Rothera Diary: May 2001

written by Pete Milner

" Darkness and wind"

I started writing this month's diary whilst on night watch, that started me thinking about the lack of daylight these days. The sun has waved us goodbye and headed off somewhere warmer. There are a few hours of daylight, around lunch time, lit by a pale dawn hidden behind the mountains to our north.

sunset at Rothera - click for a larger image

On night watch I have to make three rounds, midnight, 03:00 and 06:00 checking all the buildings, plus the Generator shed and the Reverse Osmosis plant, which provides our fresh water. We have three big generators, only one of which is powering the station at any one time. Jon Leach the generator mechanic has named them after the three girls who are wintering this season. In addition there are two smaller engines in a container behind the aircraft hanger should the generator shed burn down. My shift finishes as people begin to get up for breakfast and starts late in the evening, so I am spending a week without daylight.

At the beginning of the month we played host to two helicopters from the German ship RV Polarstern. They flew across the island just as the weather was getting better. One flew around the bay studying whales and the other stayed here allowing some scientists to visit the laboratory and drop off some gear. I do love being involved with flying operations. My afternoon was spent in the radio room watching them come in to land and then helping to show them around.

We certainly have had an exciting and enjoyable start to the winter season. This month saw the last of the winter expeditions setting out to travel on the island. Increasingly short days now prevent anything other than local travel. Trips obviously are at the mercy of the weather and so far we have not been too lucky. My last pre-mid-winter trip was with Steve LeBretton and in the company of Asty and Dave Bowden we camped by Trident Peak, a short run to the north of the station. Those of you who have been camping will be familiar with times when you are kept awake by rain hammering down on the tent. Imagine that the hammering is snow, the wind is howling, shaking the ground you sleep on and the tent is humming in the wind. Next consider the fact that there is nowhere to go, you just have to sit it out.

In nine days we had one clear day when we could climb up Trident Peak. It was a great view, as always, with the magnificent Stonehouse Bay to the north and the mountains of Stork and Reptile Ridge to the south. We could see for a long way down the Antarctic Peninsula. Winds here really can blow at full strength for four or five days gusting to 40 knots, sometimes more, confining you to your tent. It just throws snow around in a complete blizzard. Going outside in blizzard conditions is only done when strictly necessary, if you know what I mean. You worry about being blown over by the wind and worry about losing contact with the tent in near white-out conditions

With so much blowing snow around everything starts to drift in and eventually becomes buried. One day Steve and I dug out my sledge in a gale, it was about a metre under the surface. You need to dig underneath and clear the runners from the ice before digging a ramp and pulling it out with the skidoo. Obviously the skidoos are covered up to try and prevent snow filling the engine compartment, so those get drifted in as well.

Other trips had better luck. Mike Powell, Dave Routledge, Keith Walker and Asty Taylor had a fine week travelling on the west side of the island. They say rank has its privileges and the rumour is that Mike arranged things so he could avoid the amateur cooking. We actually survived pretty well with the chef on holiday, probably because I was nowhere near the kitchen. In contrast to my earlier contribution as Sunday cook the standard of volunteer cooks was excellent

May saw Sledge Oscar go out. This was my trusty Scottish guide and I. Our goal was to reach Carvajal, a summer-only Chilean station, and luckily this was achieved on the first attempt. The trip took a little over four hours with a stop at Sledge Papa's camp to let down their Therm-a-rest sleeping mats. After three days at the Chilean station looking around we moved on to camp under the impressive view of Mount Liotard's west face. This was only my second night in a tent down here, but my trusty Scottish guide provided yet another fabulous meal and the weather stayed calm and clear. On the penultimate day of the trip we had a day out to the top of the Sloman Glacier. This gave us an impressive view over the other side of Adelaide Island towards Jenny Island. Climbing a little higher on Mile End Bluff we were treated to a breath-taking sunset before heading back to camp.

Next day saw us packing up and heading home, all too soon in my opinion. But oh the bliss of that first shower of the week!!

Keith Walker, Chef

Because we all rely on each other here, it is important to practice emergency procedures. One Saturday morning Chris Hall organised an exercise with the breathing apparatus we keep for fire fighting use. The idea was to rescue someone trapped in a dark, smoke-filled room. A few of us had fun dressing up as firemen and we all successfully rescued the dummy:

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Phil Horne, Pete Milner, Dave Molineaux, Andy Chapman.

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Dave Molineaux and Andy Chapman after their heroic rescue mission.

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Ian Martin and Jenny Dean our doctor

Another a successful rescue.

Thanks to Dave Molineaux for the brilliant pictures.

As the old saying goes "expect the unexpected", we are certainly having an eventful season this winter. We practice our fire procedures regularly but believe me it is a shock when the fire alarms go off in the middle of the night. At two in the morning I jumped out of bed with loud alarms sounding all around the station. The training works, everyone mustered quickly outside the main door and teams were already putting on the breathing apparatus. The alarm board lights indicated a problem in our generator shed. Just the worst place for a fire to start. Fire fighting teams were being quickly dispatched to investigate, when suddenly the electricity switched off and emergency battery powered lights were the only thing keeping the darkness a bay.

Luckily there was no fire, but unfortunately some technical problems had occurred - perhaps HQ have not paid the electricity bill recently. I try as much as possible to mention what people are getting up to down here. However this month I feel I must make special mention of the sheer hard work and dedication shown by the technical services lads who swiftly and much to our relief, restored the power. Loads of other things need checking, electrical supplies switched back on, water pumps will have failed and need restarting, fire systems reset and lots of computers and science stuff to check. Obviously we are also worried about our food freezers. In the end I got to bed at about 05:00 and was up again at 07:30. Jon Leach the generator mechanic put in a 24 hour shift and Paul Cryer the plumber was working solidly for 12 hours after the emergency started. Everyone put in a massive effort, Chris Hall the electrician, Tom and Steve the vehicle mechanics were also putting in lots of work. The rest of us certainly appreciate the effort it takes to keep our creature comforts operational.

My own limited technical ability has been tested as I have been working in the vehicle garage learning how to strip down and reassemble a skidoo. Down in the Bonner Laboratory the phrase "science never stops" has been the theme of the month.

"Science Never Stops"

Bonner Laboratory

Back row Left to right - Dave Bowden, Phil Horne

Front row Left to Right - Mairi Nicolson, Rayner Piper, Will Gilchrist.

Although the main bulk of the research done at Rothera is crammed into the summer months, this doesn' t mean science stops when the winter starts. A few scientists, or beakers as we' re more commonly known, carry out research all year round. We are housed in the Bonner Laboratory, which was opened in 1997 and named after Nigel Bonner an internationally respected biologist and conservationist. The Bonner Laboratory is a purpose built building containing several labs, offices, and library, an aquarium and dive facilities. Sited beside the wharf and neighboured by the boatshed we have an excellent science set-up and of course magnificent views across Ryder Bay.

Dave Bowden studied marine biology at the University of Plymouth and before this has been a professional photographer, yachtsman and commercial diver. He flippantly made the mistake of calling himself " a gentleman of adventure "and despite his complaints I' m going to leave it in. At Rothera he is studying for a PhD, researching the microscopic beasties that live in the bottom of the sea. This seems to involve endless hours of underwater photography, towing nets around the bay and looking down a microscope.

Rayner Piper studied marine biology at Queen Mary 's College, London. For 2.5 years Rayner will be found making up elaborate schemes for daring adventures and amazing us all with his enthusiasm for the unimaginable. On a more serious note, Rayner looks after our aquarium and carries out the ongoing marine research for those people restricted to summer visits. Rayner has a varied workload and can be found in a dive suit, boat suit or lab coat. Not content with this, he has recently passed his tractor-driving test and can now be found in a boiler suit, wellies and woolie hat. Rayner wins the Compo look-a-like award!

"Fearless Phil Horne our Dive Officer is responsible for getting the dive team into the icy waters and managing all our dive facilities and equipment. Phil arrived at Rothera late on in the summer season and was, pardon the pun, thrown in at the deep end. He has coped well with the change to cold Antarctic waters as previously he worked as a diamond diver in Namibia. Phil' s knowledge of marine organisms and wildlife is second to none having spotted a " duck" "you know those thingies with the sticky out bits" . His whistling is renowned on base and we 're all glad he spends some of his time underwater.

As for myself, apart from making lots of tea, I look after the ongoing terrestrial science projects. I studied Microbiology at Aberdeen University and have previously worked in potato disease research, which is very useful for annoying Keith the chef. I am trying to earn the title of base jolly merchant by getting on as many flights and boat trips as possible. When on these so-called jollies you' ll find me rooting amongst the lichens, mosses, grass and soil, or collecting small insects to torture. The rest of the time I can be found in the lab growing weird and wonderful microbes, or out on Rothera Point counting the wildlife.

Last but not least there 's Will the Boatman, the salty sea dog on base. Will supports the dive team as boatman and dive supervisor, and the terrestrial team with all boating needs to the nearby islands. Base members are given training in boat handling and if that wasn< em>' t enough, boat trips are very popular at weekends, so poor Will is never given a moment's peace. Will comes from Cornwall and before joining BAS only admits that he's "spent many a year at sea" . Not only a dab hand at making Cornish pasties, Will has been known to do some modelling and has become the base pin-up boy!

So that ' s the Bonner team for the winter of 2001. We ' ll be writing a small science-related section each month to let everyone know what goes on here. I' ll start off next month with some fascinating fungal facts, Rayner will then amaze you with some pictures from the deep, Dave can explain what a marine biologist does, Phil can impress you with the complexities of diving in the frozen seas and Will might tell you a tale of life on the Antarctic ocean waves.

Until then, enjoy your summer sunshine.

Mairi Nicolson, Terrestrial Field assistant

On a less serious note Radio Darts, a uniquely Antarctic pastime, still proves popular and we arranged a match with the Argentine station San Martin, which is located across the sound and a little further south. We had to explain the concept to their radio operator who to be fair has reasonable English. At first we were not even sure they had a dart board. Eventually he managed to get hold of the idea with lots of translation, then there was a pause while he chatted to his mates. He then came back on the radio and said OK to the match with the puzzled comment that they would not know if anybody cheated. That of course is the point.

Our water supply plant failed, providing another drama and proving once again how much we rely on the lads who know how all this complex equipment works. At the worst point we only had three days of water left with even the strictest rationing. If Paul had not managed to recover the situation we would have been reduced to cutting snow blocks for use as a water supply. There is little snow here at present as every thing blew away. We had a day of sleety rain so the whole place is a skating rink of ice. This is proving to be an eventful winter.


Pete Milner

Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica