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Signy Island Diary — December 2012

After a scenic journey south from the Falklands, via Bird Island and King Edward Point, the JCR arrived at Signy on 24th November. Of those onboard, eight were bound for Signy, eager to get the base up and running and make a start on their summer science programmes. As no one winters at Signy, there is no way of knowing what the conditions will be like on arrival. The island may still be frozen into solid sea ice, it may be surrounded by open water or it may be broken ice. Depending on conditions, we could need boats, skidoos or manpower to get all the provisions and science kit ashore for the season. This year we reached the edge of the ice about a day before reaching Signy, and upon arrival at the base we found the bay full of large chunks of ice. There was enough open water to launch the boats, but too much jammed against the jetty to drop anything there. This meant everything had to be dropped a little way around the cove where the cargo tender could get to the shore, and then had to be hand carried or dragged on sledges round to the base. Luckily there were lots of willing volunteers on the ship who were happy to help out!

Opening up the base went well, and after a sterling job by Mick (our techy) and his team of capable volunteers, we soon had power, heating and lighting to the base. This is no simple task when the base has been sitting empty through the Antarctic winter since we shut it down last March. Richard, who is here to sort out some of the problems with our communications systems soon had our phones and internet up and running. Getting the reverse osmosis plant (which generates our drinking water from seawater) to cooperate proved a little tricky, but by the third day, after replacing various bits of the plant we were finally able to get water and a much needed shower!

A sunny morning at Signy (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
A sunny morning at Signy (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

Once the ship had gone (3 days later), it was time for everyone to start real work. Richard fixed the VHF radio repeater which means we now have radio coverage over the whole island again. He also did a lot of work on the comms systems, to make our phones work better than they had the year before. Matt and Mick continued putting away and installing all the new equipment that came in on the ship and Matt started the mountain of paperwork that accompanies ship visits. Bruce was busy with field training, ensuring everyone was competent in winter field skills and camp craft before allowing them out into the field to start their projects.

My work is to continue the long-term monitoring programme of penguins and seals at Signy. For me starting work meant heading over to my penguin study sites at Gourlay, to lay numbered nest marker bricks in my chinstrap and Adelie colonies. These allow me to identify certain nests which I will study throughout the breeding season. By monitoring these closely I know peak laying/hatching/fledging dates and can work out the best timings for doing larger counts in other areas of the island.

This season there is a lot of snow and ice around. This makes life hard for some of the penguins, as the pile of pebbles upon which they usually nest is buried under the snow. On several occasions I found my study nests almost completely buried in the snow, with just the penguins head sticking out.

Chinstrap penguin nest after heavy snow (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
Chinstrap penguin nest after heavy snow (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

The visiting scientists this year are studying the glaciers. James is looking for microbes in the snow and ice, and investigating their involvement in halide cycles. To a simple penguin counter like myself, this appears to involve installing UV lights under the snow, large sheets of black plastic, collecting snow and gases, and some complicated analyses in the lab- James was very happy with his results.

Andy and Marie are also working on the glaciers, looking at the melt and runoff from the glaciers and monitoring the biological activity in the snow and ice and the runoff. This involved lots of digging of snow pits on the glaciers and the collection of snow and ice samples. Bruce, our Field GA has been busy providing field support and assistance for these projects. When not in the field, Marie has been exceedingly busy in the lab processing her samples.

A sunny day at Marie's sample site on the Gourlay snow slopes (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
A sunny day at Marie's sample site on the Gourlay snow slopes (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

Despite everyone being very busy, we still found time to celebrate Christmas. Christmas day at Signy involved a full Christmas dinner of roast turkey with all the trimmings, kindly cooked by Matt our BC to allow the rest of us to make the most of our holiday, lots of mince pies and Christmas cake and some traditional Christmas James Bond entertainment. We all enjoyed a well deserved day off from our various science projects to do full justice to the food and celebrations.

Christmas Dinner at Signy (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
Christmas Dinner at Signy (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

On the 29th December, the JCR returned to Signy, to take away James, Andy and Richard who have been with us since the beginning. We were sorry to see them go (especially Marie, who had lost her helpers for her project). The JCR dropped off Fabio and Luca instead, who plan to drill a 30m borehole behind the base and set up a long term study of the permafrost and snow build up.

The JCR arrives at Signy (Photo: Stacey Adlard)
The JCR arrives at Signy (Photo: Stacey Adlard)

The JCR also planned to deliver us fuel as we are starting to run low, but there was still a lot of ice around and the weather was looking unpredictable, so the refuelling was postponed until a later date. The ship was on a tight schedule and keen to hurry back to Stanley so its passengers were back in time to catch their flights back to the UK.

That’s all from Signy for this month, so I’ll finish with a picture of a peaceful Signy evening.

Best wishes for 2013 to everyone back at home.

Stacey Adlard (Zoological Field Assistant).