Signy Diary March/April 2004

15 April, 2004

Our Summary of Signy Mar

After the mad tango of the opening months the last six weeks have been more of a stately waltz towards closing the station down. Winter has been perceptibly eating into our daylight, such that getting up at 6am for a stint as cook now means, distressingly, hauling yourself out of bed in the dark. Once up, though, our working day seems to have consisted mainly of doing things for the last time.

Amongst the first of the principal scientific tasks to be completed was Mike’s extensive work on the penguins. The chinstraps in the monitored colonies successfully reared around 1700 chicks before settling down to moult furiously. The number of remaining chinstraps has steadily dwindled. Their numbers have been augmented by the occasional gentoo, idling its time away before heading off to the open ocean and a winter of serious feeding. A few of the younger adult chinstraps have, somewhat anachronistically, seized upon the opportunity to build nests. Doing so at the start of winter does free them from annoying neighbours intent on stealing stones. Instead, though, they have to put up with the agony of plentiful small pebbles – all perfect for homemaking – frozen solidly and unyieldingly together. Even these remnant chinstraps will soon learn the error of their ways and leave.

The other birdlife has also largely deserted Signy. The Friendlies, the skua pair who belligerently occupy the territory around the base, have flown off to warmer climes. In the interim a lone juvenile has occupied their lodgings, presumably emboldened by the fact that there is no Missus Friendly – perhaps twice the size of the youngster – to duff him up for impertinence. The nearby cliffs, silent for some weeks, have burst into life again with the return of the snow and cape petrels. After fledging, each species revisits Signy for around a month to stock up for the long flight to, respectively, the boundless sea and the Colombian coastline.

In turn, Jude’s limnology programme ran its course. With the last of the water samples safely analysed almost all of the island’s lakes froze once more, heralding the onslaught of winter. The fur seals, either by accident or experience, have found that this offers a chance to practise some enviable skills. Running headlong across the ice and sliding full length into their mates appears to be the best way imaginable to instigate a fight. With less lake work to do Jude embarked instead on a campaign to riddle the island with holes. Some Italian colleagues (who were unable to make it to the base this season) asked us to deploy sensors for recording the temperatures in what passes for soil below the moss and lichen. In itself, digging a thin hole down to one metre is not likely to be a simple task, but in the platy schist of Signy it became a frustrating, hand-blistering affair as hole after hole clunked against obdurate rock. But, two blunt crowbars later, another task was successfully added to the “done” file. Undaunted, Jude then graduated to perforating the island still more, this time with snow pits to complete Andy’s work on Tuva Glacier.

One of the stalwart base members who clearly knew that the end was nigh was the skidoo. After sterling service over the snow all season (not to mention plenty of other seasons), this venerable old workhorse must have heard that it was due for replacement next October. With near impeccable timing the skidoo began to clank, smoke and smell – taxing Richard’s mechanical prowess to the full – towards a terminally dysfunctional gearbox. It almost feels like saying goodbye to an old friend. On the other hand, we were able to say hello again to a host of previous acquaintances as the elephant seal population boomed. Boomed, that is, in more sense than one. Fresh from the belching and burping of their mating rituals, many of our voluminous visitors clearly felt that there was still plenty of din to be done. One leviathan discovered the acoustic potential of roaring his heart out underneath the main building, ensuring no possibility of sleep for the recumbent humans until he was coaxed, bewildered, from his orchestral pit by David.

It has not all been work, though. The weather has been unpredictable but progressively colder and at times we have taken delivery of appreciable quantities of snow. This has meant plenty of late-season skiing and an occasional roped traverse of the Orwell glacier and its spectacular yawning crevasses. We’ve found ourselves with more time to relax in the evenings, thanks (if thanks is the word) to the demise of the e-mail link from the beginning of March. Trying though this has been, it did at least endow us with plenty of news to share with friends and family once the RRS James Clark Ross arrived to take us home. Indeed, there was much to ponder in the last few days, blessed as we were with beautiful weather and coruscating sunsets.

And so that was it. In the space of a long day everything that was to return to the UK, us included, was loaded onto the icebreaker and we started off on a two week passage to the Falklands via Bird Island and South Georgia. Each of us will take back something discrete and unique and we thought it would be most appropriate for the five full-term station members to round off the diaries with a few personal vignettes of Signy in 2003 and 2004. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read this record at some point or another (at which point hello to Verena) and we hope it’s passed on some flavour of life way down here in the cold south.