Signy Diary November 2003

15 November, 2003 Signy

It seems as if it has taken forever to finally get to Signy. It’s a small research station by BAS standards with a complement of only eight at the moment, dropping to five in the latter stages of the season. But, as I am fond of pointing out to people, good things come in small packages. Anyway, after a sometimes punishing journey of long flights and nauseating seas it was a relief for everyone to eventually set foot on the island.

Signy is a tiny, rocky outcrop in the South Orkneys, nestling in the lee of Coronation Island to our north. It has a total area of around thirty five square kilometers, most of which is covered by snow, seals or penguins. About a third of the island reclines under a permanent ice-cap which thrusts its glaciers out in all directions towards the sea. Our first glimpse of Signy from the RRS James Clark Ross as we approached from the Falklands tantalized without revealing the full scope of the island’s personality. As we sailed through a steadily dispersing mist a silent audience of icebergs ushered us in towards Borge Bay, our home for the next six months.

For me at least there was a sharp sense of expectation. Not, oddly, of how we were going to establish ourselves and cope with life on the base, but rather of how I would feel when the JCR left her anchorage two days later, leaving us to our own devices. As it transpired, I was getting ahead of myself somewhat. November was to be punctuated by a number of diverse trials and challenges, and the first of them was about to unfold .

Even at the relatively tropical latitude of sixty degrees south the Antarctic is a pretty cold place, but it’s not averse to the occasional dalliance with thaw. As any top boffin will tell you, when considerable quantities of snow encounter temperatures above 0°C, the resultant water starts looking for the best available route to the sea. If that means gushing through a hole in the side of a wall and thence pooling in the generator sheds, it will happily do so. Dropping temperatures will then lead to an environment which is pretty useful if you’re into ice hockey but pretty poor if you want to get the all-important generators started. The full complement of the JCR ‘s passengers (all those eventually heading off for other bases) were giving of their best and helping with the re-supply of the base. Much of the ship’s engineering expertise was then co-opted into helping Richard (base engineer), Marc and Simon (temporarily resident electricians) to try and get the power generation on line. Forty-eight fraught hours later this had indeed been achieved, a testament to the expansive knowledge and industry of everyone involved. The small price to pay was a night with no power save the indomitable Tilley lamps and Primus stoves. The team was at last on station. We had thought we were alone until the discovery of a couple of oceanographers who, intent on their equipment in the loft, had missed the launch returning to the JCR .

But, through the application of plenty of patience and even more muscle power, the station was readied for the summer and the JCR departed for other shores. This was the signal for the season’s myriad science projects to begin, the reason for us all being here in the first place. Although small, Signy offers a wide ambit for the scientific community at large. Mike, our resident penguin biologist, is spearheading a continuing programme of research into breeding and feeding habits. Andy the glaciologist began to try and find meltwater (thus far thwarted by an extended cold spell) and dug up a good proportion of a glacier in order to sample its chemistry. Meanwhile Judith headed for the island’s abundant frozen freshwater lakes. What could possibly go wrong from here?

Quite a lot, as it happened. To begin with, Mike combined a ski pole, a lack of stability and gravity to sprain a thumb badly enough to render his work painfully awkward. Then Judith, whilst out on skis patrolling her lacustrine empire, rounded off a day of misplaced equipment and abortive routefinding with a wrenched knee. Needless (no pun intended) to say, she was perfectly placed midway between two painfully distant huts and was eventually rescued in the snowy twilight by the rest of the team under the direction of Base Commander Dave. Judith has since had to delegate the bulk of the fieldwork to anyone with two working legs and focus on the data and laboratory analysis. Next up was Richard: whilst helping Mike to catch, weigh and measure Chinstrap penguins he tumbled onto a rock, chipping a corner from the boulder with his knee. In an admirable display of professionalism, a bloodied Richard nonetheless managed to hold onto the penguin for Mike’s census and also provided Judith with the opportunity to practise her stitching technique (newly acquired from the BAS Medical Unit) on the knee in question. It was getting to the stage when seeing someone without a limp was enough to justify a second glance.

Notwithstanding all of this the weather has been extremely kind to us and huge progress has been made. There have been ample opportunities for most to explore the island and engage in a little recreational skiing. The abundant wildlife has also provided its moments. The steadily increasing elephant seal population has been revealing itself through a sustained pattern of deep gurgles and eructations. This year’s symphony has been particularly powerful, possibly due to the elephant seals’ recognition of the challenge offered to them by Simon and Marc. The ever-present skuas are exercising an avuncular guardianship of the various penguin colonies, ready to begin raiding the nests of their charges once the eggs and chicks begin to appear. The penguins themselves � chinstraps, adelies, gentoos and the occasional macaroni � provide a steady flow of entertainment on land. We even came across one by the Jane Col hut, a notable achievement given that it is Signy’s main meteorological station and sits 200-odd metres above sea level. The penguins are never without charm and, once in the water, exhibit some astounding faculties. When swimming they accelerate away like feathered missiles. It’s a metamorphosis which is humbling to witness, particularly for those of us for whom swimming represents little more than a preferred alternative to drowning.

Although not without its hitches and hiccups the first month here has flashed by. It has been a productive few weeks (no, really) and the mix of personalities has meant for a healthy and enjoyable social life, really important for a tight group living in such close proximity to one another. All of us are looking forward to December (particularly the newly mobile Judith) and the challenges that will inevitably arrive with it. Except, perhaps, for the midsummer swim.