King Edward Point Diary – March 2011

31 March, 2011

Had it not been for the fact that there was a great deal of activity on base throughout the month of March, it would have been apparent to the “first winter” constituents, of which I am one, that summer was in fact coming to a close. Soon, although many had not had time to fully consider it, the winter will be approaching. The summer only visitors in their many guises will conclude their work on South Georgia and return home or continue their work elsewhere. What we are heading for is quite a substantial change to base life compared to what we have experienced thus far. People here are beginning to talk about winter, but none of us yet feel its approach.

King Edward Point research station has been a hive of activity. One of the most significant contributors to the excitement is the presence of the South Georgia Rat eradication team and the conclusion of Phase One of the South Georgia Habitat Restoration Project. This remarkable achievement is the first major step in the project’s plans to eradicate the rat population by spreading Brodifacoum. This specially blended poison is loaded into hoppers suspended beneath two Belkow helicopters and spread over the entirety of the island — some 80,000 hectares — by 2015. The team of 11 project workers, which includes pilots, aircraft engineers, conservationists, scientists and support staff are lodging in Larsen House here on base, and despite access to base facilities and food supplies, they are largely self reliant.

The helicopters are flown by two highly skilled pilots, Peter and Bob. They fly a pattern over the baiting areas with the aid of a specialised piece of GPS navigation equipment normally used for crop dusting. This level of accuracy is required to ensure the bait is spread evenly and no areas are missed. Conveniently, South Georgia is extensively glaciated and each rat-infested area of the island is bordered on all sides by Glaciers or the Ocean. This means that provided each area is thoroughly baited, there is no chance of re-infestation from neighbouring Rat populations. Early studies undertaken into the effectiveness of the bait are showing positive results.

Some additional operational support for the project is provided by BAS. A particular responsibility of ours this month has been the provision of routine boating support and to act as logistical support for their SAR response team. As KEP’s Boating Officers, Ashley and I have been very busy undertaking numerous boat sorties to aid the project. One of note was a trip we ran to Cumberland West Bay aboard our Humber RHIBs one glorious crisp morning. We were tasked to hand bait the caves and craggy inlets which form the north coast of the Thatcher Peninsular. It was a test of our boat handling at times in such close proximity to the rocks but it proved a fascinating and enjoyable exploration nonetheless.

All base personnel regardless of their job are trained to become competent crew on all our boats. Because of this we are able to provide Search and Rescue (SAR) support to the project should there be an emergency with one of the aircraft. During a daily morning brief, it is declared a flying day or otherwise based on the current and forecast weather conditions. If it is deemed a flying day, then the SAR support team will be on standby to provide emergency response. Live SAR exercises have been devised to test the SAR plan which is interesting and good fun for all involved.

An equally exciting aspect of the project for base life is the entourage of film crew who are shooting a documentary about the project. Ines, Ingo and Roland of GEO magazine have been welcome guests, and we have been helping them to film and photograph the helicopters in action where possible. We also had a Korean film duo shooting footage for a film on Life in the Antarctic. Goo and Pak hope their film will be translated and screened outside of Korea once it is finished but they considered the competition tough.

Perhaps most interestingly, our humble research station has also been playing host to a rather more high profile group of people. The IMAX film company have been touring the local area aboard the charter vessel Australis filming a very cutting edge film in 3D. They are working on a film characterising penguins, which they are hoping will be screened in cinemas next year. I was lucky enough to be shown the £3million worth of equipment by Danny (the specialist 3D camera man) and Simon (the Director) which is being stored in Discovery House on base. My tour included “the beast” which is the pet name for the colossal and cumbersome looking dual lens 3D camera. The guys have been great company and we have all been privileged to receive some free creative photography advice from true industry experts!

The science program never sleeps of course, and our normal work continued despite the distractions. There has been a small contingent of visiting BAS staff on station of late. Andy Webb and Terry Baker from BAS technical services and Sue Gregory from the BAS Marine Science department have been living with us to carry out some work within their various fields of responsibility. Terry and Andy have since left on the FPV Pharos after a short stay but Sue will be remaining for a while longer until she boards one of the Long Liner fishing vessels as a ‘scientific observer’. She will spend seven weeks ensuring that the vessel is adhering to the regulations of the fishery, and monitoring by-catch, target species quantities and studying the general interactions of the fishery with the wider eco system. The vessels will be catching Patagonian Toothfish this season which is an extremely valuable catch, and could be prone to over fishing. However, the work undertaken by BAS scientists here at KEP and in Cambridge have succeeded in furthering understanding of the complex ecosystem of the Southern Ocean and producing coherent, well quantified fishing quotas. The work is so successful that the fishery has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council due to the rigorous management in place and the measurable fish stocks.

In conjunction with this front line work, Alastair and Katie our resident biologists have had a busy month. As part of the higher predator monitoring program, Alastair led a team of us on a hike to Maiviken on the north side of Bore Valley, to conduct a survey on fur seal pup weights. This was the last pup weighing survey of this year and we were all thrilled to be able to help out. Good weather and plenty of pups to survey from made it a fun and interesting day. These weights will assist in measuring the feeding success of the species and therefore the abundance of krill upon which they feed.

This month also saw the departure of one of our favourite visiting yachts, Wanderer III and her wonderful crew Thies and Kicki. After two years studying the island and her wildlife from aboard their vessel, the couple have set sail with a heavy heart bound for St Helena. Thies and his wife Kicki have been living aboard the wooden 30 foot Laurent Giles sloop for 30 years and have circumnavigated the globe several times. They did in fact marry in the church at Grytviken some years back during their first visit to the island. Their knowledge of South Georgia is vast and they have done much in their writing and photography to raise the profile of the wildlife here. We found them warm, caring and fun and they are both talented conservationists and eminent yacht sailors. Thies has also been a real asset during their time with us as he is a master carpenter and boatbuilder.

Wanderer’s departure was punctuated by the arrival of the Sailing Ship Bark Europa. She is a large and impressive square rigged ship which now plies her trade as a sail training vessel. She stopped by briefly during a tour of South Georgia and will now be on route to the Antarctic Peninsula before returning to Europe. She made a fascinating spectacle mooring alongside at the abandoned whaling station at Grytviken adjacent to the base on a cold and damp Autumnal Tuesday Morning.

March is a particularly special month for me as it was my birthday on the 4th. The guys were fabulous by throwing me a wonderful birthday party with handmade presents and a cake shaped like one of our pilot launches! We had a few glasses of wine and danced till the small hours…

So after an exciting and eclectic month of base activity, the inevitable came and the RSS Ernest Shackleton arrived alongside our wharf. The ship was on her last call north bound. On board were friends and colleagues from Halley and Rothera having completed their work on the continent. The ship was here to load some general cargo which is to be sent north, including amongst other things, our recycling waste, scientific samples for analysis in Cambridge, and a 40 ton digger used during some major works around the site. Hoisting such a large machine on to a ship is an impressive undertaking!

As is tradition, once the cargo was loaded we hosted a party for the ship. Some of the guys transformed the boatshed in to a ball room, complete with genuine military parachute hanging from the roof, a stage and dance floor area, fancy lighting and we even filled Dotty, our small RIB tender, with ice from the bay to keep the “refreshments” chilled!

The highlight of the Shackleton’s visit however was the marriage of two of the ship’s crew. The couple were wed in the church at Grytviken by the ship’s captain on her last day in port. All on base here wish man and wife many happy years together.

The transition in to winter here is less marked and less severe than those of the Continental bases of Antarctica. The climate in South Georgia at latitude 54 degrees South will not deliver the painfully frigid temperatures endured during a Halley or Rothera winter. However, they are still severe at times (for the banana belt) as the notorious storm fronts of the Southern Ocean batter the island un-hindered. We can expect temperatures as low as −15°C and hurricane force winds. Snow and ice is a strong feature of the winter here, and much of our travel limit will be restricted at times due to Avalanche risks from the Mountains.

As is evident here, isolation has certainly not been an issue for us this month. But alas it may prove a stark contrast when the winter months arrive and the station and its unsuspecting residents are plunged into ice and Snow drifts, the sea eventually freezes over and 8 of us hunker down for the duration.

By Matt Kenney (Boating Officer)