Halley Diary — October 2008

31 October, 2008 Halley

Hello everyone! I must apologise to all who are not flower lovers, but it seems apt to start this month’s instalment with another flower… plus I like flowers so that suits me! Maybe we can start a trend? This is a Marigold, the flower which represents October…

One thing about Marigolds is that they are very resilient and this is partly due to how their flower heads follow the sun around the sky, thus making the most of every drop of energy it provides them. Here at Halley the importance of the sun in the natural world is obvious. In the depths of winter with no sun, we, with our generators and drums of AVTUR are the only living things to see. It can feel like we are in a forgotten corner of the world. All that changes though, when the sun shines! October is when it felt like the world was waking up. Whoever I was on the phone to at the time can vouch for the fact that I was very excited when I saw a group of Snow Petrels fly past the surgery window early in the month, finally, for me at least, it felt like we had real contact with the outside world again! (Of course the daily phone calls and websurfing don’t really count). It surely must mean that winter is over?

October has now been and gone as I sit and write this diary. It was a month that marked a turning point for us here on base, the eighth month of our winter, and it felt like the last. The summer season will not start proper until the Shackleton arrives after Christmas, but it certainly feels as though the true winter is drawing to an end. During October the sun was setting for just 2–4 hours overnight, soon we will be back to the constant daylight of summer. Already the darkness of winter is a memory, although we had a reminder of the cold midwinter temperatures when our temperature dipped to −41oC, our coldest day since June. Well done to the guys who were out in a tent that night!

On the first weekend of October I was really pleased to get another chance to visit the Emperor Penguin Colony at Windy Bay, 16km away. Dave, Scott, Les and I took Richard up on his offer, and so we packed ourselves into a Sno-cat, Scott instantly falling asleep on the way (things are always pretty busy in the garage, especially when Scott is in charge, so he tends to flake out whenever he can).

This was the fourth time that I’ve been lucky enough to see the penguins, and each time it is such a privilege, watching the lifecycle of these birds, who manage to survive outside on the ice right through the winter, while we struggle to keep warm. Each time I go they have something else to cope with, be it the desperate cold, balancing their eggs, the length of time since their last meal, or now, keeping an eye on their chicks.

As we approach the colony, as on every occasion, some individuals leave their neighbours and come towards us, walking, with their awkward short legged waddle, or letting themselves fall onto their rounded bellies, pushing themselves along on these inbuilt sledges with feet and flippers… They then stop, usually just a few feet away, stand tall, stretching their spines and becoming almost slender and very elegant, before deeply bowing their heads and making the recognizable sound of a penguin greeting. It is almost as if they know who we are, and are pleased to see us. They seem perfectly happy to share their patch of sea-ice with five brightly coloured Halley winterers…

By now, the chicks are a few weeks old, some newer than others, and some parents are clearly more experienced than others. The trick of being a chick, as far as I can see, is balancing on your parents feet, the trick of being a parent is keeping them there. I watched one poor duo that just couldn’t get the hang of it, each time the parent thinking the chick was in place and moving off, before noticing the chick come tumbling out from under his tail in a ball of grey fluff. Eventually another bird came along and showed how it was done. It looks like the panic and initial ineptitude of new parenthood is not just confined to humans!

Another very noticeable thing was how the peace of the colony would frequently be disturbed by flurries of beaks and wings, as several birds scuffle over a chick. It appears that the bigger chicks will leave the safety of the parents’ feet and run off; triggering what looks like quite robust skirmishing as several nearby adults fight to get the chick, pushing, shoving and using their beaks to achieve this aim. I’m not sure how many of the chicks actually stay with their true parents, or maybe even how important this is. In a harsh environment where survival depends on the cooperation and strength of the colony as a whole, as well as individual attention to chick rearing, it’s good to see how strong the parental urges are in these birds. These fights are constantly going on around us…

Most people managed to get to the colony during October, because it was also the month when our post mid-winter trips really started to get going. This also meant that for much of the month we had as few as 8 people on base. With over a quarter of the base away, it was so quiet at dinner each night and during the day you could often find yourself alone in the building. The deal was that we had 10 days each, paired up, when we could go and explore the Brunt, or stay back on base if we chose to. First off this month was Ags and Joe, (Sledge Juliet). They unfortunately caught for the low temperature spell, but even so, made the most of their time, with a few days at the creeks in our caboose, where they went crevasse exploring, and a couple at the Rumples, where they did the same walk as Dean and Paddy last month, with the addition of an extra climb onto an ice-locked tabular berg and an explore on the top of that. The views looked amazing and I was counting down the days to my trip in November!

The other pair to have their trip during October was Les and Scott. Scott opted for a mammoth endurance drive eastwards, crossing the Brunt and visiting the Stancombe Wills glacier. The Stancombe Wills flows off the continent about 150km east of Halley, and forms the eastern boundary of the Brunt Ice Shelf. It was discovered in 1915 as part of Shackletons famous 1914–17 expedition, 2 months before his ship became stuck in the sea-ice of the Weddell Sea, and takes its name from a tobacco heiress who helped fund the expedition. Les was happy to stay back on base, and I don’t blame him, after 300 km linked travel on a skidoo, even Scott looked tired. Apparently, the Stancombe Wills looks just like the Brunt… but still, it must have been a great feeling to explore such a long way from base, and I’m pretty envious of Rich and Scott for getting there!

Les had a couple of day trips later in the week, to the Rumples, for the by now well trodden Rumples walk, and also to Creek 5 to check out the crevasse there. He caught for some fantastic weather and came back with plenty of pictures to inspire the rest of us!

While Les was away, preparations were being made on base for one of the most exciting events this year, the arrival of our first visitors! The Basler Mia arrived at 0200 on the 29th, having flown across from Punta Arenas via Rothera earlier in the day. The Canadian crew were en route to Novolazarevskaya, a Russian base to the north east, which acts as a hub for air operations this side of Antarctica. John, Jim and Danny brought with them Ralph, a forecaster on his way to the German base Neumayer, and more importantly by far, 100kg of freshies!!!!

It is impossible to describe how intense the flavours of a pepper are when you’ve not tasted one for 11 months! We had eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumber, celery, lettuce, assorted fruit, avocados… and more, and are so grateful to the guys for bringing them.

Unfortunately, the weather closed in with some 30 knot winds, so Mia was with us for 2 nights, and needed to be bulldozed out of its snowdrift on the 30th. They got away successfully though, and left just in time to miss our Halloween celebrations. Many thanks to Paddy for the themed food — I especially liked the evil gingerbread rabbits, and to Dean for the spooky decorations…

Goodbye from Halley, roll on November!

Big hellos to everyone back home, I’m missing you all


Thanks go to Richard, Ags and Dave for providing photos