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Rothera Diary — May 2010

Diving & Discos

Hi everyone and welcome to May’s diary, my name is Jon James and I am the Diving Officer here at Rothera.

My job involves organising and maintaining all SCUBA diving down here to support our biological scientific research programme. And, yes, it can be very cold! I was down here last year and stayed for the summer of 08/09. After a season back in the UK I jumped at the chance when I was asked if I would like to spend a winter in Antarctica. So, on the first of November I flew from RAF Brize Norton for the start of a long distance (but surprisingly quick) trip. Since my time down here there has been countless amazing experiences, here are just a few from May…

The first Sunday in May was my time to cook with Marine Biologist, Colette Mesher. Right, make a good start on the month so I can write about how amazing my cooking skills are… at approximately 11:50am we managed to muster everyone on station with a fire alarm, excellent start! With the smoke in the kitchen dissipated, brunch was served with fresh from the oven rolls and American-style pancakes. Going against the Sunday Roast norm, Colette and I decided for a controversial ‘Curry Club Night’, with a choice of spicy veggie and medium butter chicken curries, homemade naan bread and the largest onion bhajis in Antarctica, closely followed by Colette’s Chocolate Cookies and ice cream to cool off.

Cooking for everyone on base not only allows well deserved time off for the chef, Justin, but can also break up the week and help us ‘get out of the office’. Other culinary inventions of May include ‘The Cheeses’ Chelsea Buns and ‘Nath & Daz’s’ McDonalds Buffet and Chinese Take-Away.

The first week also saw the birthday of our Winter Base Commander Dickie. With some discrepancies in the actual age of Dickie, some reckon it lies somewhere between 17 and 39… it still remains a mystery. The evening was enjoyed by all and the next day a group ventured up to Vals for a weather-delayed Birthday Ski.

Skiing at Vals
Skiing at Vals
Heroes and Villains - JJ and Terri
Heroes and Villains - JJ and Terri

As Field Diving Officer at Rothera, now’s my chance to try and depict probably one of the most incredible dive areas the world has to offer… apologies if I start to sound like a travel agent. With year-round diving allowing some of the longest running marine biology monitoring projects in Antarctica, diving can pose a number of trials and tribulations to overcome. Over the Antarctic Summer, and depending upon sea ice conditions, also over the winter, diving is done entirely from a boat (RIB, ridged inflatable boat). A majority of dives are carried out in the local coves with a few dives carried out at the nearby islands of Anchorage and Lagoon with idyllic dive sites. Strangely enough divers’ availability increases when these dives come up!

Boat launch
Boat launch

Diving can be very busy with up to four dives a day during the summer and lots of ice hole cutting and maintenance during the winter. The day starts off with a meeting between scientists, dive officer and boating office and operations team to organise what is required before we all head out onto the water. However there are a few things that can stop us diving; Antarctica is not only the coldest, driest, highest continent, it is also the windiest with wind speeds commonly reaching above 40 knots (that’s gale and storm conditions) which not only stops you diving, it also makes you think twice about walking down to the dive store! Snow can also heavily effect visibility so one minute you can see the local islands around 6km away, the next you can hardly see the surrounding buildings. The main reasons that we need to be able to see clearly is to identify any potentially hazards, including local marine mammals. that might prevent a safe dive trip.

Diving
Diving

The waters around Antarctica hold many different varieties of whales and seals, and we always have to remember it is their natural habitat we’re entering. There are regular sightings of pods of humpback, minke and orca whales cruising around the local area with some pretty spectacular photo opportunities. There are also regular sighting of seals both in and out of the water; crabeater, weddell, leopard, fur and elephant seals surround Rothera and the local area alone or in large groups.

Terri and crabbies
Terri and crabbies

Up until this point in winter I have noticed two big differences between diving during summer and winter. In the summer a majority of the spectacular views are from the surface in the boat, but in the winter a majority are underwater with almost unlimited visibility. The two people on the surface act as boat Coxswain and Supervisor, keeping an eye on the divers and making sure they are safe. With the two divers underwater, one keeps an eye out for seals whilst the other carries out the scientific work. One very handy bit of kit is a through-water communications system that allows the divers and surface team ‘topside’ to talk to each other. However one of the big disadvantages of this is that scientists like to talk in long Latin words, and have even been known to sing underwater when happy!

Supervisor checks
Supervisor checks

Depending upon sea temperatures and weather, sea ice can form over the Antarctic Winter and allow for ice diving. At the moment there has been no decent ice build up but fingers crossed we’ll be walking out to these dive sites in a couple of months. Now, as this is May’s Diary, I am supposed to only write about things that have happened in May… but as this diary has taken a little longer than expected, apologies…lets just say this is a future prediction! When the ice forms and it has been assessed to safely walk on, we are able to cut an ice hole using a chainsaw and dive through the hole. For safety reasons we have two holes, the other being an ‘emergency exit’ in case a seal decides to use the dive hole for breathing.

Cutting an ice hole
Cutting an ice hole

The first thing you notice whilst sitting kitted up in dive gear next to the dive hole is “Wow, it’s pretty dark down there!” But strangely enough as soon as you descend under the ice, your eyes adjust to the low light and you soon realise a huge amount can be seen, however we do take in torches as a back-up. Under the ice you look up and see the spectacular view of your bubbles migrating around under the ice, very similar to seeing the liquid metal mercury. As the visibility is much clearer under the ice you can even see people waving at you through the ice hole at 25m!

Ice hole
Ice hole
Ice hole from underwater
Ice hole from underwater

One of the most important things when diving under ice is to be able to find your way back to the ice hole, so every diver is tied up together with a thick rope leading back to the ice hole to find their way back safely. With everyone’s first dive under ice, it is customary to go for a walk…upside down under ice! It usually completely throws out your perspective and you find yourself standing looking down at the people on the surface standing away from you! You then ‘dive’ back through the ice hole to the surface.

With midwinter’s week only a month and a half away, the majority of people on base are eagerly working away on presents; a tradition where you pick a name out of the hat and you make a that person a gift. It’s around this time when it’s very easy to say “a month and a half, that’s ages away! Plenty of time”. The next thing you know half the people on base are in the joiners shop frantically gluing together wood and driving the chippy to insanity with millions of questions. Luckily, I started my present last month… although I did say, “two and a half months, that’s iceages away!”… I think it’s time to crack on.

Well, that’s about enough of me chatting away, I’m sure in about half an hour I’ll be wishing I added in this and that… so, over to you Dickie for June. I just wanted to say hi to everyone back home and hope you are enjoying the summer sun. Feel free to email me pictures of grass, fried egg or a pint of non-powdered milk! See you all in 2011.

Jon ‘JJ’ James

A day in the office
A day in the office