Bird Island Diary – July 2003

31 July, 2003

A varied month

This month we lost a friend and kindred spirit when Kirsty Brown was killed by a leopard seal at Rothera. The sudden loss of someone so young and full of life was a shock to us all, but our thoughts go out especially to everyone at Rothera and to her family in Sussex. I hope that they can find some consolation in knowing that she was doing what she loved right to the end.

July is a month of short days and long nights, icy mornings and windy afternoons, walks up through the snow-covered tussock, and evenings spent enjoying good food and company inside the cosy base. Many of our activities this month have been indoors, and risk, cribbage and five-dice are games of the moment. We’ve also played the occasional game of darts, and with a concerted effort of care and concentration we managed to get our jenga tower up to 34 levels, until it all came crashing down again. We have also been watching quite a few films, and I am getting to the stage where my standard response to “have you seen…?” is not always “no”. In fact, at a rate of two a week, I have probably watched more films here than I have ever seen before in my life. We’ve also been watching David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals (we thought the final programme in particular was fantastic) and the second series of The Sopranos.

Early in the month Nick chipped one of his teeth. Help was at hand, and Chris racked his brains to see if he could remember the techniques he’d learnt on the dental course. He seemed quite keen to get out the drill and practice his skills on a real patient. The first temporary filling didn’t stick, but he made an excellent job of the second, and it seems to be holding. It was quite a similar job to repair a leak in our hot water cylinder with epoxy resin glue, which also seems to be holding out well….

On the 13th, we all donned snowshoes and headed across to the other side of the island, to spend the night at the Loveshack, a small hut beside the island’s smallest macaroni penguin colony (now deserted for the winter). On the way we saw the full moon rise through the clouds above the mountains of South Georgia, as the orange glow of the sun faded behind icebergs scattered across the western horizon.

Later, after a Sri Lankan curry, a glass of wine, and games of cribbage by the light of a Tilley lamp, we went for a moonlit walk. It was probably the calmest, clearest night I have experienced on Bird Island. The full moon lit up the snow-covered landscape, so there was no need for our head torches. We set up a telescope to take a closer look at the impact craters and star-shaped patterns that have scarred its surface over millions of years. The full moon is a fantastic and impressive sight at any time, but even more so when it and the stars are the only lights in the sky, with no glow of city lights to diminish them, only the ghostly shapes of a few icebergs grounded offshore. We could see one light, one reminder that we were not the only people on the planet. A lone fishing boat on the horizon, 40 or 50 miles to our north, waved a searchlight back and forth, wary of striking a growler (small submerged iceberg) under the black waves. But even it was fainter than the violent orange glow from the planet Mars, hanging in the sky above it.

At our feet, the moonlight glinted off a million tiny ice crystals in the snow, sparkling as we crunched across it. It was as if the ground had been sprinkled with magic dust. We found some smooth snowy slopes, perfect for sliding down, and when we got tired of that we climbed to the top of Molly Hill, and sat there admiring the moonlit icebergs, the jagged skyline of South Georgia to the east, and the equally jagged Willis Islands to our west.

A few days later, we exchanged “midwinter” presents, which included framed drawings, a reading lamp, intricate wooden cut-outs of the island and its wildlife, a wooden box, a piano stool, Chinese checkers, and a game which we think might be called shuffleboard, which involves sliding heavy pucks down a waxed wooden surface to score points. A lot of time and effort had gone into making them, and we were all impressed with each others’ skill and ingenuity. Since then, our Friday afternoon “90-minute club” in the chippy shop has been dominated by the weekly shuffleboard tournament. Ade is the established champion, perhaps as a result of his gruelling fitness programme, though we have each managed to win at least once! There has also been the odd outbreak of eccentric dancing….

On the 28th it was Nick’s birthday. We celebrated with a breakfast of home-made croissants and pain-au-chocolat, and played petanque on the beach, using the bulla (ear bone) of a whale as the cochonnet (one of the few good things about a July thaw is that it frees the occasional patch of shingle of snow and ice). Chris sat on the cliffs in hope of spotting a birthday whale for Nick, but it was the birthday boy himself who saw two humpbacks off the western end of the island three days later.Nico blows out the candles Scientific work has not ground completely to a halt, and in addition to writing up and organising data collected during the busy summer season, I spent several days lifting wandering albatross chicks off their nests, so I could set up a Global Positioning System (GPS) antenna. A receiver unit logs signals from different satellites, and these are corrected from a differential base station to give positions with centimetre accuracy, which will later be plotted on digital maps for analysis. Nick walks the beaches on his lep rounds each day, and Chris has finished measuring all his krill.

A thaw has started, and there’s a feeling of spring in the air, with pipits rising in their cheerful song flights across the island. There is still enough snow for tobogganing down slopes on plastic sacks, but there’s not quite enough to cover all the lumps and bumps and rocks and make skiing possible again, at least for a beginner like me. With any luck August and September will bring some more blizzards.

It is two years since I started work at BAS, and for most of that time I have been here at Bird Island. It has come to feel like home, albeit a temporary one, and the landscape and wildlife, which was all new and strange at first, has become so familiar that icebergs and wandering albatrosses are now a normal part of everyday life. At times working here can be challenging and even frustrating, but experiences like that moonlit night on Molly Hill make it all worthwhile. It doesn’t feel as if two years have passed, yet I know that quite soon the winter will be over and Nick and I will meet our replacements at the start of our final summer here. I hope they have as good a time here as I have.

Lots of love to my family and friends,