Rothera Diary: April 2001

written by Pete Milner

The Tale of the Lonely Penguin

Mairi and the Emperor penguin. Click to enlargeApril has been a good month for wildlife around the station. We nearly passed the previous record for the number of fur seals, as 443 were counted by our intrepid wildlife spotters on their walks around the Rothera Point. The giants of the deep, the whales, also seem to have returned. One exceptional visit was from an emperor penguin. These beautiful creatures are rare at Rothera and it's always special to see them. We get used to our funny little Adélie penguins, including everyone's favourite 'Fat Bob', but I am always surprised at the size of the emperors. Perhaps because of their greater bulk they seem not to be afraid of anybody. This single animal spent several days wandering up and down the runway, around the Bonner Laboratory and touring the station inspecting the accommodation and the vehicles. Occasionally he pauses and calls, to whom - we cannot tell. To me he seems so lonely out there, all on his own in the snow. No one else was answering his call, was it to his lost companions, how can we tell. I guess the modern day equivalent is sending out an e-mail and not getting a reply. All I know is that there was this single penguin seemingly alone in this vast and empty landscape. The penguin is the symbol of Antarctic wildlife and in a way he is representing our life too. We are alone in this wilderness and I'm sure we each feel lonely at times and miss our family and friends. Here at Rothera this winter we only have ourselves to rely on, we may feel lonely but we are never quite alone.

Often in the evenings I like to find a quiet corner and read, in the busy world outside of the Antarctic that sometimes is a luxury. As we start to settle into winter, people are busy with their own work schedules, either maintenance of machinery, or field gear for next summer, or the busy science and diving program. For most of us this is a new experience, no one can prepare you for the harsh reality of winter; Keith and I remain from winter 2000, Asti, Dave Routledge and Mike have wintered here before. As for the others, I cannot speak for them of course, but I'm sure they feel apprehensive about what is to come. I often secretly smile when somebody says how cold it is or how dark its getting. This is only the start.

Socially we are having a fantastic time and getting to know each other as we find our feet in the new season. I missed the party at Easter as I was out on an expedition to Carvajal. Some strange characters seem to have been wandering the corridors while I was away so perhaps that was for the best.

Death as a party animal. Click to enlarge A demon of sorts! Click to enlarge

It's party time - 'Death' and a demon.
Click on images to enlarge.

During a morning spent training for this trip Phil and I were working above the station looking out across the sound. We are now used to the idea that it's just us for the winter, so you tend not to believe your eyes at first. Yes it was a ship out there in the bay. It turned out to be the Lawrence M. Gould, the American science ship that visited us near the end of summer. We invited them here for a party, but they were only down in the area for two hours conducting an experiment.

Eventually Asti, Phil, Jon Leach and I managed to reach the Chilean station at the south west corner of the island in a brief period of good weather. This is always an eventful journey which takes us 90 km from the station passing spectacular mountain scenery along the way. We passed a camp site from a previous trip and discovered a snowman standing alone in the wilderness. It's actually in the perfect place, as the route I have to follow heads north from the station and then turns left at the snowman. During the next four days poor conditions kept us confined to the huts reading and playing chess. We explored the empty station and watched the seals spending most of the day sleeping on their hotly contested patch of snow, the other seals' patch of snow always seems whiter apparently. As the weather improved, we loaded up our sledges, pushed north and managed to return to the comforts of Rothera.

It is nice to be back in your own room. The main benefit of winter is that you can have a room to yourself. After a welcome shower I wandered into the linen store to fetch some more toothpaste, toiletries etc. These are free here, you just help yourself. Our inflatable alien seems to have moved into this little room and was peacefully asleep complete with pillow and sheet. Outside one of the rooms in the accommodation block there is one of those little wire frames you leave for the milkman. It also has a note for the milkman and a carton of milk powder. Personally I cannot remember what real milk tastes like. It seems that the milkman has not been for ages. There is also an origami frog on the floor beside the milk. Don't ask me why. I may be back on the station, but life is far from normal.

The rescue crew. Click to enlargeOur emperor penguin may be lonely but he has had plenty of attention this month. Everyone has been out photographing him and Rothera station has also had its share of the limelight. An operation to evacuate Dr Ronald Shemenski (a doctor serving at the South Pole Station) had been planned and the decision was made to use Rothera as a base for flight operations. In preparation we had to clear the hangar of all the vehicles we store there in the winter, a windsock is put out, and the runway lights and their protective drums cleared of snow. Twin Otter aircraft from Ken Borek Aviation from Canada arrived and received the best of Rothera hospitality. Beds were made up by Jenny, complete with covers folded down and a chocolate on the pillow.

I am not sure I would like to fly a small twin engine aircraft more than a thousand miles with little support on the way and into minus 60 degrees C ( minus 103 F) plus gathering darkness. However it would be one hell of an adventure, I considered asking them to take Buzz Lightyear to the pole but they had enough to worry about. It was a bold operation carried out by brave and exceptionally skilled aircrew. We started calling them International Rescue. Personally I really enjoy being in the centre of operations and it's such a privilege to be able to hang around in the operations room watching the plane take off. As all this excitement was going on I could look over the bay full of icebergs and watch fur seals swimming and sleeping on the shore. Before the aircraft took off we had to send somebody out to chase them off the runway. In addition to watching Thunderbird One launch, I could see five or six massive humpback whales swimming between the icebergs just offshore. An amazing sight and I even saw the tail fluke which is a first for me, even though I have by now seen so many whales it's almost become commonplace. I think some of the lads went out in the boats to get a closer view.

When the aircraft returned from the South Pole they made a very impressive night landing. We stood by with hand-held flares in case the runway lights failed, no chance of diverting to another airstrip down here. The pilots were pretty pleased to be back and full of exciting tales from the South Pole. One of them described landing at Rothera as rather like landing on an aircraft carrier at night. Just sea all around and a small strip to hit. Apparently there are some very unique problems to be faced when flying to the South Pole in winter. Just before they landed at 90 degrees south the guys there were struggling to light pots of fuel to mark the ice runway. We hear that it's so cold at the South Pole that fuel refuses to light when attacked by a propane blow torch. They did not have much time before the propane froze and the torch had to be taken inside and warmed up.

Before take off some of the wing controls froze solid and had to be taken apart to be warmed and then got moving again. By this time the aircraft had frozen to the ground. The friction of landing on skis melts some of the ice which then freezes holding the aircraft so strongly that the engines cannot move it. The solution was to have guys standing on the back of a truck at the wing tips rocking the plane to and fro while others chip away at the ice on the skis. Anyway they were glad to be back at Rothera.

Some of the rescue party. Click to enlarge Group photograph. Click to enlarge

Left to right - Capt Mark Cary, Capt Sean Loutitt, AME Norman Wong, Dr Ronald Shemenski.

The Rothera 2001 winter team with Dr Shemenski and his rescue team.

Click on images to enlarge.

We recorded the event by having our photograph taken with the Canadians and the Doctor Shemenski. Eventually it was time for them to go and it was a friendly farewell; we were sad to see them go as they had brightened up life considerably. It was really spectacular watching them take off in plumes of snow. I think they enjoyed their stay with us and gave us a fly past as they headed north.

Preparing for departure. Click to enlarge Airborne over Rothera. Click to enlarge

Preparing for departure.

Airborne over Rothera

Twin Otter taking off. Click to enlarge

A Twin Otter from Ken Borek Aviation taking off.
Click on images to enlarge.

The following Saturday night we had a Scottish night in honour of Asti's birthday. Keith, the chef, invented Sirloin Steak Culloden which is steak with a whisky sauce. I dressed in one of the hairy tartan shirts they issue us with (nobody uses them) and a kilt made of some scrap material. Uncharacteristically I was up for the Scottish dancing organised by Mairi. It was a very enjoyable night in the company of the winter 2001 team. As a group we are alone, but as people we have friends around us. The penguin was outside in the blowing snow on his own, but then it was probably not his sort of night.

Rothera station is now trying to get back to normal. Like the lonely penguin we have had our share of admirers, been the centre of international attention and are now left to our own devices once again. We hear that German helicopters may be in the vicinity so our peace may not last long. Once the operational traffic calmed down we organised a radio darts match with Halley station. Sorry did I say back to normal.


Pete Milner
Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island. Antarctica