18 March 1999
Port Stanley, Falkland Islands
I am writing to you from Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, and the stopping-off point for BAS personnel returning from the Antarctic. My time at Rothera is now over, and I'm heading back home to the UK. The Antarctic and Rothera seem like a different world now, but I'll try and remember what happened during the past month! Gerard the chef and the other Rothera winterers will be continuing this letter with all the latest news from the station.
But what happened in March at Rothera? For a start the weather was atrocious. It was so snowy that often you couldn't see the rocky ridge opposite base. It wasn't the pleasant sort of snow that gently drops, but big wet flakes that were propelled horizontally into your face by the winds. The phrase "anyone would think we were in the Antarctic" was often stated. Snow Petrels became confused in the blizzards and landed on the base doorstep, attracted by the bright lights.
The planes were due to travel on the long "ferry flight" back home, but first there was a lot of closing down to be done. Much as I'm sure that certain people would love to spend the winter at the remote refueling sites "Sky- Blu" and Fossil Bluff, the Twin Otters were dispatched to get the staff back and close these places down. Fossil Bluff, an old BAS base on Alexander Island, was last used for the winter in the 1970s, and many of the summer residents there, reading the old base diaries, talk about what it would be like to spend the seven winter months of isolation there. One plane on the Fossil Bluff shutdown mission actually met with some difficulties on the skiway there, requiring last minute parts to be whisked down from Canada. But the days when five people accidently wintered at this hut when a plane crashed in the 1960s are long gone. This year all were brought back up to Rothera.
The Twin Otter planes had their skis removed and large fuel tanks fitted for their long journey back to the UK. Before the Air Unit departed there were a few more events in store. Ant the Pilot, the force behind the original Rothera band, was up on stage in the bar for the final bash of the year. The evening, though initially rather quiet, soon hotted up, and hours later people were still getting up on stage to sing or play instruments. It seems that most of base had some kind of musical talent - unfortunately none of it mine.
Soon the aircraft were off. One by one the Twin Otters and the Dash-7 took off and disappeared over the horizon on the first leg of a journey that will take them across the world, via the Amazon jungle, the Americas, Africa and Europe.
The base was gradually dividing into two sets of people - those staying on for the seven months of winter, and those leaving on the BAS ship RRS Bransfield. Either way, the first weeks of March were hard work for all, packing boxes, scrubbing the base out and preparing for the arrival of the ship. And the weather somewhat ruined all the carefully laid plans for skiing and boating.
However, when the time came for RRS Bransfield to leave, and for the twenty two people staying at Rothera to be left in peace for seven months, the sun came out. It is hard to describe the feeling as we left. The views from Rothera are unsurpassable, and for some people this has been their home for the past two and a half years. Most of us will never return. As we sailed away from the wharf, with the traditional send-off of flares from the winterers, the surrounding mountains were revealed in their full glory for the first time in weeks. It was a very poignant moment.
There were two aims for the journey back up to the Falkland Islands. The first was the usual thing: to transport people to Stanley to catch a flight or sail home. The second was a marine biology diving programme. This entailed anchoring at various locations whilst diving took place for limpets, snails and urchins. Luckily for us, the weather was generally good and the stops were an opportunity to savour some new landscapes. At the Ukranian base Vernadsky (the old British Faraday research station) the views were stunning, and two Humpback whales decided to come and play next to the boat and to have a scratch on the anchor chain. After the dives were complete we headed off through the Lemaire Channel. This is a very narrow stretch of water between Booth Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, and a very beautiful sight indeed, with towering icy mountains close by each side, and whales arching out of the waters ahead. At the other side, and many rolls of camera film later, we were able to visit Palmer station, a US base.
We anchored at many locations up the Antarctic Peninsula, but soon the very last point of the Antarctic continent was in sight, and we sped across Drake Passage (the ocean between Antarctica and South America ). These waters are notoriously rough, but the god of weather was kind to us, and our crossing was unusually smooth. After so long with seas filled with ice, the waters looked bare without a smattering of icebergs. However, the skies were filled with seabirds, most notably Wandering Albatrosses, gliding effortlessly with their huge wings outstretched.
Antarcticans have an unusual perspective of Stanley and the Falkland Islands. The population here is so small; 2000 are in Stanley itself, and 3000 in the islands as a whole. But to those used to spending time on Antarctic bases where a hundred people seem too crowded, Stanley can seem vast. There are roads to contend with and shops to spend money in - novelties. The air smells earthy, and there is grass..and cats...and traffic. But soon we shall be travelling to the UK and back to the "real world" again where such things are the norm. There are no glaciers when you look out of the window, no penguins crossing your path and no skuas flying overhead.
Goodbye for the last time.