Rothera Diary: April and May 1999

written by Gerard Baker and illustrated by Ian McDonald

Getting into winter mode

Rothera , Adelaide Island

Dear All

We are now almost at the end of our second full month of winter and almost a third of the way through, and so I thought that I would like to write a little of our experiences so far. Firstly, just to take the liberty of introducing myself - Hi, I am Gerard Baker, base chef, here for an 18 month stint. I have replaced Allie as the Rothera diarist, and for the next year or thereabouts shall attempt to give you an idea of what our life is like here in this small section of Antarctica.

The psychological beginning of our winter ought to have been the end of the summer - that is logical - but in fact, although the end of the summer was marked by the leaving of RRS Bransfield with the summer staff, all of our waste and those who had ended their wintering contracts, we were at that point not a full wintering compliment. A week or so later we saw on the horizon RRS James Clark Ross arriving with Crispin Day, a BAS veteran, polar traveller extraordinaire and the fifth of our Field Assistants. He had stepped in at the last minute to replace Karl Farqas. And so there were then 22 of us.

The emotional highpoint, however did come with the departure of RRSBransfield. There remains in my mind a vivid picture of faces at the glass of the lounge on the ship - some tearful, others smiling behind Champagne bottles, arms waving as she pulled away to the sound of cheers -fading only with the smoke of the flares let off on the wharf at Rothera. The period of relief is so hectic that, for me at least, I had not given much thought in the preceding few days as to how I would feel at that time, but I can honestly say that I was filled with positive expectancy - a feeling of hope on that sunny and crisp morning. That feeling remains I am glad to say.

We have since discovered that RRS Bransfield will no longer visit Rothera, and that is indeed a shame, as she is a veteran of these waters and old friends are sorely missed. Yet, the replacement ship, Polar Queen will no doubt become as familiar to those FIDs ( FIDs are employees of the British Antarctic Survey - and take their name from the acronym of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey) in the future who sail on her and I for one am looking forward to her arrival at Rothera next year.

Once we had waved goodbye to RRS James Clark Ross - an evening departure and atmospheric for it - we were able to settle into the thought that this group of 22 people, for better or worse, is all there is for the next 7 months. A sobering thought but a happy one too as it gives each of us the opportunity to make friends of acquaintances and to dig a little deeper than the hectic rush of the summer allows. I know that from my previous season here in 1996-7 that friends made here tend to stick, which is a good thing, and one of my reasons for coming back.

The beginning of the winter - the first few weeks are taken up with many formalities - the settling of routines, meetings and the familiarisation of all to the running of the base - realising that we have now to rely on ourselves rather than ask the advice of our predecessors. We spent the first week scrubbing away the mess of relief - putting away all of the summer gear that is redundant in the winter - the vehicles, plates, mugs and suchlike. Looking back through my diary for that period I am struck by just how much there was to be done - from the kitchens point of view there are fewer people to cook for, of course, but all of the fresh foods we gladly received from the ships take a lot more time to prepare and look after than a bunch of tins. One of the major recreational aspects of the winter - the trips that we each take as a holiday away from our work, require a great deal of work over and above that which needs to take place for the following summer season. The Field Assistants who take care of our outdoor skills training and "Sherpa" us around in unknown areas have their travel sledges to prepare for one thing - packing emergency clothing, fuel and food, training us up to be able to deal with the rigours of camping in the Antarctic winter. The vehicles that we use to travel about on - the skidoos - all have to be in tip-top shape, and so the mechanics are occupied constantly servicing these.

Winter trips - just those words sum up so much - the preparation, the excitement, the pleasures of seeing previous unseen places - but perhaps also the disappointment of your holiday coinciding with bad weather and having to either spend a week encamped in a blizzard, or being stuck on the base. The first two trips of the winter experienced poor conditions with high winds, some lost belongings and generally did not have such a good time. After that sobering reminder to the rest of us, many decided to alter their plans to travel around our island and spend their week doing outside things, just closer to home. In the end, only three or four trips reached the number one holiday destination of Carvajal - the summer Chilean base and formerly the BAS Adelaide base. I elected to catch up with things on base - which meant a relaxing week sketching, reading and the occasional ski - weather permitting.

In fact we have had some very mixed weather - ranging from 80 knot gusts to calm sunny days reminiscent of the long nights of summer - when the sun skirts the horizon and sends long shadows across the snow - with soft light that makes the world seem translucent. Cloud cover permitting we may see the sun again before it dips behind the hills for the next two months or so - it certainly won't be long before it disappears from our sight - another reminder that we live below the Antarctic Circle, but not a bad one as it will come back!

Science goes on too, of course, and during the winter there are both long term projects and individual research taking place alongside one another. Since the opening of the Bonner Laboratory in the summer of 1996-7, biological science has probed the area both above and below the waters - the diving programme has been a little slow recently due to illnesses but is now up to full strength. Meanwhile, on the terrestrial side of things, Kevin Hughes has been studying the impact of our sewage disposal system on the local microbial communities, and Paul Geissler, despite suffering with a bad back, continues the terrestrial assistant's job with reasonable cheer.

A long term wildlife study has taken place around Rothera Point, and continues this year with Dr Lesley Thomson and Steve Hinde ( one of the Field Assistants) being chief spotters, taking walks around the point in all weathers to make a note of what species are there and in what numbers. It has been a remarkable winter for birds and seals - exceeding in number every year so far - we have had Adélie penguins - our most common - in numbers in the four and five hundreds, coming onto shore to roost late in the afternoon. In addition, many more fur seals have been seen this year - they do not breed this far south and their usual haunt is in the waters higher up the Antarctic Peninsula and on sub-Antarctic islands such as South Georgia. Smelt before being seen, they are generally more active than the our usual seal visitors, Weddell and Crabeater seals, and have to be given a reasonable berth, but are amusing to watch, folding their tails and flippers in close to their stomachs whilst resting to limit heat loss. They are well parcelled against the cold. For me, the most beautiful bird visitor we see is the snow petrel - they have the added advantage of being far less noisy than the skuas who leave the Antarctic Peninsula for the winter, and who would otherwise no doubt be feasting on snow petrels. To be seen around the buildings at night - yellow from the lights of the base - they appear to be active all the day through, as during the day they can be seen feeding at sea - rarely taking to the water, but darting quickly about and occasionally dipping into it. Dovelike and graceful they shall be one of my lasting memories of the winter.

Not long after the end of our summer season, our nearest winter neighbours, those at the Argentinean station San Martin, also switch staff from summer to winter. However, whereas we have a handover that may last many months and takes place on the base, their entire base complement changes each year, having just two days to pass on the vital information necessary to run the base. Their staff do receive a much longer training period in Argentina before coming south - spending a year together training, where we spend just a few days. We speak to them every Sunday in a years-old ritual of Spanish/English lessons, and it is great fun. We are already good friends with Segrido, Carlos and Juan Carlos and hope to see them during the winter should we have sea ice fit for travelling on. If not, then mutual invitations to visit homes in both countries have been swapped. Despite having a group as big as 22 on base, it is always good to hear another voice, share thoughts, and pass the time of day with someone else. Our radio chats with them have become one of the highlights of my week.

As we are almost at the beginning of June, thoughts turn to midwinter. Celebrated because it marks the point from which the sun begins to return to our world, we shall follow in a grand tradition dating back as at least as far as Captain R F Scott's first trip south. The week is declared a holiday to all and as one of the organisers of the celebrations and cook of the famed feast of midwinter, I shall keep busy encouraging everyone to make fools of themselves and generally have a good time I hope. We have much to look forward to during the rest of the winter and I shall keep you up to date with the events of midwinter at the end of June.

Best wishes and bye for now.

Gerard Baker.

Gerard Baker, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica