King Edward Point Diary – January 2013

31 January, 2013

After a brief hiatus in KEP web diaries, I apologise in advance for this being fairly epic entry, it’s been a busy month or so!

Firstly, a hello from the new wintering team who arrived at KEP in early November. This intrepid bunch of soon-to-be sub-Antarctic heroes is comprised of Joe (sparky), Dan-Danny-Daniel (higher predator scientist), Ella (boaty), Sue (fish wife), and Rod (BC) and Hazel (doc). Two KEP old-timers complete the 2012/13 team — Erny (genny mech) and Paula (Mrs Boat).

The arrival of the new team was followed by slightly tearful goodbyes to the old winterers and we wish them all the best in their future endeavours — James (going to climb mountains then ski back down them), Matt (international jetsetter, fixing yachts in San Francisco before going to skipper boats in Norway), Alastair (off to the next peninsula to join the GSGSSI reindeer project), Katie (joining GSGSSI to eradicate invasives before travelling round South America), Andy (moving approx twenty yards across the track to work with the builders on base), and John (setting sail on JCR for 4 months as ships doc).

So, a quick recap of December events before the January news. Christmas celebrations began in the traditional way with the decorating of Grytviken church. While festive tunes played and the mulled wine flowed, a group of willing (and coerced!) volunteers put up the tree and festooned the church with mainly tasteful decorations, although I’m still not convinced by the Christmas gnomes and a questionable donkey bauble! Afterwards the museum staff and Daniel put on an impressive BBQ as a thank you to all involved. Many cruise ships hold services at the church in the run up to Christmas, but with KEP staff still hard at work we didn’t manage to join in any this year. Instead we decided to hold our own celebration, so after dark on Christmas Eve we made our way round the track for carols by candlelight, perhaps the only church service I’ve ever been to with an interlude for mulled wine and mince pies!

On Christmas Day everyone enjoyed phone calls to friends and family back home before sitting round the tree and opening gifts with the ‘base family’. While the arrival of a cruise ship kept the government officers and museum staff busy during the day, I adjourned to the kitchen having volunteered to coordinate the full festive dinner. Fortunately lots of kind-hearted folk were happy to be bossed around, and with a schedule on the whiteboard timetabling activities to the minute, post-it notes full of instructions stuck to every pot and pan, and almost every cooker on the island being commandeered (11 roast chickens and all the trimmings take up a remarkable amount of oven space!), I’m proud to say a most spectacular meal was produced by virtue of team effort.

New Years Eve was a typically busy work day for most folk on base, but Sarah’s champagne cocktails and Doctor John’s impressive canapés kicked off the evening in style. A fairly raucous game of Celebrity Salad Bowl kept everyone entertained until the bells tolled midnight, when Erny gave a fine rendition of Auld Lang Syne on the piano as we sipped more bubbles and a few people enjoyed cigars on the veranda. There is no rest for the wicked at KEP though, and we all had to be up bright and early on New Year’s Day for the arrival of a ship bringing Martin and Jen from South Georgia Government and a group of Norwegians who will be working on the reindeer project. The next 2 days were spent moving cargo and biosecuring all incoming goods to ensure no invasive beasties had hitched a ride to the island.

In addition to the Big Red Ship, some fairly massive icebergs also showed up in the bay at New Year which is a relatively unusual occurrence for King Edward Cove. The bergs had travelled up from the Antarctic continent and provided an impressive sight towering over the base.

Working at KEP means you are a long way from loved ones, which is why it is such a special occasion when a friend turns up on your doorstep. I was lucky enough to have Tom Hart (a great friend and renowned penguinologist) and his colleague Mike Polito, visit for a day during a research trip in early January. Tom is using remote cameras to monitor penguin colonies and Mike is studying penguin foraging ecology using stable isotopes from feather samples so we had a great time in the sunshine with the gentoos at Maiviken, pushing back the boundaries of science! Other visiting scientists this month included a group studying the microbial biogeography of South Georgia’s soil and the implications for nutrient enrichment in coastal waters, and the Blyth Forecasting Group looking at methods to improve predicting the weather on the island.

Following on from the success of the Jailhouse Rock last season (an evening celebrating the completion of the gaol renovations on base) the builders once more provided a fantastic night with the Disco House Disco. The historic Discovery House was originally built for the Discovery Expeditions in 1925 and when the current renovation project is completed it will once more provide accommodation and work areas for scientists visiting the island, but for one night only it became South Georgia’s only night club! With glitter balls, VIP area and a pole for the more exotic dancers amongst us, the girls brought out the high heels and handbags to dance around and a highly entertaining evening was had by all!

January brings one of the favourite science activities on base — the annual weighing of fur seal pups. Each year there are three weighing sessions (in Jan, Feb and March) where 100 fur seal pups are weighed, 50 from the beach and 50 from the tussock. This allows us to monitor pup growth over the season and also compare it to previous years. A band of hardy souls ventured out into truly horrible weather and the journey up Bore Valley was interesting to say the least — we were hit by 80–90 knot gusts (>64 knots is hurricane strength) and several of us were literally blown off our feet and forced to curl up in the foetal position on the track until the wind abated. Despite this, the seal biologists tell us that the sun always shines on Maiviken, and when we reached the beach the wind dropped, the sun came out, and we had a glorious morning with some very cute and fluffy pups. The results indicate that currently pup weights are lower than in previous years, but we will wait until all the data are in from the February and March weighings before drawing any conclusions.

In mid-January we were very happy to welcome home the wonderful Paula O’Sullivan, boating officer extraordinaire and connoisseur of fine wine, who is back on base for her fourth winter at KEP. Another familiar face has also returned to the island for a few weeks — Kelvin Floyd is a leading expert in invasive plant eradication and he and his new apprentice Katie have been scouring the hills with their sprayers on a search and destroy mission to remove the highly invasive bittercress from the area.

The commissioner of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, His Excellency Nigel Haywood CVO, also paid us a visit this month. The presence of a VIP meant my birthday was a relatively quiet affair with my party being postponed until next month when things quieten down and we don’t have to be on best behaviour! Daniel did however make me a delicious birthday cake (bearing in mind he had never baked in his life before arriving on base, I can assure you it tasted better than it looked) and I was very grateful for a beautiful penguin photo taken by Rod and presented in a handmade frame that the base all signed.

On 17th January 1775 James Cook declared South Georgia part of the British Empire in the name of the King George III. We were unable to persuade the base commander that he should decree Possession Day a public holiday on the island and let us all have the day off work, but we celebrated the occasion that evening in traditional KEP style with gin and tonics at Carse House and a toast from Nigel.

The commissioner was very keen to take part in another island tradition — the annual South Georgia half marathon. With a course that begins by ascending to Gull Lake, scaling Brown Mountain and descending via a steep scree slope, and finishes with a long drag up Deadman’s Pass before returning via Cardiac Hill, it is definitely not an event for the faint-hearted. There was a good turnout for all three categories — runners, walkers and runklers (a local term which means you run the easy bits, walk the steep bits, and can stop for a cigarette on the way round!) In one of the most exciting finishes in years Martin narrowly claimed victory in a sprint for the finish line with Hugh just 7 seconds behind him. Danny from the Pharos took the title for runklers while Dan-Danny-Daniel from Team Science led home an unexpectedly competitive walking group, no picnics en route this year! Exhausted souls recovered with a beer in the sauna before the prize ceremony and a group photo on the veranda.

The month ended for three of us from base aboard the FV Sil on the bi-annual groundfish survey as Katie, Daniel and I joined Mark Belchier from BAS HQ and Niall Fallon, a PhD student from Aberdeen for 8 days trawling around South Georgia and Shag Rocks. The survey is incredibly hard work but it is always massively enjoyable, particularly as Mark has a song for every occasion! The time at sea however is only the beginning and there will be months of sample analysis and data crunching to follow. The survey is used to assess the current status of the mackerel icefish population and also to monitor the numbers of juvenile Patagonian toothfish that will hopefully recruit to the commercial fishery in 5–6 years time. It is particularly gratifying to know that our work has a direct application and the data we collected on the survey will contribute to management decisions and fisheries policies, helping set quotas for next season and ensuring the continued sustainability of the fisheries.

Lastly but very definitely not least, while we were out on the survey Hazel (the final member of our wintering team) arrived on the island to replace Dr. John. In the brief time while we were away she managed to revolutionise the pantry freezer and proved to be a speed demon both out on the boats and on the Maiviken Hut run… a lady of many talents who will be an undoubted asset to the base.

If you are still reading this then I congratulate you on your stamina for reaching the end of such a rambling diary entry! Sending much love to all my family and friends back home,

Sue Gregory

Fisheries Scientist