30 November, 2011 Signy
The 2011–12 Signy Island research season began in the early hours of the 16th November, as the Royal Research ship James Clark Ross, having left the Falklands several weeks earlier, now glided quietly through the calm waters around the South Orkney Archipelago towards the growing smudge of land on the horizon that indicated our destination. Having spent the previous 24 days at sea aboard ship, with visits to both Bird Island and King Edward Point, South Georgia, the team of 5 Signy crew (Matt, Bruce, Mike, Mick and Wen) were eager to finally set foot on what would be their island home for, in some cases, the next four months.
By 6am the ship was lying just off the island, and the first two small teams of people due to go ashore ate a quick bacon butty each, donned our heavy immersion suits, clambered down the rope ladder hung over the hull of the ship and scrambled into the two small inflatables riding on the swell of the water surface below. What followed was a short but exciting five minute run ashore as the crew of the small boats opened up their outboard engines and skimmed us across the water into Factory Cove, the little rocky bay in which Signy Research Station nestles. Half way to the shore the familiar shape of Mr Friendly, one of the two brown skuas that have for decades lived and nested close to the station, flew into view, proudly dropping down to land on the prow of the lead boat: our first welcome back! A second welcome quickly followed as we spotted the station jetty, and the shape of Mrs Friendly, the other half of the skua pair, hopping and calling from its end. As soon as we could see the familiar shape of the station buildings, the first thing we registered was the lack of snow and ice cover on the ground: clearly spring had arrived early this year. This would mean no digging out of the station buildings form metres deep snow drifts — a laborious and back-breaking task even with plenty of willing volunteers. Nevertheless, half a dozen large chunks of brash ice, unhelpfully in the process of grounding themselves in front of the jetty, initially barred our way. Several minutes and some industrious pushing and manoeuvring by the small boats later, all the offending ice was safely clear allowing the cargo tender to begin landing the cargo needed for the coming season.
Base commander Matt now stepped into his role of taking charge and getting the whole operation up and running, whilst the rest of his team swung into action. Mick, along with Graham and Paul, headed straight for the generator shed and began the critical process of firing up the station generators, followed by the boilers, salt water intake and fresh water-generating reverse osmosis systems, all of which would be essential if we were to stay. Meanwhile, as the cargo tender began to disgorge a steady stream of willing volunteers and cargo, Mike, Bruce and Wen organised and led teams of people to unload and stow boxes of equipment, timber and provisions and scamper up ladders to remove vent covers and the metal window shutters letting light back into rooms that hadn’t seen daylight in nearly eight months. Everywhere there was the methodical, coordinated industry of many willing hands, and by the end of that first day the hard work given by all, station personnel, ships crew and passengers alike, was rewarded with Signy station being declared up and running; the lads had got the generators going and we had power. With this excellent news it was back to the ship for most people, and a first night on station for the 5 members of team Signy, plus Graham and Paul, whose electrical and mechanical mastery would be required to complete the process of getting all our systems fully functional.
Next day saw the last of the cargo come ashore in the form of all our frozen food, and this was carefully stowed in the large, walk-in station freezer which by now was up and running. Paddy, one of the ships cooks, very generously came ashore to cook for us all for the day. Matt continued to run shore-based operations with help from Wen, whilst Mick spent a second day embroiled in the generator shed, Jeremy began the task of getting the computer system and communications up and running, and Bruce and Mike led separate field parties out across the island. For Bruce, this was a trip up onto the central ice cap with Mark to check on the status of the radio repeater: essential for guaranteeing reliable VHF radio transmissions to and from the station from field parties around the island. For Mike, fieldwork meant guiding a small team of ship-based terrestrial scientists (Kevin, Clare and Pip) with support from Ash, over to some nearby cliffs and bluffs to collect soil and fungal samples and to carry out botanical survey work. This task successfully completed and a spot of lunch later, Mike then led a small party of volunteers across part of the island to the Gourlay Peninsula for a quick visit to the nearest Adélie and chinstrap penguin colonies: the rookeries of both species were packed with most birds having already beaten us back to Signy to begin their breeding season.
By 7pm all the days’ tasks had been completed, including resupplying the emergency response hut with new ration boxes and getting the showers working (always a crowd pleaser!) and it was time for us to wave the last boatload of people off from the jetty as they headed back to the JCR. Now, at last, we were on our own and the new season could begin.
The following day the crew and passengers of the JCR continued to provide us with invaluable support in the form of resupplying the islands various coastally-located work huts with fresh water containers; lacking any reliable, permanent natural fresh water source on the entire island having such stocks of clean drinking water is always essential to supporting overnight field work. Back on station, the team of five began the big task of unpacking and sorting out all the cargo and food, getting themselves familiarised with their new home and planning out their coming workloads and priority jobs. To round off the day, Matt rustled up a wholesome evening meal of bangers, mash and gravy which went down a treat, followed by a few well-earned beers.
It’s now been just over a week since the events of the first few days: in that time everyone has settled in to their new home and already the pace of work is at full speed. Matt, Mick, Wen and Bruce have been slogging away on station, carrying out a major cleaning and repainting of the food store, whilst Mike has been charging around the island most days, with support from Bruce, carrying out the long-term penguin and other wildlife monitoring and study programmes. This included a two-day penguin breeding survey at the north of the island, crossing the length of the main ice cap and spending a night in one of the field huts to do so. All three resident breeding species of penguin (Adélie, chinstrap and gentoo) are now incubating their eggs, as are the blue eyed shags and southern giant petrels that also nest colonially on the island. In a matter of weeks eggs will start to hatch and as spring heralds new life, so the island will become home to a new generation of spectacular wildlife, whilst parents will busily strive to feed their chicks.
Back on station the usual summer elephant seal visitors have moved onto the station, with 18 of the snoring, gentle giants currently flat out around the buildings, and in the past few days we’ve had more snow — 8 or 9 inches just last night. The station has already taken on the feel of a home as opposed to simply a work place, and as the new month dawns we are looking forward eagerly to what it will bring.
Signy Island Base Commander