Jul – Ice Diving

30 July, 2007

Rothera July Diary

My name is Kelvin Murray, I am the Field Diving Officer and my job is to manage all diving operations at Rothera. I work very closely with Jim the Boating Officer, Alison the Marine Research Assistant and Birgit the Marine Biologist; we are the Marine Team.

I am from Aberdeen, Scotland, and arrived at Rothera in December 2006. Prior to joining the British Antarctic Survey, I have been working as a professional diver for eight years and have also been involved in marine survival training and whale and dolphin conservation.

July saw a number of special events occurring at Rothera. While the weather is warming up in the UK, things are certainly getting a lot colder here. We reached a low temperature of – 20.5 degrees C and had a maximum wind speed of 65.6 knots – that’s a hurricane force gust! The sea froze all around Rothera Point and for as far as the eye can see. Gigantic icebergs are captured from their wandering travels and the sounds of the sea swapped for the eerie creaking of expanding ice sheets.

The frozen sea doesn’t stop the Marine Team from getting in the water, but it does mean we have to chop through the ice in order to get under it! We have to take great care in working on sea ice as it can be unpredictable, easily affected by changes in wind and temperature. In order to ensure the ice is suitable for working on, I liaise closely with Mike, our Winter Base Commander, and the Field Assistants; Peter, Roger, Mark, Drew and Liz. We measure the ice thickness, assess past, present and future weather patterns, determine the effects of icebergs and tide cracks – there is a lot of work involved to ensure work is carried out safely.

Because the ice is so thick, we use a heavy-duty chainsaw to cut suitable access holes for the divers. The longest bar we have for the saw is two metres long – hopefully we won’t need to use that one! We receive training in chainsaw safety and Andy, one of the Plant Mechanics, has been helping the team with useful tips gained from years of chainsaw experience. The ice is cut into manageable blocks for easy removal and then dragged clear of the hole. Although the air temperature is – 18 oC it can still be hot work! We cut a triangular hole because it makes it easy for two people to help a diver out of the water. In the water we are practically weightless, however out of the water our equipment weighs nearly fifty kilos, therefore the divers need some help on the surface.

Diving under the ice is a fascinating experience. There is a lot less light due to the thick ice sheet and its blanket of snow, however chunks of clear glacial ice suspended in the ice sheet act like skylights. The water is very clear because it is so cold and as you look up you see the ice is many shades of blue. It’s amazing to watch your bubbles as they rise and see them ripple across the ice ceiling like puddles of liquid silver.

We wear full face masks on our dives for a number of reasons. Because our face doesn’t come into contact with seawater, which is -1.6 degrees Celsius, the divers stay a lot warmer. These masks have underwater communications built in which means the divers can speak to each other, and the team on the surface, making complicated tasks much simpler.

Alison and I had a very special encounter on one particular dive – we had a visit from a Weddell seal! These seals hold the record for being found further south than any other mammal, other than humans. They can grow to nearly 3.5 metres in length, weigh 550 kilos and are protected against the cold by a thick layer of blubber. We usually see them hauled out resting on ice floes, so to see one underwater, swimming with such grace and ease, was a privilege indeed.

Early in the month saw the worldwide debut of our base band Nunatak, as part of the Live Earth concerts. The band put in a great deal of work, not only in writing and producing the songs and videos, but also in doing interviews for the world media, photoshoots and so on. As far as we can tell, none of them have let their sudden stardom go to their heads and it is now back to work as normal. Well done to Tristan, Rob, Matt Balmer, Roger and Alison.

July also saw us celebrating the halfway mark in our winter – the point halfway between the James Clark Ross leaving, and the intended arrival of the first Dash 7 flight. Given our location, the lack of daylight and the temperature, it seemed most appropriate to throw a beach party! We got dressed up in a variety of Hawaiian shirts, shorts, sarongs and shades and the bar was decorated with paper palm trees, beach towels and disco lights. Cyril, our genuine French Chef, made another great buffet of party food while Jim made fruity cocktails which were as popular as they were colourful.

Another major milestone was the return of the sun. For over two months the sun has been too low in the sky to rise above the mountains to the north of the base and so we have worked under a pre-dawn light for a few hours around midday. As the year progresses the sun climbs higher and higher until finally it has broken clear of the mountain horizon and shines down on the base. It was a strangely poignant moment made all the more memorable by Kenny, the Generator Mechanic, playing ‘Always The Sun’ by The Stranglers, over the loudspeaker system and radios. Having the sun return has meant a lot to the wintering team.

It is tradition to mark the return of the sun with the changing of the Union flag which flies from the high ground of Rothera Point. Mike gave a simple speech marking the event as Richard Logan, the Base Electrician and oldest member of the base, took the old flag down. Matt Balmer, our Electronics Engineer and youngest person on base, raised the new flag. This ritual has been performed since the base was established thirty years ago.

Cyril cooks incredible meals for us but even this kitchen supremo needs a day off every now and again, so at weekends the rest of the base personnel take turns in cooking. A particular highlight this month was the Pizza Delivery Service set up by Alison and Dickie the Terrestrial Science Assistant. We placed our orders the previous evening and then our handmade pizzas were delivered to wherever we were on base. Dickie made sure that I got exactly what I ordered, down to the very smallest detail. The very smallest detail indeed, thank you Dickie.

The final notable event this month was the effort put in by most on base to replace eight batteries powering some radio equipment which sits on Reptile Ridge, the spine of rock that looks down on the base. The batteries weigh nearly 30 kilos each and had to be carried up in rucksacks. It was hard, heavy work but with everyone mucking in we managed to get the job done in an afternoon.

I know my family and friends have been reading these diaries so I would like to say heelo to a few folk. Lots of love to my wonderful Nicky, the best girl in the world; Mum, Annette and Jamie-dog, thanks for looking after me; Hi to Dot and Judy; Derek and Clare; Biz and Maria; Mike and Shona; Pete and Blaise, McG and Clootie, Mark and Jo; and to all my friends and dive buddies, I’ll be home soon.