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Rothera Diary: September 2000

by Pete Milner

A frozen world at the end of winter


September 2000


We had a visitor at the beginning of the month. He first walked round Rothera Point then checked out the sea shore in South Cove. After that, a tour of inspection around the new accommodation building, then onwards for a look at our sledge racks. Next he went round the back of the outdoor gear store, through the back yard, and paused at the front door to the main building. Last I saw him he was off down to the Bonner Laboratory.

A brilliant experience, it was a rare visit from an Emperor Penguin; they are incredible creatures. Twice the size of the little Adélie penguins, if not more. I was surprised at how big they are, almost waist high on me, and with a rotund barrel like body above small feet. They are coloured yellow and orange around the throat. Seemingly they don't care much about humans and he was quite inquisitive. About two to three feet was the nearest he got to me. At one point I could not focus the camera fast enough as he was walking straight at me about six feet away. He had a good look at everything and everybody, was not bothered about the groups of photographers, finished his tour of inspection and departed. He was obviously looking for something, but then so are we all.

I think I have gained a little weight this winter. Personally I blame Keith's excellent puddings. As a single guy I rarely cook puddings at home, so I get easily tempted if good food is placed in front of me. Since food is provided for us down here the saying goes "the more you eat the more you get paid". However all is not lost as I have discovered "Slimming the easy way, the Antarctic way".

My main trip out this month was a return to the Chilean station, Carvajal. It took a few days of dodging bad weather to get there and we camped for one night near the start of McCallums Pass. I was with Chris Burrows, our Medical Officer. It was a cold camp, and the first time this winter I have used the fleece liner inside my sleeping bag. The following morning we started promptly, and we were travelling south on the other side of Adelaide Island when Alfie and Jenny caught us up. It was nice to have four of us at Carvajal and it gave the empty station a more sociable feel.

Unfortunately the weather turned nasty just after we arrived. First of all it was nice to be able to have a day exploring the outlying buildings, but, when the weather continued to be foul, the novelty can wear off. We began to feel trapped inside the station. My routine was to force myself out of a sleeping bag at about seven in the morning. It's not easy getting out of a warm bag into a bitter cold room. The windows and walls had frost on the inside. Firstly I would light the Tilly lamp to see where I was going. The windows in the main room are boarded up against the weather so it's completely dark. Next I would check the weather, most of the week it was blowing snow with bitterly cold winds. You don't want to know about the toilet facilities in the field, sufficient to say it's cold at minus 25 ish squatting over sea ice in blowing snow. I was pretty chilled and glad to get back inside for the first brew of tea. Most days it was obvious we could not travel.

In order to warm up, I would get back into my sleeping bag and read for a few hours. Lunch would be soup or a snack. In the evenings we could run the small generator for a few hours and get some heat and light in the small lounge area. After dinner, cooked over the primus stoves, we would play cards or read. After I returned to Rothera I felt noticeably thinner. Great to have an idle day and still be losing weight. That's the sort of diet I like. I was quite tired after the journey, the weather had been foul and we had consistently low temperatures. The base recorded minus 23 degrees C without wind chill. God knows what it was at Carvajal but I had ice inside my one piece freezer suit. After we returned the record was set for this winter with minus 27 degrees C. You burn the calories fast just keeping warm in this environment.

It was nice to return to the comforts of Rothera Station. A hot shower was great after a week out in the wilds of the Antarctic. We share bathroom facilities, but are lucky in that there is no water rationing unlike some Antarctic stations. We have a plant that converts sea water to drinking water, and it actually needs to keep flowing. Luxury is a hot shower, clean warm sheets and a cup of tea that takes a minute to make rather than an hour of melting snow and ice.

September is the last full working month of winter. Everybody has been hard at it finishing their winter tasks. The new Operations Tower and radio room have been finished, and it is an immaculate job. It was a treat to have a party to celebrate the completion of this project. Against my better judgement I had two of the cocktails, but I seem to have got away with no ill effects this time. The lads have worked exceptionally hard on this job and deserve to celebrate. Chris Thompson and Mark have been hard at work with the big snow clearing machines, making sure it's all clear for the arrival of the aircraft. Mark seems especially keen to see the return of the air unit. He is off home to someone special - good luck to him - but it will seem strange as the winter team splits up and heads home. I am not even halfway through my tour here, but the majority of our winter crew will be heading north next summer. They are now really looking forward to the return journey.

Thanks are due to all the people who have supported the team here via the e-mail. It has been so important to maintain contact with friends and family back home. We have a short daily news letter sent over the satellite that gives us the main headlines. So we have picked up on the news of the petrol crisis and food shortages. Here we just park the skidoo near a drum in the yard and fill up using a sort of hand operated wobble pump. If it runs out you just need to fetch another drum. As for food, its all down stairs and that's all there is. Simple really.

You would have liked to come out wildlife spotting with me this month. It's the start of the seal pup season. The seals bite holes in the ice to breathe through, but often it's easier to use the tide cracks round icebergs. As the tide rises and falls so does the sea ice to some extent. This will crack the ice near the land and around big grounded icebergs. On one walk around Rothera Point we found two seals sleeping on the ice. There was also a pregnant female just off the runway to the south. You could see her from the dining room. Another time the walk round Rothera Point was a little further out than usual. You will believe a man can walk on water. It is now possible to travel on the local sea ice. We went out to one of the larger icebergs and I had my photo taken standing next to it. Quite a unique experience wandering around on a frozen sea, it's not often you can do that. The area has been drilled by the outdoor team to establish the thickness of the ice and it is pretty safe really. There has also been another visit from the big Emperor Penguin. It just wandered about inspecting sledges etc. He walked up to me so close that he could have pecked me if he wanted too. They really are quite friendly. Amazing animals and very curious. I hope Rothera passed his inspection.

Most people have been out on the ice taking photographs. There are some amazing icebergs trapped in the ice, and seals lying asleep here and there. On one sunny day I walked between the buildings in just a T-shirt and fleece jacket; it was minus 14 degrees C. Guess I must have adapted. There was no wind which helped. The sun now has some warmth in it.

When the weather is good, Rothera Point is a magic place to be. A few of us walked off onto the sea ice recently and went to see two seal pups that had only just been born. . They were fast asleep and not troubled by passing visitors. They are really cute and mother doesn't worry about us. At the end of our walk around the Point we joined Jenny and Keiron who were diving through holes in the sea ice cut by chain saw. Those two are really mad; I thought Carvajal looked cold. Hugh was supervising and Steve Ainscough took some great photos. They show Keiron and Jenny getting ready to dive, with Hugh supervising and Jenny in the water.

I bet the cute two-day-old seal pup is wondering what happened. As I write this, it's blowing 50 knots (57 mph) and snowing, creating a real Antarctic blizzard. We cannot see the next building fifty feet away. There is a minus 33 C wind chill, so I guess it must be pretty harsh living exposed on the sea ice. Welcome to our cold world - seal pup.

Pete Milner, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica