Signy Island Diary — November 2006

30 November, 2006 Signy

10 November – Base Relief

After our initial arrival date of Saturday 4th November was confounded by sea ice that was thick enough to walk on but not thick enough to carry out a sea ice opening of the station, and not thin enough to get in by boat, we finally arrived at Signy base on Friday 10 November. As the base is unoccupied during the Antarctic winter (April-October), work began in earnest to get the base up and running (starting the generator, removing the shutters, getting the kettle on…)

Saturday 11th saw an intrepid band of volunteers from the James Clark Ross ferrying cargo by foot from the landing area at Berntsen Point to the base, some 500m of hilly and boggy terrain. Essentials such as chocolate and crisps, along with sacks of potatoes, tins of tomatoes, and even a microwave oven were safely deposited at the base, and we were able to spend our first night ashore. Hoorah! The final bits of cargo were offloaded on 14 November, with the JCR departing soon after to leave us to our own devices. Many thanks to the hard working JCR folks; your help was very much appreciated.

Signy is a small base, situated at 60°43-S; 45°36-W, on a small island, within a small group of islands called the South Orkneys. The island is home to a variety of wildlife including three species of penguin, Adelies, Chinstraps and Gentoos.

Elephant and Weddell seals, and flying birds such as giant petrels, blue-eyed shags, terns and skuas. There are no trees, and the biggest plants we have are Antarctic grass, moss and lichens. The island rises to a maximum of 278m at Tioga Hill and there is a permanent icecap, part of the McLeod glacier, running across the centre of the island.

On base, there are currently two Skuas, an occasional snoring Elephant Seal (not much fun when you get woken at 4am, though I’m reliably informed that there is worse to come, when the seals arrive in their hordes) and seven humans. The human contingent is made up of Base commander Matt, Facilities technician Ricky, Field Assistant Dave, Steel erector Derek, Jim the Chippy, and penguin biologists Mike and Claire.

Base commander Matt is a man with many talents – running the base, sorting the post office, being a guitar hero, counting many, many postcards and looking after any tourists who may find their way onto the island. Ricky’s job is to ensure we are all safe in our beds; we have heat, light and water, and (as an aside) very nice bread for our sandwiches. Dave (when not wrangling penguins, see below), has been teaching us all field skills, such as how to drive the skidoo, how to cross the ice cap safely and making sure that the stake-line across said ice cap is in place so we can all move safely to our study sites round the island. Derek and Jim, aided and abetted by Ricky and Matt have been working all hours to rebuild the jetty. The lads have been working hard and the jetty is almost complete. When not involved in jetty repairs.

Work continues apace to examine long term trends in the penguin populations at Signy, this has been done every year since the late 1970s. Mike and Claire, aided by Dave have spent much of their time at the Gourlay peninsula to the south of the island, weighing, measuring, counting and mapping our avian friends.

At the moment the penguins are taking advantage of the short Antarctic summer and have come ashore to breed, the chinstraps are laying their eggs, and we saw the first of the Adelie chicks (small, grey and pear-shaped bundles of fluff) hatching on the 29th November. Most of these birds lay two eggs and each pair will aim to successfully raise two chicks by the start of the Antarctic winter in March. It’s our job to record when these events happen, and how successful the birds breeding season is each year. Similar work has also begun up at North Point, where the only populations of gentoo penguins on the island are breeding.

The next excitement is a visit from the Ernest Shackleton, due in on 7th December, she will bring with her some new scientists, studying mosses and soils, and whisk our Jim and Derek off to the snowy wilds of Halley.

Diary written by Claire Waluda.