Rothera Diary: January 1999

written by Alison George and Phil

Planes, Burns Night, visitors and wildlife at Rothera

Rothera Research Station

January 1999

Hello All,

Time is flying by here as the Southern summer is in full swing. In fact, February has whizzed by so fast that I didn't realise it had gone...hence the January letter from Rothera is arriving with you rather late!

At the beginning of the month Rothera Airways came to a bit of a standstill, for reasons associated with the weather (bad) and the fact that most of the planes were at our sister base Halley. The dining room became full in the early mornings with "beakers" (scientists) waiting to hear whether they'd be off to their field destinations. Then all of a sudden the skies cleared, and planes flew off in all directions. The biologists were deposited at various sites to collect mosses and other tiny beasties, the mapping people were sent to survey unmapped regions, and a team of geologists, Sledge Juliet, flew to the Pensacola Mountains, far south, with Giles the pilot sporting a Mohican haircut, presumably to shock the American counterparts in this project. Whilst all other field parties were consuming dehydrated mutton granules and other such delights from the BAS Manfood (as opposed to "Dogfood" boxes), Sledge Juliet, catered for by the Americans from the South Pole, were eating luxurious meals of steak and chips, and king-sized prawns!

A spate of birthdays kept the chefs busy baking cakes. In a quest for different party venues both the diving changing room and the rough lab in the Bonner Laboratory were unlikely (but popular) nightspots. Burns Night was another excuse for a celebration. Someone dragged a Haggis from the darkest depths of a freezer, and it was toasted with a reading from Burns himself by our resident Scot, Stuart Gibb, a visiting Marine Biologist. In the absence of kilts, many dressed themselves in old BAS checked shirts, and traditional dances were attempted with varying degrees of success. This was more exhausting than the circuit training classes that had restarted after a momentary lull. Meanwhile a team were busy at the remote field site, "Sky-Blu", performing possibly one of the rarest jobs in the world: clearing the blue-ice runway of snow and lumps, so that planes could land.

Whilst the Royal Naval vessel HMS Endurance got stuck in ice on its way to visit, the American Research Vessel Laurence M Gould had no such trouble and arrived with us for the night. All on board were invited ashore, and the band played to mark the occasion. As I said before, Rothera contains an unprecedented number of musicians this year. The next day, a group of us from the lab (and Nigel the mechanic, cunningly disguised as a "beaker") spent the day on a science cruise on the ship taking deep water samples. Meanwhile, members of the ship came to visit Rothera for the day, and to do a bit of skiing. Apparently they were easy to spot on the ski slope: - they were the ones skiing and snow-boarding like we wish we could.

And so ended the month.

There are a number of keen naturalists on base, who daily, despite the weather, plod around Rothera Point to see what is going on in the wildlife world. Lesley (our doctor) and Phil (the weather forecaster) are conducting a survey of the birdlife, and I thought that I'd leave it to Phil to describe some of the wildlife for you.

"January is high summer in Antarctica but even by the coast here at Rothera the temperature only reaches a few degrees above zero and snow showers are common. There are no plants to give the ground a carpet of flowers during the summer as in the Arctic. Here when the snow melts around the base we are left with bare rock and a scene reminiscent of a quarry.

The short summer means a hectic time for the breeding birds who have to use every minute of the continual daylight to feed and rear their young before the long Antarctic winter sets in.

Only about ten species of bird occur commonly at Rothera and in summer the base is dominated by the presence of the large, dark brown, gull-like South Polar Skuas. These are aggressive, piratical birds who feed mainly by harassing smaller and weaker birds such as terns to pinch their food off them. The skuas breed on the rocky ground around the base and an ongoing project is to monitor their breeding success to see if the base is having any detrimental effect on them. This can be a painful experience as they fearlessly attack anyone who ventures too close to their nest. The usual means of attack is to fly low at the intruder and strike them on the head with their feet. Some of the birds will even perch and peck away at your head. Wearing a tough hat is strongly advised.

Adélie Penguins are common around the base, their comical antics being a delight to watch. For birds which spend much of their life on ice they are remarkably unsure on their feet. Falling over seems to be part of the way of life for Adélie Penguins. They are always inquisitive and allow very close approach if you move slowly and don't harass them. They don't breed near the base but soon will be coming ashore to moult when they stand around in little groups looking miserable as their old feathers fall out and are replaced by smart new one.

The Antarctic is home to many millions of seals. The commonest at Rothera are Weddell Seals. They lie around on icebergs offshore or haul themselves onto the rocky shoreline where they seem to spend all their time blissfully asleep. They have wonderfully placid temperaments always allowing a close approach.

The other seals are less friendly. Crabeater Seals, the commonest seal in the world, usually remain offshore resting on icebergs and occasionally we see a lone Leopard Seal close inshore hunting its favourite prey, penguins.

There are plenty of whales in the waters around Antarctica but only a few species come close inshore at Rothera. Minke whales are by far the commonest but normally all you see is the long, black back rolling out of the water as most of the creature is below the surface.

Humpback whales also come close inshore and are much more spectacular as they rise out of the water with their huge flippers and distinctly marked tail, Each Humpback's tail is differently marked so individual animals can be identified.

Perhaps the creature everyone wants to see is the Killer Whale or Orca. Sadly most people only know them from films or the few in captivity but here they are in their element in their natural environment. Recently a pod of eight were seen close inshore at Rothera and closely inspected from a small boat that happened to be nearby at the time, with one of the males rising vertically in the water to take a close look at the boat's occupants before continuing on its way".

Alison George, Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica