King Edward Point Diary – August 2009

31 August, 2009

August was a month of mixed weather here at KEP, it started with a pretty drastic thaw, which made the keen skiers amongst us a little worried that it may be the end of the South Georgia ski season. Our fears were soon put to rest though as the snow returned in earnest towards the end of the month, when we got a little more than we bargained for…

The thaw did have some advantages though, reducing avalanche risk, and consolidating the snow pack, making travel much easier and safer. This was a blessing for Luke, Richey and Paula who began the month with a 5-day trip to Ocean Harbour. This abandoned whaling station on the Eastern coast of the Barff Peninsula is a fascinating place to visit. The remains of the station are still present including an upturned steam locomotive and the wreck of the Bayard, an iron cargo ship that went aground in 1911 after being blown off her mooring.

There is also plenty of wildlife to be seen at Ocean harbour including Antarctic fur seals, Southern elephant seals and reindeer. Luke, Paula and Richy were particularly lucky in encountering 2 adult leopard seals, an occasional winter visitor to South Georgia. These were the first leopard seals of the winter, and turned out to be the first of many in August.

The field party returned to base just in time for Sarah’s (our post mistress) birthday. Sarah had very generously offered to cook her own birthday meal and produced a magnificent spread of sushi! We all went round that evening and had a lovely evening in Carse House (the Government Officers residence).

The next day I took advantage of the thaw to go and conduct one of my favourite pastimes — collecting fur seal poo at Maiviken! This is a method of diet analysis, to see what the furries have been eating. The hard parts of the prey items remain intact throughout the digestion process and so can be found in the scats. I sort through the scats in the lab and extract these hard remains. They include the otoliths (ear bones) of fish, beaks of squid, and the carapaces of Antarctic krill and other crustaceans. From these items one can identify the species they came from, and even the size of the original prey items. This was the most successful scat collection mission of the winter so far. Previous trips have been hampered by snowfall, either burying the ‘treasures’ or making the trip to Maiviken too dangerous due to the avalanche risk.

Throughout the year we undertake training to help us to deal with any situation that we may encounter, this includes boating, first aid, oil spill management, and much more. This month we conducted a search and rescue (SAR) exercise to prepare us for the unlikely eventuality of having to go and rescue an injured or missing person; there are no emergency services here so we have to be able to look after ourselves. The winter SAR took place in Grytviken, its main purpose was to train us in the use of pulks — the man pulled sledges we use to transport a casualty over the snow. We took the boats over to Grytviken (as we also needed to rehearse transferring the casualty between the boats) and Tom set off up the hill to find a suitable position from where we could rescue him. The remainder then followed on with the pulk and rescue kit — it was hard enough dragging the pulk through the soft snow when it was empty! Once we got to Tom we went through the attachment of the casualty to the stretcher, and then how to stow the stretcher and casualty in the pulk. With that complete, we had a quick lesson in how best to drag the pulk (after learning how not to do it on the way up the hill), and then set off back to the boats. For some reason Tom didn’t trust us enough to remain on the stretcher while we did the boat transfers so he was replaced by an even heavier dummy… The transfers went well and we headed back to base for lunch with our rescue mission complete! It was great to have the whole gang off base for the first time, usually we would have to leave one BAS person on base, but an exception was made for this training exercise.

The training continued with the start of winter field training. Tom took Luke, Angy and Paula up to Dead Man’s Col for two days of training. The first day was spent digging a snow cave, for the team to sleep in that night. The construction process turned out to be quite a damp one though, and only one member of the group managed to keep their underwear dry! The shelter was surprisingly warm and comfortable inside and afforded a great nights sleep to the guys, apart from those who needed the loo in the middle of the night but couldn’t face the dash into the cold…

For me the month ended in a rather splendid ski holiday with George and Tom on the Barff peninsula. The three of us spent five days based at Sörling Hut, and were treated to some spectacular weather! On arriving at the hut we found some rat droppings inside — this is something we are very keen to avoid as we don’t want the rats damaging our emergency supplies. After a quick examination we soon found where the rats were getting in; there was a hole in the kick board of the door, and another in the floor of the hut with a piece of angle iron protruding through. The first day was spent carrying out repairs to the hut to make it rat proof once more.

We had decided to make the trip to Ocean Harbour the following day, so got up early and started the ski over the col. The weather was calm but somewhat murky, meaning there was very little contrast in the snow, this made what should have been a lovely ski descent into Ocean Harbour a little taxing since we could not see the lie of the land. Still we made it down safely, and enjoyed a very scenic ski around the coast, during which we encountered another leopard seal tucked away on a headland, thanks to Tom’s keen eye! After taking some photos of this lovely animal we returned to the Ocean Harbour hut for a spot of lunch before another wee perambulation around the remains of the station, and then headed home.

After the long ski the day before, the third day of the trip began with a lazy morning eating a feast of pancakes and maple syrup — hardcore Antarctic camping — before heading out to climb Mt Ellerbeck. Ellerbeck is a peak on the southern edge of Sörling valley and offered some superb views over the Nordenskjöld glacier with the Allardyce mountain range behind. The weather was sublime; calm, sunny and not a cloud in the sky. It was a real treat to see South Georgia in such wonderful conditions. The snow was excellent too for the most part, with just a little bit of crusty snow on the lower slopes. In leaving late we were treated to some amazing light on the summit as the sun fell low in the sky — it was a superb day for photography, so we stayed on the summit as long as we could before enjoying some delightful downhill skiing back to Sörling.

The penultimate day again brought superb weather, and after the relaxing day before we decided this was too good an opportunity to be missed, and set off early for a long ski over to St Andrews Bay where we planned to stay the night. St Andrews is at the farthest extent of our travel limit and is simply an idyllic spot; surrounded by glaciers and home to more than 100,000 breeding pairs of king penguins, there are few places in the world it comes second to. To be able to see it in such fine weather is a rare privilege. After arriving we spent the remainder of the day around the colony, taking in the views, observing the interactions between the charismatic birds and taking a veritable plethora of photographs — the editing continues!

The weather was not so kind for our return trip, the wind had picked up, and there was a very fine rain that froze on contact with our hair, clothing and bags. We left ‘early doors’ so to ensure we made it back to Sörling in time for our boat pick up, and due to the inclement conditions there were not so many stops for photos on the way. We made it back to Sörling in very good time, had a bit of a fry up, tidied the hut, and were picked up tired but contented after a fabulous holiday…

That night brought a bumper dump of snow and we awoke the next morning to find the base had virtually been buried. This meant a great deal of digging was required to clear the walkways, windows and doors as they all have to be kept clear for fire exits.

Right I think that is all the highlights from August, I hope you have enjoyed reading about our adventures on this wonderful little island.

Best wishes to all my family and friends at home,

Jon Ashburner

Zoological Field Assistant