Signy Diary December 2003

15 December, 2003 Signy

December has been another month of change. In the first week we were visited by the RRS Ernest Shackleton carrying equipment, some food and considerable quantities of technical expertise

From the decks of the Shackleton an army of riggers, electricians and engineers stormed ashore. A number of the station’s facilities were due for repair or renovation and our main job for several days was to direct and support the extended efforts of the visiting specialists.

Our water supply is the sea. Anyone who has read the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner will know that although there is an awful lot of ocean it is not very good for drinking. In order to make it potable a clever device labouring under the name of a reverse osmosis plant forces out the minerals and salts and leaves us with a virtually pure water tank. The RO plant at the station reached the end of its working life this year and was due to embark on a long-deserved retirement. The installation of its replacement was spearheaded by Richard, working alongside a team of technicians drawn from the Shackleton’s crew and some of the passengers en route to Halley. The process was to become a frustrating facsimile of November’s generator saga. As then, though, what often seemed like an endless array of problems had to be identified and dealt with. This time it took three days’ unrelenting work, a handful of calls to the manufacturer’s helpdesk (apparently they don’t get many questions by satellite phone from the Antarctic), and a refusal to succumb to the temptations offered by a large hammer and a circuit board.

Whilst all this was unfolding one of the station’s small communications masts was dismantled so that a squad of riggers could replace a frost damaged and cracked section. Meanwhile another team was battling the elements on Snow Hills, one of Signy’s high points and the place where we keep the radio repeater. The repeater is a vital part of our communications infrastructure in that it allows us to maintain radio contact with base from the western and northern reaches of the island. It’s built on a small metal scaffold and powered by solar panels. The weather hampered the electricians’ efforts throughout: it’s hard to tighten allen bolts when your gloves are freezing to the metal. Suggestions abounded for relocating the repeater to somewhere more conducive – a nice room on base well out of the wind, perhaps. With a heater. Thanks to everybody involved in all of the operations for the time and energy put in on our behalf. Particular thanks go to Shaggy, the Halley chef who came ashore to cater for everybody on the island, us included. The food he prepared for us – not to mention the unruffled calm with which he commanded the kitchen – was magnificent. After returing to the boat each evening Shaggy left one of our number (it being their turn to cook) with a gourmet meal more or less ready to eat but needing those all-important finishing touches. To me it seems entirely reasonable for someone to claim their fair portion of the credit if they’ve lavished care and attention on a fine spread as it warms up in the oven. Unsurprisingly, one of the station stalwarts admitted to feeling somewhat hurt by the patent and scoffing refusal of anybody to afford him his due tribute. Not that I’m bitter.

The Shackleton steamed to Halley carrying with it Marc and Simon (ex-Signy electricians) but minus Stef and Mark (Dutch ecologists). They will be here for five weeks researching the possible effects of global warming on the island’s lichens, mosses and grasses. The pair quickly sprang into action erecting small, roofless cloches on a nearby hillside. Their aim is to monitor the warmed conditions inside the “tents” and their effect on the plant life within (although thus far their “tents” have been intermittently filled with skuas and snow). Once that was done Mark began striding about the coastline looking for clumps of grass, most of which seem to be in the most inconvenient places possible.

We were also pleased to see Judith first hobbling, then walking and eventually even skiing around. Her lake research has accelerated accordingly and she has at last been able to explore the farther reaches of the island, bringing back data and water from wherever she roams. Andy’s glaciology has been alternately harassed and hampered by rapid thaws and unseasonal refreezes. Tuva Glacier – the subject of his research – has yielded the cleanest glacier snow he has ever found. After filtering some 30kg of snow Andy harvested only a miniscule number of foreign particles, less than he can usually find under one fingernail. Finding tiny quantities of muck is less of a problem for Mike. The penguin colonies are now scenes of thunderous noise and febrile activity. The expenditure of all this energy inevitably produces a good quantity of waste; the odour of this waste – distilled essence de penguin – is becoming discernible from several kilometres when the winds are in the wrong direction. Or from anywhere within twenty metres of Mike when it’s calm.

Increasing amounts of the island are now buried under either seals or penguins. The Chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo colonies are into the swing of producing eggs and chicks, at times despite drifts which have buried the parents under 30-odd centimetres of snow. The patient skuas sit as guardians over the penguins, protecting them from the unwelcome attentions of other, equally hungry, skuas. Skuas will eat just about anything smaller than them; they will also eat bigger things, but they have to take them chunk by chunk. The constant presence of one bird species preying on groups of another is a fact of life on Signy (see picture). The skuas are not particularly hostile to humans as yet, mainly because they are only beginning to nest and breed themselves (the birds, not the humans). Instead they exhibit a kind of bored tolerance, although some of us suspect that they are they simply checking to see if we are likely to drop dead at any time soon and provide them with a free meal.

Meanwhile the elephant seals have been lying in the way as much as possible, moulting and oozing fishy smells. They are supremely well adapted to counter any perceived threat to their safety or wellbeing, usually by falling asleep until the threat gets bored and decides to walk the long way around after all.

Signy’s Christmas celebrations have been understated but (mostly) refined. The decorations went up after only a minimum of hectoring (even extending to a snowpenguin) and the meal itself was a fine success, testament to Richard’s replete catering skills. In a break with tradition we elected for steak and chips, partly inspired by the fact that the turkey was accidentally allowed to defrost in October so had to be eaten then. Unexpectedly, a party of Argentines from the fantastically named icebreaker Rompehielos ARA Ilmirante Irazir arrived on Christmas morning aboard a helicopter. Although unable to stay for long, we all genuinely ppreciated their visit. Via an important cultural exchange we accrued several cans of Argentine lager and they went home clutching a hefty payload of Guinness. Our main festivities were reserved for Christmas Eve. Several station members organised bars for a pub crawl around the base. Dubious cocktails were served in resplendently decorated rooms as we (increasingly) merrily plodded our way through the fresh snow. Undoubtedly, Mike was the shooting star in that particular firmanent. He showed plenty of flair and a scorching sense of humour in organising the best of the evening’s entertainment, setting the seal on a truly memorable Christmas party.

And so we look forward to the New Year (and not just the celebrations). By the middle of next month three of the station’s complement will have left leaving the rest of us with three more months of Signy and it’s wildlife. We anticipate 2004 with relish.