Rothera Diary - May 1998

written by Ian Marriott

From sunlight to twilight


May 1998

Dear All

By now we've adjusted to the quiet of winter. To the retreating sun and shortening days, the storms which keep us base bound for up to a week, and the glorious days which make it all worthwhile. The weather so far hasn't been what we expected - and I for one feel a little cheated. Mostly it's been long but mild storms bringing snow and even rain. Very little snow has fallen, but is blown by the constant wind, scouring flat areas clear and building up behind anything that breaks its path. So the gravel runway still has less than a foot of snow, yet the drifts behind the buildings reach five feet in places. The temperatures are unseasonably mild, hovering around -2 to -5 C, and on still days dropping to -10 C.

The daylight is getting less and less now, and we feel a certain nostalgia for the long days of summer. In a way it's comforting to be cocooned in base with the darkness all around - though it is beginning to affect some people's sleeping patterns. These short days have an unexpected bonus. The winter light is incredible - unlike anything I have seen before - and the sunrises and sunsets are agonisingly slow and beautiful. At sunrise the northern sky and the mountain tops are lit yellow and orange for almost an hour as the sun forces itself above the horizon. As the morning goes on the light changes from almost blue to orange, then a pure white, and creeps down the mountains towards us. By the end of the month we lost the sun completely, though the northern sky still glows in the morning and sunlight hits the highest peaks. We still get twilight for nearly seven hours a day - a chalky white light which gives no heat and seems to flatten the land.

As we get deeper into winter so the wildlife has changed. The humpback and minke whales are rarely seen now as they've migrated north with the krill - their main food source. The orcas seem to stay round longer as they feed on seals which are plentiful all winter. The bad tempered fur seals, Rottweilers of the sea, have mostly gone north. They're aggressive, standing up and growling if you come close, so we're quite happy they've mostly gone. The Weddell and Crabeater seals are still around, hauled out and sleeping on the snow like fat cigars. They will stay all winter, keeping breathing holes in the ice open with their teeth if the sea freezes.

The birdlife has also changed. The skuas finally went north at the end of the month - much to everyone's relief. These guys are bad tempered and vicious - imagine a cross between a crow, a buzzard and a vulture, and that's about right. They feed on anything and force the snow petrels, the most beautiful bird of the Antarctic, to nest and live high in the mountains. The petrels overwinter here and now the skuas are gone and their young raised they've moved down to the coast. It's an incredible sight, watching them wheeling in flocks above the ice cliffs - so delicate and white yet somehow able to withstand the rigours of winter. They're curious birds - dive to look at you if you come close - and are attracted like moths to the light. It's a special thing to be sitting in the dining room at night and see one career out of the blackness, flying straight for the window - then braking and turning at the last minute. The blue-eyed shags are still around, though less in number and in smaller groups than the summer. If the winter is severe and the sea freezes they will head north, coming down next spring to breed.

The Adélie penguins seem unaffected by winter. They're everybody's favourite - cute and funny and shortsighted. Like most animals here they're curious and not afraid of people. They waddle up to get a closer look, then get nervous and puff up, beat their little fin-wings, and strut about before running off and falling over. How a bird can be so incredibly tough and incredibly funny at the same time is beyond me.

We still see other birds - Antarctic, Giant, and Cape Petrels, Southern Fulmars and Kelp Gulls - though the sightings are getting rarer as the weeks go by.

Base life has settled into a routine by now. Like any small group, be it a school class or at work, there was an initial bedding-in period. Making friends, getting to know people and creating a pecking order. It's something that happens with any group of confined people and life is easier and less confusing once it's actually done. We all know our place and jobs now, what we've to do for the winter, and are hoping the timescales and pace we've each set will get everything done by the summer.

Most people start work about 9 am, do a couple of hours and have "smoko" at 11.30. Mark cooks a brunch for us at this time - always a fair selection of goodies ending with something big and creamy. It's worth remembering that everything has to be cooked from scratch here, so the bread is fresh each morning and all cakes are straight from the oven. Then, depending on the job, we work through till 5 pm - time enough to get stuck into something big. Dinner is at 7 pm so we have a break of a couple of hour to chill out, read and write e-mails, play badminton in the aircraft hanger, or go in the gym. Where possible, weekends are free. Mark works Saturday creating a banquet for the evening, and we take it in turns to cook on Sundays. We go skiing, climbing, walking or diving if the weather is good and there's usually a wild night on the Friday or Saturday.

It's nice and flexible, people working earlier or later depending on what needs to be done, and how they're feeling. There are times when we are pushed or something goes wrong and we have to work all hours, but that's one of the hazards of being down here. Early in the month a water pump broke stopping water flow to the main building, so Mark and Simon Higgins, the plumber and electrician, worked until four in the morning to fix it. The Reverse Osmosis Plant - converting salt to fresh water - also went down one night forcing Mark and Chris, the generator mechanic, to work throughout the night. It is a constant worry for the support staff that something will go wrong in their department. Fire is one of the greatest worries of any Antarctic base, and Si Higgins has been doing drills and checks and overhauling equipment as well as his normal electrical work.

Andy Rossaak runs the science laboratory down here , "the Bonner Lab", and is constantly beset with technical problems and helping out with other scientific work. Alison and Daniela have been working away at their research, and Simon and Alice, both marine biologists, are busy with their lab work and diving programme. The diving is the only field work that carries on through the winter here and is very labour intensive. Some is done from the shore and needs two divers and two people on the shore, but much is done from the boats keeping Martin the boatman busy, though poor weather and half-formed sea ice has slowed things down. During the slack time he's been overhauling gear for the summer and helping Chris. Rich Robinson, one of our meteorology team, helps with the diving as he's dived extensively back home. Steve coordinates it all as the diving officer - whilst not making dodgy videos about base life.

Phil Jones and Nigel, the mechanics, have been holed up in the garage and broken the back of their work by servicing the field skidoos. Each has to be stripped, engine and gearbox taken apart, and rebuilt. During May and June they ran week long skidoo maintenance courses for each of the field assistants. Jez, Karl, Phil Wickens, Rachel and myself have been getting on with preparing all the field kit for next year - and grabbing the opportunity to do outside work on the good days. We pitched a pyramid tent on the glacier a few miles from base so people can go for a night out. During the bad weather base can be a little claustrophobic and it's nice to have a night under canvas and come back refreshed the next day.

The winter trips have been going ahead, though many were virtually cancelled due to the weather. Rob Tulk, the Winter Base Commander and joiner, has a backlog of work as he's now doing two jobs at once, so he chose a working holiday. We spent five days renovating Lagoon hut, a lovely little hut perched by the sea on an island close to Rothera. For once the weather was good and we spent a few days sawing and hammering and painting. Yellow and blue.

Taking advantage of the weather Phil Wickens and Karl found a safe route through the McCallum Pass and the Shambles Glacier. This is a narrow pass followed by a crevassed glacier forming the only driveable route through the mountains which form the backbone of the island. The condition of the route changes and each year has to be checked and flagged before winter trips can go through to the Fuchs Piedmont, the expanse of flat ice to the west of the mountains.

Phil Wickens and Mark Smith were the first to get away on a successful trip, making it to Carvajal - the summer-only Chilean base on the southern end of the island. They were out for six days, getting stuck in a storm for a couple of days, before arriving back with huge grins and eyes like stars. These trips make a big difference to people, getting a chance to see and feel what the Antarctic is like once off base. Just the experience of sitting out a storm in a pyramid tent, cocooned against the wind and blowing snow outside. The tents are strong and comfortable, similar to Scott's tents used at the turn of the century, and as long as the weather isn't too bad these lie ups are enjoyable. Just sleeping, reading and brewing up.

We then had a series of quite successful trips. Rachel and Mark Page tried to get to Carvajal but were stuck halfway in bad weather, and had to come back. Andy Rossaak and myself drove north along the Fuchs Piedmont once through the Shambles Glacier. He wanted to climb Mount Bouvier but after arriving and setting up camp we got stuck in poor weather, stayed in the tent for a few days, and came back. Phil had a second successful trip taking Mark Jeffrey to Carvajal, and then on to explore the mountains to the north of there. Karl and Nigel did a similar trip, then got stuck in a bad storm when camping more locally - one of the tent poles getting bent in the wind. Storms like that aren't enjoyable as the sound is deafening and you can't sleep - they looked pretty tired when they arrived back at base.

With the sunlight gone and the daylight fast disappearing we are getting close to the 21st June, mid-winter. It is a physical and emotional halfway point for us, still a long time before the planes arrive back but the days get longer and the summer feels closer. The trips stop at the beginning of June due to lack of daylight, and we start preparing for mid-winter's week - a holiday for everyone on base.

This is what I'll talk about in next month's letter.

All the best

Ian Marriott

Ian Marriott, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica.