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12 November 2000 - Signy Special Edition

RRS James Clark Ross: Diary entry, 12 November 2000

Noon Position : 52 degrees 56 ' South. 60 degrees 15 ' West.
Distance travelled since Grimsby: 10764 nautical miles
Air temperature @ noon: 5.9 degrees Celsius
Sea temperature @ noon: 7.6 degrees Celsius

After leaving Bird Island we headed south to the South Orkney Islands to open up Signy Research Station for the summer. As expected we encountered the ice about 50 miles from the South Orkney Islands, and, after a couple of days of bashing our way through, we arrived to some wonderful weather and spectacular sunsets lighting up the peaks along Coronation Island.

Sunset over Coronation Island

Sunset over Coronation Island, South Orkney Islands.

Over the last four weeks we have had the pleasure of Dick Laws, formerly Director of BAS, aboard RRS James Clark Ross. He spent 25 months in 1948-50 as Base Leader on Signy, studying elephant seals, and is not surprisingly a mine of information on all things to do with BAS and more especially to do with Signy! He has very kindly provided the following account on Signy.

Signy is one of the South Orkney Islands, just south of 60 degrees South. Another larger island, Coronation Island, is a superb mountain wall rising from the sea to over 4000 ft and dominating the view to the north. The islands were discovered and charted in 1821 by the American sealers, Powell and Palmer, in search of fur seals, which were duly exterminated. They are only now making a come-back.

Signy itself resembles an isosceles triangle with a three mile base and an apex about 4 miles distant. An ice cap covers much of the interior, reaching the sea along the south coast and as the tiny Orwell Glacier near the station on the east coast. The BAS station stands on the shore of a small cove, Factory Cove. In 1911/12 to 1914/15 and 1919/20 to 1929/30 Norwegian whaling companies operated there during the summer months, catching thousands of whales, mostly Blue and Fin for their oil. Little trace of the shore factory built in 1920/21 now remains, other than the wooden flensing deck where the whales were cut up. Signy Island is named after Fru Signe Sorlle, the wife of a Manager of the station. In 1947 a FIDS base was built on Berntsen Point above the whaling station, of which virtually nothing now remains.

I, with two, later three companions lived in a hut measuring 24 x 14 ft, with a wartime Nissen hut for storage, sheds for the generator and meteorological balloon filling, and a two seater loo with a view.The hut was enlarged, using materials from the old whaling station. Apart from varied scientific work on Signy, winter man-hauling sledge journeys for mapping and geology were made along the coast of Coronation Island. The equipment and supplies were primitive, but we had a very enjoyable time.

The hut was further enlarged in 1950 and in 1957 the base moved to its current position, as a large wooden building - Tonsberg House - which still stands. Over the years additional buildings were erected including a large two-storey plastic building with living and laboratory accommodation (still there) . Other laboratories and facilities were needed as the scientific programmes developed: more laboratories, diving facilities and recompression chamber, general store and a jetty, slipway, boathouse and workshop. Some of these have been taken down.

The island has been one of the most productive of Antarctic bases, starting with my in-depth study of elephant seal biology, which led to the reversal of the decline of the South Georgia elephant seal population and putting the sealing industry on a sustained yield basis. A strong long-term marine biology programme was developed, and, in 1971, BAS biologists demonstrated that they could successfully extend their work offshore, using a cargo ship, RRS John Biscoe as a platform. After further trials and modifications, funds were found to convert and equip the ship as a well-found marine science vessel. It was used for physical oceanography, marine geophysics and marine biology including krill and fish. So Signy Island is historically important as the place where BAS offshore marine work began, leading to the present day multi-disciplinary marine science programmes for which RRS James Clark Ross was specifically designed.

Adeile penguins on the run Crabeater Seals

Adeile penguins on the run

Crabeater Seals

Other science over the years has included meteorology, mapping and geological mapping, (involving extensive dog-sledging from Signy), glaciology, terrestrial botany, and freshwater biology of the sixteen lakes on the island. Long term monitoring programmes were maintained to provide a baseline to which more detailed experimental studies could be related. Signy Island is also a naturalists' paradise, with large penguin colonies (Chinstrap, Adelie, Gentoo and Macaroni) located about the three points of its triangle. Many petrel species nest, and bird banding, started in 1948, established the circumpolar movements at sea of giant petrels, the longevity and life histories of smaller petrels, such as snow petrels, cape petrels, prions and storm petrels. Colonies of blue-eyed shags have also been studied over the years, as well as terns and skuas. Hundreds of Weddell seals breed in the spring on the sea ice around the island. Crabeater seals are abundant in the surrounding pack ice - and we saw two pups on our way in. The sinister leopard seals prey on penguins and other seals. Large numbers of elephant seals and fur seals haul out to moult in the summer and there is a small breeding colony of elephant seals - on this visit we saw only five females and pups, compared with about 100 in 1948-49. Conversely there has been an enormous summer build up of fur seal numbers (from one recorded in 1949 to twenty thosand in recent years), but on this visit we are too early to see this. They are mainly subadult males, but a few pups are born annually. This reflects the huge increase, under complete protection, of the South Georgia fur seal population. Minke and killer whales come inshore occasionally.

In contrast to South Georgia, the land vegetation is mainly mosses and lichens, plus two species of flowering plants, which don't set seed every summer; land animals are restricted to small invertebrates. The lakes cover a range of conditions, with some always ice-covered, others with little or no life in their waters, some highly enriched by the faeces of birds and seals. This abundant and varied natural fauna and flora provides abundant opportunities for research on many fundamental biological and physiological problems, that can be more easily studied in the simpler Antarctic ecosystems.

Signy Station Sevvy Afanasyev and his camera

Signy Station

Sevvy Afanasyev and his camera

In 1995 the base was rebuilt as an excellent "summer only" facility, with accommodation for up to eight scientists and support staff. It has to be opened up each season, starting up the generators for light, heat and power, installing a sea water pump to provide for making fresh water by a "reversed osmosis" process, taking down the shutters from the windows, digging out the snow drifts, and of course resupplying the base from the ship. We have left seven of our colleagues there with Martin Davey as Base Commander.

Signy Station Personnel and Dick Laws

Signy Station Personnel and Dick Laws - From Left to right:
Martin Davey, Rod Strachen, Martin Bell, Dick Laws, Steve Brown, Alistair Reid, Amanda Lynnes, Dave Ellis.

From 1995 the science has contracted as the focus of BAS biology shifted to Rothera Station. The past achievements are now represented by on-going long-term studies on penguin foraging, and diving behaviour and physiology (by Amanda Lynnes), montoring of the lake environments (by Rod Strachan), seal and bird counts as well as other work. Veseolod Afanasyev inspected his automatic, solar powered camera equipment set up to monitor the sea ice extent, which has now been running without trouble for five years.

Long may all this continue.

The station relief was much easier at Signy than at Bird Island with only about ten tons of cargo needing to be moved. However it isn't until the ship actually arrives near the station that we know whether we're dealing with open water or sea ice. This year we were greeted by sea ice, which, after initial testing by the "Signy ice specialists", was found to be safe and the relief could be done simply by unloading the cargo by crane directly from ship onto the ice and then towing it on sledges by skidoo to the station. Everything went very smoothly and was completed by the end of the first day.

Amanda and Mark with a light load! JCR unloading onto the Sea ice

Amanda and Mark with a light load!

JCR unloading onto the Sea ice

Due to such a successful relief and the fact that the Signy team managed to get everything up and running without a hitch after the long dormant winter (generator, comms, water supply etc.), most people got the opportunity to get out and about. Some, or should I say one, had obviously spent some time dressing for the occaision - Doug otherwise known as "Sherpa Trevett" pictured below kitted out including rations in his pack for his 1 hour stroll! Apparently it's best not to get caught short.

Sherpa Trevett and others - out for a stroll

Out for a stroll - from left to right: Lee, Doug "Sherpa", Luke, Simon, Dave, Rif Raf, Neil, Tracey, Rag, George.

Since opening up Signy for the summer we've headed back towards the Falkland Islands, leaving the ice behind us, and embarked on another science programme. As usual this has led us right back into stormy seas and I note that Mark Belchier, in charge of the science, is keeping a low profile - either not wanting to take the blame for yet more bad weather, or just working extremely hard!

SCIENCE by Mark Belchier
Over the last 48 hours we have used the passage to Stanley to undertake a survey of larval squid abundance over the shelf break area of Burdwood Bank to the south of the Falkland Islands. A bongo net, a type of fine-meshed net frequently used to sample smaller zooplankton, was deployed at locations along the shelf edge of Burdwood Bank.

Bongo nets being deployed Squid larvae

Bongo nets being deployed

Squid larvae

Larval squid were sorted from the catch and preserved for examination back in Cambridge. It is hoped that the current survey will help improve our knowledge of the early life histories of the large number of squid species which occur in the region.

Weekly diary entries