Signy Diary – November 2014

30 November, 2014 Signy

In the small hours of the 15th November the James Clark Ross slipped her moorings at the fuel bunkers of Punta Arenas and headed out into the Straits of Magellan, destination Antarctica. Ahead lay the fearsome Drakes Passage, a notoriously stormy stretch of ocean. However, epic tales of high seas and tempests worthy of Moby Dick from some of the more experienced FIDS proved unfounded as we advanced towards the South Orkney Islands. Clearing pack ice provided a suitably scenic finale to the passage to Signy Island.

Signy Island Research Station ceased to be used as an overwintering base in the mid nineties and is now only operational during the Antarctic summer months. For this reason, one of the first jobs of the open up team is to assess the base for any damage sustained during the winter closedown period whilst our resident tech guru Rob begins the process of getting the generators online followed by the other services which make the base habitable. After 6 hectic days’ cargo handling and troubleshooting various problems with the generators, boilers and reverse osmosis (water producing) plant we were ready for the ship to depart and leave a complement of seven for the first half of the summer. What a relief!

Whilst the hills on Signy are fairly modest in elevation and lie in the shadow of the grander peaks on Coronation Island to the north, they are not to be underestimated. As well as plentiful wildlife, Signy Island is unique in that it has an abundance of greenery, a rarity in southern climes, and an icecap which covers the southern end of the island. Travelling over the icecap involves all the techniques associated with glacier travel and as such each base member undergoes field training at the beginning of the summer season. This gives a basic background to travelling across the wintery ground and crevassed terrain typical of Signy. This was followed up by SAR training culminating in an exercise. Like most Antarctic bases, we are our own rescue and medical team and any accident or injuries occurring down here may be days or weeks away from any official care.

Two Cambridge based scientists, Jenny and Gareth, are spending their day’s groundtruthing for satellite-based analysis of penguin colonies by measuring the detail in the colour of the penguin guano as well as in the background features such as moss banks and rock. Their equipment measures over 2000 different wavelengths of light from the near ultra violet through the visible spectrum and into the infra-red. They are particularly interested in the pink guano which comes as a result of krill in the penguin’s diet as this is very characteristic and has a unique spectral signature. To summarise, they are ‘setting new standards in measuring the pinkness of penguin poo from space’ – their words not mine.

It’s not just science that gets attention during the summer. The island boasts 4 huts suitable for field use and overnight stops. December saw the roof of Waterpipe hut getting a makeover by Matt and Hector. In the winter of 2012 a storm of indeterminate strength and severity peeled back the northern section of the roof like a can of sardines leaving the plywood inner exposed to the elements. A temporary repair job was carried out last season whilst new materials were ordered and shipped in ready for this season. In 2 days of calm weather, Matt and Hector removed the entire roof and replaced it with new cladding smartening up the hut immeasurably. Other large projects this month have seen the old freezers ripped out and replaced with new ones, a new gable end for the generator shed and a suitably elephant seal – proof fence to protect the base buildings from our adorable but rather overweight and clumsy neighbours.

For the past 3 seasons, Stacey has been the resident zoological field assistant. Her main role is continuing the valuable long term bird and seal monitoring work which has been undertaken at Signy for around forty years. Fortunately, she often requires an assistant, so most of us on station have been able to spend time out amongst the colonies counting eggs or chicks, and blood, diet or poo sampling. It is impossible to describe the multisensory experience being in the heart of a penguin colony is. The noise can be deafening and all around ones feet are penguins going from one point to another, often having a cheeky peck on the way past. It’s impossible to capture the sheer energy that abounds there in a video or photograph and besides, it is currently impossible to attach smell to a media file.

As I sit here, putting pen to the proverbial paper, the festive season has just finished for another year. Christmas like a many a traditional UK household featured decorations, classic movies, a roast Turkey dinner and a snowman. Then, on Boxing Day, we were treated to temperatures soaring into the twenties – sunbathing weather and a rather speedy demise to the snowman!

As the New Year is celebrated across the globe, so it is at our small research station. Party games for the evening were capped with some rescue flare training to see in the bells from the Jetty. A beautifully calm evening for once!

Best wishes for 2015 folks from all us here as we think of loved ones back home.

Iain Rudkin, Field Assistant