A 'day in the life' with Scott party descendant Alastair Wilson working in Antarctica
My name is Alastair Wilson and my Great Great Uncle was Dr E.A.Wilson (Uncle Ted to family), who accompanied Captain R.F.Scott on both the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions. I work for the British Antarctic Survey as a Zoologist studying the penguins and fur seals on the Sub Antarctic island of South Georgia. I grew up in the rural countryside of Pembrokeshire, Wales, and celebrated my 30th birthday here earlier this year.
At the moment we are in the middle of the austral summer, breeding season for the seals and penguins, and my busiest time of year. First thing on Monday morning we have our base meeting; notices are given for the week, any issues raised, and volunteers acquired for any big jobs. Then it’s off to my study areas in a beautiful bay called Maiviken. Every two days, rain, shine or gales I walk the 80 or so minutes over the mountain pass to the study beaches. Down at the Gentoo penguin colony I mark nests to monitor egg laying, and count the number of breeding pairs. Later in the season I will count the number of pairs that successfully hatch chicks, and finally the number that fledge to determine the breeding success.
My next job is to count the breeding Antarctic fur seals on the beaches. There are 8 study plots marked on the beaches and from vantage points above I take digital photographs to count later on in the office. Last summer I was also fitting GPS tracking devices to the seals to find out where they are feeding and the depths to which they dive.
Between the beaches I scramble up and down hillocks, walking through the tussac grass stools, all the time keeping my eyes peeled for seals that may be resting or breeding there. Fur seals are incredibly mobile on land, and can move surprisingly fast, they also have a mouth full of teeth like a bear, and don’t appreciate having their breeding territories invaded. Moving quietly and keeping a respectful distance however and it’s possible to enjoy these beautiful animals, watching them interacting, playing and even giving birth. I’m also keeping a look out for seal scats, this unenviable job is important for looking at what the seals have been feeding on.
Back in the laboratory I shall sieve through the material looking for fish and krill remains, identifying the species and size of the prey. With work at Maiviken complete it’s back over the mountain to base.
Back on base the work is varied. I count seals, process collected samples and analyse data, but also take part in my share of general base tasks. Cooking and cleaning is shared by everyone, and we all assist the boating officer when needed as coxswain or crew for science and government work on the harbour launches or rigid inflatable boats.
Being in Antarctica for the centenary of Scott’s expedition is an incredible feeling. Like Uncle Ted, I’ve come here to carry out valuable science work as they did 100 years ago, learning new things about this incredible environment and its wildlife. I’m lucky to have a modern base, modern equipment and communications, but there are still times when you can feel the remoteness. The only way in and out is by ship, all but vital communications can be cut off when it snows, and when you’re out camping in a tent in the middle of winter I can’t help but feel somehow closer to my famous ancestor and the incredible achievements he was part of all those years ago.