May – Ice diving

30 May, 2005

Rothera Diary, May 2005

Our second full month of isolation has seen the real signs of winter beginning to show themselves. As the days get longer and warmer back in the UK we’ve seen sunrise getting later and later and by the end of the month it’s getting daylight by 11.30 am, but the sun itself never rises above the horizon. The temperature has barely risen above -5°C all month and at times has been down to near -20°C. There was a communal sigh of relief we’re not atHalley at that point. They spend most of their time at such Baltic temperatures.

The winter trips were still going full swing at the beginning of the month. Paul Mann and I still hadn’t made it back from Carvajal due to heavy snow and continuing snow storms. We travelled when the weather allowed us to, achieving distance of anything up to 3km after 7 hours of digging, packing and cajoling the skidoos through the deep snow, only to give up as the snow arrived again. At one point it looked like we were going to take nearly a month to make it the 60km back to base. Thankfully after 2 weeks out a day dawned clear and we succeeded in making the mad dash home.

Commander Barker and Rob were of out on their trip next, spending most of the week staring at the inside of their tent. They did manage to climb several of the Stokes peaks on a clear day and had a long day on N26 making the most of the sunshine. Kirk and Gary headed out next and climbed all over the local area. They got so much done that Gary complained on several occasions that Kirk had broken him. They capped the week off with a night in their Pup tent just to prove they could fit. Jules (the mad scientist) and I followed them out and stayed up at the Caboose for the week. I think Jules enjoyed his introduction to climbing, he has been seen doing some since. Our week in Caboose proved that Antarctic camping doesn’t have to be about suffering, as we made full use of modern technology to listen to music, watch films and enjoy some excellent food and drink. We both felt very much at home by the end of the week and were sad to head back to the ‘luxuries’ of Rothera. Though as Rob had discovered last month cold beer is always much better than frozen beer!

Jules’s trip was the last one before mid winter, so once we arrived back that was everyone on base again for the first time since the Shack left. The dining room seemed much fuller, especially as the bar was currently residing in the corner whilst Glen and Andy Porter performed a ‘Changing Rooms’ esque miracle on the real bar. Kirk’s master piece for the makeshift bar was completed by the 2nd weekend and so the official opening party, which coincided with Paul Mann’s birthday, became ‘P Night’. A Plethora of Punters Purporting to be Pieces/People beginning with P turned out to Party their Pants off. The beer can bar stood up admirably to the job, unlike several people who probably won’t like seeing this picture on the internet!

Work has (of course) continued as normal throughout the month. The Sledge Store has been its usual hive of activity as we heard from Cambridge just how much kit they want next summer. With one of the biggest summer seasons for a while planned we’ve been sorting out all the tents, tent boxes, rescue sacks and sledges to support them all. Gary and Paul Best have been just as busy in the garage preparing a veritable fleet of Alpine 3 skidoos for the Field Assistants to take into the field and wreck in our own inimitable style. I can’t understand why they don’t trust us with them for winter trips! Glen and Andy Porter have been doing an excellent job in the bar. Andy’s first forays into plastering looking excellent after nearly a week of sanding. He was heard saying that being an electrician had never been so exciting, though I think he may have been being slightly ironic.

Our next social event involved turning our makeshift bar into a Swiss ski chalet, complete with Gluwein, cheese fondue and a full complement of winterers in fluffy ear muffs and colourful ski gear. Ed, Jo, Dan and Kirk produced some fantastic decorations. The Moose’s head has now become a permanent feature, Antarctic Treaty aside we’re looking for an Adelie to stuff next! And despite Rob’s lack of hope last month several Shags have been spotted around the point in the last couple of weeks!

This month it’s the turn of our intrepid and tireless dive team to tell us a bit about how they fill their days in the Bonner Lab.

This year there are three biologists over-wintering at Rothera. Dan Smale and Paul Mann are marine biologists whilst Kat Snell will be taking care of the terrestrial side of things. Rothera is one of very few stations able to continue diving operations through the Antarctic winter and as such some very valuable long-term monitoring projects are carried out here. Paul Mann (Marine Assistant) is continuing research into oceanographic processes and can often be seen heading out into the iceberg-laden waters to collect seawater samples and conduct CTD’s (conductivity/ temperature/ depth recordings). He also monitors feeding behaviour of some of the common animals in shallow water, many of which ‘shut-down’ for the cold, dark winter months. This work requires regular SCUBA dives at nearby sites either from small boat or through the sea-ice as it forms.

Dan Smale is the resident marine biologist and will carry on with his research into the effects of icebergs and sea ice on the marine life inhabiting the seabed. The work will assess how often icebergs impact an area of the seabed and how this disturbance affects the type and number of animals which can live there. Remarkably, Antarctic seas are packed with a wonderful variety of strange creatures found nowhere else on Earth and work here will provide fresh insights in how the physical environment structures the unique biology. The work involves intensive photography, sediment sampling and iceberg monitoring at two sites adjacent to Rothera Station. This project relies heavily on SCUBA diving and is only possible with the expertise of the wintering Boatman (Andy Wilson) and Dive Officer (Matt Brown), who complete the Marine Science Team this winter.

Rothera is the only base in Antarctica that supports diving through the entire winter period. Most of the winter dives are conducted through ice holes, which are cut with a chainsaw as soon as the ice is thick enough to support the weight of the divers and surface support team. Divers are connected by a rope line to the surface before dropping into the study site through the ice hole. Two dive holes are always cut, so if a seal takes residence in one there is always an alternative exit point. Additional procedures relating to air consumption and dive times are employed to maximise the safety of ice diving. A vital part of the diving set up here is a state-of-the-art recompression chamber, which is primed to treat divers with suspected ‘bends’. Diving-related injuries are very much a rarity but the chamber is often used for training purposes and is a necessity when diving in a harsh, isolated environment.

Well that’s it for this month’s dairy. Love to everyone at home, especially Mum and Dad, Rich, Pip, Fergus, Elizabeth, Ant, Fiona, Euan, Francis and Murray! See you all this time next year….

Andy Lole