Rothera Diary - September 2002

written by Felicity Aston

Less than a month to go before the planes return to Rothera and there are finally signs that the long winter is over and spring is underway. As the days back home get shorter and darker, down here in the southern hemisphere we are finally able to dispense with a few layers and are getting used to wearing sunglasses again. The sea is still frozen and the snow is still piled up in great heaps around the buildings but the sun is warmer and appears through the clouds more often.

The sea around Rothera is still frozen - Click to enlarge The sun appears more often - Click to enlarge

There are other signs too. The weddell seals have started to pup, the mothers hauling their huge bulks out onto the ice to produce small wriggling bundles of downy fur. I skiied out to Lagoon, one of the smaller neighbouring islands, with Adam the other day. We found a mother and pup a few meters offshore lying next to a breathing hole in the ice. The pup was a few days old and irresistibly adorable. Even Adam, the hardy mountaineering type with me, let slip the odd "Aaa". The mother seemed totally unconcerned at our interest in her pup. She reluctantly lolled her head towards us and opened one eye. Scratching her belly with the claws of her flipper she looked us nonchalantly up and down before resolutely rolling over and going back to sleep. We deserved no more attention than that.

Seal pup near the dive hole - Click to enlarge Weddell seal and pup - Click to enlarge
Weddell seal and pup - Click to enlarge

Keeping close to its mother, the pup was constantly moving. It rolled around, clumsily falling over its huge oversized flippers and curling up its long flexible body to play with its own tail. Adam and I led down on the ice a little way off to take some pictures. The pup paused to watch us for a while, nose and whiskers twitching. I don't know if it was the bright orange windproofs we were both wearing or the clicks of the cameras but something about us sparked his curiosity. Without fear he began to wriggle towards me like a furry catepillar, its ungainly flippers flapping uselessly as it wormed across the ice. I lay still, wondering how close he was going to come, keeping half an eye on the mother in case she suddenly woke up and took a dislike to these intruders luring off her inqusitive pup. The pup came to within a foot of my nose before stopping to have a good look. I smiled into huge glassy brown eyes that seemed much too large for its head. He looked at me with total incomprehension. I lifted my camera to take some pictures but that was it, he wasn't interested in me anymore. Instead he turned his large brown eyes towards Adam lying a few feet away from me and wriggled off in his direction. It was funny to see the huge grin on Adams face as the pup stared at him, their noses only inches apart. The pup obviously decided that we were both entirely uninteresting because after Adam had undergone his inspection, he wriggled back to his mother and went back to playing with his flippers. It is funny how in the world of an Antarctic seal we are of absolutely no consequence. It's good to know that occasionally even a day old seal can put us in our place.

Weddell seal and pup - Click to enlarge Weddell seal pup - Click to enlarge

Elsewhere on base everyone has been making the most of our last few weeks of solitude in this playground before the summer crowds arrive. Gary Wilson describes the delight of a sunny day at Rothera:

September 24th

......"a calm day but poor contrast.....spring snow underfoot, excellent conditions but it would be like skiing blind". Thoughts turn from the steep and back to work - ease the butt, adjust the closer and voila! The satisfying "click" of a closing door, only another fifty odd to go!! A glance through the window and "What's this? Patches of blue, shafts of sunlight, vastly improved contrast - things are looking up!!". A couple more doors and it's time for lunch.

"To eat or to ski? To eat or to ski?" stomach makes the decision in the end so off to the dining room. Lunch eaten quickly and digested over a game of crib on the verandah - the setting of which is straight out of a holiday section of a glossy woman's magazine - healthy looking individuals bedecked in sunglasses 'neath a dazzling blue sky, fantastic mountain scenery, the silence broken by the sound of skis scraping on the icy Ramp, and fifteen for two, fifteen for four, two for a pair and one for his nob' as a tense game reaches its conclusion.
Lunchtime game of crib - Click to enlarge Lunchtime game of crib - Click to enlarge

Back to work, more doors eased time until afternoon break. The weather remains good and plans are made for skiing after work. More doors eased time until I pack up, collect tools and vacuum work area. Change quickly, collect skis, curse at the rising wind. Meet companions outside workshop and trudge off to East Beach.

Arrive at top and knock snow off boots. Place toe of boot in binding, push down heel. Clunk as ski and boot become one. Turn to fall line, plant poles and push off skis. Turning well on great spring snow. Reach lip of steep section and over, plant pole, hop round, land on both skis, repeat. Slope begins to flatten. Link a couple of short swings, edge to stop. Look back up slope - 'boarders and skiers peeling off the lip in a series of "gangster" moves. Side step back up slope. Wind really picking up now whipping pieces of ice off the lip of the slope stinging the face. Teeter on edge, body braced against the wind. Push off.....feel the speed, make the turns - wow!!

Wind becoming tiresome. Change venue. Walk up the slope. Figures ahead silhouetted against the sun ringed with a halo. Smile to myself as it's the only one this bunch of mavericks will ever wear - king derelicts to a man!

Step into bindings under the Union Flag. Wind much calmer here - the flag barely moving. Commit to the slope, enjoy the rush, expletives help the turns. Bring skis to a stop. Big smiles all round, off with the boards and skis and back up the slope again and again. 180s, 360s, toxic grabs, big air......if only we could do it! Tired legs, breathing hard - it's time to go. Big smiles all around as we head back to Admirals House.......

The snowboarders - Click to enlarge

One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without name.

Memories of a September day, GazW.

By Felicity Aston