Bird Island Diary — June 2001

30 June, 2001

Midwinter games

June sees us in deepest winter here at Bird Island now. The nights are at their longest, but luckily since we are in sub-Antarctica and relatively far north compared to our friends at the more southerly bases, it is light from 11am to 6pm even at this time.

This means there is still plenty of opportunity to get out and about during the day time, both for work, and at this time of year which is relatively quiet field-work wise since most of the animals are away on the high seas, for play. There are just the three of us (Mark, Jane and myself) here to man the station for the next five months. Luckily we all seem to enjoy the same sorts of ways of having fun, and wintering at Bird Island will be one of my most treasured memories.

One of the funnest parts of winter has been the swimming expeditions to retrieve a big ship’s fender washed up after a storm on an adjacent beach. With 7mm wetsuits the water is very refreshing and exhilarating, but very bearable for an hour or so. The plan is to park the fender off the jetty and see what fish we may be able to catch from it with a little hand-line.

The downsized work programme during the winter months consists largely of labwork, analyses of results, report-writing and testing equipment for the forthcoming summer season. Evenings tend to involve a mixture of board-games, reading, slide shows, videos and catching the sports on the wireless (special thanks to Scottie for sending down all the British Lions match reports).

Although we have had a couple of cold snaps, it does not tend to get properly cold on Bird Island until next month, and hopefully this is when the pistes will be ready for skiing this season. It’s a brilliant feeling coming back from a day around the island and seeing the lights of base twinkling down in the cove, welcoming you home. As you near the base, the smell of fish and chips or sweaty curry coming wafting up the hill from the Aga flue is a sure-sign that the chef of the day is doing their very best to satisfy ever-eager appetites. Grim hut nailed to the beach? Quite the opposite…….. The weather did have a little surprise for us at the end of the month though. The temperature plummeted and the water in the spanking new indoor toilet froze solid. So no indoor jobbies for a while, but luckily we still have the old toilet on the end of the jetty.

Quality snow might have been scarce of late, but quality storms have not! This month has seen the best winds I’ve ever known as they whip Bird Sound into a cauldron of spewing milkshake. It’s been so impressive that we’ve often been compelled to go down to the rocks and find a safe place to see the waves come smashing in and cascading 50 feet into the air above our heads. Very exhilarating. Feeling the foam and spray on our faces and licking the salt off our lips has been magic. When standing above the sea-caves over on the west of the island, you can even feel the rock shaking below your feet as the waves explode straight in from Cape Horn and beyond.

Contrast these furious days with some of the ethereal days on which we have been lucky enough to have been able to see Southern Right Whales come close inshore. They often venture as close as five metres to the island, slowly swimming up and down gulping, feeding and blowing. The pictures were taken when a party of three came to visit mid-month. The notch on the right hand tail flipper of one of them is very distinctive, and it will be interesting to see whether this individual is re-sighted around Bird Island in future.

The beginning of June saw lots of preparation for what is probably one of the biggest celebrations for people who are lucky enough to come South – Mid-winter’s day. Everyone takes great pride and pleasure with their fellow winterers in making, giving and receiving presents made from all sorts of materials knocking around base. And all this preparation is done in top secret (not easy on such a small intimate base) so that the presents people receive on the day are a complete surprise.

Mid-winter’s day itself was action-packed from dawn till some way past dusk with a full itinerary of events ranging from the customary champagne breakfast, to Highland Games (haggis hurling, caber tossing, target snowballs etc) to skinny-dip and more. One of the absolute highlights of winter is the broadcast that BAS organise with the BBC Worldservice so that each base chooses a song (Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews with ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ for Bird Island this year), and each winterer receives a couple of messages from loved ones back home. Huddling round the radio listening to your family and pals come crackling into the lounge from 8000 miles away is pretty special to say the least.

A few days after mid-winter we had a visit from HMS Glasgow whose turn it is to patrol the South Atlantic operating theatre at the moment. Their considerable efforts to bring us some post, fresh fruit and veg and sticky-stickies was very much appreciated. Surprise package of the day was a box full of curry powders, pastes and sauces for Jane from Patak’s Curries. What nice people that work at Patak’s! The ship visit was not undiluted joy though, for with it came the news that Chewbacca has been killed off. For a Star Wars nut like Mark, this news has come very hard indeed. Unconnected to the increased sweets consumption at ship-call was Daf having a filling drop out which Jane very ably replaced temporarily using the skills she had picked up on her dentistry course before coming down. The Navy also took away Paul who has been here for the last 4 months doing all sorts of building and plumbing works. We wish him all the best as he starts his new full-time job at BAS HQ, and look forward to seeing him down here at some stage next season.

Thankyou to all the families and friends who have written, sent pressies and just been so good at keeping touch, and who know that you are always only as far away as our thoughts. It definitely must make wintering and being away so much easier than in the olden days.

Hwyl a chariad i Johnners, Rits, Esther, Sam, Ali a phawb o’m ffrindiau – diolch o galon!

Dafydd Roberts