King Edward Point Diary – November 2002

30 November, 2002


November has been a busy month down here at King Edward Point. The tourist season started on 1st November, with the cruise ship Explorer coming alongside. We are due visits from 44 cruise ships this season, well up on last year’s total of 33 ships. Many of the ships invite us on board for dinner, and Explorer was no exception. In addition, she was Gareth’s “big red taxi” back to Stanley – having finished his BAS stint he was off to Patriot Hills to do some doctoring of the rich and famous. We saw him and the ship off with a snowball fight, in which they may have had a height advantage but we had most of the snow….

Back to work the following day, with all base members needed in order to bring Quest into the boatshed for her check-up and maintenance work. Unfortunately, it was found that she is suffering from osmosis – a type of rotting of the fibreglass on her hull. This meant that she has been out of the water for the whole of November waiting to dry out and for vital sealing materials to be brought down on RRS Ernest Shackleton in December. Howie and his willing team of beakers desperate to get their fishing boat back in the water have been scraping, grinding, woodworking, painting, sealing, stereo installing and doing all sorts of maintenance on her so that she is as ready to go as possible. The beakers (Simon, Jude and Therese) have also been getting lots of lab work and writing up done while Quest is out of action.

Steve has constructed some new wider shelves in the foodstore, so we have now unpacked the dry food delivered on the James Clark Ross at first call. The meagre chocolate supply has been divided up and rationed to a package a month, although since we have a tinned potato mountain we are allowed as many cans of tinned potatoes as we like. A current challenge is to see how ingenious we can be in the kitchen with tinned potatoes. Anyway, the foodstore now looks really tidy, and we can find everything easily rather than hunting for the appropriate box in the JCB garage!Some necessary, but fun, flare training was undertaken, appropriately on Guy Fawkes night – Howie showed us various types of flares and we took turns to set them off. The ones with parachutes are my favourites, but it’s quite tricky to get them to go directly overhead. Here Steve demonstrates how to use a hand-held flare.

November 5th was also Alasdair’s birthday, so Tim and Pauline Carr came over from the museum for dinner that night. Two days later they were back again, to celebrate ten years in South Georgia. We presented them with a framed photo (taken by Simon) signed on the back by all of us, and had a great Chinese and Thai meal topped off by an ice-cream cake made by Irene (who we are trying to convince to give up the museum job and become our full-time chef, even if she is a vegetarian!). I celebrated my birthday on November 13th and got two birthday cakes – a chocolate and marshmallow cake made by Miranda (mmmmm!), and another one given to me along with a serenade from the chefs on board cruise shipExplorer.

The big news of the month, and one which confirms South Georgia as the “Island of Lurve”, is the Mulvey-Cope engagement. Andy and Therese (or Copey and Mulve, as they are more usually known) got engaged on 17th November, appropriately on Richard and Miranda’s first wedding anniversary. We didn’t suspect anything when they returned glowing from a walk and suggested G & Ts on the veranda, but when Copey started bringing glasses and champagne out we thought something might be up. It’s great news, and they are a really cool couple so everyone here wishes them a wonderful life together.

For Remembrance Sunday we all went up to Shackleton’s Cross on Hope Point for a short Act of Remembrance. Richard said a few words about why we were there and we had two minutes silence marked by flares at the beginning and end. As this year is the 20th anniversary of the conflict in the South Atlantic, we particularly remembered Felix Artuso, an Argentinean submariner killed in the liberation of South Georgia. We also brought to mind three key members of Shackleton’s Enduranceexpedition who died in the First World War shortly after returning to the UK – Ernest Wild, Alf Cheetham and Tim McCarthy. After surviving such a near-miss experience it seems incredible that they should be amongst the millions of war dead just months later.

The wildlife here is constantly changing. We have had more king penguins than last year – at one point 12 of them came up onto the beach together. They hang around base for a few days before wandering off, and are very popular with the tourists. Gentoo penguins are also a common sight. Sammy the Seagull, who has learnt to perch outside the kitchen window and is consequently noticeably fatter than the other gulls, is still king of his patch of territory, although he has been having a few run-ins with local skuas. The elephant seal pups which were small and wrinkled when they were born in October have more than filled their skins and have been getting to grips with the water. After about 3 weeks of suckling their mothers leave them and they become weaners, looking like fat wide-eyed sausages. They congregate down by the jetty in the mornings and evenings, and most of us have taken the chance to snorkel with them. In the water they are very playful and inquisitive and will come right up to us and try to bite (well, gum, as they have no teeth yet) our hands. One pup was born with a huge protruding tongue, so with traditional FID originality we named him Big Tongue. He is pictured below back in October (25th) not long after being born (left), and again on 18th November (right). What a difference a few weeks makes, especially if you’re guzzling high-fat milk!

We thought he would die as he wouldn’t be able to feed too well, but he managed to slurp enough to survive and became a happy weaner, albeit with a heavily pecked tongue. He will leave us soon and we don’t know how he’ll cope with catching food and diving, but if in later years there’s a sub-group of Southern Elephant Seal with enlarged tongues, remember – you heard it here first!

One fascinating sight (albeit rather sad) this month was when a weaner died on the beach in front of the base (it was probably crushed by a marauding male). Within a few minutes the beach was swarming with birds all coming in for a share of the “corpse-fest”. First to arrive were the Giant Petrels – we counted 22 at one point. These are large birds related to albatrosses. Kelp gulls and skuas also arrived en masse to grab pieces of the carcass, and within an hour or so there was no trace of the weaner at all, not even any bones – only a red stain on the beach. Gruesome, but a really, really impressive display of how nature works.

The fur seals are now arriving here and the first pup this year was seen on Horsehead (the same place as last year) on November 25. I have also had to treat the first fur seal bite of the season (a crew member off a visiting ship and luckily little more than a scratch)! The section of track running between the Cook Lab and the Foodstore will soon turn into Ambush Alley, and the smell of male furry is starting to waft around the base….

Also wafting round the base is the smell of rats. Rattus norvegicus is an ever-present problem on the South Georgia mainland – a legacy from the sealers and whalers. JD (with me as his apprentice chippy and ratcatcher) went under Everson House and the Cook Lab to do some planned blocking of potential rat holes, and noticed a rat disappearing under the kitchen. We called for reinforcements (the two Andys) and pulled down a load of insulation from under the building to flush the beasties out (together with bits of crab claw, chewed fibreglass and rat poo). Copey was rather alarmed when a rat fell out of the floor and ran past him, and Smithy was even more alarmed when Copey started thrashing about near his head with a crowbar….!! JD and I then spent the next couple of days stopping all the holes and setting traps to try and prevent them getting into the building again. So far we’ve caught 4 rats, but ratcatching is set to be an ongoing task.

The value of having a seismic station here was underlined when we felt two earthquakes rock the base on 15th November. Initial reports suggest that there was a quake of 6.5 on the Richter scale somewhere along the Scotia Arc, but it was certainly a big enough quake here to shake the tables and for us all to notice it. Exciting stuff!

On a recreational front, we have been out waterskiing in the bay again, and the snow has lingered for much longer than usual so people have been on lots of jollies round and about. Alasdair made the first (we think) ski descent of Mount Hodges, which was really impressive to watch from down here.

Simon has borrowed a high-tech underwater camera case for his digital camera and can often be found snorkelling and taking great photos of nudibranchs, anemones, hydroids, sponges and more winsome creatures such as this weaner. We girls all went next door to Miranda’s for a girlie night on November 18th (watching “Muriel’s Wedding”, chatting, knitting, doing embroidery, cooking, cleaning, ironing, making beds, etc.) and left Richard with the boys doing what they do best, i.e. sitting at the bar drinking beer and telling dodgy stories. Or something. Anyway, it was a great night on our side of the apartment door, and when we ventured out we found that most of the guys had gone to bed! Cluedo arrived last month (the updated version, with a frankly rather alarming Miss Scarlet), and we christened it on the 26th, playing for a banana smuggled from one of the tourist ships!! Smithy and Howie are progressing nicely through “The Thing” on Howie’s Playstation 2, with the help of vociferous audience participation from Simon, JD and me.

That’s about all the news from King Edward Point from a very busy month. One last picture – this is one of the many reasons why we love being here. Photo credits to Miranda for being awake, if without contact lenses, at 4 am!

Now for the personal bit: tons of love to everyone at home, and a very big hug for Olly from Aunty Sue. Hello to Hassan and Jamal too, hope you’re both being good!