June – Mid-Winter

30 June, 2004

Rothera Diary, June 2004

By Andy Miller

June was an eventful and significant month for the twenty-three of us. It heralded the winter’s austral solstice. This marks the shortest day in the Antarctic calendar. After which, the days start getting longer and the sun slowly starts making its journey back to the southern hemisphere. Despite this fact, we still have to endure almost perpetual darkness for another month, until we see the sun rising above the mountains to the North.

Early in the month it was business as usual and seawater sampling and oceanographic measurements reaffirmed that the seawater was cooling with winter sea ice conditions imminent.

On a science dive, after recorded the feeding characteristics of tiny colonial beasties (bryozoans), Dan and I experienced a herd of Crabeater seals swimming amongst us. My colleagues did not get wet after lunch, as their dive was thought inappropriate because a pod of Orcas swam by the Wharf. It was worth the delay in world-class science because marvelling at these magnificent creatures going about their daily business was a once in a lifetime moment.

Around Rothera Point there are still numerous Elephant Seals and Fur Seals hauled up on the beaches. A blonde Fur Seal was witnessed on East Beach. There was a blizzard blowing at the time providing it with very effective camouflage.

On another day whilst water sampling from the boat, John Withers and myself suddenly heard a smash and we looked round to see the dorsal fin of a Minke Whale submerging below the surface. Moments later two Minkes took it in turns to poke their heads out the newly formed hole in the ice and take in massive lungfuls of air. Their pure white grooved throat was very noticeable at they nudged their heads up so that their blowhole was clear of the water.

The marine bio team (i.e. Dan, Hamish and myself) subjected the rest of the base with a presentation on our respective projects. Science Evening kicked off with myself attempting to justify relentless long term monitoring of the seawater in Ryder Bay. Dan stepped up to the rostrum next to give us the low down on our unique iceberg disturbed ecosystem. We were relieved to hear that pristine areas like “Shack’s Crack” do not get a pounding from the ice. Hamish finalised the proceedings with a relaxed and professional presentation on his work with Antarctic Cod. It was a successful night on the whole, I think the audience received us fairly well and it was also useful for us in practising presentations. Afterwards we discussed topics raised during the presentations in the bar.

It is traditional to exchange gifts on Mid-Winters Day in Antarctica, hence pressure was on for a lot of people to finish or even start making their gifts. The Chippie Shop is a hive of activity, packed with industrious wannabe carpenters.

By the 17th of June, the sea had frozen over. It is very quiet and there are stunning pinks reflecting on the glassy surface. There are a few stages the ice goes through. Firstly, Frazil Ice is when individual ice crystals form on the sea surface. This then turns to Grease Ice, which is a concentration of broken ice crystals that makes the sea surface look thick and gloopy. Dark Nilas is the first layer of hardened transparent ice. Once this becomes thicker the ice is no longer transparent and looks white (Light Nilas). After a few weeks, if conditions are conducive to ice formation, the Nilas should be 30cm thick which we will then call First Year Ice.

Mid Winter Celebrations were kicked off in the tradition Rothera manner. Theme bars were visited all over the Base where we all had varied amounts of fun, justice, moshing, and humiliation. Monday the 21st was Mid Winters Day. Nudity seemed to be a continuing theme throughout the day. There was a streak around the base and Rob Jarvis managed to psyche himself up for a nude ski up and down the local ski slope. Another mid winter tradition is to watch “The Thing”, where an Antarctic Base (not too dissimilar to ours) becomes infected with an alien virus and everybody dies a horrible death. (Cheery movie!?) The exchanging of Mid-Winter presents occurred next. The standard of workmanship was very high. All the blood sweat and tears shed in the chippie shop and garage was not in vain. Everybody was thrilled to receive what will be a poignant memento in years to come. A crackly world service was tuned into and the base settled down to appreciate their personal messages sent from friends and family relayed by satellite from the other side of the planet. Our very own French 3 Rosette AA Master restaurant Chef provided a Mid-Winter feast fit for a king. As you can imagine the food was fantastic. We took several hours to savour each mouth-watering dish. (See menu (pdf)). Afterwards, champagne and good banter flowed until the early hours.

The rest of the week involved two charity events, proceeds of which went to The RNLI and Cancer Research UK. There was also a barbecue on North Beach. The vibe was chilled (-15C) unless you huddled around the “controlled meat burn” then it was a little bit warmer. Laid back tunes emanated from the boogiebox, whilst people congregated by the beautifully constructed SnowBar and took in the night vibe with stars twinkling and icebergs lit up by floodlights out in the bay. On this night, the results of the Photo Competition were announced. Timothy Burton scooped the winner with a picture of a seal paw. Joint runners up were John Withers (Drums and winter sky) and Hamish Campbell (Weddell Seal).

The last event of The Mid Winter week was held in the aircraft hangar. Several of us competed in a three a side football tournament. This was a good opportunity to run around like crazy and metabolise all the good food and beer guzzled over the week. Back to work and what is our reality in Antarctica. The field assistants went on the sea ice near the end of the month and measured its thickness. It was an encouraging 25cm thick and we were able to cut holes for diving purposes. John Withers wielded the chainsaw with confidence as he diced the sea ice into blocks and we pulled them free of the water. So the month neatly ends on getting ready to take the plunge through ice holes. Expectation by the divers is high as we prepare to dive under the ice which has been quoted as “The Holy Grail of diving.”

Well that was June. And what a month it was too. I send out a message of love to my family; Mum, Dad, Gran, Stuart, Jules, Zoe, Patsy and Mr Smith. See you all in April 2005.

Andrew Miller

Assistant Marine Biologist