Rothera Diary - December 2002

written by Felicity Aston

For those of us who were here when the planes first arrived, right back in October, the summer season already feels well underway. The place is buzzing with scientists putting together equipment and the daily radio schedule gets longer and longer each day as more science parties go into the field. In fact these are just the earliest tremors of the season to come; the arrival of RRS James Clark Ross always brings with it an explosion of activity and a Rothera population boom as most of the summer staff as well as the new winterers are all on board. It is our first resupply since March and the beginning of the hectic, overcrowded and always-eventful Rothera field season.

RRS James Clark Ross approaches Rothera - Click to enlarge RRS James Clark Ross approaches Rothera - Click to enlarge

Above: RRS James Clark Ross approaches Rothera. Click the images to enlarge them.

I wondered up to a vantage point high above the wharf with two friends to watch the JCR arrive. The sea ice stretched out towards the far islands. Over a meter thick and firmly frozen to the coast on all sides, it looked impenetrable. Clutching a beer we watched the JCR glide along the ice edge some 10 km away, looking hesitant to take the plunge. Calmly, it turned towards us and ran its hull into the ice. We were too far away to expect to hear anything but the ship hardly seemed to flinch - it was a bit disappointing, we had expected the ice to put up more of a fight. As the JCR got larger more people gathered on the point to watch its progress. The ship didn't even seem to slow down as it steadily made its way toward the wharf. It charged across the ice sending alarmed weddell seals scattering in all directions and spraying a bow-wave of slushy ice in front of it. The ice that had appeared so sturdy weeks before, now looked flimsy and fragile as it rippled and buckled along the sides of the ship. We could hear the rasping of ice against steel and low echoing thuds of ice giving way as the bright red hull cut through the crust leaving a wide corridor of black sea and broken ice behind it. It looked so effortless.

Rothera dwarfed by the surroundings - Click to enlarge Rothera dwarfed by the surroundings - Click to enlarge
Rothera dwarfed by the surroundings - Click to enlarge

Above: Rothera base dwarfed by its surroundings. Click the images to enlarge them.

The ship came within touching distance of the shore. Those standing on the wharf in hard hats waiting to help with mooring ropes were dwarfed as the hull towered up in front of them, sliding to a halt. The ship pulled back, leaving a perfect imprint in the sea ice like an iron on a crumpled shirt. Repeatedly the ship gently rammed the thicker ice around the wharf, inching forward foot by foot. I could see people on board leaning over the rails along the sides of the ship to watch the ice give way beneath them or standing high up on the monkey deck to catch a glimpse of Rothera, some of them for the first time. I thought back to my own arrival at Rothera on the JCR two years ago. My thoughts and feelings back then seem totally alien to me now, as if it had been someone else. Back then Rothera had looked so tiny in this huge landscape of mountains and glaciers. Now the familiar buildings seem large enough to lose people in. The place has got larger with all the memories I have and the characters that fill it.

Rothera research station - Click to enlarge

Above: The cluster of buildings that seem larger the longer you stay. Click to enlarge.

Shane Whittaker and Adrian Hosey were two of the little blobs on deck that I watched making their slow progress towards Rothera. This is what they remember about their arrival:

"Having never been south before, my first impression of Rothera was that it just looked so insignificant. On approach to the base via JCR I could hardly see from only a mile away, it just nestles itself in a small corner of a small island in a huge place! We were met by the friendly natives and although we came within touching distance of Rothera we were unable to dock due to ice conditions. I woke up to find that we had docked and were all tied up, ready to start the cargo relief, which kept us busy for the next few days. Base life was easy to fall into and the first week was occupied doing 'base training' which sounded rather boring but was very interesting and enjoyable. It consisted of various tasks from learning how to operate bailing machines to throwing yourself off the top of a windscoop, and even spending one night camped out at the top of a mountain. Very varied as you can see. On completion of the very intensive and rigorous training, we were no longer deemed a liability, if that is the right word to use. We could then go and join out respective divisions mine being the technical services, by far the 'most important' I was informed by my colleagues. 'The base wouldn't last five minutes without us' to quote. Now a month into the season I am in total agreeance, but funnily enough every other department thinks the same. So the impression I get is that Rothera is a very special and well run community and I feel lucky to have been chosen to come. The atmosphere is good and the scientists always enjoy discussing it, although I am not convinced we are on about the same one. All in all I love it here but there are certain things that I miss from home. You know who you are."

SHANE WHITTAKER - summer chippy

"Working and living at Rothera is an experience I won't forget in a hurry - but then neither are the mental institutions! The work on base is satisfying apart from the lack of materials which can be frustrating at times. Fortunately there are lots of things to help you unwind after a hard days slog. Life at Rothera isn't what I thought it would be, I think I expected a harsher environment, more basic facilities, I think I expected to suffer. How wrong can you be? The weather is great-ISH most of the time, you get fed constantly and there are a multitude of things going on; skiing most days, gym, circuit training, 5-a-side tournament, a library, computer rooms, TV rooms, a bar, a music room, a bouldering wall, a running track (the runway), and then there's the jollies; boating, camping at Lagoon or the caboose, co-pilot flights.... Sometimes there are also parties when the ships come in which are really good nights with the Rothera band playing. It is a good atmosphere. The scenery, to me, is absolutely stunning as is the wildlife but the most important thing is the people you meet. Such a variety of backgrounds, its quite unique as you would never speak to these people in the everyday grind back in the UK, so it is quite an experience. Being down here has been different from the usual travelling as I miss my friends and family back home a bit more, I also miss fresh food (fruit, milk, youghurt) as do most people on base, infact some people have had dreams about these items - you know who you are!"

ADRIAN HOSEY - summer electrician

After three days of unloading cargo the JCR left to do another run back to the Falklands. As it left it cut wide arcs in the sea ice around the wharf. The next day the ice had blown out along these ice corridors, as intended, leaving a gracefully scalloped edge in a line between the end of the Wharf and one of the islands 5 km away. The sea was suddenly a dark roaring mass on our doorstep once again. After living in such still, silence for so long it was a bit of a shock. The burst of wildlife was incredible; clouds of sea birds swarming around the wharf, long lines of penguins waddling and sliding across the runway and the ice littered with hundreds of slug-like seals. The whales are back too, determinedly lumbering through the ocean intent on their mysterious courses.

The sea ice retreats - Click to enlarge Adelie penguins - Click to enlarge

Above: As the ice retreats, the sea becomes visible once again (L) which brings in lots of wildlife such as theses adélie penguins (R). Click the images to enlarge them.

Over the following weeks the wind gradually ate away at the edge of the ice, breaking it up into a crazy paving of floes and pack. The huge sculptured icebergs that had become so familiar and individual during the winter were released from the ice one by one, floating southward with the wind and currents. The ice playground around us that had become an open air extension of the base slowly disappeared forever. These days a small patch of ice in a sheltered bay to the north of us is all that is left. It is waterlogged and grubby, looking sadly decrepit as the sun works away at it.

The sea ice breaks up - Click to enlarge The sea ice breaks up - Click to enlarge

Above: The sea ice breaks up. Click the images to enlarge them.

Our wintering group too was breaking up. The four GA's, Adam, Tom, Carolyn and Andy were all sent into the field for the season, not to be seen again for many weeks and others left Rothera completely. Pete Martin left on the JCR, while Stewart Hill, Gary - Crib master- Wilson and Simon left on the Dash-7. We had some fantastic leaving parties but it was incredibly sad to see them go.

One of the 'escapees' - Click to enlarge One of the 'escapees' - Click to enlarge
One of the 'escapees' - Click to enlarge

Above: The 'escapees'. Click to enlarge.

Thanks to everyone for the photos.

By Felicity Aston