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Rothera Diary — September 2009

Hello, and welcome to the Rothera diary entry for September. I would like to give you an insight to base life from my own personal perspective.

I am Tony McLaughlan, the 2009 wintering electrician and member of the Tech Services team; just an ordinary bloke living and working in an extraordinary environment.

Tony McLaughlan
Tony McLaughlan

There are a lot of mixed feelings on base at the moment. Our winter experience is moving relentlessly towards its inevitable and final conclusion and there is a touch of sadness that our great Antarctic adventure will soon be over. We are a tight-knit, self-sufficient community with a laid-back pace of life, and we are soon to have our private paradise invaded by people who aren’t members of our “family”. That means someone else’s coat hanging on “my” coat peg, a strange face sitting opposite me in the dining room and the general hustle and bustle of a busy scientific research station in full flow.

However, there is also excitement and anticipation at the prospect of watching the planes fly in again, seeing familiar faces once again, meeting new people for the first time and… enjoying the taste and texture of fresh food again!!! We have huge stocks of food here, but only limited supplies of freshies and, once our winter started, no chance to restock. Our supplies of fresh fruit and veg ran out some weeks ago now, and we’ve been living on tinned, dried and yes, frozen produce ever since. Our chef, Riet has done an amazing job of keeping us well fed and, in spite of his lack of interesting ingredients, every meal has been wholesome, tasty, satisfying, and a pleasure to eat.

We are busy getting the base ready for the summer. Buildings, work areas and pitrooms that have been closed up for the 7-month winter period have been re-opened, cleaned and prepared ready for the summer season; the mechs are spending hours clearing snow from the runway and creating pathways around the base; Andy, our comms manager, is getting prepared for the return of the planes and our field GA’s are getting ready for their forthcoming field season.

Snow Clearing
Snow Clearing
Snow Clearing
Snow Clearing

Although we’re heading towards the Antarctic summer, you couldn’t tell from the weather we’ve been having. To give you an idea of the weather we have to endure down here I’ve acquired some interesting September stats from Celine, our Metbabe.

This month we have had:

  • 11 days of gale-force winds…
  • …with a highest gust of 64.8 knots (75mph)
  • We’ve had 21 days of snow…
  • …of which 12 days were blowing snow
  • We’ve had 13 days where the visibility was less than 1000 metres…
  • …and only 2 days of clear skies
  • The minimum temperature this month was −18.7 degrees C
Time to dig
Time to dig

Working for BAS, we are fortunate to be allowed to get away from the base on winter field training trips (you could call it a “holiday”). The GA’s who accompany us on a one-to-one basis meticulously plan these training trips, and everyone looks forward to their trip with eager anticipation. I had my trip out last month and was fortunate to have extremely cold, but clear weather and I had a great time, thanks to Ian, my GA. But the unpredictable and extreme Antarctic weather can easily disrupt these trips. Some had to be cancelled this month, due to adverse weather, which was a great disappointment to the individuals concerned.

The weather can also affect some of us doing our daily jobs. As the base electrician, my job often involves some working outside, usually repairing faulty lights. It can be finger-numbingly cold and snowing heavily, but I still have to get the job done, although if the weather is extremely poor it can be put off until another day; not that the weather gets any better, it’s just not quite as bad… and there is usually some digging involved!!!

At work in the snow
At work in the snow
At work in the snow
At work in the snow

Adverse weather can also make simple things like walking from one building to another quite a little adventure; the wind is trying its best to blow you over and you can’t see anything because of the snow blowing in your face. Add to that some poor contrast and the inevitable happens… unexpected horizontalism!!! It happens to all of us (some more than others), but no one admits to it, even when there is irrefutable witness evidence.

Another day in Paradise
Another day in Paradise

I also had another stint on night watch this month. Night watch is an important duty; we have to ensure that all our life-support systems are running safely and efficiently whilst everyone is asleep and that our buildings and infrastructure are still going to be there in the morning when everyone wakes up. We all take it in turns to do this important task on a rota basis.

I quite enjoy night watch; you get to see the base from a completely different perspective. Rothera becomes a ghost town for a few hours; there is no one around, all the workstations are empty and you get to enjoy the real peace and solitude of Antarctica. I was fortunate enough to have a couple of clear nights and, whilst doing my rounds, I was able to take some time to admire the night skies; full of stars, the Milky Way clearly visible to my naked eyes — a truly breathtaking sight to behold.

The Milky Way is clearly visible in the night sky
The Milky Way is clearly visible in the night sky

Whilst on night watch, you obviously sleep during the day while everyone else is awake and going about his or her daily business. If any minor problems arise we try to sort it out between us to ensure that the night watchman has undisturbed sleep. That wasn’t the case for me this time. On one day I was awakened by Marty, our plumber. He was having an electrical problem with one of the heating systems and he needed my assistance. He apologised profusely, but I didn’t mind; Tech Services provide 24 hours-a-day cover and I knew Marty wouldn’t wake me unless it was really necessary.

Two days later I was awoken again, this time by a power-down, when one of our generators had a problem and shut down unexpectedly.

Paul, the genny mech, at the controls
Paul, the genny mech, at the controls

All of the Tech Services team are involved during a power-down and we each have tasks to perform to get all of our systems back up and running again. Everything was restored quickly and efficiently, but it was still another day of disturbed sleep for me.

The wildlife has been pretty sparse during the winter months, mainly because we’ve been surrounded by sea-ice and frozen in. We’ve had various birds flying overhead; blue-eyed shags, giant petrels and snow petrels, but nothing on the ground. So it was great to hear over the VHF radios that we all carry that an Emperor penguin had been spotted over at Hanger Cove. Within minutes hoards of cameras appeared. The little guy seemed completely unperturbed by all the fuss and just strutted around giving us all an enjoyable photo opportunity and something new to talk about over dinner.

Science carries on year-round here at Rothera. The data we collect, whether it is meteorological or biological helps us to understand our planet and how it works.

Our divers regularly brave the icy waters to conduct experiments and collect samples (See Terri’s diary entry from last month). The wildlife in Antarctica is spectacular, but it can also be dangerous, so one of the ways to help protect the divers is an operation called “seal watch”. This basically means one or more volunteers take binoculars and head off to a vantage point close to where the dive will be carried out and scan the area for top predators like killer whales or leopard seals that are frequently seen in our waters. For my contribution to world-class science in an Antarctic context this month I volunteered for seal watch.

Armed with my binoculars I trudged through thigh-deep snow to my viewing point over by South Cove. Seal watch sounds glamorous and exciting, but on this occasion it was neither. The weather was bright and sunny so visibility was good, but it was windy and cold, and there was no sign of any mammalian wildlife. In truth, this was really a good thing — the last thing a diver needs while she’s carrying out her experiments is a hungry killer whale looking over her shoulder…

It is a real privilege to be able to live and work on this spectacular and breathtaking continent. In the year that I’ve been here I’ve seen and done so many things that I hadn’t even dreamed of. In six months I will be going home. I will miss this place so very much, but in all honesty, I’m really looking forward to seeing my family and friends once again.

So “Hi” to everyone back home. Although I’m having a great time here, I still miss you all.

And I’d especially like to say “Happy Birthday” to Jessica, my daughter and Sam, my son. They both have their birthdays in early October and I’d like to send them lots of love from Dad.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little glimpse into life here at Rothera.

Tony McLaughlan
Electrical Services Technician
Winter 2009