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Rothera Diary — July 2010

Sunrise looking North from Rothera (Photo: Iain Rudkin)
Sunrise looking North from Rothera (Photo: Iain Rudkin)
July — potentially a period of anticlimax following the events of midwinter and all the furore that surrounds it, but this year July has been one of my favourite months since being down south. Firstly though, by way of an introduction, I’m Iain, a Field Assistant based at Rothera Research Station. As a Field Assistant my job is split into 2 distinct halves. During the Antarctic summer months I am off base supporting science out in the field whilst during the winter, my job involves servicing equipment for the upcoming scientific season and also taking other base members out on their winter training trips to further their knowledge of Antarctic survival… and have a bit of an adventure around Adelaide Island where our base is located.
Nacreous clouds (Photo: Iain Rudkin)
Nacreous clouds (Photo: Iain Rudkin)

July sees the light gradually returning to Rothera after the gloom of midwinter. It never really gets dark for a full 24-hour period even during the depths of winter, but what little light we get is a poor substitute for the warming rays of the sun itself. However, the advantage of this time of year is the spectacular skies that can be seen looking north from Rothera as the sun creeps ever closer to the horizon. This winter produced some of the most striking sunsets/sunrises I’ve been privileged to see as well as some particularly stunning nacreous clouds. These are formed high in the atmosphere and receive sunlight from below the horizon before the sun has actually risen resulting in iridescent colours.

Colette Mesher preparing to surface from a dive (Photo: Jonathan James)
Colette Mesher preparing to surface from a dive (Photo: Jonathan James)

As a wintering member of base, everybody gets the opportunity to help out with other base members jobs and in particular the science. I’ve been fortunate enough to help out on occasions with the dive team and seen first hand the efforts they go to in order to keep a full scientific diving programme running throughout the winter months. Normally the diving takes place off the boats, but as soon as the fast ice arrives the team must cut holes in the ice in order to continue their research. Diving through the ice is not without its risks, but I for one am pretty jealous of the divers when they get to visit the world under the ice.

Terri performing a CTD experiment (Photo: Iain Rudkin)
Terri performing a CTD experiment (Photo: Iain Rudkin)

In mid July, I was fortunate enough to be out on the boats assisting a CTD experiment in Ryder bay about 4 km from Rothera. The experiment records the salinity and temperature of the sea at different depths to provide a profile of the water column at that point. This happened to take place two days before the sun officially returned and we were rewarded with a sunrise over Ryder bay and MacAllums pass. Oddly enough, I found I didn’t miss the sun when it departed back in May but to feel it return and the warmth on one’s face (however psychological!) was amazing.

Terri and Dickie raising the flag (Photo: Iain Rudkin)
Terri and Dickie raising the flag (Photo: Iain Rudkin)

The sun officially returned to Rothera on the 22nd of the month and as such was marked by raising the flag once more. It was dropped when the sun went by our oldest base member, Alan Hill and tradition has it that the youngest member, Terri Souster this year, has the honour of raising it once again. It was a blustery day and after a few inspirational words from our illustrious leader, Dickie Hall we retired for tea and medals. As luck would have it, the sun went behind a cloud as it was due to rise over the mountains and our first sight of the sun from base itself was to be a few days later.

Tom and Andy filming Dr Meltdowns escape (Photo: Colette Mesher)
Tom and Andy filming Dr Meltdowns escape (Photo: Colette Mesher)

Two thirds of the way through July saw Rothera take part in the 48 hour Antarctic film festival. This is a friendly competition organised by McMurdo Base and follows a simple set of rules:

  • To be scripted, filmed and edited over 48 hours
  • No longer than 5 minutes (excluding credits)
  • To include 5 elements; a siren, mouthwash, grumpy mechanic, mop and the line ‘has anybody seen my chicken’

John directing the kitchen scene (Photo: Colette Mesher)
John directing the kitchen scene (Photo: Colette Mesher)
Having won the best film category the last two years, there was an element of pressure on this years winterers. Friday night saw the base members gathered in the dining room. The ensuing brain storming session to develop a storyboard resulted in a number of good ideas, the best coming from Tom Weston. Our film was to revolve around our anti-hero, Dr Meltdown and his plan to melt the Antarctic continent only to be thwarted by some plucky British heroes. Once the central core of the film was established, it didn’t take long to fill in the gaps and realise a rough sequence of the shots we required.
Ben editing the final film (Photo: Colette Mesher)
Ben editing the final film (Photo: Colette Mesher)

Saturday was completely consumed by filming under the expert supervision of our director John Wedlake. A great team effort ensured the day went smoothly enough for a rough cut of the film to be prepared for that evening. Sunday was spent re-filming some scenes and editing the final film. Ben Tibbetts performed this task, and as a consequence of his talent with editing software our film looks professional. Ultimately, we produced a film in the 48-hour time available that we can be proud of and bore grandchildren for decades to come!

Alas, we weren’t to win the best film category this year. That honour went deservedly to Davis station, an Australian base. However, pride was restored as we scooped the honour of best storyboard — a just reward for all the effort that went into the weekend. A special mention goes to John and Ben for all the extra energy and dedication they lent to the project.

If interested, our film can be viewed online: Watch “From Rothera with Love”

Sea ice Training (Photo: Iain Rudkin)
Sea ice Training (Photo: Iain Rudkin)

A major landmark which began through July was the arrival of the sea ice – one of the principal reasons I came to Antarctica and accepted this job initially. Sea ice is a sporadic and unpredictable creature and recent years have left many a winterer feeling cheated. Pictures and tales of extensive sea travel across Laubeuf Fjord to the mainland do little to temper ones dreams. This season however has provided some sport as the month has progressed with base members getting to Mackay Point to the North and round Rothera Point, the local spit of land that the base lies on.

Dickie Hall en route to Mackay Point (Photo: Alan Hill)
Dickie Hall en route to Mackay Point (Photo: Alan Hill)

Travelling on the sea ice is a particularly pure way to appreciate the wonders of the frozen continent during the winter. One cannot help but feel relatively insignificant against the sheer scale of the surrounding peaks whilst out on the flat and expansive ice. Low light casts deeply contrasting shades of yellow and orange against the glacial blue of the grounded icebergs. And as travel is restricted to calm days, it is also a deeply peaceful way to take in the surroundings and realise how few people get to experience it with just the swish of skis on ice. More notably it gives one a chance to walk on flat ground for more than a few hundred yards for the first time since leaving the UK!

Penguins Round the point (Photo: Iain Rudkin)
Penguins Round the point (Photo: Iain Rudkin)

So, I hoped you enjoyed July’s insight into how life is progressing down here. It’s been a thoroughly amazing experience to be a part of this year’s wintering team and experience all the fun that has accompanied it. It is hard to convey into words what being down here is like as nearly every day is different and many leave you in awe as to the nature of the place, I’d recommend the experience to anyone!

Take care all
Iain Rudkin