Diary of a Rothera Boatman

December diary: Heading South


This will hopefully be the first of many letters trying to explain what life is like "South". My name is Stuart Wallace. I am employed by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and at present I'm heading towards our Antarctic station called Rothera on board the Royal Research Ship (RRS) James Clark Ross. On arrival at Rothera I'll be starting my job as Boatman, my work keeping me in Antarctica for the next eighteen months. During that time I hope to write a letter to appear on this web site every month or so. I hope you enjoy this first one!

By reading this page you have obviously found your way to the British Antarctic Survey's web site. I'm sure that along with this letter there is plenty of other information about what we do and how we do it, but I'll just spend a little time here outlining it. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) exists to enable first class scientific work to be carried out in the Antarctic region. Much support is necessary to enable people to live and work in hostile conditions far from home. BAS operates two ships, five aircraft and four stations, three of which are staffed all year round. So in addition to the scientists themselves there are many other professions - cooks, carpenters, mechanics, electricians, pilots, doctors, plumbers, computer engineers and more besides. The two ships are RRS Bransfield and RRS James Clark Ross. Four of the aircraft are of a type called Twin Otters which can land on skis while the fifth is a Dash 7. I won't say anymore here as all the aircraft operate from Rothera and I'm sure that you will hear plenty more in the months to come. The stations are called Halley, Signy, Bird Island and Rothera. Signy operates only during the southern summer but the others have people on them all the year round. If you look on the pages around the web site I'm sure that there will be lots of information about the stations.

After that bit of background I'll now concentrate on the ship and life on board. RRS James Clark Ross was built on the River Tyne by Swan Hunter and launched by Her Majesty The Queen in 1990. She is just under 100 metres long, 18 metres in width at the greatest point and has a displacement tonnage of 7439 tonnes. (The size of a ship is measured by it's tonnage. There are a number of different tonnage measurements, displacement basically means what the ship weighs with nothing in it). This makes for a sturdy, strong ship which is manoeuvrable and can get in and out of tight spots in the Antarctic. The ship carries a complement of 27 Officers and Crew with cabin space for another 48 scientists or support staff working on the ship or travelling to the Antarctic.

I've been on board since mid October, joining the ship when she first called at Stanley in the Falkland Islands. From the Falkland Islands James Clark Ross headed to Signy Island in the South Orkney group. Here the ship anchored while people and supplies are ferried ashore by boat. This station has been left unoccupied throughout the southern winter. Initially a little work had to be carried out restoring services to the base and ensuring it was fit to live in. Once that was done the cargo was quickly put ashore and the eight people who are remaining at Signy were established in their new home.

After a voyage of a few days from Signy the vessel arrived at South Georgia. First stop here was at Bird Island, the smallest of the BAS stations, located at the western end of South Georgia. As at Signy we had cargo and people to get ashore. The cargo here took us three days to land. It's hard work but most people enjoy working together as a team and getting the job done. During lulls in the work many of us took the chance to see some of the abundant wildlife on Bird Island. I was lucky enough to go with one of the scientists working there to the nest of a Wandering Albatross. The parent birds were away at sea finding food, but the chick - much bigger than a Christmas Turkey - was on the nest. Often the bird seemed to be as inquisitive about us as we were about it. On the beach Elephant, Fur and Leopard seals could be seen whilst a number of varieties of South Georgia's birds could be seen flying around. After departing Bird Island the final call in South Georgia was at Grytviken. Here yet more people and cargo were landed ashore before the ship headed back towards Stanley.

Once back at the Falkland Islands the ship had a few days in port before more people arrived from the UK to join. Once they were all on board we sailed heading south for the Antarctic Peninsula and ultimately Rothera. On the way James Clark Ross has been carrying out scientific research work - her main purpose. Two teams have been carrying out work. The first are from the Southampton Oceanography Centre. Their studies are concerned with how water moves around the Earth's surface to form ocean currents and the effect this has on factors such as our climate. To enable them to achieve their work the ship frequently stops and holds position so sophisticated instruments can be deployed. The other group are from the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory located near Birkenhead. If you've ever seen a set of tide tables they will have probably be compiled from information supplied by these people. Their work from James Clark Ross involves deploying and recovering pressure recorders from the sea bed. These devices are placed there to record the movement of water over them. They stay on the sea bed for a year or two until the ship returns. On arrival at the site the ship sends out a signal which releases the pressure recorder from it's anchoring device allowing it to return to the surface. This can take a fair amount of time as some of the instruments are in over 4000 metres of water. Once they are on the surface and spotted the ship heads over to recover them on board.

Well that brings me up to date more or less. The scientific work is nearly finished, and once it is, James Clark Ross will continue on her way to Rothera. The voyage down the Antarctic Peninsula is magnificent. The route followed takes us very close to many islands where mountains rise straight up from the shore. Most of the land is covered with snow or ice and we will probably encounter icebergs and frozen seas in the form of pack ice. There is much to see in the way of wildlife with hopefully whales in abundance.

I hope you have enjoyed this first letter and you'll be looking forward to learning more when the next one appears. That will be in the New Year, probably at the end of January.

Take care

Best wishes, Stuart Wallace.

Stuart Wallace, Rothera Station, British Antarctic Survey, Falkland Islands, South Atlantic