King Edward Point Diary – June 2014

20 June, 2014

Salutations from South Georgia. June is a very special month in the Antarctic because it is midwinter on 21st June. The Winter Solstice is a time of celebration on base and is eagerly anticipated – BAS team members have the week off work (as much as possible) and events such as a treasure hunt, the Winter Olympics and film days are held, with the week culminating in a midwinter’s dinner.

Prior to all the Midwinter fun and games however there was still work to be done on base, and the month kicked off with a stock take of all the food here at KEP. The base is resupplied once a year in November and so a stock take of all our dried and frozen foods is done in June before the next season’s food order is placed. Most people on base spent Thursday 5th June counting dry foods, and then Friday 6th June in the freezer counting frozen items; the stock take is also a good time to tidy out the food store and ensure that stock is rotated.

The weekend after the stock take it snowed very heavily overnight and we were all very optimistic that the winter weather was finally here, just in time for midwinter.

June also saw the arrival of the Krill fishing ships in South Georgia waters. The ships all call into Cumberland Bay to have a licensing inspection and briefing by one of the Government Officers before they are allowed to start fishing. The first krill trawler in, Sejong, was here earlier in the year; the second krill trawler of the season, Antarctic Sea, was a new face for most of the team but is a regular for the South Georgia fishery. These fishing boats are much larger than I was expecting and a more accurate description for Antarctic Sea would be a “continuous pumping factory trawler” rather than the more simple “fishing boat”. Antarctic Sea, and her sister ship Saga Sea, have less than 50 crew members on board which doesn’t seem very many for such a large ship. This is the busiest year for fishing in South Georgia in recent years and on the 24th June there were 12 licensed ships in South Georgia waters; this year is the particularly busy for krill trawlers as krill is a rapidly growing market and one of the latest health food supplements, previously most fishing boats around South Georgia were longliners catching Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish. Prior to 2004 midwater trawls were used for catching krill and vessels might be able to catch up to 50 tonnes of krill a day, several vessels this season have managed to catch over 500 tonnes of krill daily, 10 times the maximum catch of a decade ago. Although these factory trawlers are large they aren’t large enough to hold all their catch from a season and so June also saw the arrival of reefer ships in Cumberland Bay – the fishing ships transfer their processed catch to the reefers to allow them to continue fishing.

Here at KEP we still have daylight in winter, unlike the British Antarctic Survey Bases at Rothera and Halley, but we don’t have sunlight on base. It can still be seen in the distance and is always a welcome sight. The other reason midwinter is so important is that it heralds the return of the sun, and there is a competition currently running as to when sunlight will strike base again. I’ve elected for the 1st August, most guesses range over dates from the last week in July to the first week in August.

June also saw the start of the Football World Cup in Brazil, and being far from the action didn’t stop the football fans on base from showing their support.

Finally it was Midwinter week – on base this ran from Saturday 14th – Saturday 21st June, and all of our events were planned around the busiest week of the year so far for shipping. We kicked off Midwinter’s week celebrations on Sunday 15th June and this saw each team on base host a bar with a theme. Pub names ranged from the LaBARatory (hosted by team science) to the Trapped Inn (hosted in the biosecurity building by one of the government officers). Bar games ranged from mess cannon building (we all failed miserably to fire the deadly weapon also known as an empty Coke can) to pin the pincers on the earwig (some were better than others, some couldn’t even find the right wall). We even had a game with racing penguins, courtesy of our higher predator scientist.

The Winter Olympics on Wednesday 18th June were rather more successful than the bar games and started with a sledge race, followed by bog chisel Javelin, Frisbee discus and then the perennial favourite, welly boot throwing. Team A won by a slim margin although Team B generally feel that this is because team A had six members and team B a mere 4. This theory may have more weight were the judge not a team B member…sabotaged from within!

The following day was the treasure hunt which was organised by our base commander and saw teams of 2 racing round base deciphering clues to find letters. These letters then had to be unscrambled to lead to the treasure. Tim and I were triumphant with Simon and Sarah a close second; we shared our spoils out with the rest of base with the pickled eggs being devoured by those who liked them almost as quickly as the Haribo sweets disappeared.

Midwinter’s day saw breakfast prepared for the entire base by our base commander, Dickie Hall, although he escaped lightly as the option of breakfast in bed was declined by everyone and we congregated in the dining room instead. Following breakfast a quick spot of decorating the dining room took place and then it was time for the dreaded midwinter swim. We all made it into the water, and we were all out again within 1 minute 26 seconds. A long spell defrosting in the sauna followed, and some of us were brave (or foolish) enough to go in for a second dip, only 4 of us out of the 11 though, clearly 7 had learnt their lesson the first time round.

Some personal grooming followed and then we all met looking somewhat smarter for a midwinter toast. After this there was a midwinter photograph taken (this was a bit like herding cats). The midwinter photograph will be displayed on the wall here at KEP alongside all the other midwinter photos from previous years.

After our photographing it was back inside to defrost and to exchange midwinter presents. Several months ago names were drawn out of a hat and midwinter present preparation has been going on in secret ever since. Some, like our resident mechanic Matt Hooper, are very skilled and making things and some, like me, are entirely new to it and were feeling the pressure. The standard of gifts was extremely high and everyone was delighted with their presents; the presents ranged from glass engraved coasters to cufflinks, drink cabinet boxes to daggers. Each gift had been remarkably well personalised to the recipient and these things will be treasured for years to come.

Once the gift opening was over, and all the craftsmanship had been suitably admired, it was time for dinner. Most people had volunteered to make a course, or part of a course, and the two who decided their cooking skills weren’t up to it were kept busy acting as barman and chief washer up. Jo, one of our Government Officers, had even arranged a special delivery of cheese and wine from the Falklands to finish off our meal.

After dinner we returned to the sitting room and listened to the BBC midwinter broadcast – this is a programme made especially for BAS by the BBC World Service and has a guaranteed audience of…44. It has messages from family and friends and was a lovely way to round off the evening.

The following day we watched The Thing, another Antarctic Midwinter tradition, and our week was over. It was somewhat of an anticlimax to go back to work on the Monday, starting with moving a lot of empty barrels around – these are now surplus to requirement and are being sent out.

In winter there isn’t nearly as much wildlife around base as there is at other times of year but there is some and it is always a joy to see.

June ended with the FPV PHaros SG departing on Monday 30th, and when she left Tim (boating officer) and Joe (electrician) left on her – their contracts here are up and it was time for them to return to the real world. Simon (government officer) and Sarah also left but will return in November, and James our fisheries biologist went too – he joins a fishing boat for a month. With the departure of the Pharos SG there are only 7 of us left on base, a big change from the high of 34 that we reached in summer.

Until next month…