on Uke) provided entertainment. At least that was our aim.
After lunch a group of us walked to Surf Bay, a nice brisk walk along in the sunny breeze to the most beautiful white sand surf beach. Surf Bay was in apparently one of the most densely mined areas during the Falklands war (over 1000 mines were laid in the area, comprising over 5% of total mines) but mine clearing was completed in 2010 and it is a popular surfing spot. We had the beach almost to ourselves today (the South Atlantic is rather cool so this was perhaps not surprising) – the JCR Christmas day swimming team was later joined by an inquisitive seal splashing around in the surf. On our walk back we also spotted dolphins. This was a fantastic final day to mark the end of a fantastic 9 weeks of fieldwork, networking and fun. A Christmas to remember.
Last night was too rough to sleep any more than dozing on and off all night. On arrival into a sunny Stanley in the afternoon Steve and I walked into town in search of tea and cake. It was strange to be back on land again, as accustomed to the ship that I have become, and to see trees and cars – and lots of people! – and more strange when the entire Stanley police and fire vehicles came in convey down the main street blaring horns and with Father Christmas in tow! We walked along to visit the war memorials before heading back for dinner on the ship. Christmas eve culminated in a walk back into town to sightsee the likes of the Victory, Deanos, Rose and Globe and to bring in Christmas with the locals.
Another day at sea. I have been excited about passing the Antarctic convergence and have been keeping an eye on the sea temperature via regular visits to the bridge and noticed sea temperatures rising from about 3.5 to 7.5 degrees C. We are now in warmer waters, the mist has cleared and visibility is good again, and I feel almost sad to have left our cold, Antarctic conditions behind. We are now also into rougher waters and experienced gale force nine (pushing ten) but that didn’t stop us having the end of science project party. I have been so lucky not to have experienced any sea sickness on this trip (problems with balance but that’s all) and it was rather surreal having a gin and tonic networking and celebrating with the scientists whilst clutching onto anything and everything that was available to stop falling over. It was too rough so we weren’t allowed to go out on deck but I went up to the bridge several times to remind myself where the horizon was and to get some fresh air and marvel at the waves breaking over the bow.
A day at sea. I was just settling down to have breakfast when there was a call from the bridge to say thirty to forty fin whales were just ahead of the bow. The breakfast room suddenly emptied as everyone rushed out on deck to see this amazing sight. Later we stopped just past shag rocks for the Liverpool scientists to test their sonar bell and do some CTD calibrations. The weather has been good so far, though the wind is expected to pick up tomorrow as we head closer towards the Falkland Islands.
We dropped Hannah and Richard at Bird Island South Georgia today. It was a very misty journey but we were lucky that the mist lifted for a short while when we arrived so we could see the flocks of prions and albatross on the green hillside. A real contrast from King George Island and also Signy it has been great to be able to visit places on the route from the extremes of my Antarctic study sites. The sound of birds was amazing, plus smell of birds and seals was unbearable for some. I was too busy gawping at the wildlife to register what it smelt like (plus there is nothing as pungent as actually walking amongst penguin and seal colonies …). The sea was full of fur seals and rafts of macaroni penguins jumping out of the water, diving and swimming around the ship – an amazing place teeming with wildlife wherever you looked. And at the opposite side of the bay was the tip of South Georgia island, with large and majestic grey cliffs with patches of green. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to get out (just a couple of Humber trips with kit and people) but apparently fur seals were everywhere around the base so logistically and safely getting a group of people ashore would have been too difficult. As we prepared to leave the mist returned creating, once again, atmospheric surroundings combined with the eerie callings from the abundant mass of local wildlife.
Today was a day at sea sailing from the South Orkneys to South Georgia. Mostly uneventful and a day to catch up on some writing, though with a welcome pause to view some local wildlife in the form of killer whales.
This morning we headed in the tender to Signy base. It felt strange to leave the ship and even stranger to walk on land again. Despite having already been to five international bases (Russian, Chilean, Chinese, Uruguayan, Argentinian) during my Antarctic trip this was the first time I set foot on a British base which was very exciting. I could even get postcards stamped with a British Antarctic Territory stamp!
We had a lovely walk in sunshine and blue skies across to the penguin colonies skirting along the edge of the glacier and down to the crystal clear, almost tropical looking, blue waters of the bays below littered with penguins. Adelie penguins were nesting with chicks in huge colonies, and chinstrap penguin colonies were incubating their eggs. One poor Adelie chick was snatched from its parents by a skua, the harsher side of nature.
Something that was very noticeable about Signy was the green-ness of it in comparison to King George island and Jubany. While Jubany had a few patches of grasses, mosses and lichens, I was struck by the extent of the vegetation here, especially mosses and lichens that we passed on our walk to and from the penguins. Of course there are still no trees and the ecoregion is still Antarctic tundra but it is clearly more extensive here than further south.
After enjoying the sunshine and blue skies the weather started to turn as we headed back to the base. With the mist closing in the blue sky turned to grey, visibility was poor and as we trudged back through the snow at the glacier edge the journey soon felt more expedition like. As always, the weather can change quickly here and you always have to be prepared.
After dinner back in the warmth of the ship we were bound for Bird Island, South Georgia, passing through the Lewthwaite strait with majestic mountains and huge glaciers, past icebergs of all sizes, yet another good reason to stand, wrapped up, observing in wonder from the monkey deck until it got too cold and windy and I had to go in.
This morning I awoke to blue sunny skies and a super calm sea dotted with giant icebergs. We arrived at Laurie Island where the chinstrap penguin tagging group (two people for six weeks) were being dropped off at Cape Geddes, no more than a small green hut by the shore. There was a lot of sea ice and the Humbers were used to find a route in. It wasn’t easy and took a bit of searching for a gap in the ice but they got there eventually. This one hut base (aka refuge/bird hide) is set in the most amazing and isolated location, and is now thought to be over-run with penguins and/or seals so a tent was also being taken as the potential accommodation state of the hut is not known. It is also used sometimes by the Argentinians from Orcadas base as a bird hide and refuge and Martin from Jubany had spent time here and told me how beautiful the site is. Having seen it I totally agree. It sits in isolation at the end of what is otherwise a picturesque and mountainous island covered in glaciers trailing down to the sea, which is itself littered with huge chunks of ice. The kind of setting you usually only see on wildlife documentaries. I cannot believe I am here.
Once the Geddes team were safely on shore we headed back to Signy in calm seas where we anchored for the night. I was hoping I would get a good nights sleep but, ironically, I woke several times almost missing and waiting for the rocking that I have become used to.