31 August, 2010 King Edward Point
A door opens, a draught builds (the furious winds try to gain entry) and a Jenga tower of to-do lists, scrap paper of words I still haven’t looked up, wrappers of chocolates I haven’t eaten in months, lost pens, unfinished crosswords and polar bear Christmas cards topples on top of my web diary endeavours. The to-do lists are barking up the wrong tree, most urging me to tidy my desk or my room. All is quickly reorganised into a quivering mountain of procrastination; my fingers already too caught up in the keyboard (itching to type).
That was then; it is now 12th November when I take breath and attempt to write this again. September and October have blurred past like billowing clouds of snow, with no definite shape or structure from one second to the next. The scraps of paper, the to-do lists and all the shrapnel of two years has been bundled away in preparation for the next generation of South Georgia residents and I’m left poking around the ashes looking for the remains of August. What did happen? Where did it go?
So then, August.
They still pay us to work, so work we must. Jon and I put to sea for about 4 days to continue the Overseas Territories Environment Programme funded survey of krill fishing areas. Our far from stable platform, the Fisheries Patrol vessel is rolled and churned about the ocean as Jon counts birds and sea mammals that forage in these krill fishing areas. I look for fish larvae that might use the same habitat, and thus inadvertently get caught in the industrial-sized krill fishing operations. The motion-induced lethargy strips the body and mind of motivation as I wait for darkness to trawl for plankton and my fish larvae. The swell rolls by endlessly under a thick grey sky.
I wonder why I am here. I grew up as far from the sea as one can be in Ireland, yet I have taken to it, more often than not since leaving my formal education behind. I do not take lightly any departure from the very land that bore me. One leaves a lot behind, yet when out there I do leave it behind, and in many ways am thankful for the break from those vices that on land try to drown me. There follows an almost nervousness of returning, though I expect some cannot wait. But I digress.
The sky remains obscured by cloud for several nights either side of the 12th and so there is no opportunity to see the Perseid Shower from these southern climes. Yet those very clouds bring nothing to restore hope of a decent snowfall. It seems the winter has forgotten us. Talk of epic ski trips has dwindled to a trickle in the corridors and mocking jokes around the dining table. The more enthusiastic of us make do with what thin covering is present and ski around the track to Grytviken and put in a few runs on the slopes down from Gull Lake. The snow is patched with ice, the result of the scouring action by strong winds. Spindrift blows across the surface of the slope at shin height, so you start to lose sight of your skis and feet. You could almost be in the Antarctic. Almost.
A mid-month boat trip to bring the senior Government Officer, Pat, to Stromness Bay provides us with wildlife sightings that we haven’t had much of all winter. Thies and Kicki aboard their yacht Wanderer III were safely tucked into a corner of Husvik and accompanied by several leopard seals. Most took turns ashore to stretch their legs, chatting with our yachtsmen friends while Pat went to photograph a gravestone in the whaler’s cemetery for the benefit of a descendent of the deceased. In nearby Leith Harbour our boats got our own leopard seal show. A large inquisitive female overcame her initial shyness and approached the boats, swooping and gliding underneath our hulls. To see these beasts at such close quarters is truly awe-inspiring; the ease at which they move their bulk through the water, and the rather serpentine head of this great southern predator makes one wish never to be a penguin.
The base females take off on holidays and judging by how much food they take, they may be some time. The men are left behind and the sub-Antarctic base returns to how it used to be. Beards spouted almost spontaneously and thick cotton check shirts were donned as we regaled each other with stories of man hauling shopping trolleys full of beer through uneven and steeply cambered supermarket car parks in that miserable January some years back. The deep grunts half smothered by beards are indecipherable as to their meaning acquiescence or dissension.
To complete the nostalgia for times past, a Soviet era crab fishing vessel from Kamchatka turns up for an exploratory fishing license. When asked to comment on its interior, accommodation and living quarters, one of the government officers shakes his head several times, and tries to say something about stepping back through time and Formica table tops.
By the end of the month the first bull elephant seals are turning up to scout out the breeding beaches and so we know that winter is drawing to a close.
Fisheries Scientist, KEP