Apr – Night Watch

19 April, 2007

It’s 4 am in the morning on 19th April and I’m on Night Watch, a good opportunity to write the monthly web diary, or so I thought! Hello, I’m Birgit, the Marine Biologist, and usually I work in the Bonner Laboratory and only very rarely at night, even though you know “science never sleeps?”

Each of our winterers’ team will have the opportunity to do Night Watch for a week. One person has to stay up all night and during regular rounds over the base check for fires, water and oil leaks, fumes and smoke, have a look in all the buildings and rooms, close fire doors, switch off unnecessary electronic equipment, and simply make sure everything is ok and running such as generator, water pumps, food freezers, and meteorological observatory equipment. During cloudless, windless nights these rounds can be really enjoyable with billions of stars lighting up the sky ? and not at all spooky as the only creatures out there are a few fur seals. However, Antarctica is rarely like that. But early in the winter season, I’ve been quite lucky so far, 25 knots, ?10?C, and medium snow fall was about as much as I’ve had to endure. Besides the rounds, the night is quite busy, mopping floors, clearing away cutlery, washing linen, taking waste to the Span, and checking the radio for messages from the field parties out on their winter trips?not that they would bother getting out of their sleeping bag at 3 in the morning! But I listen to that cracking and whistling noises on the radio, which sometimes give you the impression of crickets in a Kenyan bush on a hot summer night . . . . I think I’ve been on nights too long! But it’s not really a burden, it’s more a looking after each other, making sure everything runs smoothly and sharing everybody’s duties. Like Ali masterly replaced Cyril, our chef, in the middle of this month on his 1st free Sunday in 5 weeks! She treated us with delicious Chilli con and sin Carne, garlic bread, and a fabulous apple cake and yoghurt for dessert ? the first yoghurt in months! Hey, this instant stuff does taste quite nice. Quite a standard to live up to!

My scientific job here includes such fascinating things like diving and boating in Antarctic waters. A typical day in the Bonner Lab starts with the dive meeting, where we (Ali the Marine Assistant, Kelvin the Diving Officer, Jim the Boatman, Dickie the Terrestrial Assistant, and myself) decide, what needs to be done, which dives need to be carried out and which species of animals need to be collected or photographs taken, etc. Also, all boating requirements e.g. for the CTD (a probe to measure salinity, temperature and depth) or trips to the near by islands for terrestrial projects are organised here and carried out accordingly.

During the summer with loads of visiting scientists and students we can run up to 4 dives a day and do several boat trips. However, during the winter things calm down a lot, on the one hand because we are restricted in wo/man-power and manage up to 2 dives a day, and on the other hand the weather, sea state and ice conditions or rather the lack of stable sea ice can make diving impossible for days or weeks.

When I’m not out diving or assisting with dives I normally set up experiments in the aquarium or check on running measurements. This involves quite a long time at 0 degrees, “bathing” your hands in freezing cold water (ranging between ?2 and +1?C depending on season). To stop my fingers, hands and forearms from freezing solid and breaking off, little angels at BAS in Cambridge sent me some fantastic gloves down!!! Thanks a lot! They may also be useful in the fancy dress party coming up this Saturday J . . .

My scientific project over the next 2 years investigates seasonal changes in the physiology and ecology of predators and scavengers. Sounds pretty complicated but basically I collect animals like fish, brittle stars and crustaceans in regular intervals out in the bay, bring them into the aquarium, and look how active they are. We are interested whether they feed or not and how this changes throughout the year. Antarctic waters seem terribly cold, harsh and hostile to us. However, it’s not the cold temperatures, which constitute a challenge for the organisms living therein. They have adapted to these cold but quite stable temperatures for millions of years. It’s much more the seasonality in food supply, with itself is driven by the seasonal changing light conditions. Sunlight is only sufficient for half the year to produce the algal blooms, which are the base of the food chain. The other half year it’s dark and food is very limited and patchy. Animals, which depend on food input from the water column (like sponges), in many cases also show seasonally limited feeding, growth and reproductive cycles. However, predatory animals like fish could be more independent of this overall seasonality and able to feed all year round. And I will be investigating how these fish cope and live. To do so I measure their oxygen consumption and also their excretion and this gives me an idea how much energy and what kind of energy they use to fuel their metabolism.

These two photos below are from a dive at “Cheshire”, a little rock formation just east off the Wharf. I assisted Ali in recovering and deploying data loggers as part of her RATS (Rothera Time Series) programme. For the first time since we have started diving here in December 2006 the visibility was astonishingly good, between 15-20 m. Most times before you could hardly see 2 to 3 m. This month we have also had the rare opportunity to dive with seals, well, actually, they came up to us, to have a closer look at us weird bubbly creatures. We were out on a collection dive in South Cove, west off the Wharf when 3 crabeater seals came into our area. They are not dangerous, just curious and inquisitive, and very elegant under water. I wish I could have thrown off all the clatter and just made loops and circles with them.

“Walks around the Point” are a popular stroll, leaving base life for an hour or so, getting some fresh air, and being able to see how quickly the scenery changes down here. When it has snowed lately there are hardly any traces and footprints anywhere. Though, these days it’s a bit like walking through a minefield, because of the fur seals playing and rivalries amongst them, which never keeps them so busy they won’t take notice of me. And they are always up for a fight and a growl and hiss, trying to show off and show me – obviously inferior and weaker ? who the boss is on the beach. Their territory and I’m an intruder.

Well, honestly they had been here long before man set foot on Adelaide Island. So I make pretty sure the rock I am about to step on does not suddenly move and try to bite me. I have this awful picture in my mind of a colleague at King George Island whom had been bitten by an elephant seal. The wound got infected from all the nasty bacteria and germs seals have in their mouth and never healed perfectly and he needed about 7 operations on his leg. All my senses are “switched on”, scanning the area and boulder field around me. I end up climbing much higher along the beach than I had intended to and I always make sure the seals are between me and the beach, so I do not end up being the one chased and ending up in the freezing cold water. They can be astonishingly quick and agile on land, even more so in the water. But it is fun, a lot of fun indeed! Theses are our little adventures and challenges down here. I count about 8 elephant seals but more than 50 fur seals on my little stroll. But I’ve been told that in some years more than 600 (!!!) gather around Rothera Point, so there are still more to come. Next time I will take a wooden stick with me!

This year James Clark Ross (JCR) was visiting Rothera on last call to bring in final supplies such as frozen food, beer and wine, and take out rubbish, equipment, as well as the last Morrison’s builders remaining on base. They had put all their efforts in to build the New Bransfield House over the summer, however, it proved too big a task to finish it completely. So we are looking forward to welcome the one or the other back next season.

On the first day of call on 9th April, Ali, Dickie and myself were able to join JCR for half a day out on the bay and watch and help retrieving a mooring. The entire instrument consisted of two sediment traps, several CTDs, and an ACDP, which is a doppler device to detect and log currents. It was deployed in Ryder Bay at roughly 520m depths for about a year. Retrieving the mooring was very interesting to watch, however, our attention was slightly distracted when the signal sent out to release the mooring attracted 2 minke whales, which came very close to the ship and stayed for about 30 minutes, surfacing regularly.

The captain invited us for the traditional “Winterers’ Meal” (delicious curry and beer) on board JCR on the evening of the second day of call. Thanks a lot for a fantastic evening!

On the morning of 12th April JCR slipped moorings, turned round the corner and sailed off North, leaving our small group of 22 winterers behind. We gave them a good send-off, waving and firing off loads of “out of date” flares. Though quite a remarkable moment ? the start of Winter at Rothera and a 6 months isolation from the outside world ? this farewell was far less emotional than the Ernest Shackleton’s departure in March just about 3 weeks before, which carried most of 2006 winterers and a few summerers away, amongst them dear friends and colleagues. It’s down to us now to make the most of the winter and to experience the Antarctic extremes (darkness, cold, winds, loneliness) but it’s also a great opportunity to get together as a team and have the most amazing time.

Other than March, April has a more quiet tone now. This has only very peripherally to do with the power down we experienced on Friday 13th!!!!!!!!!!!! Yeah, yeah you superstitious lot! But it’s clearly noticeable what a difference 25 people less on base make. I think only Cyril is “complaining” about the fact that the Morrison’s bunch has left and he has to start cooking faaaaaaaaaaaaar less food as we winterers eat only about a quarter compared to what the rufty-tufty builders consumed every day. However, cooking for 22 can be apparently very tiring and you may need a good afternoon sleep . . . . . . .

We’ve had the pleasure to celebrate 2 birthdays: Jim (Boat)’s at the beginning and Mark’s at the end of this month. All the Best Guys!!! Jim was out in the field on his winter trip, so most of us gathered around the radio in the Ops Tower to sing him a song! A very welcome treat on a stormy night in a tent!

Which leads me directly to the winter trips. With the departure of Ernest Shackleton last month the winter trips have started. Currently, there are 3 groups out somewhere in the field, aiming for the Chilean Base Carvajal, Mount Reeves, Bouvier, and Trident to enjoy a week of skidooing, skiing, climbing, mountaineering, seal watching, seal wrestling, photo shooting, or simply doing nothing. May I quote from our daily sheds: “Liz and Kelvin larking it up at Carvajal and giving big lips to the furries”; “Rog & Doc ski-mountaineering and camping around Trident ? We presume they are staying in a tent also . . . “: “Pete and Dickie climbing on Reeves/Bouvier ? Dickie’s used up all his torch batteries climbing in the shadow of Pete’s hair.” However, after two days of good progress these parties have been quite struck by “bad weather” as they call it, well, “proper Antarctic weather” I call it, but nevertheless weather, which confines you to lying in your tent for days on end, and after the last drop of whisky has evaporated, all books are read and even the last bit of wool is used up knitting, playing silly games like “hide the sausage” and “find the peanut” are the only option . . . or marathon backgammon, however, some player never wins!

This month has also seen the revival of the famous “Bonner Hood of Shame”. It is awarded on a weekly basis for outstanding disgraceful behaviour, such as washing up the dishes with less than the recommended Antarctic minimal amount of clothing (also known as “the naked cleaner”) AND taking pictures of oneself; as well as cheating badly during the legendary Easter Egg Hunt including pushing our youngest and smallest winterers’ member out of the way AND keeping your outdoor shoes on! SHAME ON YOU GUYS, your names shall not be mentioned.

This week’s qualifiers could be oversleeping on an afternoon nap, being late on duty, and mistaking the evening for the morning (lat’s ‘ave e shover shoobidoo) while all the rest of us have been starving; or turning fridges off over night in the attempt to meet Rothera’s CO2 emission limits; and also high in the ranking is another cheater who tried to smuggle a stunning cliff-hanger shot into the winter photo competition, however, failing on disguising properly that it was a ripped out magazine page, and last but not least mistaking Ernest Shackleton’s Bridge with the Ops Tower when asked for the right phone number ? ups quite a ‘faute parlant’ Mr. Comms man . . . . . . Watch this spot for shameful news!!!

Well guys, that’s it from me. Night Watch is nearly over and I’m looking forward to a “good day’s sleep”! It has been a really joyful, exciting and good month. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this little entry and been able to catch up with what we’ve been up to lately. I’m off on my winter trip next Sunday, so the upcoming week will be dedicated to training in order to get me fit for the challenges out there, which includes driving skidoos and learning how NOT to tip them over, towing sledges, linked travel on skidoos, more climbing and skiing, crevasse rescue and loads more. Not entirely sure where we will be heading to but isn’t that what’s your GA is for J?!!!

To my friends and my family, especially my parents, thanks for your support! I miss and love you! Happy Birthday Mom!



What a beautiful day hey hey,

And a beautiful time,

Nothing is impossible

In my own powerful mind!


PS: Little addition as I was about to close this diary, hip ‘n hot news from the World of Music. Saturday night saw Rothera’s legendary TOP (Top of the Pops) Night. It was a fabulous turnout of well-known artists and groups (amongst Boy George, Kiss, Madonna, Bananarama, Chilli’n Rap Trio, Beasty Boys, Guns’n Roses, Pink, Shirley Bassey, just to name a few). They all gave their best but in the end there could only be one winner. This week’s No. 1 is NUNATAK starred with an overwhelming performance, drawing many fans to the dance floor. You Millions out there, watch out! Ice Rocks!