Signy Diary January 2004

30 January, 2004

Penguin Personalities Jan : 2004

Unbelievably, here we are in 2004. January has simply evaporated in a whirl of work and weather.It almost seems as if the moment we had downed the last mince pie of Christmas the preparations for pancake day had to begin.

Immediately before New Year we welcomed another visit from afar, this time Germany in the shape of the cruise ship Hanseatic, touring the southern ocean with a guest list of 160-odd Antarctic sightseers. Dave Fletcher, the British guide on board, was a former station commander on Signy, back in the days when this was a wintering station.He and a clutch of multinational scientists and crewmembers escorted our guests ashore and BC David arranged an introduction to a real, live, working Antarctic station.Once again, the diversion of meeting a host of new people was extremely refreshing.Everyone seemed really interested in what we do here, a reminder that most of the general public view our everyday life as something out of the ordinary, if not downright odd. Even better, many made generous donations to our chocolate store. A squadron of Antarctic birds kindly arranged a continuous air display and a small company of elephant seals lay in the way and posed for photos.

The New Year celebrations soon after were refined and, for a while, dignified.We played a few games, ate plenty of food and toasted 2004 regularly from about six-thirty onwards.In truth, the station was gearing itself up for more change and the return of the RRS Ernest Shackleton in the second week. In itself this was something of a pivotal call. Firstly Richard and two of the Shackleton’s crew, Rags and Paicey, undertook to replace one of the generator engines, a big operation which went – amazingly – more or less according to plan. Thanks go to both of the engineers and good luck to Rags in his retirement. Secondly, Stef, Mark and Andy were all winding up their work and preparing for departure.Stef has left us with a small village of cloches on the slope behind the station; Mark has left us with a disturbingly acute awareness of where grass grows on Signy. Their research programmes aim to measure global climate change through its effect on the island’s flora. They are both now at Rothera and will by now be well on the way to repeating the process there.Andy’s legacy was plenty of instruments to maintain as they chart the gradual seasonal melt on Tuva Glacier. He returns to his wife, Trude, who must be nine and a half months pregnant by now. Good luck to them both and best wishes for the new family member.

So with the departure of the Shackleton we are now down to a complement of five. In the back of my mind I seemed to be associating the drop in numbers with a drop in workload. How very wrong that turned out to be.We have been rushed off our feet paddling over semi-frozen lakes, altering and repairing the buildings, chasing after some of the animals and studiously avoiding others.

Richard has been at the helm of redesigning and renovating much of the decaying walkways around the base.This included a hefty set of steps leading up to Sorlle House which were originally constructed to support heavy divers and their weighty equipment. It was a doughty task which called for a crack construction team.Once the building was completed the main job was to ensure that the work was properly tested; fortunately he had just the expert he needed.

Jude’s limnology is also galloping merrily on.Many of her lakes have now all but thawed which makes the process of getting to the midpoint considerably easier.When they are frozen, it is straightforward – you can simply walk onto the ice. When they have melted it is similarly uncomplicated – you can simply take the boat.The combination of part ice, part water is the grim one.You can only get the boat out so far (using a pre-laid rope to tow yourself out) before it has to be hauled up onto the remaining ice and pushed far enough along to ensure that the ice will support the weight of a person.Or, more to the point, a GA. Dragging an inflatable boat along ice is surprisingly hard work. The rope is left in place over the winter so is entombed under the surface until a complete thaw has occurred.As a result, you have to propel yourself along without actually getting out of the boat.Testing the strength of the ice by letting the GA fall through it was condemned (by the GA) as an unsatisfactory solution.So to achieve the necessary margin of safety we deploy an ice axe as a sort of grappling hook.It is a bit like winter climbing except you are horizontal and dragging twice your own (considerable) bodyweight behind you, wearing a thick, heavy dry suit.The dry suits offer great protection from the cold but when you’re working hard in them you get the impression they could have been gainfully employed by the Spanish Inquisition.

The bulk of our work in January seems to have involved penguins.Mike has been monitoring tens of thousands of them for eggs, chicks, feeding, weight and general (mis)behaviour.The Adelies have all but raised their chicks and before long the fledglings will be taking to the open ocean. The Chinstraps are, as expected, a few weeks behind and still tending small balls of fluff.

As the Adelies approach fledging they are, naturally, losing their down and revealing a full set of normal penguin feathers.In the process they have taken the opportunity to display some amazing feats of tonsorial ingenuity, mimicking various personalities from the world of stage, screen and sport.


Another of the station’s main tasks has been sidestepping the growing population of fur seals.By the standards of the massed ranks on Bird Island (as a glance at their diary will confirm) our population is sparse.However, fur seals have become a regular feature on any land within two hundred metres of the sea and which isn’t protected by a fence.The main problem associated with them is their unpredictability. Usually you can see them as you pick your way between the rocks; you can certainly smell them in plenty of time. But on occasions we find ourselves straying into their comfort zone and the seals, understandably enough, get a little upset.Usually this amounts to little more than a spate of growling and huffing.Sometimes one will come closer, often only because he is curious as to what a monkey would be doing in a seal colony. Over the years, though, a few people have been unlucky enough to get bitten.This is highly undesirable – fur seals’ mouths play host to all manner of unmentionable bacteria (some of which were previously unknown to medical science) and any bite has to be quickly treated with disinfectant and a scrubbing brush. From there the victim is consigned to a steady diet of antibiotics. Thus far the team here at Signy have a 100% record in avoiding seal bites and we intend to keep it that way.

As January heads into February it’s hard not to start thinking about the end of the tour.Amazingly, there are only two and a half months to go. The slow but steady thaw seems to have given way to lower temperatures which may herald the return of winter and a steady re-accumulation of snow.The pace of life on the station will undoubtedly mean that April will come around before we know it. Before then we are going to have to find our missing boat. A picture of it is below, taken just before it disappeared.Anyone who may have any idea of who stole it should contact David the station commander.