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Signy Island Diary — January 2012

The phrase “Science never sleeps” seems to have been very appropriate on Signy this year. We have 3 scientists on base and this season has seen them up at all hours of the day and night working on their respective projects. Wen has been very busy in the labs, analysing penguin diet samples, guano and soil samples and extracting DNA. This requires her to run long experiments that often run into the not-so-early hours of the morning.

Wen working in the lab (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
Wen working in the lab (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

Paul is studying the nitrogen cycle in the plants and soil at Signy, and has been collecting grass, soil and soil solution from a number of sites around the island. This has involved fortnightly trips to North Point to stay over at the Foca field hut while his sample tubes collect their water. Back on base he has been spending a lot of time looking at grass roots through the microscope and conducting long experiments involving lots of tubes of soil, grass and expensive chemicals.

I have been keeping busy with the CCAMLR long-term monitoring of the penguins and seals. From the start of January I have been doing a base seal count every second day. Our record number of elephant seals around the base was 96, which didn’t leave much space for walking around! The smell and sound of our neighbours is something that has to be experienced to appreciate! Fur seals started at 0 and have fluctuated dramatically, depending on the weather conditions. Peaks fur seal numbers so far have been 784 on 22nd January.

Some of our elephant seal neighbours (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
Some of our elephant seal neighbours (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

The chinstrap penguins started hatching this month, which meant lots of counting for me, Bruce and Paul who were roped in as willing assistants. The chick counts did give us a good excuse for a trip to Cummings, on the South West side of the island, and we had a sunny day out over the ice cap to this dramatic and seldom visited corner of the island.

Our Cummings trip (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
Our Cummings trip (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

I have also had a few trips to North Point with Paul as I have Adélie, gentoo and blue-eyed shag study sites there. Bruce and I have spent a number of hours counting these. On one afternoon we had a spare couple of hours and all went up Jane Peak, on the east of the island on our way home. From here we enjoyed some rare sunshine and nice views overlooking the base and Coronation Island beyond.

Bruce enjoying the sunshine at the top of Jane Peak (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
Bruce enjoying the sunshine at the top of Jane Peak (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

In addition to this, I have spent a lot of time collecting and analysing penguin diet samples, which has involved a lot of staring down the microscope, measuring and sexing the krill which they eat. I have also been attaching and retrieving small tracking devices on the penguins to monitor their diving behaviour and see where they are foraging.

One day at Gourlay we had an unusual visitor of a Leucistic chinstrap penguin. This means that the bird lacked the usual colour pigmentation in the feathers, resulting in it being a strange beige colour instead of the usual black.

Leucistic chinstrap penguin at Gourlay (Photo: Bruce Maltman)
Leucistic chinstrap penguin at Gourlay (Photo: Bruce Maltman)

Around base, Mick and Matt have also been very busy. It seems to have been a season of things breaking this year, so Mick has been very busy keeping the base operational. The water pump that pumps water from the sea, into out Reverse Osmosis plant where it is converted into fresh water decided to die on us part way through the month. As our backup pump was already broken, this involved a busy Sunday for Mick and Bruce, who impressively cobbled together the two faulty pumps to make one fully functional one. We are now treating this one very nicely, as it is a long way to the nearest fresh snow/ice, which we would have to turn to for all of our water if this one breaks down again.

In addition to fixing things and keeping the base running, Mick and Matt have been building a new set of stairs to go up to the front door of the base. Now we just need a calm, dry enough day for the masterpiece to be transported from the top-store and assembled at the door. This is proving to be the trickiest part of the whole job! They have also been extending the seal fence, which runs along the back of the base, to keep the fur seals off the moss banks. The current fence is solid, but after heavy snow fall, isn’t quite tall enough to stop the seals from clambering over the top of it, so the new modifications are making it about half a metre taller all the way along.

Bruce has been busy helping out with the science work, and in any spare time has been making the Gourlay field hut look like a proper field hut instead of a garden shed. This has included constructing shelves, a book case and a drying rack, and giving the outside a much needed coat of paint. He has also put up a new rainwater collecting tank and guttering at Foca Hut which will hopefully collect drinking water and reduce the need to collect it from the glacial melt-water streams which do not run at all times.

The Shackleton arrived on the 9th January which gave us all the opportunity for dinner onboard and a night out. This made a refreshing change from being on base.

The Signy team onboard the Shackleton for dinner (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
The Signy team onboard the Shackleton for dinner (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

The Shackleton was particularly welcome as it brought us some new fresh fruit and vegetables and other goodies. Some of the ship’s crew and passengers spent time around base and got a trip over to Gourlay to see the penguins. Other members of the crew were brought ashore to help fix various mechanical problems on base, and Mick and Bruce had a busy day out in the boats, shifting things from one field hut to another and back to base. At the end of the visit, Norman Ratcliffe who has been here since mid December, left on the ship, after a short and very busy season attaching tracking devices to penguins.

The Shackleton by moonlight (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
The Shackleton by moonlight (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

Around base we had an Oil Spill response session and a Search and Rescue exercise to practice what to do in an emergency situation. The most important thing we all learned from this task was how difficult it is to get an injured casualty back to base, even from somewhere very close. I think we might all be more careful in future!

Paul, our 'casualty' in the safe hands of his rescuers. (Photo: Bruce Maltman)
Paul, our 'casualty' in the safe hands of his rescuers. (Photo: Bruce Maltman)

I think that’s all the January news from Signy so I will stop writing here. Happy New Year to everyone back home.

Stacey Adlard
Penguin Zoological Field Assistant