October saw a month of two halves, with the third of the field parties heading out at the start of the month, and then the last two groups facing typical Antarctic uncertainty in the second half of the month as to whether and when they’d get out for their trips (greatest of the Antarctic uncertainties is the weather, and by now we are very aware that we have no control over that!). However, as well as the field trip early in the month a number of folks on base have made more trips down to see the penguins at Windy, and so I don’t apologise at all for the fact that this month’s page will largely be filled with pictures of cute grey fluff-balls!
The third of our field groups set out at the start of the month, and Duncan, Stu, Cathy and Andy covered a great deal of ground. Here’s what Stu had to say about the trip out:
|Monday 7th October - Wednesday 16th October|
|Duncan Cameron (Field Assistant)
Stuart McMillan (Chef)
Cathy Moore (Met Observer)
Andy McConnachie (Generator Mechanic)
The first day we were supposed to be heading for the Rumples. Weather bad on the way however so we turned round and went to Windy instead. Storm worsened overnight and in the morning we woke up in Caboose with a bunk bed full of snow and so much outside the door we had to be dug out by Andy who came through the roof hatch of the other caboose. So the first day was spent doing very little but reading and sleeping.
Storm cleared dramatically for the second day and we were off down to see the penguins. Weather lovely and spent most of the day sitting on a big bit of brash ice sticking up through the middle of the colony. Got some very good pictures by doing this as they began to ignore me totally after a while and just went about their business. One was a little inquisitive however and climbed up the ice and started pecking my boots.
Later on we walked out a couple of kilometres to where a big lead has opened up. It was a clean break this time so we could crawl right up to the edge and dip our hands in the water. Hundreds of Antarctic petrels were making their way back along the coast and it was excellent to sea something without flippers for a change. We also sat and watched the penguins jumping out of the water for a little while so hopefully have got some good photo's there as well. Exhausted after a long day down there but was well worth it.
The day after the penguins we daytripped out of the cabooses to the rumples which is an area of high ice movement about 35 km away. This area sort of acts like a stopper and wedges the shelf in so it doesn't just drop off and float away. So it’s always being pushed around from all sides. When we got there we roped up which was a little reassurance as we jumped over 4ft wide crevasses which were well over 100ft deep to reach the little cove we were aiming for.
When we got there, there were considerably more Weddell seals than expected so the mothers had obviously pupped since the last party were here. They grow to adult size very quickly so it was hard to tell. Compared to other seals they were dull as no digestive noises or attempts to chase us! In fact they all slept through the entire thing even though it was probably the first glimpse of humans for most of them. A few penguins were around as well jumping in and out of the water, which was beginning to turn to grease ice.
The cove itself was a pretty magnificent sight as the cliffs either side were blue ice and the whole lot was slowly falling down. The actual bay itself was full of holes where the ice had been pushed up and you could see quite a way down into some of them. Didn't stay to long though as the whole thing could have been a little unstable so we set off for home and got back exhausted as it had been quite a long day.
We had an easy day after our trip to the Rumples as we’d been out for 10 hours the day before and it can take it out of you a bit at –30, even if you're sitting down on a skidoo for most of the day. We had a leisurely day driving round the coast and into Precious bay which should have had another penguin colony but didn't as all the sea ice had broken out right to the foot of the cliffs. It was a tremendous view though, as you could see further round the coast than is normal and the birds returning for the summer were flying along the edge of the shelf.
Next day we packed everything up and headed out towards the hinge zone in a straight line over untravelled terrain. When we got there we had to find a route through 1st chasm to get to where we planned to camp. This was the first time anyone had travelled through there in a number of years and was good fun. You could see small cracks opening up underneath you as you drove over and it involved quite a lot of applying brakes to the sledges behind us to get us up and down rises. We chose somewhere to camp which has probably never been visited before and set everything up in quite good time and then collapsed for the night as it had been a very long day again and had involved a lot of concentration during the last part of driving. You have to constantly check that the person linked to you is OK while checking the terrain around you.
Next day the weather was manky, so we stayed in the tents all day. On Sunday the weather cleared up a bit and we went for a walk towards where the campsite in the hinge normally is but the area was so crevassed we couldn't get through. Weather kept us stuck at the same campsite for the next 2 days unfortunately. The view was still magnificent though and Andy and Cathy made a couple of ice sculptures which will hopefully still be there in the future. Its quite nice just relaxing in the tent anyway as its very warm and everything you need is within reach.
On the day we were due to, we packed up and returned just before a really massive storm, which was quite lucky! We came back to find that the planes were all in the Falklands and the skiway here had been layed out – at this time of year now you never know who might be dropping in for whatever reason.
One of the things that a number of us have realised over the course of the winter is that if you have a field trip away with the chef you will always guarantee that you’ll eat in grand style! We have eaten incredibly well this winter, and Stu takes his skills with him on field trips. Here’s what he had to say about cooking in the field:
Cooking and eating out in the field has many more limitations to that on base. Having said that it always seems to taste far better. In a tent you only have the one stove which you have to cook your meal on. Melting down ice to provide enough water for drinking and cooking is very time-consuming, so timing and simplicity is important. The best thing to go for is a one pot pasta or rissoto dish. Pasta and tuna cooked in soup for instance. On base excess stew and curry are frozen in small containers for field trips. These are very good for warming up in a tent after a long day.
In comparison cooking in a caboose is a lot more normal as you have 2 cooking stoves and a reflex stove to heat water on. This means that you can be a bit more adventurous if you can cope with tidying up the mess afterwards! I have had some very nice steak in pepper sauce while out in a caboose. With a glass of wine it makes for a very cosy and pleasant evening in. In addition you can rustle up a mean cooked breakfast in a caboose which is essential for a day on the sea ice penguin spotting.
|So while we may all enjoy telling the folks back home that we are living in tough Antarctic hardship, we now admit that the food has been most civilised! Even the challenge of the lack of anything fresh has been met, and our Saturday dinners especially have been fantastic. Here’s a picture of the dessert we had a few weeks ago, just to let you know how much we’re all suffering down here!!! (It’s Walnut soup with almond pear and cranberry coulis….)|
For those who have visited the penguins this month I think we have seen them at their best, although we have now seen them at all stages of their growth and development. Initially we peered under the tummies of adult birds to see if we could catch a glimpse of an egg. Then, Mark Ryan (our base photographic enthusiast) spent a chilly 45 minutes lying flat with camera poised, when he spotted an egg that was starting to hatch. His patience and cold fingers were rewarded, and he bagged a shot of a new chick pecking its way out of the egg. At this point at the colony we listened out with strained ears to try and hear the tiny cheep of a new chick, but they remained difficult to spot. As more chicks were born we got more used to seeing the wee ones sitting up on Dad’s feet tucked away under a warm fold of tummy. When they are just newly hatched the chicks are nothing more than little scraps, with a head that looks too big for their small and saggy body. The sag is designed for rapid growth, however. Born weighing around 300g, they gain weight rapidly, and weigh around 2kg when they start to take steps on their own at around 6-8 weeks old. As with all youngsters, they slowly gain their independence, and after a few months are starting to form ‘creches’ of their own. They even develop the art of huddling, which will protect them from the cold when they return to the colony as adults.
This is the time when I think we see them at their best. For the ones that have survived well, they look fat, content, and very very cute! It is a harsh existence for them, though, and the smaller ones that were born late may not grow fast enough to start fledging before it’s time to take to the sea. It has been a real joy so far to be able to watch the colony change and grow. So far it seems to have been a successful year for them, to compensate for last year’s breeding season when the sea ice around the colony broke out early, leading to the loss of most of the chicks. As ever, nature holds everything in balance.
On base now we are reaching the end of our winter’s isolation. Planes will be arriving on base at some point during November, and we will see our first new faces and read our first real mail in 10 months. This is a rather large thought! While the base will be refreshed at having new faces around, I’m sure there will be an element of sadness, as we finish our spell of looking after things down here. For myself the winter has been a huge challenge in all sorts of different ways. I have relished all of it, and learned so much. As Mark commented in his field trip diary last month, we will all go home with a million photographs, but most special of all will be the memories that we can return to any time we choose.
However, we’re not just spending our time waiting to go home here - I’m glad to say that there is still plenty of communal fancy dress left in us yet. First of all some pictures of our 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly' night - requested by Mark for his birthday as he is well into his spaghetti westerns.
And finally some pictures of us looking particularly grim for Halloween. To my great relief this winter we have used more of our medical supplies for creating fancy dress costumes than we have done for real medical emergencies, and the afternoon of Halloween saw Jon, Mickey and myself doing some creative plastering to produce masks for the evening - it's all good practise!
Much love to hubby Steve, and a big Happy Birthday to Katie!
Happy Birthday Bren (hope it's this month!)