King Edward Point Diary – March 2008

31 March, 2008

When we signed our contracts with the British Antarctic Survey, it was with the understanding that we would be working and living on South Georgia for two years for scientists and one year, with the option to extend to two, for the support team. Working and living here means just that, we don’t get off the Island during our contract term, we don’t get back to the Falklands, it is a four day sea trip afterall, and the only regular service to the Island is by the Pharos SG, our fishery patrol vessel. There is no landing strip here, and a helicopter just wouldn’t have the endurance.

All the other BAS bases run in a similar way except that they’ve a high compliment of seasonal staff, most of their science gets done in the summer season and in the winter the bases run on a minimal crew of science and support staff. Signy Island closes down altogether and is winterised until the following season. Rothera on Adelaide Island, is the largest base with upwards of 120 personnel in the summer, four aircraft, a dash 7 and three twin otters, operating to summer field stations and Halley research station, it also has a substantial wharf for shipping. This station reduces to around 22 in the winter, the aircraft go back to Canada for maintenance, leaving enough staff to continue the core science and keep the station maintained and running. Halley, the most isolated station, located on the Brunt ice shelf, also has the shortest summer season, this year it lasted from November till almost the end of March, due to the construction of Halley VI, the replacement station. Numbers there were around the 100 mark in the summer and will be about 12 for the winter, and it’s a long, dark winter, no aircraft, no shipping, and no other people. Bird island, our closest neighbour, is also much more isolated than we are, it is a protected area and cannot be accessed by cruise ships or private yachts, the team there peak at around 14 in the summer and drop to 4 in the six months of winter that follows. They also get supply runs from the Pharos SG, and their physical contact with the outside world consists of a RIB emerging from the mist bring in the post and fresh food.

All other stations have a summer and winter base commander but we’re different, our science programme continues all year and the wintertime brings the local fishing season. So all our staff stay year, sometimes two, round. We’re also extremely lucky in that our recreational travel area is quite extensive. As we have two jet boats and two RIBs our search and rescue capacity extends out with Cumberland Bay east round as far as Leith Harbour in the north and southwards towards St Andrews Bay. We are permitted to travel on three peninsulas, the Thatcher, on which we live, the Greene, and the Barff.

Because our research is not land based we do not have skidoos or sno-cats, cannot travel on glaciers or ice climb and we do not have a full-time field assistant here. These are the guys that work with the field science teams and guide them through difficult terrain, extreme weather and long field seasons, camping in pyramid tents and eating dried rations for weeks, sometimes months on end, keeping up morale and motivation as they go. We had a couple of them here in the summer as part of BAS field parties in South Georgia and took the opportunity to do some snow and ice training with them, walking in crampons, ice axe arrests and the like.

In order to reach the further peninsulas, cut off from KEP by glaciers and high ridges, we go by boat and are dropped off at the closest point to base, hiking the rest of the way. This can be a frustrating process, waiting for the wind to die down enough to take the boats out, hoping it’s not going to rain the whole time you’re camping, wondering if they’ll be able to pick you up or if it’ll be another wait for the weather. But ultimately, camping on South Georgia is the most incredible experience ever, the scenery, the wildlife, and the sense that you’re having a unique experience.

There are several old BAS huts dotted around the three peninsulas, these are generally used as bases for drop-off and pick-up, cooking and sheltering from the elements, and we often camp right beside them. They’re tiny, with enough room for a double bunk and a space for cooking, small windows and rickety everything else. They’re stocked with the basics, dehydrated food, first aid supplies, fuel, primus stove, tilley lamp, sun cream, gossip magazines, etc and are a marvellous sight after a wet and windy hike, becoming kitchen, living room, drying room and sometimes bedroom all at once! They’re remarkable in that they stand up to 60+ knot winds on a regular basis, tied down with some guy lines and shut up with pieces of string. We always prepare for the worst when camping, tents, bivvy bags, bothy bags, personal first aid kit, maps, GPS, compass, satellite phone, handheld VHS, twice the food we think we’ll need, more goretex, thermal and down layering than you’d think possible and regular scheduled communications with base. Everything is belt and braces, no chances are taken in this harsh environment. Our camping trips can be as short as one night, say a stay over at Maiviken, a mere 1.5 hour hike from base, or up to four nights if venturing as far as St Andrews on the Barff Peninsula, a 7 hour hike from the Sorling drop-off point. The terrain is pretty unforgiving and hiking with the BAS issue camping kit soon builds endurance, furrowed brows and thigh muscles! But there’s always something fantastic and breathtaking along the way that reminds you why you’re out there and how lucky we are to be living on an Island that’s only really experienced in hour-long chunks by tourists.

And this is all in summertime; winter will bring a whole new dimension to our travel. Getting round the track to Grytviken will be fraught with avalanche risk, cross country skiing and snow shoeing will become our sole means of travel, camping in snow, frozen boots in the mornings…it will all be starting soon as winter is now very clearly drawing in. All the elephant seals slipped away quietly after moulting in February, the fur seal pups are now sporting their fine grey coats and porpoising back and forward past the office window, racing and learning to swim, the final few King penguins are moulting and returning to sea and the sun is no longer on the deck in the early evening. It’s dark at 8pm now, rather than 11pm and no longer bright and sunny at 6am when we do early rounds. The sun will eventually stop hitting the Point and we’ll have to head for Grytviken or Gull Lake to catch some winter rays. The last tourist ship calls in this weekend and we’re also a lot less populated, the nine remaining Morrison Construction crew left last week and three of our museum staff leave this week and it’s almost with a collective sigh of relief that we accept that winter is coming.

Mairi Macleod

KEP Base Commander