King Edward Point Diary – April 2005

30 April, 2005

Summer’s end

April marks the end of the busy summer, the last of the summer visitors have gone – the scientists, technicians, tourists, seafarers, mountaineers and, of course, the taxidermist. It also heralds the start of toothfish season, and the snow coming in – and so, potentially at least, the start of the ski season. Finally it marks the departure of much of South Georgia’s incredible wildlife, as the days shorten, the sunlight level falls away, and with it the plankton blooms that provide the huge summer feed. It actually proved to be a busy month, taking us a bit by surprise.

Ken, our friendly neighborhood government officer, launched April with an ‘end of season’ party. It was partly an early farewell to the Morrison boys and partly to the crew of the season’s last yacht, ‘Gambo’. The Morrison guys had just finished a hectic seasons work at the whaling station, and had been great neighbours for the summer. Gambo’s crew had kept us entertained with their company, their mountaineering exploits and their fondue nights. Once again, Ken hosted a superb evening, and once again a good time was had by all. After a few G & T’s, for reasons that seem slightly obscure now, Jenn started offering haircuts. She’d never done one before, but by the end of the night there were seven newly-shorn heads, ready for their return to ‘the real world’. They were pretty good haircuts, too.

A bit of excitement on the 5th. With the end of our frequent summer visitors, we obviously become a bit more physically isolated. To keep a (slightly reassuring) eye on us, and to bring us mail and supplies, we get an occasional winter airdrop. After a dry run down the bay, the ‘Charlie-130’ lined up with our intrepid boatmen and their crews, just south of the cove in the middle of the bay, and dropped their boxes on parachutes from about 100 metres up. The boatmen were, as usual, on the ball, and recovered the packages in seconds. They had brought a few parts for various technical folk, and more importantly, mail and goodies for us all. The whole operation went like clockwork, a real pleasure to watch from my hillside vantage point, and to listen to on the radio.

A few days later we had ‘last call’, the season’s last visit by the ‘James Clark Ross’. It’s always good to see them, and generally means at least one party. The BAS boats always bring an interesting mix of scientists, crew and support staff in, and this was no exception. It was good to see Doctor Jen (Jen One, not to be confused with this year’s Doctor Jenn – Jenn Two), who was back through on her way out from a season at Bird Island, and also to see the JCR’s Doctor, Lisa, again. The JCR’s skipper, Chris, and his engineering team, also lent their crane, and more importantly their time and technical expertise, to help lift out, sort out and survey our old fishing boat, ‘Quest’ – a few finishing touches after her extensive refit and service by H, Rick, Steve and Chris. She’s definitely looking better for it, ready once again to fulfill her role at the cutting edge of sub-antarctic fisheries science………

South Georgia just happens to be right in the middle of the sub-antarctic depression belt. I’m not talking about the midwinter blues here, but the weather – it is perhaps the stormiest region on the planet. If you look at a series of six-hourly weather maps you can watch these storms spinning off South America and being shot through the Drake passage. Our worst storm hit on April 8th, while JCR was tied alongside the jetty. We dubbed it ‘The great storm of ’05’. The pressure dropped to a shade over 930mb, the lowest ever recorded on South Georgia, and far lower than the pressure at the eye of any tropical hurricane.

Even in the shelter of our cove we had gusts reaching 74 knots – hurricane force. The wind was whipping and gusting in every direction, and the icy cold, horizontal rain stung the skin like it was gravel. The extreme low pressure sucked up the tide, so our jetty was awash as far as the boatshed. One of the fur seal pups was at one point unceremoniously dumped, dazed and confused, onto the jetty. We had a fairly alarming time with the jetboats. As the tide was so high and the wind so unpredictable, they were straining towards the top edge of the jetty in the gusts, and there was real concern that our shiny new boats could be deposited on land just like the poor fur seal. Hamilton, Rick, Chris and Will took them clear before things really picked up, and a few of us helped them suspend the boats off the jetty and the JCR in a ‘cat’s cradle’ of lines. Not a pleasant job in those conditions, but it did the trick.

The next morning the winds had dropped but the swells were still coming in strong, and had gouged a slab ten feet thick out of our beach. The fur seals at Hope Point seemed dazed and were even grumpier and twitchier than normal – probably not a good night’s sleep for them, I guess. The light of day revealed the damage done by the storm – our HF radio mast had been hit by flying debris and had a fetching new kink in it. The debris was part of the roof of Discovery House, half of which had been lifted off by the storm.

JCR and Gambo both stayed in a couple of extra days while the residue of the storm passed through. An extra couple of days hard work for some, socialising for all, and an extra couple of days for farewells. Hamilton, or ‘H’, our senior boatman, and his ‘deplorable excess of personality’ will be missed. There was seldom a dull moment when he was around, and he did a superb job of not just keeping the boating going, but constantly ‘tweaking’ and improving the operation. Also out with JCR on the 11th were ‘the Morrison boys’. After a busy season fixing up the whaling station, the museum and Discovery House, Big Al, Andy chef, Little ‘H’, Nick and the others were leaving us for the winter, some of them off to help with the Bird Island rebuild. A good crowd – we look forward to seeing many of them next summer.

In the aftermath of the storm, the JCR also deposited a heavy duty ‘storm mooring’ with their crane as they left the jetty, giving us a bit of space to hold off the jetboats if another ‘superstorm’ hits.

Then they were gone, and the South Georgia winter population sat round a table for a coffee. I looked around the table, glad to be with the superb bunch of people I’m going to spend the winter with.

Once the storm had died down and we’d had her in the shed for the last few bits of work, it was time to re-launch ‘Good old Questy’ and take her out fishing. The old girl had been extensively revamped by a massive effort on the part of the boatmen and our tech services team, and the very welcome help from the JCR engineers. Her engine, wheelhouse and hydraulics definitely seemed much sweeter after her haulout. Jen had even made her a pair of fluffy dice in honour of her refit.

This is such a pristine, unspoilt part of the world, any manmade debris is rare and startlingly obvious here. The storm had ripped open the remains of the bay’s two fishing boat wrecks, spreading large chunks of polyurethane foam along the Hope Point to Sooty Bluff beach. Will, Chris, Jen, Sarah and myself spent a rainy but satisfying afternoon doing a beach cleanup, picking up a couple of cubic metres of the stuff.

Rick, who stepped up admirably to take over the running of the boatshed, along with Steve, our fixer of all things that clatter, clang and smoke and Chris, our sparky, don’t seem to have stopped at all this month. As well as Quest, they’ve had both jetboats out of the water for overhauls and repairs. Whether it’s servicing or sorting out boats, making or repairing moorings, boating support or fuel supply lines, they’ve had a busy, busy month.

Will also got an ‘honorary promotion’. Rick bestowed upon him the title of ‘Assistant Marine Engineer Will’, and handed him a broom. He helped out with the last stages of the Quest refit, working with Rick and Steve on the bilge keels, covering himself with silicone sealant and almost being let off his short leash to be allowed to use power tools. Joking apart, one of the best (and necessary) things about this group of people in this environment is that everyone can and does lend their hand to whatever needs doing. Will is already talking of ‘returning the favour’ by letting Rick sift through plankton or cut up fish, to earn the title ‘Assistant Scientist Rick’.

This month marked the end of South Georgia’s hyper-productive summer. The sun dipped lower throughout the month, struggling to climb over Mount Duce, and we’re getting less and less hours of direct sun on the base. The sea got bluer and clearer, the plankton nets emptier, and what may be the densest mammal and bird wildlife on earth thinned out to almost nothing. April is the month when the last of the fur seals, the juveniles and the females, finally head offshore. The numbers dwindled towards the middle of the month, and by the end of April there were just a handful left, briefly joined by a massive bull, swollen and satiated by his late summer feeding trip. The last few penguins also headed off, and the Sooty Albatrosses nesting around the cove gradually disappeared, leaving the base eerily quiet. A few elephant seals, rusty coloured with new coats and swollen after their feed, are hauled out, sleeping and occasionally ‘belch-bellowing’ at each other.

The end of wildlife season, though, coincides nicely with the start of ski season. We had a tantalising taster, a couple days of good snow, an excuse for a very welcome bit of a break. Tim, Pauline and Chris were out almost from the moment it landed, and I’ve not yet seen Pauline looking quite so content. Tim and Pauline gave most of us folks new to skiing ‘beginner’s lessons’. They set up and flattened out a nice gentle slope for us, and Tim took us through the basics, both of them patiently encouraging while we flailed, fell over and tried to move from completely out of control to at least some sort of beginner’s snow plough. Pauline gave us a wonderful, effortlessly graceful demonstration of how it can be done. Our serene base commander’s manic, wide eyed, squeaky giggle and grin, while doing her first, ‘almost under control’ run down the slope, was probably the most memorable summary of the fun of it all.

With Quest back in the water, we ‘beakers’ finally got to go out in boats and ‘do science’. We did a bit of fine tuning to our fishing techniques and, on a beautiful evening, got back into our plankton trawling. Sarah, looking through our plankton catch found, as if on cue, our first Mackerel Icefish larvae of the season. The Icefish have been rather elusive this year, so it’s nice to be picking up their larvae straight away.

Most of us had a great day in Cumberland Bay West, providing boat support as Ken and Steve did inspections and repairs to the Harpon and Jason Harbour huts. Rick took the jetboat, and I took the RIB. It was a superb day to be driving boats, with a swell lively enough to make driving boats fun but not lively enough to make it worrying. The beach at Jason had plenty of fur seals still around, and even some king penguins with chicks. Ken worked away with much needed repairs to the Jason Harbour hut. Down at Harpon, Steve went ashore in our majestic ‘dottyboat’ to inspect the Harpon Hut. On the return journey Ken and Will opted for the comfortable Jetboat ride while I handed over the RIB and crewed for Sarah. During the day ice had been blown out across the bay, so for the return journey the way back was dotted with ‘growlers’ – mini icebergs. I was treated to one of the finest bits of boathandling I have seen, as Sarah led the way out through the swells and the bergs.

Food at KEP is always good, often a great deal better than good. We take it in turns to cook the evening meal, which means every couple of weeks you put together a meal for several. The most intimidating for many is ‘Saturday Cook’ – three courses, sometimes for over twenty people, is pretty tough for some of us. Rick the boatman is a guy who, like me and a couple of others, really didn’t enjoy his day in the kitchen. His April ‘Saturday cook’, though, is definitely worth a mention. A pleasant Saturday, so some of us were out off base – he got in there and steadily worked away, and every time we passed through he actually seemed to be enjoying himself. The results were no surprise, then. He served a fantastic sit down, three course meal, served individually, with yorkshire charm and lashings of wine. The chicken pie was wonderful, the Victoria sponge may well be the best I’ve ever tasted. His gran would be so proud.

Perhaps because we are not injuring ourselves enough to keep her busy, or more likely as a rather good bit of winter social glue, Jen has started teaching some very enjoyable evening Spanish lessons. Nearly a half of the winter population of South Georgia attends, which has got to be some sort of record. After only a couple of weeks, Chris has established himself as a natural, and ‘the star student’ – I’ve never seen anyone attain that kind of fluency so easily.

With the toothfish vessels, the fishery patrol vessel ‘Sigma’ called in. With her came Pat and Sarah Lurcock, refreshed after their UK and US holiday and ready for the toothfish season. Already, after six months, the base is ‘home’, the wintering folks down here are ‘family’, and it’s good to have everyone back again.

A new member to the ‘family’ arrived with them. Bernard is the new boatman. His easy Irish charm and humour meant he very quickly settled into the place, and he launched straight into the busy boating season with ease.

Sigma also brought in more good company, for the slightly shorter term. Jeremy Robst was down to do a major overhaul to our computer system. As well as bringing our base IT in line with the 21st century, he sorted out all sorts of personal IT glitches for many of us, and brought us country and western, and his own brand of philosophy – an all round good guy. Dave Peck was also unexpectedly back, with Nigel and Wayne from the Falklands. It was a hastily scheduled trip to do repairs to the storm-damaged roof, nonetheless a pleasant surprise when we heard that we would have Dave back for a while. Nigel and Wayne settled in nicely for their brief but pleasant stay. It was also good to see Martin Ward and Mike Unwin, down here again as longline observers. They stayed with us for a day or so until their vessels arrived. Mike had enough time to go out with the inspecting officers and try out his hydrophone, ready to do some acoustic monitoring of Orcas and Sperm Whales as they interact with the fishing vessels.

The Sigma crew themselves don’t ever stay for very long, but we always have time for a drink or two. Jenn and myself even had a chance to practice our Spanish, putting the world to rights with the Sigma’s chef, Angel.

The serious business of the island at the end of April is the longline inspections. The fishery here provides around a quarter of the world’s legally caught toothfish, and the revenues to keep it patrolled and monitored, including the running of this base. The South Georgia Government, BAS and fisheries consultants MRAG work together to monitor and manage this fishery, under intense international scrutiny. The fish, which can be pretty impressive, sometimes well over two metres long, are fished by longline and command high market prices. To fish here, vessels are required to comply with stringent regulations, in order to maintain a sustainable fishery and to safeguard seabird populations.

This month also brought a success against illegal fishing vessels, with the successful prosecution in the Falklands islands of the ‘pirate’ vessel ‘Elqui’, caught fishing without permission off Shag Rocks a few weeks ago, and escorted to Port Stanley.

Ken and Pat, our fisheries officers and the representatives of the South Georgia Government, inspect each fishing vessel as they come in. It’s a fairly rigorous process for them, and a busy few days for us all. The job of the base personnel is to shuttle them to and from vessels, and provide any other logistical support required.

It’s also a good time for us ‘beakers’ – the toothfish are probably the most important species to our work here, and we get to spend a bit of time with the observers who go out on each toothfish vessel and collect data and samples. It’s the culmination of a lot of preparation work on our part, and marks the start of next year’s work, as the observers collect the samples we work up over the next several months. They work hard out there, all hours of the day, seven days a week for about three months, and as well as keeping an eye on the fishery and doing their own tagging and monitoring work, they collect data and samples for us. It’s good, then, for us to look out for them in any way we can. Sarah had put together a ‘care package’ for each observer – chocolates, assorted teas and coffees, that sort of thing – and wherever possible, we try to get them ashore for a while, to show them around ‘our’ island.

Well, that was April! To folks back ‘home’, my friends and family, wherever home may be, and especially to a young penguin fan named Alex, I miss you all, and send love and best wishes from the ever weird and ever wonderful ‘South G.’