King Edward Point Diary – February 2010

28 February, 2010

February was a very busy time at KEP, it began with the aroma of fish and a hint of diesel perfuming the base, signalling the return of Team Fish from FV Sil after the annual ground fish survey. We were joined on base by Mark Belchier and Sue Gregory, who together with Luke had a hectic lab period to tackle the considerable work load generated by the survey. Tom Marshall, our former base commander, also returned to KEP to run our annual field training course, and we were lucky enough to be visited by Jon Shanklin, the BAS meteorologist who gained international acclaim when he first discovered the ozone hole 25 years ago. Jon was here to install a new digital rain gauge, and give our existing meteorological kit a service.

Almost as soon as Luke had returned, and as Mark and Sue were settling into the lab, Richy, Luke and I went with Tom to Sörling for two days of field training. Each year the wintering staff undertake a period of training with one of the BAS mountaineers to brush up our navigation and general outdoor skills. This year we each had a day’s navigation training on a climb up Mt Ellerbeck, before spending a second day on the Nordenskjöld Glacier practising our rope work — which is also a great excuse to get out on the glaciers and abseil down into the crevasses! Once everyone had finished their training at Sörling, Tom moved onto search and rescue (SAR) techniques. There is no SAR team at KEP, so we have to be able to look after ourselves should someone have an accident in the hills. To this end we spent a day conducting a SAR exercise, Ainslie (the museum manager) was the casualty. The scenario was that she had slipped and broken her leg on the slopes of Brown Mountain. A rescue party was assembled and set off to find Ainslie, upon finding her we administered some basic first aid — splinting her leg, giving pain relief, and checking for any other injuries. We then strapped her to a stretcher and carried her back to Grytviken where we transferred her onto the boats and took her to KEP. Doing this sort of thing really makes you think, as it was a pretty short carry compared to where we could end up extracting a casualty from, and yet it was still very draining.

With the field training complete, the focus turned to the half marathon; each year the KEP personnel run a half marathon in the local area. It is not your average course, in fact the lack of roads, and mountainous terrain make it more of a fell race, and a challenging one at that. Underfoot the route is either steep scree or boggy grassland, and there are three separate climbs totalling approximately 625m of ascent — so it is not for the faint of heart. Having the visitors on base made for a good field, and many had been training hard for the event. In particular there was a hot competition brewing between our electrician Richy, and Hugh Marsden, who is the museum handyman, and a very keen runner. I had not been so keen on the training, in fact had done none at all, relying instead on 4 months of doing the 12km walk to Maiviken every 2 days to get me through. Never the less I flippantly set myself the target of going under 2hrs — a rather ambitious quarter of an hour off my time from the previous year…

On the day the weather was smiling on us, providing fair conditions with just a little wind to keep us cool. The competitors were split into three categories, with a staggered start to ensure everyone finished about the same time; first to set off were ‘Jon’s Angels’ consisting of Jon Shanklin, and his angels — Ruth, Susan, and Sue who walked the course. Next to go were the ‘Runklers’, Paula, Ali and Bridget who intended to complete the course with a mixture of walking and running or runkling. The runners left last, with Richy, Hugh, Tom, George, Luke, Mark, Kieron and myself foolishly wanting to run the whole way!

Everyone who competed put in a huge effort, and no-one failed to complete the event, I shan’t list all the places and times, but there are some results which are definitely worth a mention. Richy put in terrific performance, taking an early lead which he maintained to win the Runners event, smashing the course record with an awesome time of 1:37:58! Hugh was a close second after battling hard to catch up with Richy, and finished with a time of 1:39:36 which was also well below the old course record. Paula won the Runklers race with a superb time of 2:40:35, knocking half an hour off her efforts the previous year. Jon and his Angels had a great day out, and gave plenty of much needed support and encouragement to the other competitors throughout the route. They even lived up to their hero namesakes when they came to the aid of one of the runners who suffered a very severe bout of cramps, helping him to finish the course. I just managed to achieve my target of under 2 hrs, coming in with 1:59:56 — talk about cutting it fine! Finally I should mention George who, not wanting to take things too seriously, ran the entire race wearing a kilt, a Mohican wig, ski goggles and canvas shoes! Needless to say the event was followed by most of the base members hobbling round in various states of debilitation for a few days, all except Hugh who went for a ‘light jog’ the next afternoon! Personally I felt like an 80 year old from the waist down for about a week, perhaps I should have done some training, oh well maybe next year if I am still here…

There was also a cultural side to life at KEP this month, in the form of an art exhibition inspired and organised by Bridget Steed, a Scottish artist working for the South Georgia Heritage Trust. Everyone on base was given a copy of a South Georgia Map, from which we were instructed to create a piece of art. The artwork was then displayed in the remains of the meat cookery at Grytviken for an afternoon with a Champagne reception. There was some amazing work; everyone had put in a lot of effort, and it was great to see the variety of approaches people had taken to the same brief — it seems there is a lot of hidden talent on base!

Somewhere in between all this, I also had to make some time for work… This month I was mostly occupied by the Antarctic fur seals at my Maiviken study sight. February is the third month of the fur seal breeding season, and whilst the beaches are quieter and big males have returned to sea, the females and pups remain so there is still work to be done. Throughout the month I was continuing a tagging project which I started in December, that involves attaching GPS devices to the seals to see where they go to forage. It is important to know where the seals go, since it identifies areas which are important to animals, which may in the future need to be protected in order to ensure they always have a plentiful food source. I was also conducting the usual weekly fur seal diet analysis, which involves collecting 10 poos or scats a week. The scats are then sorted, to find any hard parts they may contain, these include Antarctic krill carapaces (or shells), fish ear bones, and squid beaks. All these items can then be used to identify the species and estimate the size of the prey the seals have been exploiting during the week, so we get a really good idea of what they have been eating.

Then there was the fur seal pup weighing, as Ali mentioned last month each year we weigh 100 fur seal pups in January, February and March to see how quickly they are growing. This data can be used as a proxy for how much food is available for the mothers – if the pups are growing slowly then it suggests that there is not much food around, while if they are fat and growing fast it implies there is plentiful food. This month the pups were very fat, which is great to see, although it did make it very hard work; with each pup weighing an average of 11kg, by the end of the day the team had lifted and weighed a total of over 1 tonne of wriggly, bity fur seal!

The month ended with Hayley Shepherd setting off on her attempt to kayak solo around South Georgia to raise funds and awareness for the Save the Albatross campaign. The expedition had suffered some major setbacks; the skipper of her support yacht had a nasty accident on the passage from South America which meant he had to leave the yacht, and then Hayley arrived to find that her kayak had been crushed in transit and was severely damaged. Still she persevered, and found a new crew member in the Falklands before spending several days at KEP patching up the kayak to get it seaworthy again, so it was great to finally see her able to leave. Unfortunately though, the weather was not on Hayley’s side either, and this combined with the delays she had already sustained meant she was not able to complete her attempt. Still Hayley has not given up, and hopes to raise funds to make another attempt and we wish here every luck in this.

Right I think that just about sums it up, I hope you have enjoyed reading about another month of our adventures on South Georgia!

Best wishes to all the friends and family at home,

Jon Ashburner

Zoological Field Assistant