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Signy Island Diary — January 2007

The New Year has seen everyone at Signy roaming our small but scenic
Island. Although geographically small we have everything you might expect from an Antarctic island, mountains, lakes and glaciers. Then of course there�s the wonderful wildlife with three types of penguin nesting here and at least four types of seals visiting to say nothing of the other various birds. Its not all bleak and windswept either with lovely and ancient banks of emerald green mosses alongside interesting lichens.

On the seal front there has been a dramatic shift as the month has gone on with the numbers of elephant seals lying around base decreasing from over sixty to none. On the other hand having gotten rid of the layabouts we have now been invaded by lively fur seals, thousands of them. These boys don�t lie about in large piles like the elephant seals but rather charge about like boisterous dogs. All of us have quickly developed the habit of grabbing ski sticks as we leave base. These are not to bash the fur seals over the head (tempting though that may be) but rather clicking them together is usually enough to frightened the little devils away. Occasionally we have also spotted blond fur seals; a natural variation which occurs in about one in a thousand seals. However over boisterous these boys can be on land in the water they are tremendously graceful; moving in a seemingly effortless, otter like way, which is lovely to watch.

Elephant seals around base
Elephant seals around base

Fur seals near base in ever increasing numbers
Fur seals near base in ever increasing numbers

We humans have also been very busy. Numerous people have been making the hour long walk over to Gourlay where a new hut has been built under the supervision of our building expert (and Base Commander) Matt. He even trusted some of us with a hammer on occasion and so far there are not too many blacken thumbs. This new hut will provide accommodation for the scientists as they work on the adjacent penguin colonies and replaces a hut built in the Fifties.

The good, the bad and the ugly, new hut construction at Gourlay
The good, the bad and the ugly, new hut construction at Gourlay

Building work of a different kind was taking place on Jane Col where Roger was constructing a new Met. Station and deconstructing the old one. Unlike previous years the main problem we had whilst digging (thankfully small) foundation holes wasn�t the frozen permafrost but rather ground which resembled quicksand. Yet another sign of global warming?

Roger working on new Jane Col Met station
Roger working on new Jane Col Met station

Other scientists have been roaming the island. Annie, Chun Wie and Merlijn both ventured out to North Point and over to the west coast at Cummings. Soil and moss samples were collected, this leading to many hours of analysis back at base in the lab.

Roger also visited North Point in search of tiles which had been put out many year ago in order to see how fast these would be colonised by mosses and lichens. This is research which is happening all over the Antarctic and not just as Signy. Roger has also been involved in the rather painstaking task of tracking down a minute creature which was accidental introduced to Signy (from Bird Island) many years ago.

Another example of Antarctic wide research is the penguin work which takes place here. Mike and myself, occasionally assisted by Paul have been regularly visiting the penguin colonies at North Point and Gourlay in order to monitor what the birds are eating and also how well the chicks are faring.
It is always great to be working so close to such interesting characters as penguins. They are as curious of us as we are of them and if you sit still for a while some will usually come and investigate what you are up to. Sometimes they will even have a peck at your leg, no doubt trying to figure out if you are worth eating. Normally they stick to krill or fish.

Gentoo penguins and chicks
Gentoo penguins and chicks

Some have found these trips off base more challenging than others with Paul managing to have a days trek whilst wearing Rogers boots and Roger himself finding he had two left handed gloves.

Back on base perhaps less glamorous but nonetheless essential work has been going on with Matt replacing doors and Paul working on the generators and reverse osmosis plant ( which converts sea water into drinking water).

One evening the base was over flown by a helicopter, not something which happens everyday. We soon discovered it was from a Brazilian research ship which was in the process of dropping off a geological field party on neighbouring Coronation Island. Other ships which have been in the area include a number of tourist ship one of which was due to make a call at Signy. This, unfortunately, had to be cancelled at the last minute due to bad weather. To those of us with previous Antarctic experience this didn�t come as a great surprise.

One ship which did make an albeit brief call was our own Shackleton. This resulted in the base compliment being reduced to six as it took away Merlijn (off to Rothera) and Annie who was returning home to Malaysia.

Our weather has been mainly overcast (unfortunately typical Signy) but fairly mild. The icecap on the highest part of the island is now devoid of snow and the furrowed ice makes moving around on it rather tedious , either on foot or by snowmobile. On the rare occasions when the sun does shine water cascades off the icecap and fast flowing streams plunge down through the moraine fields adding another sound to the usual cacophony of rather harsh bird calls, roaring elephants seals or barking fur seals. If you closed your eyes you could easily believe that you were, in fact, in the middle of a tropical jungle.

All in all a very good way to start a new year.

Dave Routledge FGA

Signy group photo:

Chun Wie, Annie, Mike, Matt, Paul, Merlijn, Dave, Roger
Chun Wie, Annie, Mike, Matt, Paul, Merlijn, Dave, Roger