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26 Jan - Signy revisited

RRS James Clark Ross Diary

Noon Position: 60° 44.1 S, 42° 01.1 W)
Distance Travelled since Grimsby: 19910.0 Nautical Miles
Air temperature @ Noon today: 1.2°C
Sea temperature @ Noon today : 0.8°C
Weather: Good, SE, 3, 996.8 mb

Signy revisited

It is always great to get back into the ice and this week we were treated to a fantastic passage down through the Washington Strait as we made our way to Signy. The JCR is now 20 days into the current JR82 science cruise and everyone needed a break from their shifts. The JCR slipped quietly down the two mile wide strait early in the morning, negotiating between grounded bergs before entering the packed floes to the south side of Coronation Island. The water was full of adélie and chinstrap penguins, fur seals, minke and killer whales. Looking down from the bow, penguins could be seen swimming through the calm water under the bow, jumping out of the water on to the ice flows or diving back in when the ship got too close. Periodically the flightless birds would throw themselves totally out of the water to breath and dive back in as they raced along. The JCR broke through the floes to arrive at Signy base on Friday lunchtime allowing the scientists to get ashore in the afternoon. The base kindly agreed to take us on a walk over to the penguin colonies at Gourlay. There are two types of penguin - adélie and chinstrap, that live there in their thousands. Two of the scientists based at Signy research the behaviour of the birds such as feeding habits. We spent a good couple of hours just watching the birds in their huge and very smelly colonies. At this time of year both of the species had chicks and so were sitting on little grey bundles of fluff.

A chinstrap - Click to enlarge Chinstrap chicks - Click to enlarge Becki and our guide, Rod - Click to enlarge
Salty Sal in this seasons fashions - Click to enlarge

Click images to enlarge them

Aki, the local penguin expert and his little hut - Click to enlarge

Above: Clockwise from top left: Chinstrap penguin, Chinstrap penguins with chicks, Becki and our guide, Rod, Aki at his hut and Salty Sal in this seasons fashions!

That night we entertained 4 of the base members (John had to stay on base to look after it) with a dinner onboard. They all had a nice time and were glad not to have to do the washing up like normal. The next day people were again put ashore in the morning to stretch their legs. Many of us walked over to Cemetery Flats to look at some old whalers graves. Surrounding the graves in the rocks and beaches are many elephant and fur seals. Also on the beach are many of the whale bones left behind by the old whalers who inhabited Signy for many years. The bones are huge and our whale watchers thought they were probably from either blue or fin whales. The larger bones are the skulls of whales and the size can be seen when compared to Ana (below). The rounder bones in the foreground of the middle picture are vertebrae. Elephant seals can be seen in the background as can the JCR at anchor in the icebergs. Click the images to enlarge them.

Sal and Nathan enjoy the walk - Click to enlarge A whale skull and several vertebrae with JCR in background - Click to enlarge Ana with a whale skull - Click to enlarge

Burns Night

The 25th of February was celebrated by the Scottish contingent on board. Richard served up a delicious Scottish banquet with haggis, neeps and tatties. Robert and Norman followed it up with by singing few verses of the great poet himself. I don't think Joe fully appreciated their dulcet tones as she has had to listen to Robert practising on the bridge for the last week!

I canny take any more Captain.....Click to enlarge The bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond - Click to enlarge

Robert then gave us a few tunes on his chanter. Not having his pipes with him this year he made up for it with a range of Scottish ballads before retiring with 'rusty hands' (have you got a cure for that Doc? - Ed).

A few observations on differences between British and American research vessels

(as seen through the eyes of an impartial (?!) Croatian)
by Ana Širovic

When I first learned I would be going on a British research cruise I was quite excited. Then I heard about the smart dressing that is required at meals, and I started to worry. The dress code on the US vessels is much more informal. So my first impulse was to go out and buy a whole new set of clothes just to board the ship. But more conversations with people who had been on UK vessels before reassured me and just before embarking on my first UK research vessel, a Royal Research Ship even, I felt confident that I would be just fine even with the few items of clothes I brought along. While we were still in port, however, I passed next to the ship’s laundry room and caught a glimpse of an officer ironing his shirt....I was quite impressed, but I also realized I had not come prepared and my years in the States had taken a toll.

I was rather surprised to find that the officers and scientists here do not eat in the same mess as the crew does. The duty mess (which is where the crew eats) looks exactly like I would expect a ship’s mess to be: plain tables, benches, view of the galley – nothing really fancy. The saloon (officer and scientist’s mess), on the other hand, seemed more like a restaurant: white table cloths, cloth napkins with personalized napkin rings, portrait of the Queen, a steward, printed menu....I was quite intimidated, and somewhat annoyed. Eating in a restaurant-like setting 3 meals a day, 7 days a week is not my idea of fun. You always have to know what you want, you do not get to choose the size of your serving, you have to eat at a set time. None of it sounded promising.

It turns out, though, I really like eating at a set time. On the American vessels there is a 1 hour slot for meals. Which essentially means everyone eats at their own convenience and often you can end up eating by yourself. I think the meals are a highly social event so eating alone is kind of sad and almost not even worth the trouble. I am yet to eat alone on this trip. Also, it turns out we only really have to dress up for dinner. Men have to wear ties, and women cannot wear jeans or sneakers. Which is fair enough, although I am still embarrassingly under-prepared. And there is something about being surrounded by smartly dresses people, officers in their uniforms with epaulettes, that makes one feel like (at least a tiny) part of an ancient sea-faring tradition.

It is quite pleasant at the end of the day to socialise with scientists and crew members alike and have a random conversation with anyone who happend to be around. You can almost pretend you are not really on a ship in the middle of the ocean. On the American vessels I have sailed on, it was usually the TV lounge that was the center of social life and most social activities revolved around games (cards, darts etc.), not chatting. Most parties and get-togethers tended to have a more organized feel, they lacked the spontaneity of a “night out”.

There is a plethora of other, smaller differences. Shared cabins are the rule rather than an exception on American vessels. The news here contains much more football and far less baseball – which is a good thing! One could go on, and on. But at the end of the day, the science still gets done in the same way. Which, I guess, is “why we’re all here.” Nevertheless, it is hard not to be amazed at how strongly the cultural differences come out, even (or especially?) when we are all miles away from home.

Shackleton passes by

At the end of our stay in Signy, we were hoping to meet up with RRS Ernest Shackleton for a few hours. However much to our disappointment the Shack was held up by ice and fog so we had to make do with passing by on the way out of Signy. We much tooting of horns, raising of flags and waving, the two ship passed by. We could clearly see Dave Gooberman who was with us until the begining of the month and is now mate on the Shack and gave him a good wave. It was quite different circumstances when we last met in Montevideo in November and a lot warmer! We wish them good luck for the rest of the season.

RRS Ernest Shackleton - Click to enlarge RRS Ernest Shackleton - Click to enlarge

Signy panorama

Signy was incredibly beautiful and almost impossible to capture on film. This panorama is a poor attempt to do it justice but maybe give a small impression the size and magnitude of the view when the JCR is seen in relation to the surrounding icebergs. This a wide image so you might have to scroll across the enlarged image.

Signy panorama - Click to enlarge and scroll across
Sign Panorama
Click to enlarge and scroll across

The view can only be described at sublime. It manages to be both awe-inspiring and pure. The vista reminds us that we are frail and temporary. The lesson is written into the very stones and ice and it is quite intoxicating. Human weakness when compared to the size and age of nature is almost palpable and we feel privileged to be subject to such grand and majestic power. The landscape suggests power greater than that of humans and is threatening to us. There is defiance of human will in the vast, apparently infinite sky, frozen sea and hard mountains that provokes exhilaration rather than despair. The obstacle that blocks our path can provoke either anger and resentment or awe and respect. The noble power and strength contained within our view spontaneously inspire only respect and suggests a force set to continue long after our own extinction. Contemplation of our surroundings, hewn from the rock and gouged by ice over millions of years, leads us to appear merely dust postponed.

My receptivity to this scene only lasted a few hours but it still floats before my mind with high enjoyment. I hope to have fixed it, unaware in a deep recess of my mind, somewhere from which I can recall it's beauty at some later stage when I need a crutch for my thoughts and be reminded of my humility. Nature somehow infects us with a degree of sanity and stoicism. I celebrate that during the first half of my voyage I have collected images in my mind that might one day help to blunt pensive or vacant moods by raising themselves to my consciousness.

The JCR has now passed its halfway point of the season and I have mine. Signy was certainly a suitable place to celebrate a 'happy halfway'!!

Thankyou this week: to all the lads at Signy

Coming up next week: Science and the Scotia Sea (sound familiar!)

Alex Ramsden
Ships Doctor