Rothera Diary - March-April 1998

written by Ian Marriott

Introduction: Last year Stu Wallace, our resident boatman, wrote a monthly letter on life at Rothera, a British scientific station in the Antarctic. He left here in March, writing his last report whilst sailing to the Falkland Islands on RRS Bransfield. The twenty three of us staying on for the winter thought it would be nice to carry on his work. This first letter is just introducing people and trying to give a taste of what moving into winter is like down here. It's been fun to do, and quite a few of us are interested in writing it, so there may well be a different author each month.

The beginning of winter


April 1998

Dear All

March is one of the most important months at Rothera - the transition from summer to winter. During summer the base is packed with up to a hundred people stretching facilities to their limits. All accommodation is shared, usually three of four to a room. Meal times are crowded queuing affairs and in the evenings every nook and cranny is filled with someone trying to find a "space." People work to a tight schedule as most outdoor and scientific work has to be completed before the weather turns and the last ship comes in late March. The Twin Otter aircraft are constantly flying to remote field parties, and the Dash-7 aircraft making regular trips north to Stanley. With people coming in and out from the field and from the Falkland Islands, Rothera base is like a hotel. It doesn't feel remote or cut off - almost cosmopolitan - and can be difficult to appreciate you're in the Antarctic at all.

This all changes in March as the weather begins to deteriorate and the base slows down for winter. By the end of February all the field parties are back, and the remote stations to the south closed down. Then one day in early March the planes fly north for the seven month winter. It was an emotional moment watching them go - the twenty three of us who'd be wintering felt the severing of their link with the outside world keenly. After that a couple of relaxed weeks, kicking back and partying after a good summer. Everyone slowing down and having fun. The people going home on RRS Bransfield packing, taking time out with friends who were staying, and going on final outings :- skiing, climbing, boating, or just a walk round Rothera Point to see the seals.

On the 18 March the ship arrived for final call. More partying and we met our new chef, Mark, who'd stepped in at short notice to overwinter at Rothera with us. Then a couple of frantic days unloading supplies and reloading with waste to be shipped out and the big moment had arrived. At 7am on 23 March all twenty-three winterers stood on the dock, said our final goodbyes to the people leaving and watched the ship sail off - first round a berg, then dwindling across the straights before heading north and out of sight. Our next contact with the outside world would be with the return of the planes in nearly seven months time.

With the ship gone and the excitement wearing off I looked round at who was left. Of course we already knew who was staying but it somehow felt different with just the small group of us huddled on the dock. It was then the enormity of the situation struck home and for a couple of days I was terrified as to how it would work out. Some people I got on well with already but others I'd hardly spoken to during the summer, and I had severe reservations as to how we'd work out as a group. Over the next few days though my fears were quelled as the base feeling rose to an almost blissful state of euphoria. We couldn't stop grinning. I guess the summer had been so busy and hectic, and the last couple of weeks partying, we'd been waiting for the winter to start for a long time without realising it. The eight people who were starting their second consecutive winter almost mothered us the first days, setting an example by the relief on their faces and the way they slotted into a laid-back routine.

I'm not quite sure what I expected - I think probably some form of forced group sentiment - but for the first few weeks apart from working and mealtimes we kept ourselves to ourselves. Adjusting, taking things in, slowing down - wallowing in and expanding to the personal space we'd suddenly been given. There were enough rooms for everyone to have their own, so we spread out, dismantled beds and re-arranged things to make them homely. The bar has been almost empty, save for weekends, with people disappearing to enjoy the freedom of their own company - something which was difficult during the crowded summer. Only now, nearly the end of April, are people beginning to drift back in.

The one thing none of us could have foreseen was the quality of the food and the effect it has had on us all. Mark the chef came in to the winter as an unknown - a difficult time for him. The rest of us knew each other to some extent but he'd come off RRS Bransfield at the last ship call at the station into a group of people he knew nothing about. With only twenty three of us we laid the dining room out as one long banquet table in the centre of the room. And at mealtimes Mark turns out long extended banquets. Always three courses, five on Saturdays, they are as good a food as most of us have ever tasted, and have become the focal point of the day. Sometimes the meals are so good we just sit and grin, but usually we chat and eat for an hour or more, savouring the occasion.

After the initial breathing space and winterizing of base everyone settled down to their work. In some ways people's jobs are easier as there isn't the same pressure in summer, less people and less frantic, but in other ways they're more difficult. On the rare good days we go skiing, climbing, boating or diving, or get on with outside work whilst the weather holds. But we also have to gauge the workload and set a pace and routine that will get it all done for summer. The responsibility of some peoples' jobs have increased with the isolation and lack of help. The winter base commander and the technical staff in particular - communications manager, mechanics, generator mechanic, electrician and plumber. If something vital goes down they have to fix it or find an alternative, so within the relaxed and safe atmosphere of base life there is still a degree of worry and stress.

This is probably a good point to introduce the people on base. It's an unlikely and eclectic bunch, ranging in age from 24 to 37 years. It seems everyone's done something unusual or esoteric before coming down here. First there are the eight who were here last winter and will be going home at the end of next summer - March 1999. Rob Tulk is the joiner and Winter Base Commander (WBC). At 25 he's already spent a summer at Halley, another BAS base in the Antarctic, and was asked to be WBC because of his easy-going approach, ability to drink beer and dance to the jungle book. Andy Rossack and Jez Ralph are Assistant WBCs, Andy running the biological laboratory (the Bonner Lab) and health and safety as well as doing his own research and job as a terrestrial biological assistant. Jez is the senior field assistant having done two summers and a winter. He looks after the winter travel programme and the servicing and preparation of field equipment for next summer. After 2 1/2 years down here he'll be the richest hippy on the planet. Rich Robinson, one of our two weather observers, has just spent a year at the UK Halley research station on the ice shelf bordering the Weddell Sea before being flown here to spend the winter at Rothera.

Then there's Phil Jones, one of two vehicle mechanics who designed engines before stooping to mending skidoos, Mark "Stompa" Smith the plumber, Simon Brockington and Alice Chapman. Si and Alice are both marine biologists. Simon is doing his own PhD, having already spent two winters at Signy, a small BAS research station in the South Orkney Islands. Alice's claim to fame, save living off chocolate, was working in Russia tracking wolves and bringing up orphaned bear cubs. They have a busy schedule diving, collecting specimens and underwater monitoring. When the sea freezes they cut holes in the ice by chainsaw and dive under the ice.

Then there are the fifteen of us who arrived this summer, three already having done winters at various Antarctic bases. Martin Warnock, the boatman, the oldest person on base, is taking time out from the Thames River Police and is busy with Si and Alice and recreational boating. Steve "camcorder man" Dunkerley is the diving officer having spent many years in commercial diving and as a diving instructor. He's keen to get everyone diving, and together with Martin, has taken us all on shallow dives so we can go under the sea ice once it forms. Nigel Blenkarn, the mechanic, and Simon Higgins, the electrician, wintered together at the UK Faraday station in 1995. Faraday was given to the Republic of Ukraine who changed its name to Vernadsky. They spend their time lamenting over the good old days and how the base should be painted red, not green. Luckily the paint store is locked.

Daniella Lud is doing the fieldwork and experiments for a PhD on the effects of UV radiation on lichens whilst Alison George already has a PhD and is doing research on Antarctic micro- organisms. At twenty four Chris Hales is the generator mechanic and the youngest on base. Randall McRoberts is our doctor. Andy Cockburn, the communications manager, spends his time learning french to placate his french girlfriend for disappearing for eighteen months. She's an air hostess and sometimes they speak on HF radio when she's in the air. You can tell when he's got through by the inane grin on his face. There's Mark Page the chef who's preparing a five course meal as I'm writing. Mark Jeffrey is our second weather man. And lastly there are the four other field assistants. Karl Farkas who wintered at Rothera in 1993, the last year the huskies were here, and Rachel Duncan, Phil Wickens and myself, Ian Marriott.

Although we serve continuously in the Antarctic during our contracts, either eighteen or thirty two months for winterers, we are allowed two weeks "holiday" during the quieter months. Because of the way we live the definition between work and play is somewhat hazy - what it means is a chance to get off base. Going out with a field assistant to explore other parts of the island, travelling by skidoo and towing Nansen sledges across the glaciers and through the mountains. Camping in a pyramid tent - invariably having to sit out a storm for a week. It's the only chance most people get to feel what the Antarctic is like once out of the base cocoon. Carvahal, a tiny summer-only Chilean station, is a favourite destination. Perched on an outcrop on the south-west side of Adelaide Island, it's a days' travel in perfect conditions, impossible to get to in others. We apply to the British Antarctic Survey Director in the BAS Cambridge Headquarters for permission to climb some of the easier and more accessible mountains. If the sea ice is thick and stable - it happened last year - you can travel to the mainland and down the coast to the abandoned British bases of Blaiklock, Horseshoe, Stonington - and the occupied Argentinian base of San Martin. These are special trips and, if you're lucky to get the combination of weather and sea ice, they make your whole winter.

This year the winter trips have been a disaster so far. The weather has been equivalent to living on the west coast of Scotland during a stormy winter. The combination of a "hot" dry summer and unseasonably warm storms in the early winter, giving rain not snow at sea level, has meant we are unable to get off base. The glacial ramp - our only access to the island - which runs down to the rocky promontory of ice-free land the base is built on, has melted and been washed to slick, blue ice. It is impossible to get skidoos and sledges up the smooth ice so trips have been limited to daytime forays and overnight trips dragging lightweight sledges and wearing crampons until past the ice. Most people have gone out to one of the huts on Léonie and Lagoon islands for a break so Martin the boatman has been happily busy. We're praying for snow.

I hope this has given a brief introduction to the people and life at Rothera at the beginning of winter. Next month we'll try to give more of a feel of what it is like down here, and introduce you to the landscape and wildlife.

All the best

Ian Marriott

Address: Ian Marriott, Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica.