Diary of a doctor at sea

16 November, 2016 Signy

New blog from ship’s doctor Helen Jones as RRS James Clark Ross arrives at Signy research station in the South Orkney Islands

Well, and what a wonderful couple of days my shipmates and I have been having! The seas have been gloriously rough which has meant that most people have started to look a trifle pale and peaky. I’ve been handing out so much sea sickness medication that I think I’m developing a repetitive strain injury. Fortuitously I haven’t succumbed as yet, but I’m assured that the seas could get worse, so I shall wait untiI I disembark in May before feeling incurably smug! I can only imagine my immunity thus far is due to my haunting of the local theme park after school- going on the tea cups twenty times after cinnamon donuts seems like an excellent way to prime the inner ear for the abuse that will be thrown at it in later life.

Sleeping is still a bit of a struggle in this weather. It’s almost impossible to relax without being flung out of the bunk, which makes falling asleep rather tricky. I think I managed the cruel trick of sleeping but dreaming that I was awake two nights ago. This seemed like a form of cruel psychological torture and I woke up in a foul mood!

Helen Jones, medical doctor on board the James Clark Ross
Helen Jones, medical doctor on board the RRS James Clark Ross

The upside to this weather has been the gratifyingly macho sensation of looking out of the windows and seeing the walkways and railings covered in icicles. The spray hits the cold metal and freezes over instantly. This has led to a great deal of personal enjoyment as I’ve told people all about the TV programme “Deadliest Catch.” This was about King Crab fishermen off the coast of Alaska and apparently they regularly have to smash the ice off the surface of their vessels lest they become top heavy and flip over. Aren’t I horrible?

We arrived at Signy yesterday morning, much to the relief of all of my patients. They were instantly transformed from wan faced, shaky individuals to models gracing the covers of a Boden catalogue. Regrettably I didn’t get to go ashore yesterday but I did take a lot of photos of Signy slowly appearing out of the cloud and mist that enveloped her. This research station is only open during the summer months and is relatively small, having only 7-8 members of staff. It’s quite a bleak place, but has a severe beauty to it. The palette is very muted; the colours are mainly grey, green, black and white. The Union Jack that hangs above the door of the station is the brightest splash of colour in the place. This isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of life at Signy; the ubiquitous elephant seals are here, as are gentoo penguins. A major part of the relief has been the erection of the seal proof fence to enable the researchers to get to and fro the buildings of the station. Any fence that can keep a 3000kg elephant seal from going exactly where it wants to, must be fairly sturdy!

Signy Island appears out of the mist
Signy Island appears out of the mist

My role in the relief of Signy yesterday was rather dull. I’m afraid I just got my boiler suit on and helped shift boxes out of the hold. They were then craned into the cargo tender (the jetty is too short at Signy for the JCR to use it) and transferred across to the base. But today things were a lot more exciting. Today was MY day. I had to restock the first aid areas in Signy which was good nerdy fun. There is a little part of me that desperately wants to be tidy and I only let it out on special occasions like this. I even alphabetised their antibiotics!

I then got involved in putting the food stuffs away in the top stores. Some of the crates were pretty hefty and it was nice to work up a bit of a sweat getting things put away. I was faintly disturbed to see how much cereal people will apparently consume over 6 months. I was even more disturbed to find spam, corned beef and tinned hot dogs! Signy and KEP are two of the stations where the staff cook for themselves rather than having dedicated cooks which I think is probably very nice and likely fosters a spirit of community.

The James Clark Ross moored off Signy Island
The JCR moored off Signy Island

The last part of the day was probably the best. Station Leader Matt told me that the refuge hut, which is just around the headland, contains medical supplies which also need checking over. This hut is the oldest man made structure on the island, and is a relic from the days of the old whaling station. The whalers used to store their explosives in it, but BAS now store their supplies in case of a disaster at the base. I spent a happy hour checking the correct kit was in the back up boxes whilst listening to the energetic roars and farts of an elephant seal somewhere on the rocks below me. Eventually, a trifle stiff and chilly, I tidied away and managed to get some photos of the JCR as she sat out in the bay- hidden from the view of the station. And then with a start I realised that the cargo tender was heading back towards Signy, and I hurried back to the base.

If you’ve enjoyed this post and would like to read more I am blogging about my experiences on the JCR at hvcjones.blogspot.com or follow me on twitter @drhvcjones. Thank you!