Bird Island Diary — April 2001

30 April, 2001

What the builders did to us

Hello everyone from the inhabitants of the smallest BAS base. We have been in winter mode for one month now, and already we have got ice and snow and leopard seals!

RRS Ernest Shackleton arrived for last call a day early, which shocked everyone. Luckily Simon was on cook on what we thought was the penultimate night of summer and he had decided to make a gourmet Indian meal. It turned out to be our last meal all together and was a very good last night. Next day relief began just after lunch and was possibly the fastest last call in BAS history! Us four winterers managed to get a roller coaster ride out to the ship on the FRC (fast rescue craft) in quite large seas, see Wendy for some rapid dental care, and then hurtle straight back to base within the space of an hour each. Relief took four hours after which everyone left and Shackleton sped off to King Edward Point (KEP) and a more leisurely final call and send off for the winterers at the brand new station!

However, the activity did not stop there as we soon discovered that Simon and John, our scaffolder and builder, had laid several ‘traps’ for us about the base. We each discovered our beds had been soaked and Daf innocently went into the loft to put away our treasured bond alcohol supply, only to be bombarded with a strategically placed cup of flour on the head. Luckily he was just lightly coated and not injured, although the picture we sent to Simon and John gave our interpretation of what had happened to him!

Poor Daf then went to bed to peacefully read a book and heard a crunch as he laid his head on his pillow – eggs in beds it seems. Miraculously I did not find my egg in my pillow until three days later, having slept on it without it breaking for three nights! Three weeks later Daf and Mark noticed a strange aroma in their rooms and began detailed searches only to reveal hidden fish! We think we might be safe now…?

We all started off winter with the monthly rounds to check up on the wandering albatrosses nesting around the island. Each of us was given some areas to check and went around seeing which nests had chicks in them and which had failed. Sadly there were quite a few failures, but also plenty of very small friendly chicks to make friends with! Sadly some of them have already been fed hooks and lines picked up when their parents feed near long-line fishery vessels. Let’s hope these little chicks survive.

Since then there has been plenty of work going on about the place, in a relaxed way. Five lucky macaroni penguins have been fitted with the latest fashion accessory – the winter satellite tag. This is the first time we will be able to see where they go to in the winter when they leave the island. There are also five fit and healthy seal pups with satellite tags fitted – again a first. Hopefully we will be able to monitor the progress of these birds and seals during the winter months and even if the tags don’t stay on until next season we will still receive data from the satellites. We have also put 30 geolocators on adult female seals so that we can see roughly where they travel to during the winter months.

Mark and I have also been busy painting the food store a pleasant lavender hue. Mark was happy at his work singing and dancing away whilst trying to hide his newly bald head under his hat. What prompted this act of shaving madness we do not know – it was only one day into winter when he emerged from the bathroom wearing a woolly hat, a silly grin and no hair!

As well as work we have all been busy cooking wonderful meals using fresh vegetables and fruit – a real luxury. All of our frozen food arrived at last call so we know what beef tastes like again! It’s a real pleasure cooking and washing up for only four people as opposed to the summer eight or ten, although it means your turn comes round very quickly! We’ve been left some good summer recipes to keep as Bird Island traditional foods though, such as Maggie’s cinnamon rolls, Simon’s sludge cake (a low-fat delicacy which manages to use 15 Mars bars in one go!) and John’s beany-bake (best served on warm days so the windows can be kept open).

We have already nearly had a ship this winter after thinking there would be none until first call next season. HMS Leeds Castle announced its arrival with a bag of post by fax, but took one look at Bird Sound and the rough seas and headed to KEP instead. That was the last we heard of them so my postcard mountain is still sitting in the post box here on base. Next ship maybe?

We’ve ‘met’ our new neighbours at KEP over the radio and had a chat with them. We would have played darts with them, and they even set up their new board especially for us, however, bad radio communications intervened and so there has been no inaugural match as yet. We did play Halley though, and beat them at the beer leg, which means a case of beer for us. Unfortunately, our game with Rothera did not go so well, and my own friend, Mairi, threw the Rothera winning dart, ruining Bird Island’s undefeated record of the past 18 months! Daf and Mark were stunned by the defeat having been here during the entire winning run.

We have passed our evenings with a mixture of films and comedies, wine and chatter and board games. The clatter of the Rummikub counters, and the ‘pop’ of the Trouble board are the call to prayer for us all – very few days have passed without a game of each being played! Mark briefly developed an unnatural obsession with jigsaws but has limited himself now as once he starts he appears unable to leave the table until it has been completed. Daf seemed to become hysterical with laughter whilst reading about the life and times of Stuart ‘Psycho’ Pearce, whilst Cuz has turned into a master baker, whose aim in life is to cause all of us to put on at least a stone in weight before he leaves. We think it might be working – ginger cake and pavlova are very tasty! We had our first winter weigh-in just after the ship left. I had psyched myself into it for some weeks beforehand and was pleasantly surprised to be second lightest on base! Unlike some of the males who intend to win and be fattest, I am trying my best to lose the entire winter’s contest! Obviously the cakes are not going to help me there.

We saw our first leopard seal on the April 18, one of the earliest sightings here in 18 years. We spotted the seal out in Freshwater Bay thrashing some little seal pup about. He or she lazed about in the kelp for several hours before disappearing, heralding the onset of the twice daily ‘lep rounds’. Ten days later two were hauled out on the beach in front of the station, and as I write this newsletter there is a very large female leopard seal rolling around on the snow right in front of me. We have all been out to measure and photograph her already – she seems very content apart from all the mutts (sheathbills) pecking at her flippers! We’re hoping that these early sightings means there’ll be plenty more of them to come this winter. On the same day as the first leopard seal, Daf and Cuz saw the first Southern Right Whale of the year, circling close by North Cliffs in the calm waters. Daf is the expert whale spotter of the island – if there’s one out there he’ll see it. All summer everyone has been plagued by a question – does Daf empty or fill his mind during his hours of whale-watching from the cliffs? The mystery has now been solved after a spot of interrogation – he does both! We suspect emptying may be more common than filling though, although he won’t admit to it.

We have also had our first vagrant rarities in the form of three cattle egrets sitting out on the beach looking chilly and lost. These birds are normally found in South America, among other places, and so are well off course. Unfortunately, Daf found a distinctive pair of feet attached to an eaten carcass so we are now down to two cattle egrets!

As the new assistant starting my first winter it has taken a while to get used to the loss of our summer friends, but I am lucky that I get to spend winter with such good boys, and we are all enjoying ourselves immensely. Time is flying by already!

I send all my love to those I love.Jane XXX