Flying high and the start of goodbye.

So here we are at the dawn of 2015. At least it was the dawn of 2015 when I started penning this entry. Welcome to the least updated blog in history! Usually the turn of the year is spent at home, full of food, and trying to dodge landing on Park Lane with a hotel while my sister gradually relieves me of all of my hard-earned properties. This year at midnight I found myself unloading cargo and unstrapping fuel drums on the ice shelf under a blazing midnight sun and rich blue sky. Relief is finally upon us.

Every year around about Christmas, the RRS Ernest Shackleton arrives bearing gifts to the tune of a year of fuel, food, science equipment, and about 30 more summer staff which we trade for the outgoing cargo in the form of waste, empty fuel drums, and science samples that have accumulated over the year. November and December saw a huge change around the base as flights were arriving every week bringing some fresh food and some new faces, and warming temperatures saw more of the large vehicles out and about, but this influx of people and cargo right at the end of December has completely transformed the base.

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Vehicle line set up to drag the 150 ton garage out of the wind scoop that has formed throughout the year. Two bulldozers, achored to two John Deeres, anchored to two nodwell cranes.

 

The immediate challenge of relief is moving literally tonnes of food, tens of tonnes of cargo, and hundreds of tonnes of fuel off the ship, onto the sea ice, to then be transported across the sea ice onto the edge of the ice shelf, and then taken across 35km of ice to reach Halley. Then, all this has to be unloaded and stored for the year ahead. The huge operation was carried out under the watchful eye of the Brunt Ice Shelf’s finest disciplinarians: the adelies.

Throughout relief, some rogue penguins waddled up to Halley from their usual hangout on the sea ice, most likely following the drum and flag line that connects Halley to the ship mooring site. Unlike the calm and regal emperor penguins, the adelies are the younger sibling of the penguin family (sorry Bethany!); short, loud, nosey and confrontational. And just about the clumsiest things to ever walk on land. They aren’t half wonderful creatures.

Due to the Antarctic calendar and the planned arrival of the ship in late December, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are fairly subdued affairs as they are expected to be spent unloading the ship; the main celebration in Antarctica is the absolute circus that is Midwinter’s Day on June 21st, which I realise I still haven’t written about but bear with me. The Shackleton was expected to arrive on December 23rd this year so on the 20th in advance we had a fantastic Christmas meal but otherwise my day was spent building an igloo and eventually succumbing to an ‘over-consumption-of-turkey-nap’. As it turns out, the ship didn’t break through the ice until the 28th so the 25th itself turned out to be less busy than anticipated which was a pleasant surprise.

The out-going winterers traditionally have a dinner on the Shackleton after relief is over. For the 8 of us that are left, this was our first time in a year drinking milk, having fresh vegetables, and eggs that aren’t scrambled and then frozen. We had some further excitment on departing the ship to head back to Halley as the mooring ice broke apart just as we were about to leave, meaning that the ship had to ram the ice to establish a new clean edge. When this proved a longer task than expected, we were simply craned onto the sea ice instead!

After the ship departs, it visits some of the other British bases on Bird Island, Signy Island and South Georgia before returning to the Falklands. From there, it then ventures back to Halley one last time in late February to take out everyone bar those staying for winter. Thus the ship arriving at Halley for so long has been synonymous with the end of our tenancy here; despite still having several weeks to go before we’ll board the ship for good, those of us that spent winter here are now on the home straight, and recent talk has often been about home.

Those weeks specifically for me, will be spent training my replacement and handing over, finishing any studies and sample collection for the year and mentally preparing to head back into society. As far as the big picture goes before the ship leaves for good, Halley itself needs to be raised as do all of the ancillary science buildings, the cargo needs to be sorted through and distributed and the final repairs from the power down need to be made on the modules. Since the power down and loss of base infrastructure back in July, throughout the following months until now we’ve slowly recovered the likes of lighting, heating, some science experiments, power to the kitchen and more recently, the showers and washing machines. Within a month, the base should in theory be entirely operational again, and ready to withstand another Antarctic winter.

The power down is another thing I realise that I still haven’t written about and to be honest, I find it hard with where to start regarding this so I’ll say this and leave it there. It was such a shit-storm of an event and has caused this year to be referred to by some as among the most difficult Halley winters. Looking back, it’s hard to remember how we actually got through it and there are many mixed emotions surrounding it. I guess that the worst of these was the bitter fatigue of days and weeks with virtually no sleep while fire-fighting problems in a base that was mostly unlit and without heating. In winter darkness, the temperatures fell to -30C on the inside and -55C on the outside. We knew as well that unless we got the generator coolant system working, we would be spending the next 3 months in tents until we could be rescued, in the sad shadow of a frozen base. Having said that, the camaraderie and ‘Bollocks to the world – we can do this’ attitude that manifested itself in this group is something I’m honoured to have shared in. The endless, stoic work to keep the base alive and the unity and cohesion between every one of us is the only reason that we made it through unscathed. The sucker punch thought of facing 3 months in the darkness, in the most inhospitable environment on Earth in a tent was only matched by the cautious optimism in the weeks that followed that we may see this out without jumping ship. Now here I sit in a warm office, with all my science instruments chirping away and having showered 20 minutes ago, wondering how the year would have been different if we hadn’t gone through it. At the very least I’d probably have fewer beer-earning stories to tell in the pub at home.

To avoid leaving this on any sort of sombre note, I was blessed enough to go flying just before the ship arrived! Our winter field assistant was due to head into the field with some recently arrived BAS scientists to collect samples of bird poo (yes, bird poo!). Amazingly, in terms of Antarctic ice movement, one of the best ways to determine how long nunataks and mountain tops that poke through the ice have actually been poking through the ice is by dating the bird droppings on them, as when they are covered in ice there will obviously be no accumulation of poo! Anyway, this trip to the field site required 5 ferry flights worth of fuel, science instruments/cargo, tents and safety gear, and as the pilot of the Twin Otter needs a co-pilot, I, along with a few others, was lucky enough to draw the long straw and fly off base onto the continent to drop off supplies.

The weather was fantastic for the entire time with the exception of when we had to land, unload and take off! So while I was assured by the other co-pilots who had later flights that the views of the nunataks and mountains were spectacular, bearing in mind that this is the first time to see terra firma in a year, this was the vista that we were greeted with when we landed.

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On the run in though I did get a quick glimpse, so not all was lost.

Still, I got to take the controls for a portion of the flight and keep the plane level, and it was amazing to see the Hinge Zone and other wildly crevassed areas from the flying altitude of 8000ft. There is no sense of scale looking down at the features, and it’s quite humbling to imagine the likes of Scott and Amundsen and other early Antarctic explorers finding their way across such terrain without modern day climbing and navigation equipment.

 

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Amongst Emperors

Winter trips are one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the winter. A chance to escape the confines of the base, to put the routine, work and responsibility to the sword for a week as you head for the horizon on a ski-doo to explore the wonders that the Brunt Ice Shelf holds. As I was lazy and didn’t start this blog until well after the first trip, I will tell you about the second trip first. My first winter trip with Kev and Al was in March to the Hinge Zone about 50km inland, where the continental ice of the Brunt Glacier meets the sea and buckles upwards as it begins to float, resulting in a paradisic landscape of crevasse systems, ice chasms and cliffs that simply look as if they do not belong on Earth. This time in late September, we decided to head west to the coast to a place called Windy Bay, a horseshoe shaped bay cut out of sheer ice cliffs where, on the sea ice 25m below, is one of only a handful of emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, and the joint largest.

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In contrast to the first trip where we camped on the ice, this time we had the luxury of staying in the Windy Caboose. As the wind chill hit -45 C that week, we were all very glad to be within the four walls of the caboose with the stove on full blast. Windy Bay lived up to its name, with the wind rarely dropping below 20kn in the week that we were there which forced us on more than one occasion to have to escape the caboose using the roof hatch as the door was snowed in by wind blown snow.

Being outside in those winds and the temperatures they bring is not terribly pleasant, so we spent lots of time enjoying the lack of base routine by sleeping in late and eating our body weight in cheese. Throughout most afternoons, Scrabble, Jenga and Connect-4 competitions raged mercilessly. No game makes you realise quite how stupid you are like Connect-4, how the hell I didn’t see that Kev had three in a row as I unwittingly place my piece elsewhere I don’t quite know, but the final scores stood at 70 games played of which I won maybe 8, Kev won 32, and the other 30 games I don’t count because I lost too quickly for it to be classed as a game.

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We did have one beautiful, if not frigidly cold, day with the penguins while we were there which has to be among one of the best days of my life. It started with building ice anchors for the abseil from the top of the ice cliffs down to the sea ice below. Al suggested I go first as I had built the anchors; nothing like trusting in your own work. My stomach definitely went once or twice as I lent back over the lip of the cliffs but once I was over the lip, the descent was smooth and very enjoyable.

By the time Kev and Al had descended onto the sea ice too, a few of the more observant penguins had belly slid over and begun inspecting us. We split up and wandered around, never intruding directly into the colony but remaining on the periphery and letting the penguins approach us. They really are the most bizarre creatures on the face of the Earth. They are born into the most hostile environment that the planet has to offer and so are perfectly adapted to it; consequently looking totally alien compared to any creature I’ve seen before.

Whereas many animals are adapted well to hunt or hide in their environment, virtually all of the penguins’ appearance has to do with keeping their body temperature around 40 C since amazingly, they are warm blooded. They spend their lives either on the sea ice braving the Antarctic winter, or hunting at sea in ocean temperatures rarely above 0 C, so they have many mechanisms for retaining heat. The average adult is the size of a massively obese 8 year old child to give it a low surface area to volume ratio and therefore limit heat loss. Overlapping densely packed feathers make a surface almost impenetrable to wind or water and they have tufts of down on the shafts below the feathers which traps an insulating layer of air. Below the feathers is a layer of fat (one characteristic I seem to share with these penguins) which further insulates the core. And as everyone knows, they huddle together during the coldest months, constantly rotating inwards so that everyone gets a turn in the middle. The centre of the huddle can amazingly be up to 40 C warmer than the outside, absolutely essential in surviving the winter.

However something that not everyone knows; one of the main problem areas is the feet, which have a large surface area, are always in contact with the ice and cannot be covered in fat or feathers. They have two adaptations to mitigate against this, one is that emperor penguins can tip up on their feet and rest their weight on a tripod of their heels and tail to reduce the surface in contact with the ice, and the other is to regulate blood flow into their feet. The main way they do this is through heat exchangers at the tops of their legs. Arteries carrying warm blood from the body break up into many smaller vessels that essentially inter-twine with vessels carrying cold blood from the feet. Heat passes from body arteries into the feet arteries without exchanging much blood and therefore preventing very cold blood returning to the main body. In winter, this minimises heat loss by keeping the penguins’ feet just above freezing whilst preventing frostbite.

The chicks have yet to develop a lot of these and so, are confined to the warmth of living on top of their parents’ feet, only emerging every now and then to chirp for regurgitated krill. The males emperors on whose feet they sit haven’t eaten for months at this point having just endured the coldest winter season on the planet, but still give the chicks all they can. When the female penguins return from the sea, the males can finally leave the colony and make for the sea .. and food.

I’ve got some really good videos of the chicks but annoyingly, we don’t have the bandwidth to upload it. The closest thing I can describe it as for the moment is birdsong; very high pitched yet melodic. Their bodies are covered in fluffy down feathers, making them the most cuddley looking things ever! Penguins have a very strong parental instinct and it is not uncommon for penguins who have lost their chick to try and take that of another. If a chick leaves the haven of its parents feet for whatever reason, a free-for-all ensues where nearby penguins without chicks will try and steal it, often throwing themselves in front of rivals to prevent them from reaching first.

It is very slapstick funny at first until you realise that the chick is literally running for its life, as sadly many of the chicks that don’t survive to adulthood, are crushed in the confused melees that break out. Without ending this on a downer, as we were preparing to ice climb back up the cliffs, the clouds broke and the sun shone through allowing a last few good pictures.

A group of penguins waddled or slid over on their bellies to watch us put on our harnesses and ice axes in preparation for climbing out. I put my GoPro on the floor and backed away to let them inspect it and clumsily push it around with their beaks. Again, this is footage that I’ll have to upload when I’m back!

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Spring Weather Wonders

I’m going to have to take a leaf out of George Lucas’ book here and write the more recent events of this year now, else I’m not going to end up writing anything at all. Not because I’m looking to cash in by making 3 sub-par films later on when CGI can take over, but more because if I don’t write something down now then I never will, and with all the goings-on of late, I have no motivation right now to write about what happened 6 months ago.

As it stands it is late October. Following the emotion and energy invested into the celebrations of Midwinter’s week on June 21st where the sun is the furthest from us, July was relatively quiet save for the technical issue on July 30th with the coolant system that caused a base-wide power loss. With no way to heat the station and inside temperatures falling to below -20 C, we were almost forced to abandon the station to await rescue that could only arrive in a few months. The fact that it happened amidst the coldest temperatures that Halley has ever recorded (-55.4 C) didn’t help the survival process while we were without power, or the recovery process when only very limited power was available. That said, we emerged relatively unscathed and that is a story for another time.

So .. Antarctic springtime. On August 11th the sun rose for the first time since 1st May, and by 1st November it will no longer set, bathing us in 24 hour daylight. It was genuinely wonderful to see the sun again, we greeted it atop the roof with a glass of frozen champagne and icy beards in -40 C and a brisk wind, mesmerised by it after so long without. The transition period that constitutes springtime is roughly 80 days of rapidly lengthening daylight hours, 20 minutes extra per day on average. Lots of exciting things happen atmospherically too; most notably the ozone hole forms and the Polar Vortex breaks down, bringing a break in the frigid weather. Weather nerds read on!

In a nutshell, the Earth is very good at balancing out heat. The equator is preferentially warmed while the polar regions lose most heat. Thus there exists a very well defined atmospheric and oceanic circulation to move heat from the equator to the poles, such as the Gulf Stream for instance, which makes the UK much warmer than other countries at the same latitude.

In contrast, Antarctica is surrounded by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, a very strong persistent band of westerly winds that prevents warm air moving south from reaching the continent and depriving it of any injections of heat from the north. The current intensifies over winter as it is driven by the temperature gradient between the continent and the oceans to the north, the gradient of which is much larger during the winter season.

In addition, a large high pressure forms over the South Pole, pulling down freezing air from the upper atmosphere which, following the topography, spreads out and descends down towards the edge of the continent. As the sun moves south and the temperatures gradually increase, the temperature gradient lessens and the vortex breaks down, allowing injections of warm air to penetrate further south.

The ozone hole formation also occurs in September through October which has been very interesting to monitor daily. The instrument through which I measure ozone amount has been at Halley for well over 50 years, which is why it was so instrumental in detecting the ozone hole as it had provided a continuous, unaltered record of ozone measurements.

The basics of the ozone hole lie in the stratosphere at roughly 16 – 22km altitude and what happens there in Antarctic spring. Normally ozone, O3, interacts with incoming UV from the sun, breaking into O and O2 as a result. This spare O atom will then re-combine with another O2 molecule to reform into O3; the destruction and reformation of ozone roughly balancing each other out. Halo carbons and CFCs, which we have ceased emitting now, were a problem because they would also split in UV light releasing chlorine atoms, which react with the spare O atoms and prevent the ozone molecules reforming.

The hole is most prevalent over Antarctica because of the intense cold, and the Polar Vortex. Throughout the winter, there is no UV radiation and therefore no ozone reactions. However in the early spring when the sun (and therefore UV) has returned but it is still unbelievably cold, Polar Stratospheric Clouds are able to form. These clouds only occur in temperatures below -80oC and provide a surface for the destructive reaction of ozone therefore amplifying the removal of ozone from the atmosphere.

The Polar Vortex as discussed previously, contains the air pocket over the pole and prevents its dissapation. It is only when the temperatures begin to increase in late spring, causing the vortex to break down and removal of Polar Stratospheric Clouds, that the hole can dissapate and ozone levels increase.

The next one will be about penguins, promise.

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“Welcome to Halley, here’s a shovel.”

Halley is an absolutely remarkable structure. The base itself is comprised of one large red module nicknamed Big Red, and 7 smaller blue ones, standing on 10m hydraulic legs so that they can be raised up against the annual 2m snowfall. 200m to the north is the Drewry summer accommodation building which looks like an oversized red lego brick, and beyond that is the larger red brick of the garage where the snowcats, diggers, bull dozers, skidoos, piston bullies and cranes are maintained.

Surrounding the base are several workshops called cabooses which resemble blocks of especially mature cheddar on on stilts, which house all manner of specialised instruments, and past that is a perimeter of black drums that delineates the edge of the base. There are hundreds of drums of fuel in a depot next to lines of sledges, and ranks of ship containers which house everything from emergency generators and search and rescue equipment to food supplies for 3 years. Absolutely everything is arranged in lines perpendicular to the prevailing wind direction so that nothing gets buried in the wind tail of something else. It is truly an incredible sight to behold.

When we arrived at Halley on Feb 2nd, the summer season was in theory, drawing to a close. After dropping us off, the Shackleton departed from N9 to visit the Ronne Ice Shelf for two weeks to support a field project there, after which it would return to N9, collect everyone bar the wintering team, and leave for the Falklands, not to return until Christmas day. The reality of end of season, was that everyone was busy beyond belief. With the ship due to leave for the year in two weeks, we all had to be completely self-sufficient in our jobs, stocks of components, food, medical supplies etc. had to be counted and recounted to ensure that we had enough, and work deadlines had to be reached. As far as I was concerned, these two weeks before the Shack returned would be an absolute info dump of learning my new position as thoroughly as possible, getting to grips with base life and routine, and bonding with the guys I would be left here with.

The sun was still in the sky for 24 hours a day, skimming the horizon like a flat stone on a pond. We worked 8am – 6:30pm 6 days a week, with work often continuing much later than that; quite literally work, eat, sleep, and repeat. Almost every hour of the day it seemed, the base was buzzing with activity. The mechanics were preparing all of the vehicles for the cold ahead, either shutting them down or conditioning the ones that we would need over winter. The tech services were jacking up and adding sections to all of the cabooses’ legs and instrument towers, and the entire base itself so that they aren’t buried in the coming snow. The field assistants were making constant trips to the coast to assess the sea ice and it’s suitability for the Shack to moor there. The science team were setting up and calibrating all of their instruments, making final checks and repairs while their predecessors were still around. And everyone was digging. Dig dig dig dig dig dig. Every time that the wind blows above ~14kn, snow begins to skip along the ground, and becomes properly airborne at ~25kn, collecting around anything that protrudes from the snow. Consequently every time there is a lot of wind, wind tails form behind everything. Vehicles and science instruments get buried, flaglines get shredded and another section of the metal steps up to the modules disappears.

We also had a trip to the coast to practice camping Antarctic style. We would need to be proficient with using ice axes, crampons, and crevasse rescue in the year ahead, so this was a day or two to get a headstart.

Those two weeks passed in an absolute blur.

Throughout winter we get two “holidays” where we get to jaunt off base on the ski doos in pairs with the field assistant and camp, explore, ice climb and see penguins. And explore. And ice climb! In preparation for this and working outside in the winter ahead, we all needed to be kitted out with winter clothes. Standard summer-wear would be fleeces underneath an insulated boiler suit, large padded boots, gloves depending on the wind, and a bucket of suncream to give the ozone hole the respect it burns into those that don’t. For winter we were given some more heavy duty kit; a huge down jacket, a windy cagoule that is basically a tent, insulated salopettes, face masks, down gloves and mittens called “bear paws” that extend back to the elbow and give you all the dexterity of a sheep wearing oven gloves. We were also given our own crampons, helmets and those of us in the Search And Rescue (SAR) team were also given climbing harnesses full to bursting with ice screws, carabiners, jumars, slings and prussiks with which we would be trained in the coming months.

The SAR team usually consists of the field assistant, doctor and vehicle mechanic along with 3 others, which this winter, would be our data manager, electronics engineer, and myself. We were very excited at the prospect of learning full crevasse rescue, zero-visibility navigation and more rope skills than you can shake a stick at, though hopefully these are skills that would never need to be used.

Towards the end of the summer I was getting to grips nicely with Antarctic clouds. Perhaps the most incredible thing about being the meteorologist at Halley is that part of my job is literally to look at and record the sky. While I’m sure the Met Office is very interested in how many clouds look like farmyard animals, certain types of clouds and their evolution over time are indicative of approaching weather systems, the stability of the atmosphere and temperature inversions to name a few things. It is remarkable how much you can understand about the state of the troposphere from what the clouds look like and how high they are. So while all of us sat and gawked at the wondrous displays of Antarctic clouds, I was able to appreciate them in other ways which made them all the more majestic. It’s often the high glaciated clouds that produce the most spectacular visual feasts, but even the low grey banks of featureless stratus clouds are amazing in their own way. Thick enough to block out the sunlight, the world turns to grey underneath them. It is literally impossible to discern the sky from the icy ground, which turns a dull grey in the absence of sunlight. There simply is no horizon, and the landscape vanishes before you.

Sastrugi is an Inuit term for features in the snow; wind ripples, bumps etc., and under the striking blue of the sky and brilliant white of the cloudless skies, strong dark shadows are cast by it highlighting just how orogenous the flat snow actually is. All that becomes invisible when the contrast disappears. It’s so easy to laugh at someone walking into a wind tail from a container that is 2 metres tall because they literally couldn’t see it before it was close enough to touch, but every single person on base has done it themselves too. There are two kinds of people here, those who fall over their own feet walking in the snow, and those who lie about it. That said, some people are clumsier than others, none more so than myself.

On February 17th, a large convoy of snowcats took everyone to the coast where all those that were not staying for winter boarded the Shackleton. So many thoughts ran through my head on that journey to the coast, but the most prominent were encapsulated by how much your life can change in a few months. On January 3rd I first heard of this job and the urgency with which the vacancy needed filling. On January 19th, I had accepted this job, packed, passed my medical, moved out of my house and flown to the Falklands. On February 2nd I had arrived at Halley, and then two weeks later I found myself with my fellow winterers, standing on the edge of the Brunt Ice Shelf at N9 as the Ernest Shackleton eased away from the ice cliffs, turned tail, and made for the horizon. In a strange way, as we stood on the cliff firing flares into the sky and shouting goodbyes to friends, it felt like bidding farewell to family before heading off to university. We’ll see them again in a while; but on the other hand we were alone now, and we all sensed the excitement that winter had officially started.

That being said, apparently it is genuinely easier to get aid to the International Space Station than it is to reach Halley in the depths of winter. That was a lovely little nugget that I had found out a few days before the Shack left. Curse the bastard that told me that.

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FIDS

What is a FID? It was an acronym I’d never come across in the previous year I’d spent working at BAS in Cambridge, but one that got thrown around a lot upon arrival in the Falklands on Jan 20th. Having flown the day before from RAF Brize Norton in England, en route I’d learnt that FIDS stood for “Falkland Islands Dependency Survey,” as BAS used to be known, hence our party from BAS that were bound for Halley were referred to as the FIDS after touching down in the Falklands. A delightful alternative is “Fucking Idiots Down South,” which seemed much more appropriate for a group of orange boiler suited men headed for the coldest, windiest, wildest continent on Earth in the name of science and discovery.

 

Just two weeks before, I had been sat at my desk in Cambridge looking at getting my contract extended, when I found out that the Antarctic Atmospheric Scientist, or ‘Metbabe’, had got cold feet if you’ll pardon the pun, and decided he didn’t want to stay at Halley for the winter. The way it works is that the wintering team head south to Halley in December via ship, the busy summer season commences with 24 hour daylight allowing lots of research and science to be completed/set up for the coming year, then the ship departs in mid-February and doesn’t return until December when the sea ice has retreated sufficiently to allow the ship to moor on the edge of the ice shelf. In the ship’s absence, a team of 13 ‘winterers’ stay at Halley over the Antarctic winter to maintain the base. In the metbabe case, this meant monitoring the ozone layer and hole, coding weather observations, sending up daily weather balloons and running numerous instruments that collect data on everything from concentration of methane to the wind direction and speed at 30km up in the atmosphere. The previous metbabe had decided in early January that he didn’t want to stay for winter, so as his replacement I was rushed to the final ship bound for Halley before the sea ice window closed; so this crazy year begins in Port Stanley, boarding one of BAS’s ships; the Ernest Shackleton.

 

The Falklands are a very unique place incidentally. Bleak and grey, with scraggy outcrops of rock jutting from amongst the monotonous green hills, it appeared utterly lifeless as the taxi took us from the airfield to Port Stanley. The grey veil of the countryside abated when we reached Stanley; nestled in a little bay with a population just shy of 2000, the colourful corrugated roofs and locals driving obscene 4x4s contrasted hugely with the rest of the island. The water in the harbour could have been glass it was so still, save for the occasional ripples as a seal silently broke the surface. We had two days in the Falklands, one of which consisted of a tour of the RAF airbase and witnessing RAF typhoons roaring down the runway as they practised response drills, and the other of sampling the local bars. Somehow on the tour of the airbase, my phone fell out of my pocket. To my Dad’s surprise, he called to see if we had made it to the Falklands safely; the Squadron Leader answered my phone, and kindly said he’d hang onto it. So that’s waiting for me on the return leg! Soon after the Shackleton was refuelled, myself and my fellow FIDS boarded and we departed into the Southern Ocean, 13 days away from Halley.

The approach to Bird Island

The approach to Bird Island

There were 9 of us in all, 3 to be dropped off en route at Bird Island base for the remainder of the summer, and the rest of us destined for Halley. I was the only one who was going to winter, the rest of the party were to be at Halley for two weeks to check some of their instruments before leaving on the final call in the middle of February. After a week of sailing at full speed, we reached Bird Island on the morning of the 25th. It rose up out of the water in a prominent L shape, merely 5 km x 1 km long, set apart from South Georgia by the 500m wide Bird Sound. Along the ridges and cliffs sat literally hundreds of white specks amongst the grass, confirmed by the binoculars as wandering albatrosses. As we got closer, groups of penguins and seals became visible on the beaches, concentrated especially around the cove and inlet where the base was located. We went ashore in a small boat along with some of the Shackleton crew to drop supplies for winter and pick up refuse, and while we were there we were lucky enough to have a tour from the field assistant of the gentoo and king penguin colonies on the beach and the albatross colonies in the hills. The beach and approach to the base were chock full of penguins and fur seals, to the extent where often you had to delicately tiptoe through the blanket of seal like some absurd game of hopskotch just to avoid treading on any stray flippers. It seems crazy how so many seals and penguins can live in such close proximity but remain harmonious with each other; and none of them were scared of humans. Quite the opposite in fact, on arrival we were presented with a staff that was to be used to discourage seals who got a little too nosey for their own good!

It's very hard to be cross with a seal that tried to nip your leg when he does this afterwards.

It’s very hard to be cross with a seal that tried to nip your leg when he does this afterwards.

The walk into the hills was incredible, the ground was boggy and saturated with tufts of grass spaced at random intervals and everywhere we looked were wandering albatrosses. They are truly magnificent creatures. Some were flexing their enormous white wings and clacking their beaks in a mating ceremony but most were sitting unfazed on nests as a large kitchen sink. While they were incubating an egg, they were completely stoic and would let you approach them, even to stroke them. Following this the weather broke so we headed back down the hills to the base and then back to the Shack to get on the way again, trailed by a plethora of birds gliding in the wake of the ship.

Hello ladies!

Hello ladies!

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As the Shack headed further and further into the Southern Ocean, we were treated to its wonders. On the 26th of Jan we saw huge pods of minke whales in the distance, striking up the horizon with intermittent puffs of water, and later in the evening, the first ice berg. It was about a mile wide, well rounded and full of crevasses, it must have been floating for months. Throughout the rest of the week the ice bergs increased in size and frequency and the sun stayed up for longer until it stopped setting altogether.

Midnight before the Atka Ice Port. The sun doesn't set anymore.

Midnight before the Atka Ice Port. The sun doesn’t set anymore.

Our next stop was the Atka Ice Port just on the coast near the German base Neumeyer, and as we edged closer to the ice shelf edge, we began breaking through clumps of solid ice. On the 30th we awoke to drifting through pancake ice, brilliant blue skies and huge white tabular bergs 100m from either side of the ship.

The beginnings of pancake ice. In a few months the ice here will be 2 metres thick, and extend hundreds of kilometres further north.

The beginnings of pancake ice. In a few months the ice here will be 2 metres thick, and extend hundreds of kilometres further north.

Beautiful tabular berg.

Beautiful tabular berg.

A few hours later we were at Atka alongside a South African ship, Agulhas, to receive some machinery for the coming winter and trade a few crates of beer. During the transaction, a particularly nosey group of adelies came to inspect the ship, and spent the day waddling around the edge of the ship like clumsy children in tuxedos. With that, we set off again, skirting the coast south west until we reached a mooring site called N9, where a party of snowcats would meet us from Halley.

The Agulhas at the Atka Ice Port.

The Agulhas at the Atka Ice Port.

"Quick guys, something interesting over this way!"

“Quick guys, something interesting over this way!”

Upon arrival at N9 two days later, we set foot on Antarctica for the first time when we got off to dig mooring trenches for the ship. The scene was blindingly colourless, a large grey mass of stratus cloud dulled the white ice, while the wind skipped across the surface entraining snow particles that were blowing over the ice shelf edge. By the time the snowcats arrived, the sky had cleared and it was gorgeously warm, despite being -5oC it was uncomfortably hot to wear anything more than a fleece.

A SnowCat in her natural habitat.

A SnowCat in her natural habitat.

3 hours in the cat later and the FIDS had arrived at Halley! It was February 2nd, exactly 2 weeks since we had left England, and we could not be further from home. 75oS, 26oW, on a floating ice shelf, standing outside a colourful base on legs that would not look out of place on the moon, or the ice planet Hoth.

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