Bird Island Diary — June 2002

30 June, 2002


Welcome to Bird Island, we are now well into winter, and more and more leopard seals are hauling out on the beaches around base. Yesterday, we had four: two big females, one medium sized female and one young male. They are known to us as Sigourney, Keeley, Sheryl and Matthieu respectively. Matthieu, named after the newborn son of two of my good friends: “Congratulations”, was being quite vocal and it was just amazing to hear him, he reminded me in a way of the grey seals howling in the Orkneys. He is also our most persistent resident leopard seal offering us some amazing views of fur seal hunting and thrashing. With the change of season, many wildlife movements have happened, most of the albatrosses have deserted Bird Island except for the Wanderers who decide to breed as summer ends. Skuas and macaroni penguins have also disappeared only to be “replaced” by the traditional wintering avifauna (Antarctic terns, kelp gulls and snow petrels). My days are much more relaxed. I have a daily round of the beaches surrounding the base to record the hauling out pattern of the leps, ellies and furries but also the numbers and sex ratios of the South Georgia Pintail. The duck thing is just for one of the researchers who is crazy about all anseriformes and “I Like Birds” so…..

Anyway, at the beginning of this eventful month we celebrated the birthday of our own chippie Matt. Matt took the opportunity on his birthday to go for a walk around our island and enjoy one of the most glorious days we have had since winter began. He came back with tales of the displaying Wanderers and how exhausting it is to walk through the tussock in a step stone manner, both very characteristic of this island. All was white except the blue sky and sea. He came back as the day was fading for his birthday celebrations. Happy Birthday Matt from Ben, Jane and Nick.

The month of June is a month of festivities for all Antarctic bases as we celebrate Midwinter. We have spent many hours of the month thinking, cutting, hammering, glueing and sanding the pressies we make for each other in order to be ready for the D-day but do you think we managed to be on time? Of course not!

The 21st of June started with the traditional breakfast in bed, prepared with love from our winter base commander Jane. She brought us champagne and orange juice as a wake up call and this was followed by a copious British breakfast. This set us all up for the Highland games, and once we dressed up in kilts and scary ginger wigs, we were prepared to brave the bitterly cold southerly winds. The competition started with toss the haggis, which is in fact very similar to a hammer throw. The haggis is no more a real one but has been replaced by a heavy stone in a large thick woollen sock. We all had three throws of it and after nearly knocking Jane, Matt and the cameras with each of his throws Ben won the event. The next event in the Games was Wellie throwing but we had to use our teeth to do so. Several different methods were tested from the pendulum throw, where you swinged the boot in your mouth from left to right until enough momentum was found to break a record, or to the rotational throw method where you just turn on yourself and let go when facing the field. I cannot recall which of those was most effective but both caused much amusement. Ben, once again managed to grab the 4 points associated with a win in an event and we moved on to the next game. To caber toss, one has to balance a large and long wood trunk on one’s hands with the help of one shoulder then taking a few steps to help catapulting the caber in the air. The caber has to do a full 180-degree rotation before landing and we then measure the distance of the toss. As we are no Hercules we used a long pole to do so. Ben managed to break the equipment but no harm was done and I managed to get full points for this event: hurrah. By that time our legs and other bits were getting colder and colder but we continued the Games with the crossbow competition. Jane was last year’s winner of this event as she managed to get the best aim out of three arrows on the target. Unfortunately, although we all understood why she won the event last year, Ben just managed to score more than her and he won the event. The final episode of these cold winter games was target shooting with snowballs, after the three goes Matt won but do I have to state the obvious: Ben Won the Bird Island Winter 2002 Highland Games. Well done to Benny B but it was not really about winning or losing we all had such a laugh.

Having earnt a well-deserved tea break, we returned indoors to warm ourselves up again. This was to be short lived as we still had to brave the Southerly winds and the ice filled Bay for our midwinter’s swim. After a group hug and tequila shot, we ran down the walkway to the sea and jumped in to this gigantic slush puppy for a few seconds only, I promise. We tried taking a Midwinter’s picture while we were all in the water but we will have to wait and see for the result as unfortunately our Digital camera has broken down, and we have not yet processed the traditional films. After a warm shower and once we slipped into dry clothes, we were ready to have a gargantuesque dinner. The three course meal prepared by Jane was a feast for Kings and after such an eventful day sitting around a dinner table with my three winter companions sipping on a glass of red wine I could not be happier. That evening, the BBC World Service also broadcasted the messages from our families and a song for each of the British Antarctic Bases.

The next day my sister Alexandra and her boyfriend Olivier got married, I heard it was a fantastic day and I wish I could have been there but I am so happy for both of them. The month ended peacefully, and I just wish to finish this newsletter with a Big Hello to my family and friends. Je vous embrasse tous.