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King Edward Point Diary - November 2013

On a chilly November morning, a group of excited folk crowded around the bronze statue of a Siberian Husky outside BAS headquarters in Cambridge, preparing to set off on a journey South. For a few greenhorns (including myself), it would be our first time heading south with BAS, and lugging our bags into the back of the vans I was glad to see I was not the only one sporting a nervous grin. The first leg of the journey went fast enough, and about 30 hours and two dubious in-flight paninis later, we touched down at Mount Pleasant Airport in the Falkland Islands. Having lived in the Falklands before, I was in high spirits to be back in this unique corner of the world, utterly unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. Picture a huge craggy Dartmoor on a mean 4-seasons-in-one Autumn day and you’ve pretty much got what it’s like every day here. Everything is wind scoured, from the crumbling tors jutting out of the hilltops at 45 degrees, to the little trees scattered about and contorted in fantastic shapes. No doubt too bleak for some but if you’re a fan of Wuthering Heights/Hound of the Baskervilles-esque harsh environments like me, it would suit you down to the ground. We spent less than a day muffled up and battling the winds on the steep streets of Stanley before boarding our big red ship, the James Clark Ross, which was moored up just outside town. I used to jealously watch the BAS ships load up cargo at the jetty before they set off for South Georgia and further South, and now I had to pinch myself at the realisation that I would finally be travelling to South Georgia myself.

New KEP team on the JCR: Matt Phillips, Julie Hunt, Me, Tim Fox, Dickie Hall, Matt Hooper (Photo: James McKenna)
New KEP team on the JCR: Matt Phillips, Julie Hunt, Me, Tim Fox, Dickie Hall, Matt Hooper (Photo: James McKenna)

The four day journey from Stanley to South Georgia was fairly flat, with the ‘roaring forties’ and ‘furious fifties’ singularly failing to live up to their fearsome reputations. Most of our time was spent on deck wildlife watching, with whales, penguins and albatross all making an appearance and causing varying degrees of excitement onboard. The highlight for me however was the first sighting of South Georgia itself. The sight of those dark jagged peaks and steep glaciated fjords looming out of the low cloud on the horizon was unbelievably atmospheric. After skirting the mountainous coastline for a day, we finally turned the corner into King Edward Cove, home to the famous Grytviken whaling station and King Edward Point Research Station, and my home for the next 2 years…

Our first sighting of South Georgia! (Photo: James McKenna)
Our first sighting of South Georgia! (Photo: James McKenna)

Myself and the rest of the new KEP team disembarked the JCR amidst a hail of hugs, and setting foot on jetty we met the previous season’s over-winterers. The JCR departed immediately to drop off the new Bird Island team, leaving us with a few days to find our feet and settle into our new home. First things first though, and it was time to introduce ourselves to the local fur seals, elephant seals and king penguins that surround the base. The Ele’s seem to live the ideal existence, lying idly around all day and refusing to move more than absolutely necessary. The king penguins are also very relaxed and content to mind their own business, but this is most certainly not the case for the furries. We had arrived right when the male’s turn up to establish their territories before the breeding season, and testosterone is running high as they battle it out for the prime spots. Bearing in mind Shackleton’s words that it is surely ‘better to be a live donkey than a dead lion’, I have no shame in admitting I turned tail and fled from my first encounter with a big male! It took a little while before I realised that whilst their bite is most definitely worse than their bark, they are big softies really and can be navigated safely by giving an angry stare and a wide berth.

Angry male fur seal (Photo: James McKenna)
Angry male fur seal (Photo: James McKenna)

The outgoing Base Commander, Rod, gave us a quick tour of our new home, and once fully installed in our pitrooms, we all got stuck straight into ‘handover’, learning the ropes from the previous overwintering team. In my case this meant Sue running through all the fishy tasks I’d take on as fisheries biologist, from analysing icefish stomachs and identifying fish larvae species, to conducting plankton trawls and working on biological samples in the laboratory. In between work and getting used to the routine of life on base, we spent most of our spare time exploring our new environment.

Humans haven’t been a feature of the South Georgian landscape for very long in the great scheme of things, but a lot of that human history is centred on the shore-based whaling stations dotted along the coastline, which sprung up in the early 20th century and only closed down in the 1960s. Grytviken whaling station, with its unique museum and famous Norwegian church, is only a short walk along the coast from KEP. Walking through a disused whaling station is a harrowing experience. Dodging growling fur seals, you wander between littered piles of bones and harpoon heads, step over enormous chains once used to haul dead whales onto the flensing plain, and are all the while dwarfed by massive rusted vats once used to hold countless gallons of blubber and rendered oil. With hindsight it is all too easy to dismiss this place as simply a mechanised abattoir of massive scale, a brutal product of a bygone industrial era, but at Grytviken you are also confronted with another side to the story. You can go into the beautiful workers’ villas, and ring the bells in the iconic whaler’s Church. You can flick through the pages of tattered Norwegian books and Victorian adventure novels in the Whalers’ library and visit the whaler’s graves in the small white picket fenced cemetery (where a certain Mr Shackleton and Mr Wild are also buried). You begin to see the place not simply as an abattoir, but as a home to a community of people, workers and families, living incredibly remote lives at the bottom of the world.

View of Grytviken and KEP from Mount Hodges (Photo: James McKenna)
View of Grytviken and KEP from Mount Hodges (Photo: James McKenna)

The JCR returned from Bird Island after a few days and all hands turned out on the jetty to help with relief operations, perhaps so-called because it is such a relief when they are over. Once all our supplies for the coming year were taken off the ship and safely squirreled away about base, we had a BBQ in the boatshed to celebrate. The next day we said farewell to the JCR, which would continue south, dropping another team off on Signy Island and conducting scientific research at sea.

For the rest of November we got stuck into life on base, getting to know one another better and exploring further afield. A real highlight for me was jumping straight into more training on the RIBs and jetboats which gave us the opportunity to visit some amazing spots around the coastline. But instead of boring everyone with more blather, I’ll sign off with some photos taken during the last two weeks of November which will hopefully do this place more justice than my words can!

James McKenna.

Hiking on Thatcher Peninsula (Photo: James McKenna)
Hiking on Thatcher Peninsula (Photo: James McKenna)
Mount Petrel and Hodges (Photo: James McKenna)
Mount Petrel and Hodges (Photo: James McKenna)
Boating trip with Nordenskjold Glacier in the background (Photo: James McKenna)
Boating trip with Nordenskjold Glacier in the background (Photo: James McKenna)