Signy Island Diary — November 2009

30 November, 2009 Signy

Welcome back to Signy Island in the first diary entry of the 2009–10 season.

The summer season on Signy began on the 6th November when Matt (Base Commander), Bruce (Field GA), Tony (Technical Services), Dirk (BAS biologist continuing the long term penguin monitoring), William (lichenologist from the Natural History Museum) and myself (BAS PhD student working on the moss banks) arrived aboard the JCR following an amazing journey via South Georgia and Bird Island. As Signy is a summer only base no one knew what the conditions would be upon our arrival, nor how the base would have survived the Antarctic winter. We found a lot of snow (drifted to metres in places) but the buildings themselves in amazingly good condition, exactly as they were left in March without any dust or mould. Except for the temperature, Sørlle House, the living quarters, could have been occupied until the day before. A data logger left inside the building recorded −19.8°C as the winter minimum temperature in August.

After three days of hard work from everyone on board the JCR, electricity, water and communications were reinstated, the fridge and freezer restocked, some enormous pieces of cargo were manhandled (including 2 new generators), the Union Jack was raised and we were up and running. Following final farewells the JCR left for Stanley leaving the six of us here until mid-December when the ship will return for a personnel change.

The pair of Antarctic Skuas with our base within their territory (Mr and Mrs Friendly) quickly returned to see what was happening, and from day one when one elephant seal was spotted the numbers began to increase, though the snowy cliffs restricted their access to the nice, slatted wooden walkways that seem to be their favourite home. Over at Gourlay on the South West Peninsula Dirk has been busy with the penguins: chinstraps were arriving back all the time and the Adélies were already on eggs.

The weather made my previous trip to Signy seem like a tropical holiday. Travel over the ice cap to the west coast of Signy, where the deep moss banks are located, was restricted as howling winds made the building shake, blew ice into the bay and drifted the snow, making checking tarpaulins and digging out of doors and paths a never-ending task! The wind chill forecast of −25°C seemed a very reasonable estimate.

On November 13th the first elephant seal hauled itself out of the water, onto the slipway and up onto the high ground around base, which prompted cargo movement and covering to minimise potential damage by the eles. It was a good day for wildlife as Tony spotted three king penguins from the kitchen window — occasional visitors to Signy Island.

With improving weather five of us headed over to Gourlay on the 16th and 17th to catch and weigh chinstrap penguins as they emerged from the sea in preparation for breeding. Gourlay is a beautiful place, especially in the sun that we were lucky enough to see, with Adélie and chinstrap penguin colonies, the odd gentoo penguin and several Weddell seals. Bruce managed to make the first catch of the season, an unusually large orange bellied penguin that had a surprisingly Tony-like shape about it.

With low tides at Cemetery Flats in our favour, meaning we can get to the west coast without crossing the ice-cap, Bruce, Dirk, William and I spent a night in Foka Hut, one of the three huts located around the island as alternative bases for field work. With moss and lichen spotting as well as Adélie and gentoo penguin counting we had a busy and successful couple of days. Three gorgeous black, furry elephant seal pups had been born on Elephant Flats, and the first leopard seal of the season was seen out on the ice.

Gradually the snow and ice began to melt in the sunshine (yes, contrary to popular belief, the sun DOES actually sometimes shine on Signy). Before the melt progressed too far we left Tony in charge of the base (an all important boiler installation) and pulled the Search and Rescue sledge and emergency equipment up the steep Stone Chute and along to a central depot that we all hope we will never need. Matt did a particularly good job as lead husky and the mission was completed without losing either the sledge or one of us down the glacier, and certainly warmed us all up! After another busy day weighing penguins, we headed home to a very welcome BBQ.

The melt continued in earnest during the last week of November. Streams can currently be heard running all around base and the snow is tricky to walk on, having lost its crispy frozen surface. The elephant seals made the most of the warm weather and soft snow and established themselves on the newly snow-free boardwalk. Congregating behind the generator shed by the hot-air outlet seems to be prime elephant seal real-estate and soon they are piling in. We were also visited at base by a small Weddell seal.

Tony and Bruce made the most of the snow by heading up the Stone Chute and over to Khyber Pass for some cross-country skiing.

Being a small base we do not have a designated chef, instead the six of us take it in turns to make bread each morning and cook dinner each night, we have experienced a range of cuisines (kebabs to Sunday Roasts) and witnessed some impressive baking using the wide range of frozen and dried food of various vintages we have available, as well as the fresh vegetables and fruit that were brought in at the beginning of the season. I made Christmas cakes in preparation for the festive season (if they last that long…) in time for several brandy inoculations before the big day. Crossword completion with elevenses has become required attendance: it was a bad day on Signy when the same crossword was printed on two successive days. The Wii has proved popular and requires intense concentration by all…

The “Signy Mank” descended towards the end of November and made it feel as though we were living in a cloud whilst the ever increasing base elephant seal population destroyed the pristine white snow leaving slippery and smelly evidence of their presence at every opportunity. One particularly adventurous seal made it all the way up the slope to the cliff edge, before enjoying his rapid slide back down to ground level, whilst another made himself useful by inadvertently compacting the plastic for recycling. He was slightly less amused when after interpreting Tony’s trombone practice on the copper piping as a love song, it was not an enormous female elephant seal that emerged from the top store, but three small orange clad people. His anger was expressed through some loud posturing and a high speed get away down to the sea, a route that was fortunately clear of vulnerable obstacles. Two Adélie penguins, clearly wanting to re-establish their athletic credentials over the eles showed them how it was done by climbing to the top of the Back Slope. What their reaction to the vertical cliff drop on the other side was can only be imagined but they did later descend by the safer route.

As the mank cleared slightly Bruce and I headed over the ice cap to the west coast and spent two nights in Foka hut being watched by leopard seals lying on ice in the bay. The varied weather conditions required us to spend quality time reading the somewhat dated magazines left in the hut: 1991 Cosmo was a particular hit… I also had my first experience of “Biscuit Brown” (1988 vintage) a staple of BAS field rations. In between the bad weather interludes we attempted, with varied success, to take a core from the moss banks whilst the Antarctic terns swooped overhead. We returned to base to find that the central heating was up and running and that a crabeater seal had taken up residence on one of the icebergs in Factory Cove.

The last Saturday night in November was memorable, with Signy corridor skittles won by Dirk in a “one-ball takes it all” bowl off against Matt. Darts followed, in preparation for our match against the Bird Island team next week. The learning curve was steep, with two total novices in our ranks. Matt’s team (Matt, Bruce, William) won, but all three games were tightly fought and came down to the ability, or lack of, to close the game out on a double. A good evening was had by all, and November came to a close with a beautiful, sunny Sunday, which was followed, true to Signy weather form, by a Monday of torrential rain and advent calendars being prepared for action.

Lots of love and Happy Christmas wishes to everyone back home.