Rothera Research Station
February is autumn time in the Antarctic. There may be no trees here for leaves to fall off, but the nights are getting longer, the weather is worse and thoughts are turning to winter. The winds have been howling by, and the bare rocks around Rothera Point are now covered in a layer of snow.
As the season draws to a close, the field parties carrying out science projects in remote corners of the Antarctic were uplifted back to Rothera. From the hotwater drillers on Ronne Ice Shelf to the geologists on the Pensacola Mountains, all returned looking thoroughly weathered and had their first showers after months in the field. Only the biologists will continue their science programmes into the winter months.
More than a few people were the luckiest dustmen on earth, taking waste from UK/US projects in the Pensacola Mountains for disposal via the South Pole. At one point there were nine people on base who had had their photo taken at the most southerly place on the planet. Apparently the views at Rothera (icy peaks, seas and glaciers) outstrip those at the South Pole (flat and white) every time. Though very remote, there were more people at the American Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole than at Rothera. It was very cold there, below minus 40·C, but one intrepid aircraft mechanic couldn't resist having his photo taken by the South Pole sign in his beloved Newcastle United T-shirt.
Around Rothera Point, the newly hatched skua chicks were growing larger and uglier by the day (and luckily their parents were growing less aggressive too, so dive bombing by skuas was less of a hazard for those taking a stroll). Fur seals were regular visitors. They like to lounge on the runway, and it is always amusing to watch them being chased to make way for the planes.
Rothera airways were busy, not only with the BAS planes flying round the clock, but with Canadian and German planes on their way back from their field season further south. The runway and fuel at Rothera make it an ideal stopping off point on long plane journeys. I shall never get over the fact that there is a runway outside my window. In fact, within a short space of Rothera there is a wharf, a runway, a diving centre, a laboratory and a ski-slope, as well as three generators and a reverse osmosis plant (to make fresh water from sea water). Though it's such a small place, merely a collection of a few buildings, the place has the amenities of a city.
The infamous Rothera Folk Night, the annual show of music and sketches, was the usual last minute flurry, but out of nowhere there appeared hours of sketches and music. This night coincided with the uplift of an eight-person geophysical field party, Sledge India, from the Evans Ice Stream, but all the planes made it back to base on time for the pilots to pick up their prestigious Golden Egg awards (for misdemeanours committed throughout the season). From Muppets to live music to Air Mechanics doing Mick Jagger impressions, the hidden gifts would undoubtedly upstage the Royal Variety Show.
Towards the end of the month HMS Endurance helicopters arrived at Rothera and performed impressive aerial manoeuvres whilst they waited to land. The ship itself, the Royal Navy's presence in the Southern Ocean, arrived at Rothera the next day for a four day visit. On the first night, base members were invited on board the ship for dinner, and the following night the ship's crew graced the Rothera bar with their presence. The Rothera Winter Olympics took place the next day. The ski-slope was awash with tobogganers, luge and a slalom run. There were many glowing faces afterwards and it was gratifying to see that the Royal Marines didn't win every event! The Rothera dive team took the Naval divers out to dive at a beautiful local site, an undersea cliff, dripping with life. The shop aboard the ship was the first opportunity for many on base to actually use money, and the shopkeeper was obviously amused at how many people had forgotten to bring their wallets with them.
It was excellent to have the ship alongside, but it somewhat threw the routine at Rothera. You can see why tourist ships are rarely permitted to dock here - it would be hard to get any work done. The Russian Icebreaker tourist ship, Kapitan Khlebnikov also came by Rothera a few days later, but contact was limited to the doctors (who for some reason run the base Post Office) going on board the ship to open shop.
Gradually things are winding down in preparation for the winter. In fact, next month I will no longer be at Rothera, but on a ship on the way to the Falkland Islands and on to the UK. I've been here for a year and a half, but others have been on base a year longer than that. The excitement about going home is mounting, whilst the wintering crew of 22 people are looking forward to their seven months of isolation ahead.
All the best,