King Edward Point Diary – February 2005

28 February, 2005 King Edward Point

A busy month

Hi to all our avid readers and Welcome to KEPs February edition. I’m one of the new team fish scientists at KEP. After being south for four months now I have settled in to life on South Georgia and am enjoying every minute of it. For me having spent most of January out at sea on board FPV Dorada on the annual fishing survey (check out last months newsletter for more details) it was great to be back on base for February and to see beautiful South Georgia up close again.

The Fishy Science

Since getting back to KEP the science team have been busy. Mark (our Big Chief from Cambridge) and Martin Collins (our very own Myctophid fanatic) stayed on at KEP after the fisheries survey to work up the samples collected during the survey and to bring the new science team up to speed on what’s to be achieved over the next year. Our reliable little fishing vessel Quest was taken out of the water on the 8th February for some well-earned TLC. Thus, the science team were grounded for most of February and the fishing and plankton programmes were put on hold. ‘Good Old Questy’ is still undergoing treatment but we hope to have her back in the water in early March.

Without Quest the science team were forced to spend the majority of their time in the laboratories. So we have had a fun month of fish aging through otolith (fish earbones) preparation, creating pretty histological slides from fish gonads and fish stomach content analysis. (I will never forget the odour of semi-digested krill, thank you Martin for that!). Who says fisheries scientists don’t know how to have fun?!

Our visiting crab expert Sven Thatje had a break-through with the larval development of the king crab Paralomis spinosissima. He managed to get several larvae to reach the megalopae stage. This is the first benthic stage of the crabs development which means that they live on the sea floor. According to our base doctor Jenn, the success of the baby crabs development was down to her advising Sven to talk to them! Whatever the reason the megalopae are very tiny but very cute and we will hopefully get some to survive into juvenile crabs. (I will continue to talk to them although my German accent isn’t very convincing!).

Work outside the laboratories

While the beekers played around in the labs, the real workers including our boatmen H and Rick and technical service guys Kris and Steve put long hours in on Quest to get her back in working order. Things haven’t always gone smoothly and extra parts are hard to come by down here in South Georgia unless they’ve been ordered well in advance. So we are all hoping that the engineers onboard both the RRS Ernest Shackleton and the RRS James Clark Ross will have the parts needed to enable us to get Quest up and running again. Krissi, our sparky, also had to carry out some work on Pipit one of our new jetboats as she seems to have arrived with ‘good batteries not included’!

The weather

The weather dictates most of what we get up to at KEP from outdoor work to outdoor leisure. There were quite a few times this month when it looked like summer was coming to an end as the winds picked up and blew williwaws across the bay. But then we had days where temperatures were high (17°C +) and the wind was warm and it was amazing to get out and enjoy fabulous South Georgia with its snow capped mountains, its clear lakes, its babbling brooks, its huge variety of wildlife, its glaciers, yadda, yadda, yadda.

The adventures

A few of us escaped to the Barff Peninsula in early February. A group of fast walking enthusiasts, were dropped off at Sorling Bay on a mission to St. Andrews Bay. While a smaller group, of not so intrepid explorers, got dropped off at Corral and took a stroll to Godthul. Will, one of the intrepid explorers, has written about his adventure to Ocean Harbour and St. Andrews Bay….

Ocean Harbour & St Andrews Bay

Having enjoyed a wonderful three weeks at sea Martin, Mark and myself (Will) decided to shake off our sea legs with a leisurely trip to Ocean Harbour and St Andrews Bay accompanied by Andy “two scoops” Rankin. The trip got off to a great start- an afternoon drop off at Sorling on a lovely sunny day with a right whale in Cumberland Bay! The walk over to Ocean Harbour from Sorling only took a couple of hours as Mighty Collins and Two Scoops set an early and almost terrifyingly quick pace. However, it meant that we had plenty of time for a nosey around Ocean Harbour before a delightful dinner of vegetable chilli con-carne and cous-cous… Mmmmhhhhhh my favourite! It is a delightful spot Ocean Harbour and so far one of my favourite places on the island. The fur seals are especially friendly as Mark found out when one chased him half way round the bay- some would have gone as far as saying that that furry had his name on it.

Saturday saw the start of the walk over to St Andrews. Another lovely sunny day. The walk was good with a quick foray into Penguin Bay to see the gentoos. Lunch at Hound Bay with the elephant seals and furries. A delightful walk up to the ridge that leads into St Andrews Bay with superb views looking out into the Southern Ocean – a solitary iceberg floating by. Then down, down, down into St Andrews Bay. The expansive Heaney Glacier in front of us with Mount Skittle to the left; reindeer running freely across the plains; the squawk of penguins in the distance and there, the St Andrews hut. Unfortunately things went a bit pear shaped when we arrived. A female elephant seal had become trapped in the front section of the hut. The animal was thankfully still alive but once released had left behind last seasons coat along with probably her two weeks of digested food- all smeared about three quarters of the way up each wall and over the floor. Next started a mammoth clean up operation. She had not made it through to the sleeping quarters so it was only a case of cleaning the first two sections of the hut. For the next four hours we scrapped, scrubbed, scoured and etched all the muck out of the two rooms with the tools we could find around the hut and cold water from a stream near by. We decided that we would visit the penguins Sunday morning so we had dinner – RAT PACK meat chilli con-carne and cous-cous, mmmmmmmmmmhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh my favouite – and crashed out early.

That night the wind blew and rain poured but by sunrise the weather had cleared, the sun came out and it was off to see the penguins. But it wasn’t going to be that simple- no no no. We had to cross a stream- that came half way up our thighs. So it was boots off, socks off, trousers off and across we went. It was definitely worth it. The colony at St Andrews is simply breath taking. As you walk deeper and deeper into the colony, the numbers of penguins get denser and denser until you can’t walk any further and are literally confronted by a wall of King penguins. After a couple of hours with the penguins it was time to say good-bye. So it was boots, socks and trousers off back across the stream, get the hut LOCKED UP and MADE SECURE, before the trip back over to Sorling for our taxi ride home.

But as this roller coaster of a weekend continued. The weather was too windy at our scheduled pick up time so it meant another night in the wilderness at Sorling Bay. With that in mind we took the news rather well and enjoyed a lovely cup of tea whilst icebergs carved and imploded in the lovely and sheltered Sorling Bay. Before settling down to RAT PACK chilli con-carne… Mmmmmmhhhhhhhhh lovely!

Will Reid

Thanks Will and the moral of this story is that elephant seals much prefer rolling around in muddy wallows outdoors and intrepid explorers don’t enjoy clearing up after moulting ellies! So SHUT the bloomin door once you’ve finished in the huts!

The smaller group of not so intrepid explorers included myself and as it was my first visit to the Barff it was all very new and exciting. When you look across at the Barff Peninsula from KEP it always seems to be bathing in sunshine and this weekend was no exception.

The Barff Peninsula is home to South Georgia reindeer, introduced by the Norwegians for food, back when the whaling stations were in use. So sitting admiring the view at Corral, you can see elephant seals wallowing in large muddy pits, fur seals scampering across the tussock, Sooty albatross soaring over head, icebergs glistening in the afternoon sun and reindeer munching on any vegetation they can get their teeth into. There was something quite familiar about seeing a four-legged creature wandering around (just like home after the pubs shut on a Saturday night!!). The reindeer wander freely over the Barff reaching locations that seem impossible to get to without wings and thus, they have, very usefully, worn out lots of pathways through the tussock and hillocks making it lots easier for us humans to walk around.

Corral Bay is a small semicircular bay facing straight across to King Edward Point. It comprises of a wee rocky beach, lined with low-lying tussock and wallows, gently inclining inland toward scree hills and mountains beyond. Just before the ground begins to rise sits one of the BAS huts, which is where the fair weather weekenders decided to stay for the night making the most of the lovely weather and the sturdy hut facilities. The following day we packed up after a leisurely breakfast of military ration porridge and sultanas and headed east up the inclining valley, with full backpacks and a tent. The sun again streamed down on the Barff and we crossed the central valley along the shores of a glacier lake without the slightest breeze. Ascending another incline at the far end of the valley we reached the coast on the other side. There is a steep decent into Godthul, but the views are amazing and it was well worth the scramble downward.

Once we found a suitable place to pitch our tent we discovered we had no pegs and had to improvise with walking poles, cutlery and large rocks – which did the job nicely – the sub-Antarctic is definitely a place for innovative people who tend to forget vital parts of kit and thus their travelling colleagues are forced to improvise! (Thank God for Nyctophids!).

There are several Gentoo penguin colonies up on the hills surrounding the bay. The chicks were all quite big at this stage but were still very demanding. We watched the parent Gentoos being chased around the hillsides by their persistent offspring in an effort to get them to give up a morsel of fishy food.

Heading back toward the tent we were travelling in the opposite direction to the evening commuters, returning home after a long day feeding at sea. Those belonging to the higher colonies had quite a trek up the hillside, and we saw lots stopping on the track, taking a breather before moving onward and upward.

The weather turned much windier over night and by Sunday morning it was very gusty so we packed up quickly and headed back to Corral for our pick up later that day. It proved to be too windy for the boats to collect us so all exploring parties were marooned on the Barff for another night. We had plenty of provisions to keep us going and once we had cooked up something delicious on our one pot stove we wrapped up in all our layers and jumped into sleeping bags to watch the bergs and twisting williwaws being blown across the bay. We were picked up the next morning and hot showers were enjoyed by all the adventurers – although not at the same time!

The following weekend another group ventured over to the Barff including Jenn (the base doctor), Jamie (fisheries scientist) and Stuffin’ Steve Massam (a visiting taxidermist who is staying at KEP while working on exhibits for the museum). They hiked across to Ocean Harbour and up Mount Ellerbeck.

All who visited the Barff during February had a great time and for 2005’s summer season the Barff Peninsula is the hot destination spot for all KEP residents.

On Saturday, 19th February I ventured up Mount Hodges with Ali (the BC) and Jenn to finally climb a peak and take in the views. It was a good climb not too steep but still a challenge for fair weather mountaineers like myself and we took it at a nice leisurely pace. Here’s a peek from the top!

The visitors

The RRS Ernest Shackleton arrived into King Edward Point on the evening of the 12th February. After spending three weeks anchored off Bird Island delivering materials for the rebuild of a new base there. It was a busy three weeks and they stayed along side for until Tuesday morning for some well earned R&R, before heading down to Halley for last call.

For Valentines night most people on board the Shackleton and all at KEP were invited to the Government Officers house for pre-dinner drinks, followed by a delicious buffet dinner (whipped up by Mark and Ali) in the base lounge.

Derek and Bins, two Able Seamen (ABs), stayed on at KEP after the Shackleton left on Tuesday 15th. They are due to stay with us until early March when they will get a lift back to Stanley to join the RRS James Clark Ross as crew.

On Sunday (20th February) the cruise ship Polar Star arrived into the bay, with a group of FIDS (Falkland Islands Dependencies Services – the original British Antarctic Survey and a term for any ex-BAS employee) onboard. The cruise was visiting some of the old and current BAS bases in the Antarctic. Many of them joined us for tea and scones (courtesy of Ali) and were amazed at the changes to King Edward Point since their day. We in turn were invited onboard for a barbecue that evening and were fascinated by Antarctic stories from times gone by.

The FPV Sigma arrived in on Tuesday 22nd with some fresh supplies, an independent photographer called Paul Sutherland, his assistant Sijmon de Waal and Owen Betts a boatman from the Falklands. Paul, Sijmon and Owen are staying at KEP for about 11 days hoping to photograph toothfish underwater. Unfortunately with Quest out of the water we won’t be going fishing but the guys have managed to get out diving. The fish have proved camera shy up until now, so the only reliable models Paul can find are the KEP science team preparing toothfish otoliths. If fisheries science doesn’t work out for us we now know we can always turn to modelling!!

Sue Harvey a vet from the Falklands also arrived on Sigma with Chris one of the penguin scientists from Bird Island. They joined us for dinner that evening but left on board Sigma early the next morning to visit penguin and seal colonies along the coast. Numerous chinstrap penguins have been dying from avian cholera at Cooper Bay so Sue with Chris’ help wanted to take some blood and tissue samples from different species of both penguins and seals to see whether other areas around South Georgia were affected.

On Friday 25th the navy vessel HMS Dumbarton Castle visited King Edward Point on their way to the South Sandwich Islands. We went on board for a social drink or two and caught up with some of the crew who we had met when the ship had called in last November. They were much happier to be sailing around South Georgia this time around, now that the number of icebergs has lessened.

February has been a hectic month for both cruise ships and yachts too. We even had a visit from an Irish yacht called ‘Pure Magic’. Having travelled down to the Antarctic Peninsula and South America, Peter, Joe, Robert, Pat, John and David are now heading northwards to South Africa. They took a detour to South Georgia to admire the spectacular scenery and ‘to the watch the sun go down on Cumberland Bay’!! Not quite Galway Bay but fabulous just the same.

The sport

KEP were challenged to a Sunday afternoon football match by some of the guys onboard the Shackleton when they called in. Kick off was at 2.00 pm (ish) on the old whalers pitch behind the whaling station. It’s not the most level of playing fields, which made the six aside match an interesting spectators sport, for the three supporters that turned up! The teams ended up being six aside because the sunny weather enticed lots of people to head for the hills instead. The KEP team consisted of two new over winterers (Rick and Will), the two museum assistants (Nick and Andy) and Mark and Martin (the hard working scientists from Cambridge – here on a prolonged jolly!). Shacks team included the BAS dentist Ben (who travels to all the bases on the Shackleton making sure everyone flosses and uses their mouthwash), Jonesey, Mike, Heff (Ian) and Bins (Mark) who wasn’t afraid to dive into the burnett infested ground to get the ball.

Although KEP played a great game, luck wasn’t on their side and the Shack sailed away with a 12-7 win. Predatory striker Will Reid scored six of the KEP goals and is waiting for his international call-up to play for the full Scotland team any day now (as the man says himself!). Not to be sore losers we all celebrated in the sunshine with a few Sunday afternoon soft-drinks!

On February 19th AWG (the guys working on the whaling station and the museum at Grytviken) held a table tennis and pool competition with a pre tournament buffet included, thanks again to the great culinary skills of Andy Chef! It was an evening of suspense and tactical manoeuvres but our own Mighty Martin Collins took the ping-pong title while Tim Platt from Morrisons won the pool comp.

The wildlife

All the ellie weaners have flown the wallow this month so there are only a few older moulting elephant seals left around KEP. The fur seal pups are practically all grown up now, although we still see our wee pup, on the track to Grytviken, with his mum. He has turned into a really cute cheeky chappy and will hopefully come back and see us next year although I’m not sure we will recognise him!

The numbers of fur seals along the track between Grytviken and KEP and around the base have decreased too but there are still small gangs of young males loitering outside Larsen House and up at Hope Point ready to pounce whenever anyone walks past. But as usual they are more growl than bite!!

We have, however, had some surprise wildlife visitors too, not usually seen around Cumberland Bay, such as chinstrap penguins. A group of Chinnies have found the perfect place to moult in amongst large rusting chains at Grytviken.

And when some of the guys went walking over toward the Nordenskjold glacier they bumped into a plump and happy Weddell seal.

That’s about all the news from KEP this February. All that remains for me to write is Hello to all those who know me and to send them my love and tell them that although I miss them all very much, South Georgia is an absolutely amazing place and I am really enjoying my time hanging around down here.

That’s all folks….make sure you tune in next month for more exciting updates from KEP.

Bye for now….. Slán go fóill