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Rothera Diary — April 2009

Winter training

In keeping to winter traditions, I am writing the April diary entry between the hours of 1am to 6am. Yes, I’m on nightwatch and it’s currently 4am on my fourth consecutive shift. There are those who possess an intrinsic nocturnal nature, and there are those who don’t. I place myself in the latter category.

My name is Melissa. I’m the wintering Marine Biologist on base, and will call Rothera my home for the next 2 years. As one of only three overwintering scientists, I play a role in organising and implementing several of the marine research programs that run over the winter months. In particular, I look at how Antarctic animals are likely to respond to life in a warmer world. This involves scuba diving to collect animals (such as limpets, amphipods, urchins, bivalves and sea cucumbers), maintaining them in the Bonner Lab aquariums and measuring their respiration rates and other physiological characteristics at various temperatures over the subsequent weeks to months. On a day-to-day basis this involves working in the aquarium room at −2°C with my hands in freezing cold water for hours at a time! I never thought it’d be necessary to wear so many layers indoors.

Working in the aquarium (Photo by T. Souster)
Working in the aquarium (Photo by T. Souster)

As part of the Rothera Marine Team we dive in one of the most remote and fascinating underwater environments on the planet. And this month we have started to get a true taste of what diving in Antarctica is all about. Over the summer months the average underwater visibility is between 3–6 m, however as the light fades and the phytoplankton blooms die off, the visibility increases to well over 20m.

Terri on a dive to photograph settlement plates (Photo by M. Langridge)
Terri on a dive to photograph settlement plates (Photo by M. Langridge)

Diving in water at −1°C might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is truly an amazing experience. As we roll off the side of the RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) and descend through a layer of frazzle ice, the underwater environment emerges beneath us. Looking back towards the surface we see every shade of blue imaginable as the huge undersides of bergy bits (small icebergs) come into focus. On the substrate lies a surprisingly rich and diverse array of animals and plants. In fact, there is far more life under the water than above it. Numerous motile animals such as sea urchins, sea stars, brittle stars, giant worms, anemones and sea cucumbers are interspersed with soft corals, sponges and seaweeds. If we’re lucky we may even see pycnogonids (sea spiders), which can grow to over 30 cm, or catch a glimpse of a delicate nudibranch (sea slug) hiding amongst the seaweeds and sponges.

A pycnogonid (sea spider) (Photo by M. Langridge)
A pycnogonid (sea spider) (Photo by M. Langridge)

The waters around Antarctica freeze at around −1.8°C, and when given the right conditions, sea ice starts to form. If luck has it, soon we won’t be diving from boats, but through holes in the ice. We’ve already started to see pancake ice forming in North Cove, so hopefully solid sea ice isn’t too far away.

Diving on a dingle day (Photo by M. Langridge)
Diving on a dingle day (Photo by M. Langridge)

This month was also the start of the ‘essential winter training trips’ — week-long camping expeditions that are necessary ‘to further our knowledge of survival in Antarctica’. Or as most of us see it — a week-long holiday that allows us to venture beyond the confines of the flagline and experience mountaineering, linked skidoo travel, ice climbing, ski touring and the age-old art of melting snow. As our Winter Base Commander can tell you, one can even experience the joy of walking back down a mountain after trudging uphill for hours with a snowboard on your back, only to reach the top and find the snow far too deep to board in.

Winter trips are commonly packed with important learning experiences, such as — how to prevent driving a skidoo ski over your link rope (which might end up causing you to roll your skidoo, and then get dragged along behind it), how to use a pee-bottle in your tent at 3am when the thought of emerging from your cosy sleeping bag into the −25°C air outside is too much to bear, how to light the kerosene lamp hanging from the roof of your pyramid tent without it bursting into flames, and how to construct a ‘poo-tent’ out of a tarp and two skidoos (the handlebars make great toilet roll holders).

Unfortunately, the weather is always hit-and-miss, and whilst some base members enjoyed a week of sunny skies and clear nights, some field parties were subjected to days of lie-up whilst blizzards raged outside. For my first winter trip, Kirk, James, Shaun, Riet, Adam and I travelled through the heavily crevassed McCallums Pass to the south end of the island. Here we set up camp at the base of a peak called ‘The Myth’, which we would climb later in the week. Luckily we were not limited by the weather for the most part and so managed to fit in some ski touring, ice climbing, crevasse exploring and a visit to the abandoned Chilean base, Carvajal (previously the old British Rothera base).

Base camp (Photo by M. Langridge)
Base camp (Photo by M. Langridge)

One of the most notable achievements of the April winter trips was the successful summit of Mt Liotard (the 2nd highest mountain on Adelaide Island) by Adam and Riet.

Adam and Riet at the summit of Mt Liotard (Photo by A. Clark)
Adam and Riet at the summit of Mt Liotard (Photo by A. Clark)
James and Shaun relaxing in their pyramid tent (Photo by S. Scopes)
James and Shaun relaxing in their pyramid tent (Photo by S. Scopes)
The deserted Chilean research base, Carvajal (Photo by M. Langridge)
The deserted Chilean research base, Carvajal (Photo by M. Langridge)
Abseiling into the crevasse we'd just driven over (Photo by M. Langridge)
Abseiling into the crevasse we'd just driven over (Photo by M. Langridge)

During my winter trip, I was also to have my 26th birthday, celebrated Antarctic-style by cramming 6 of us into our 3-man tent with a bottle of champagne (which by some miracle didn’t freeze), chocolate cake (made by Terri and dutifully transported into the field and defrosted by Shaun and James), party poppers, a satellite call home to Australia, and presents.

Back on base, the Rotherites had been amusing themselves with some interesting Saturday evening fancy dress — the theme being “Out of Africa”. Saturday night dinners are always magnificently prepared 3-course course meals and Africa-night was no exception. This year we are lucky to have Riet, a Belgian chef who has previously wintered at Rothera. In keeping with the African theme Riet prepared us delicious curried crocodile! Everyone had a fantastic night, particularly when the Lancashire zebra, a medically qualified lion and a Scottish Zulu warrior started a graceful and well choreographed dance routine to ‘Bad Touch’ by the BloodHound Gang.

When the hunters become the hunted (Photo by C. Nyhan)
When the hunters become the hunted (Photo by C. Nyhan)
Terri and Jonny (Photo by M. Langridge)
Terri and Jonny (Photo by M. Langridge)
Matt-Doc the lion (Photo by M. Langridge)
Matt-Doc the lion (Photo by M. Langridge)

This month has also been one of preparation for the coming winter months. As the daylight fades it is easy to become lethargic as our activity-levels decrease. This can influence our sleeping patterns and ultimately alter our productiveness both during our working and social hours. To counteract this, the doctor has proposed a new (voluntary) fitness program to entice us to monitor our health over the winter and get our endorphins pumping. Circuit training has begun again on Wednesday afternoons, with a few die-hard exercise junkies sweating it out at various exercise stations around the gym. Some of us have even started training for the upcoming winter triathlon in August — an indoor event that includes rowing (the traditional open water swimming would not be a good idea down here), running and cycling in the gym. We shall wait to see who continues their fitness regime over the coming months.

Others are finding new hobbies to keep themselves entertained. Photography is always a winner, and although some may argue that it’s not hard to take impressive photos in such a dramatic landscape, there are those who definitely have a knack for it.

Moonrise over base camp (Photo by A. Clark)
Moonrise over base camp (Photo by A. Clark)

The lack of pollution in Antarctica makes for spectacular night skies. Tonight there is a full moon and I can see the Milky Way stretching out like a serpent across the sky. During the day the sun is skirting an ever-shallow arc above the mountains, giving us panoramic pink and peach horizons. As mid-winter draws closer the sun will eventually remain below the horizon, and so I eagerly await the end of nightwatch when I will set about soaking up as much of the sun’s rays whilst I still can.

Skies the colour of fairytales (Photo by M. Edwards)
Skies the colour of fairytales (Photo by M. Edwards)

On that note it’s time for some early morning baking, I hope you have enjoyed reading about our activities this month. Hello to my family and friends back in Oz. I miss you all but I’m having a brilliant time… see you in 2011! x

Melissa Langridge

P.S. Kirk Watson’s video blog shows brilliant footage of life on base since the start of winter. To meet everyone on base, go to kirk of the antarctic - a winter in Antarctica.