King Edward Point Diary – September 2004

30 September, 2004 King Edward Point

A fantastic month

September has to be one of the most enjoyable months of the year so far at KEP, in part due to having the time to relax and enjoy South Georgia in all its glory. September in the UK might see me savouring an Indian summer, stretching the end of the day to enjoy a couple of hours climbing warm rock and watching red sunsets before a pint down the pub. Here, in the Southern Hemisphere, spring is in the air, and our day length now stretches to beyond 13 hours (roughly 6am to 7pm). In true Brit style, I’ll start with the weather, its a cloud spotters paradise here, we have lenticular clouds (the ones that look like spaceships) and ‘tabletop’ clouds (like the ones that cover Table Mountain in most pictures you see of Cape Town) that sit over the Bay and the mountains for days. The weather has been variable, several days have seen us lunching on the ‘veranda’ in the sun and in between the sunny days, late winter snowfalls have meant we have, for the first time this year, a consistent base layer of snow at sea level. As winter slowly gives way to spring, our post-work afternoon skis have subtly changed to early morning outings to ensure the pack is hard enough before any daily melt sets in. Weather complete.

I often receive comments from friends and family that the KEP newsletters appear to describe a way of life that is full of parties and easy living. Life at KEP is actually busier than most would expect, and it is testament to the motivation of the current wintering team that we manage to fit all the fun bits in while continuing to maintain and improve the facility and service we provide at KEP. For those that might be interested, here are some of the more mundane daily/monthly tasks we have completed this month:

…fixing snow damaged roof vents, installing automatic fire door closures, collecting aquarium water, testing electrical equipment, writing contingency plans and reviewing fire risk, fixing seismic data and weather satellite stations, completing end of season food indents, updating medical databases, testing lifejackets, refilling fuel tanks, fixing boats, answering email traffic from Cambridge and generating more of our own, mending taps, preparing handover notes for the new incoming wintering team and beginning to clean out the base in preparation for the arrival of summer visitors at the end of next month (October). What an exciting list!

Even our Marine Officer (MO) has managed a bit of a break this month, with very few ships fishing in the area and no yachts or cruise ships arriving in the Bay. This has meant Pat and Sarah have often been seen skiing in the local hills enjoying a bit of R & R. The break in MO support almost allowed our boatman, Hamilton, some welcome time out of the boats after a busy season, but deployment and pick up of field trips has kept the boating hours up. Making the most of the respite from shipping, we performed a major Search and Rescue (SAR) exercise this month. This involved an injured party making a slow return from St. Andrews while the rescue party covered 6km by boat and 10 km overland to meet up with them in some pretty challenging low visibility conditions, maps, compasses and GPS all in use throughout the morning. The weather improved once the parties had met up and the afternoon was spent hauling Suzi (our casualty) in a pulk (sledge) back over snow covered terrain. The uphills were slow and hot, hard work, but the downhills were fast and fun for all, with some good surface conditions for skiing.

The knowledge of SG fishery science was stretched a little wider this month through the continued research of Team Fish. Suzi has been analyzing crab samples provided by the fishing fleets around SG to try and estimate how many of the crabs have parasites present in their gills and whether their ‘health’ is affected by their presence. At present there is no crab fishery around SG, the fishing fleets catch the crabs as bycatch. Juicy king crab legs for tea is one of several edible advantages of research at KEP. Here’s another interesting scientific fact for this month: changes have been noted in the type and quantity of baby fish we have caught in weekly plankton trawls. Last month each of the half hour 20m depth trawls picked up 1000 tiny little lantern fish, King penguins favourite food. This month their numbers decreased while the number of striped rock cod increased. These are edible but not commercially fished in SG waters. Their size depends on the season but they are generally easier to spot amongst the rest of the plankton than the tiny lantern fish as their blue green eyes jump out at you as you stare studiously into a tray of seawater searching for them. A few mackerel icefish were found in the middle of the month trawl, which is what the science team are really looking for as they are commercially fished around the island. Catching them in plankton trawls from the local bay should give us an idea of how much numbers can vary from year to year, helping to ensure that catch quotas are set at a sustainable level.

Larger mammal and bird research is conducted by BAS at Bird Island, approximately 100 km away from KEP, off the north of the SG coastline, but our resident marine scientists also have a strong interest in the returning seals and penguins that we’ve seen arriving this month. Here is Rich’s take on the ellies:

The truly deeply elephant seal

It is at this time of year that the elephant seals once more haul themselves out onto the beach after many months spent at sea feeding on fish and squid. The females will be with us for only a month or so whilst they pup and this month saw the first little (45kg) bags of fur on the beaches. The cows only produce milk for about twenty-three days after which they go to sea to replenish blubber reserves and the pups become officially weaned. At this stage the pups are a cigar shape of epic proportions.

Elephant seals are mysterious creatures that are very rarely seen at sea. The reason for this is that they spend 86% of their time submerged whilst feeding. More incredible is the length of dives that take place and the depths that they reach. The maximum length of dive recorded for an elephant seal was 120 minutes by a female at Macquarie Island. The deepest recorded was by a bull seal that reached 1529m. That is deep. He was certainly a little out of his depth.

Perhaps the most obvious thing about elephant seals is their sheer size. Females reach up to 2.8m and weigh in at a very respectable 400-900kg. Males are significantly bigger, reaching up to 4.9m and weighing up to a staggering 4000kg. I weigh about 76kg. You do the maths.

Whereas the enigmatic fur seals keep warm by a very dense coat of waterproof fur, the more retiring elephant seal conserves heat by a 7-10cm layer of blubber that is a very poor conductor of heat. It is not as effective an insulator as fur but cannot be compressed and is therefore unaffected by the depth the seal dives to. It also serves to enhance streamlining by “filling in the gaps”. That’s what they all say.

Cheers Rich – I truly feel for these animals as they haul out on the beach for the first time after perhaps months at sea. They remind me of how I feel when I suffer the harsh reality of gravity after letting the plug out of the bath.

A brilliant day for the birthday bunch

We had a birthday weekend this month with both Pat and myself celebrating too many birthdays than we care to remember, totting a total 74 between us. The forecast for Saturday was good so a party of 7 of us headed out for a ski tour round trip to Harpon. It’s a popular walk/ski and a full day out, with the opportunity for spectacular views of all our local travel area, and the Neumayer and Lyell glaciers in Cumberland West Bay. In winter conditions, it also provides an excellent ski work out, with some decent ascents to get the heart pumping and some great slopes to practice those turns on the way back down. The snow was near perfect all the way, with decent cover right down to the beaches of West Cumberland Bay, and although our first two choices of picnic break locations were not ideal with localized snow showers and gusty winds, the final spot (on frozen Hodges Lake) proved unbeatable with an excellent view of our favourite descent route, which would rival any Alpine ski bum hangouts (despite the lack of gluvine on tap and deckchairs).

The birthday wasn’t over yet, even though it was rapidly climbing the ranks of the top day out list. Back to T & P’s at the museum for a cooling pint of rehydrating water followed by a warming pint of tea, then a final ski home along the track to KEP. The night’s entertainment began with a bar meal, which was supposed to be a simple affair but, as is the KEP way, turned into a lavish spread of fancy snacks and perfect pizzas, courtesy of Kris and Sarah. Sarah also hosted a quality quiz, which the birthday bunch won, due, I am convinced, to their obviously superior whisky tasting talents.

Ladies and cavemen

Several ‘winter’ trips were completed through the month. First off were Kris & Jen, heading to the Barff Peninsula for a spot of R & R, comprising of strenuous exercise for 5 days. Their first few days were spent ski touring around some of the local coves and peaks, with the intention of heading to the St. Andrews penguin colony for the last 3 days. Weather was unfortunately against them towards the end and they spent 2 days attempting to set out only to be driven back to the cosy hut at Sorling Valley by whiteout or high avalanche risk conditions. Following their return, instincts to return to the cave lifestyle finally overcame Bri and H this month, after Bri’s snowcave experience and H’s general Antipodean trends towards favouring the underground scene. They were much luckier with the weather and enjoyed a perfect ski over to Maivken Cave with Pat while Jen, Frin, Suzi and I took their kit around the coast in the boats. They spent the next two days repairing and improving the cave which was previously used by sealers, creating a raised wooden floor space and making the entrance to the cave rat proof, adding windows and moving doors. Rats are found on most parts of South Georgia, their tracks present in the snow particularly in autumn but they are seldom seen around base these days due to careful management of waste on station.

While the boys were busy being productive, the girls dropped into Corral Bay, a popular local beach, on their way home to enjoy a picnic lunch while checking out depot supplies. To top off a great day, over the hill flies a Hercules, who, after establishing contact with both KEP station and our ladies lunch party, kindly made the ladies smile with a wing dip to acknowledge they had spotted us. Charming.

Developing governmental, military & cultural liaisons

This was fun (I’m serious!). A highlight of the month was a visit from HMS Leeds Castle, a Navy ship stationed in the Falklands for the last year or so. She boldly travelled through iceberg infested waters and very poor viz. to sail into Cumberland Bay’s renowned microclimate and experience 2 days of perfect sunny calm weather while the ‘mank’ sat out to sea. Richard McKee, Assistant Operations Manager in Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) had traveled down with the ship and disembarked for a few days on one of his favourite islands. He and his wife spent a couple of seasons here as Marine Officer and he was obviously thrilled to be back. It was a pleasure to have him stay ashore, and we were impressed and grateful to him for arranging to send us the Master and Commander DVD, our first new piece of TV footage since we had the final Lord of the Rings film, Return of the King airdropped to us as a mid-winter present, also from GSGSSI, thanks again, oh we live a tough life.

We hope the Leeds Castle visit was as memorable for them as it was for us. Fine conversation and exemplary manners were experienced in the various wardrooms and messrooms during an invite aboard for drinks and dinner. This left us somewhat bemused after a few months of our own company and the inevitable decline in stimulating new conversation topics as we slowly lose track of developments in the outside world. We attempted to return their hospitality over the next couple of days with boat trips and ski trips, and an invite for as many as we could comfortably manage to our bar for an evening’s entertainment (less stimulating conversation, more silly bar games). It was great to see such a happy crew appreciate the spectacular beauty of this isolated island and recognize the fulfillment we get out of our all too short time here.

Better things were to follow. The Royal Navy generously offered to take several of us to St. Andrews Bay for a day. Frin and Suzi, Tim & Pauline were dropped off there along with depot kit for the hut. H, Bri, Kris and Jen went along for the day trip, and through a fair feat of logistics, all of them and practically all the ships crew managed to get ashore for a little time with one of the largest colonies of king penguins present on SG. What an experience, especially for H, Bri and Kris who hadn’t seen this sight before. Having made the best of the day, the ship decided to spend the night at anchor in the Bay, during which our talented marketing executive Jen managed to raise £35 for Save the Albatross funds through the auction of one of our S.G Island Birds calendars. Nice work. Returning the next day, HMS Leeds Castle were to provide yet another kind offer to KEP inhabitants. Jen, Kris, H and myself spent the day on board as the ship cruised the local coastline close to the Nordenskjold Glacier and around to Stromness Bay, where 3 disused whaling stations, Leith, Stromness and Husvik lie in three pleasantly sheltered bays. We were lucky enough to catch a view of all three before the weather and ice watches ‘closed out’ and we headed back to KEP. Watching the Navy crew navigating through mank and icebergs was impressive and a pleasure in itself.

Finally, cultural liaisons have been developed towards the end of this month with the welcomed arrival of our newest residents to the Island, Nick Atkinson and Andy Rankin, who will be working with Tim & Pauline in the museum over the summer. Both are experienced sailors and have visited the island before, Andy with BAS and Nick with the yacht Shenandoah last year. After a party to celebrate their arrival on Saturday night, they have had a pretty rough introduction to the island with 3 days of gales to welcome them. Despite this, they have ventured out and skied to the local beaches to see ellie seal pups and have already mastered the art of ski-hauling kit around the track from KEP where they stay with the BAS team to the Museum.

The epistle endeth here. Hope you’re all having fun out there, and that the crazy world still makes you smile every day. Missing you plenty but laughing lots.