Halley Diary — August 2013

31 August, 2013 Halley

Winter has been with us for a while but during the beginning of August we get the first glimpses of the sun raising itself. Skies are spectacular during the day and before we know it a new flag is raised to signify the first day of the sun above the horizon. Despite freezing temps (−40) we all tumbled outside, some with sunglasses, to see the magnificent yellow orb, toast our flag raiser Hamish and then run back inside to warm up.

Earlier in the month we had the opportunity to take part in a growing Antarctic event which is the 48 hour film competition. We are given just 48 hours to dream up, film and edit a 5 minute movie. This may seem like an easy feat but we are given a set of guidelines and specific criteria of what is to appear in the film. The main focus this year was the ever popular Gingerbread man. Mini Gingerbread cams were developed and many a biscuit was eaten. A great idea that had most of the base running around building sets, designing costumes and decorating a total of 12 Gingerbreads.

Every year the questions on station start about visits to the Emperor penguins not only because we are all curious to see how they are doing but also to have an opportunity to get off base and see something different. Temperatures were still cold during August (as low as −50) and use of the SnoCat was not an option so we were planning to go on skidoo. Every year the access to the penguin colony changes due to the shifting of the ice shelf. Some years a nice ramp forms from accumulated snow and we can pretty much walk down a gentle slope but the most recent years this has disappeared leaving us with an abseil situation. We can never be sure of what the winter has done to the area so the first trip to the penguins is often a reccy to assess the area. If possible then of course we will abseil down but there are no guarantees. Weather and most particularly wind are limiting factors so once we decided to action visits it became a waiting game to get the right conditions. Finally the day arrived and Ian Hey our field assistant and I braved fairly cold temperatures but calm weather to visit the penguins.

Arriving at Windy Bay was amazing. It’s the first time I have ever seen the steam rising from the colony from standing on the shelf and in the low warm sun it was a spectacular sight which I have embedded into my memory rather than taking photos. It was cold and we were busy trying to find access sites to the sea ice so there was no time to waste and I tore myself away from the view. Ian spotted a site and we moved around to put anchors in place. It was an easy abseil down to the sea ice and we were greeted at the bottom by some very curious penguins who decided to come over and check out the visitors.

The Emperor penguin is the largest of the penguin species and the only one to have never set foot on land as they prefer to breed on sea ice. Understandably the ice is a fickle medium that can impact on the colony. Early sea ice break outs can leave chicks stranded but despite this they have a high survival rate with an average of 95% surviving the year.

While we are here in the winter the colony is full of males who were passed a single egg from their partner in May. They balance this egg on their feet and slump their belly over it keeping the egg up to 70°C warmer than the outside temperature. Having a placid nature improves their chances as the males will all huddle together to share warmth and constantly shuffle about to rotate from the inside to the outside and vice versa. The summer fat reserve is slowing whittled away as the male fasts during this period and they will lose up to 45% of his body weight. You can imagine they are fairly pleased to see the return of their partners.

So Ian and I were very lucky to arrive and see the Emperors huddled up and many beginning to wander about. We weren’t sure if they were still holding eggs or whether chicks had hatched so on high alert we watched and listened to see if we could catch the distinctive whistle of a chick. Hearing it and seeing it are two different things and this early in the season it was particularly hard to spot them. I wouldn’t have wanted to poke my head out too long either in the cold temperatures we were having.

Having taken photos from every angle possible both for survey work and our albums we had to make a move back home. The days were still short at this stage and with the cold temps it was best to restart the skidoos and get moving. Arriving back on station all were pleased to hear that access was good and planning started to try and get everyone a chance to visit Windy Bay and its elegant residents.

Agnieszka Fryckowska