Diary of a Rothera Boatman

February diary: Summer field work at Rothera


Hello !

We're certainly seeing the last of the southern summer at Rothera. The weather through February has been mainly poor with the snow surface in a rather sorry condition, frequent overcast grey skies and strong winds. The numbers on base are falling as people return to the UK to write up their results from this season's work and plan for next season. On the March 6 the Air Unit leave for the long flight back to Britain. As the Twin Otter aircraft do not have the range to fly directly across the Atlantic Ocean it takes them a number of days to fly north over South and then North America before reaching Canada and then finally home via Greenland. The Dash 7 aircraft does have the range to get across the Atlantic as long as it flies from the coast of Brazil to the Azores. Shortly after the Air Unit leave both of the BAS ships will call at Rothera. First of all RRS James Clark Ross will be in to deliver fuel. Then in mid to late March the RRS Bransfield will call for a few days to deliver all the cargo we need to see us through our seven months of isolation during the Antarctic winter. When she sails the base compliment will be down to the 21 overwinterers. So as March will be a busy month please forgive me if the next letter is late !!

Last time I wrote about the British Antarctic Survey's field operations. At the end of the letter I said that this time I'd talk about the scientific work that goes on in the vicinity of Rothera base. I'll be talking mainly about the biological work as that is the work that I spend most of my time supporting. I'll also try and introduce you to some of the people who live and work here!

Before I start it is only fair to mention that other scientific and research work is carried out at Rothera. We have a meteorological team that record data throughout the year. At present we have Frank, Jenny and Lucy. Frank is coming to the end of his two and a half years down here and will shortly be returning home. Lucy and Jenny are staying for the winter. During the summer they are joined by a forecaster. This summer Marc has been producing daily forecasts to support the flight and boat operations. We've had a team of surveyors - Michelle and Adrian - who have been busy recording data from boats, on the ground and from aircraft so that they can produce accurate maps of the area around Rothera and also of many other locations deeper into the Antarctic. There are often geologists and glaciologists based at Rothera. They can be on their way in or out of the field or on a project that is based at Rothera but collecting data from aircraft flights over the areas of interest. The overwintering doctor also has a project concerned with human behaviour in a remote area such as the Antarctic. This may, for example, be connected with diet and people's fat build-up in cold climates.

British Antarctic Survey's biological work was traditionally base at Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands. This is the first year that it has operated from Rothera. It was this move that brought about the construction of the Bonner Laboratory, housing the splendid research and diving facilities that we have here. It's my job to operate the boats to get the scientists to their work sites, whether that be one of the islands or a dive site. Immediately to the south of Rothera we have Ryder Bay where most of the work is carried out. The main islands we visit are called Anchorage, Lagoon and Léonie.

A team of terrestrial biologists work out of Rothera on Léonie Island. Léonie Island has an abundant growth of Antarctic vegetation, comprising mainly mosses and lichens. Here they study the effects of climate change and the large Antarctic ozone hole on the plants. This is very valuable work as the Antarctic ecosystem is well understood so changes can be detected easily. Andy will be overwintering to oversee this work through the winter, but at present the work is at quite an exciting stage. The project is a collaboration between the British Antarctic Survey and a Dutch group. So at present we have Ad and Tanja from the Netherlands living and working on Léonie Island along with Oz, their field assistant.

The Inshore Biology Group is based at Rothera. Its work is centred on the marine biology of the area. To achieve this we have many different tasks to perform most of which involve diving, but water samples are also regularly taken and life around the shore line monitored. Rob is our diving officer who looks after all things "under water". I am a diver and have been lucky enough to dive here a number of times. People would perhaps expect the Antarctic seas to be quite barren. Far from it - there is an abundance of life - fish, worms, starfish, urchins and sponges to name some. My favourite are something called Marseniopsis. This is an underwater snail that has a "fleshy" exterior around it's shell. To dive we wear thick drysuits with plenty of layers of clothing underneath to keep us warm. It is actually quite comfortable even though the water temperature is only just above zero. I usually find that it is my hands that start to feel cold first.

There are a number of different projects underway. Liz is working on how long starfish take to digest food, while Sara is doing similar work (feeding energetics) on Harpagifer, a small Antarctic fish that lives amongst the rocks. This work will help to increase our understanding of how animals adapt to the extreme conditions of the Antarctic. It is already known that their metabolism - the rate at which they do things - is much slower. Simon and Alice are the overwintering biologists. Simon's work is centred on sea urchins, while Alice will be keeping a number of projects running through the winter.

There's no research centred on the larger animals here but no one becomes fed up of seeing them. In addition to our usual Weddell, Crabeater and Leopard seals are Fur seals and the very occasional Elephant seal. We have also seen a few Chinstrap penguins as well as our usual Adélies. I think that everyone's favourites are the whales. We see Minke or Humpback whales almost everyday, often swimming close enough to the shore for us to hear them blow as they surface. Hearing them is fine - it's just when they are close enough for us to smell the blow as well. It's not too pleasant, but I know I'm very lucky to be living somewhere I can complain about the smell of a whale's breath.

Best wishes


Stuart Wallace, Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica