Rothera Diary: February 2001

written by Pete Milner

The World's Most Bizarre Job ?

A panorama of icebergs. Click on image to enlarge

I went for a walk around Rothera Point before sitting down to write this months diary. It is a lovely walk, several people try and do it on a daily basis, I prefer to keep it for special occasions. This time I wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of a busy station. We have had a packed program of visiting ships and VIPs this summer, in addition our new accommodation building was finished by the hard working lads of Top Housing. So was nice to be on the other side of the point, not too far away but hidden from view and with the sea to look at. Regular readers of this diary will have realised by now that I have a pretty strange and unique job. I have so many new skills now, but I will probably be unemployable by the time I get home. Not much need for a skidoo driver around the quiet country lanes of the Cotswolds. This months diary is going be dedicated to the summer staff who worked this season at Rothera. They too have bizarre lifestyles.

Mountain panorama. Click on image to enlarge I was pondering on life, the universe and everything during my walk. Its refreshing to take a stroll without anybody else around, on a crowded station I often like to escape into my own company for awhile. Away from the activity of the station I was looking at the view thinking how peaceful and normal it all was. At this point I realised of course, that it is neither. This landscape is dangerous, which is why we use ropes all the time. The weather can be wild if you allow yourself to be caught out by it. As for my normal walk, what can I say, it is far from that. Where else in the world can you take a safe evening stroll and look out on a sea full of icebergs, to untouched mountains across on the Antarctic Peninsular and bump into seals and penguins. Often in my own little world its so easy to come too close to a seal and wake them up, they are actually quite well camouflaged.

The little penguins are a constant source of amusement, at this time of year they start to moult. Funny at the best of times these little creatures look even funnier with punk hairstyles. They look as if they have been to the worst hairdresser in the world. Coincidently several of Rothera's human residents look the same way. We do not have a barber on pay, so the idea is to find a friend you trust with a pair of scissors. I am beginning to come to the conclusion that the strange antics and looks of the penguins are beginning to rub off on us. Perhaps there is a scientific paper to be had here.

The similarities are quite striking, often we stand around in the snow and the wind, either waiting for an aircraft or the arrival of some cargo to be unloaded. We all tend to wear similar clothing, orange and black instead of the black and white of the penguin. Some second year wintering staff can sometimes develop the bemused look of the average Adelie. Sometimes we mill around not quite knowing what is happening next (not true of course as its all really well organised). Most of us can squawk like a penguin, sometimes it works as they walk up to you trying to see if you are another penguin.

Icebergs from the shore. Click on image to enlarge A quick discussion in the bar revealed that I am not the only one to talk to the penguins during my walks. We have some very intelligent people working here (not including me obviously) and they talk to the wildlife too. All the scientists are Doctors of something, our resident medical doctors all take an interest in the local wild life. We are probably one of the fittest and most healthy communities on the planet so our medics find other projects to study. It must be fairly strange to come from a busy UK hospital to Rothera station, where the odd bad back or cut finger is (hopefully) the only thing you get to deal with. Our new wintering Doctor Jenny Dean often walks around the point and she carries her camera. We have sunsets now as winter approaches, and as you can see from the photos this can never be a 'normal' walk.

North Beach, Rothera Point. Click on image to enlarge My real role here is to accompany the scientists who study the Antarctic, we are charged with their safety and we also do most of the logistics for their time in the field. Some trips are easier than others. This month I was asked to accompany Seglinda Ott, a visiting scientist who needed to have a day on Lagoon Island to study the lichens. The boating trip was fun even though it is not my sort of thing. I don't mind being in the boats, its just the idea of being in the water that really scares me. As the boat could not stay she had to have a companion for the day. It was a fairly easy journey out, slowly navigating the orange inflatable boat through the brash ice floating in the bay. Lagoon is a small rocky island half an hours boat ride to the south of us. It has a neat wooden emergency cabin there. So after helping her fix some signs defining the area of study, there was nothing much I could help with. So I had a very lazy day reading my book in the sun. The view across the inlet to the cabin and the huge icy mountains beyond is breathtaking, even though it is now familiar. I can understand why people want to live by the sea, the gentle sound of water lapping against the shore and the cry of gulls and skuas. As you walk around the island you need to carry a flag on a bamboo pole. This is a skua defence system, they are very territorial when the chicks are hatching and will attack aggressively. However they will always go for the highest point, hence the flag.

It was a warm day in the most part and the other occupant of the beach, a weddell seal was even less active than me. It was asleep all day while I just lay there and read my book. At five thirty the boat returned and we packed up and left. I had been keeping an eye open for brash ice that could trap us on the island, it has happened this summer. However all was clear so we set off. Our sheltered bay had kept the changing weather out of sight. Out in the bay it was more windy and the sea was a little rougher. Lots of spray and bouncing across the waves on the journey home. Most of us got a spray of seawater, believe me its cold down here. Magical to be in a small boat when a seal swims along in front of you. Little birds called Wilsons Petrels were feeding by hovering above the water and trapping plankton with their feet. Sailors call them Jesus birds as they appear to walk on water. Nearer to Rothera station the ice had drifted in so that we could not land at the wharf. Instead we travelled north around the point and landed on the other side of the buildings. An enjoyable day when I did not really earn my pay.

The sea tinted pink. Click on image to enlarge Friends have been returning from their field projects this month. They have spent all summer deep south, living in cold and lonely tents. Rothera to them is luxury. A chance to wash, sleep in a bed with sheets and eat food that is better than field rations. Sloppy the summer cook managed to break the base record during February. Actually called Mike he has now gained the military nick name for a chef "Sloppy", presumably for dishing out the slops. Anyway he managed to use 22 pans for one nights meal. Normally the chefs only do this if they don't like the man on "gash" (washing up duty). Mike signed up to be a chef, but has also ended up as co-pilot on Antarctic flying operations, chief painter and decorator for the emergency hut on the glacier above the station, plus he takes every opportunity to go out skiing. His kitchen has got to hold the record for the best view from any restaurant.

Rothera station. Click on image to enlarge So many people this summer have worked hard to keep the station running, I cannot possibly mention them all. However they deserve something, the lads who keep the domestic routine running, the guys on waste management, technical services who can fix any thing that's broken, the vehicle mechanics who provide our transport and the generator mechanic on whom we all rely for our power, I would just like to thank them all. Plus of course my colleagues in the outdoor team, the air unit and our scientists.

The sky tinted pink. Click on image to enlarge Folk night is our chance to relax and have an end of season party. Folk night is sort of a comic opera come drinks party. The acts this year ranged from poetry readings to a "Celebrity Gash" game, plus the launch of a new band, "Station Sixty". They played splendidly and had basically reformed with some of the original members of the Tabasco band. Somehow rock stars always seem tempted back for one more revival tour. They were great and were ably supported by several people who had the nerve to get up and sing their party piece. Star guest appearances from Elvis and Freddy Mercury made the night a great one. We even had home made advertising breaks. The whole event was stage managed by a professional. Here he is a waste management specialist and fork lift driver, back home he is used to stage and screen. Thanks for a great night Jim.

Pete Milner

Pete Milner, Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica