The JCR trip..

The JCR trip. Part one. Well the only part really, I’m not gonna drag this out this time!

The journey from Rothera to Punta Arenas was a seven day cruise on the R.S.S. James Clark Ross – the other research vessel operated by BAS.  A journey that would see us travel up the Antarctic peninsula and across the Drake passage up to the tip of South America. You know, that bit of ocean that is often described as the roughest in the world. Now without it actually getting too insane it didn’t disappoint, with quite a big swell for most of the trip.

From the duck-pond flatness and shelter of the bay at Rothera we hit open sea in what could be called a bit of a storm and I ended up spending an hour of my time emptying my stomach off the side of the ship. Breathing in the nice sea air aside it’s not exactly the best way to enjoy your morning. However, apart from that unpleasantness, I proper love being at sea, even when it is a little bouncy. I’ve not really been seasick before and I wasn’t expecting it this time but hey, you’ve got to enjoy it at some point I suppose? I was only really rough for a morning or so and once I’d got my sea-legs back I was able to wander round relatively free of the urge to chunder. Still, even though I was now none too rough the sea itself was still pretty excitable.  Staring out of the windows you could see only sky one minute and then a wall of ocean the next as the ship smashed its way through the towering swell.  Sleeping at night was only to be accomplished once you’d packed and wedged yourself into your bunk with pillows and folded bits of mattress with your bed going from flat to what sometimes felt like ninety degrees in a matter of seconds. This is of particular importance when you’re in a top bunk  for obvious reasons. Still for me though, even in stormy weather the best place to be is outside on the deck. Trying, and sometimes succeeding, to take pictures of the ocean faring wildlife and quite often just staring out to sea like some philosophical old sea-dog.

First of the things to see are the giant Albatrosses, Royal, Wandering and Black Browed.  Apart from the Black Browed with their distinctive eyes they can be a bit hard to identify sometimes – juveniles have different plumage from the older more mature birds and I’m not exactly an expert!

Before seeing these magnificent birds I was under the impression that they would just glide, high up in the air on their huge wings like some sort of kite. The truth is much better though. whilst they have definitely got the hang of keeping any exertion to a minimum they are much more aerobatic than a glider. Swooping up and down and over across the waves, at times skimming the surface with precision and then gaining incredible speed without any form of propulsion other than their mastery of the air currents rising up from the waves. You can watch them fly in from a kilometre away, circle the boat a few times and then rush past at speed without a single wing beat. Good thing about this of course is that you can get a nice piccy.

wandering albatross

wandering albatross

wandering albatross

It’s difficult to get across how big these buggers are but when you see them head on, with their three metre plus wingspan it’s quite an impressive sight.

Having seen albatrosses looking ungainly on land trying to take off I was always curious as to how they fed whilst at sea – or more accurately how they managed to get themselves air-born again after feeding. As it happens though, they make it look easy. I presume this is down to the faster moving air currents whilst at sea but a few skips across the waves and they are up!

wandering albatross

 

 

 

 

 

wandering albatross

wandering albatross

 

 

 

 

 

The other large sea-going birdys out in the southern oceans are the petrels. Biggest of which are the giant petrels, also known as geeps . These huge birds fly with almost the same skill as the Albatrosses but look a little less majestic and a little more rough and ready. Occasionally described as ugly I reckon they are just a little more pre-historic looking.

giant petrelgiant petrelNot too bad out at sea I suppose but they can look a bit gruesome when covered in blood after burying themselves up to the neck in seal guts! (have a google)

Prettier little birds are the Pintados that were always zipping around the ship when I came down from Capetown on the Shack. Again there were flocks of these little fellas flying all around the ship, occasionally resting in the wake of the ship and then taking off and catching us up again.

pintado

pintado

pintado

The waters in southern oceans are teeming with life.  Out on deck, in the middle of nowhere you can see hundreds, maybe thousands of birds riding the air currents and searching for food. Underneath the waves there are plenty of things looking for a meal too, from the gigantic (more on this later) to the small and furry.

fur seals

I think these were southern fur seals. There were quite a lot out at sea and then even more as we approached Tierra del Fuego, leaping out of the sea all over the place – though most of the time much too quickly to get a picture.

southern fur seal

Occasionally I’d get lucky though!

I wasn’t lucky enough to catch any of the Porpoises that came along side but I did have better luck than last time getting some whale pics.

minke whale

minke whale

Still have to catch the killer shot of a Humpback launching itself out of the water but in the mean time some more Minkes will have to do. Maybe next time eh?

A few days out of Punta as we were sailing through Tierra del Fuego and the straits of Magellan the number of birds flying all round went nuts. gulls, ducks, cormorants and petrels all knocking about flying and also fishing.

Tierra del Fuego sea birds

Tierra del Fuego sea birds

Tierra del Fuego sea birds

DSC_0160And of course, no post with pictures of birds in would be complete on this blog without penguins. So here are some Magellanic Penguins.

Tierra del Fuego sea birds

Tierra del Fuego sea birds

Tierra del Fuego sea birds

Yay penguins. I miss penguins!

The Journey Home – Rothera.

Rothera. The tropical paradise so beloved by my fellow tech team-mate Nick. Nick had done two winters at Rothera and was often wont to wax lyrical about its beauty – especially when compared to Halley. Now although I was initially disappointed to leave Halley via a different route the silver lining was the fact that I got to spend a short amount of time in Rothera.

Way back in 2013, when I was a bright-eyed newbie getting ready to head south, I spent a bit of time with quite a few of the people heading off to winter there and I looked forward to saying hello as well as just wanting to see the place. Before getting the post at Halley I’d obsessed about all the BAS bases and I’d love to visit them all.

So first on that list – Rothera, what’s all the fuss about?

Well first off it is pretty much as beautiful as folk had said. Snow covered peaks surrounding a bay full of ice bergs and wildlife – what’s not to love about that?

Rothera

Rothera

As well as it being pretty scenic (bit of an understatement) it was really nice just to actually walk on solid ground after so long floating on ice.

Rothera

Rothera

Not a bad old view if you’re living at Rothera eh?

As well as some cracking views the place has its other attractions.My personal favourite has got to be the wildlife – you know stuff other than humans that are alive. This was something that, apart from the coolest animal on the planet – The Emperor Penguin, has been in short supply during my time south. On the whole I’ve been in a world where, apart from visiting skuas or petrels or seemingly lost and confused Adelie penguins there’s not so much as a bacterium. Rothera however, even during a bit of a quite spell, is full of all sorts of stuff flying, swimming, waddling or just sleeping.

antarctic fur seal

The gravel  and rock beaches surrounding the base have the appearance of some sort of after party with various seal party casualties sprawled all over the place.

antarctic fur seal

antarctic fur seal

antarctic fur seal

antarctic fur sealThe fur seals, especially, appear to be recovering from some sort of crazy weekend.

weddell sealGot to see a serene looking Weddell seal too.

The other seals lazing around everywhere are the Elephant seals. If you’ve heard anything about elephant seals then you’ll know that they are big. Really big. You still don’t get just how big though, until you’ve seen one. The bigger males seem to be roughly the size of a long wheelbase van.  The ones I saw were females and younger adult males – so none of the full size beach-master monsters unfortunately.

elephant seal

The smaller females (still pretty big by the way) are much more photogenic than the males and also seem to be better mannered.

elephant seal

elephant seal

elephant sealThe males seemed to be quite a bit less gentile. Growling, burping and farting pretty much constantly – you don’t need to get too close before you can smell them. Stench aside though they are fairly impressive animals. Hopefully one day I get to go see a full breeding colony of these giants, complete with the colossal mature males and their proboscis like noses and dramatic, violent disputes. I could live without smelling them again though…

imperial shag

They have other stuff in Rothera too. Birds. Lots of em.

Like the Imperial Shag shown above.

adelie penguinPlenty of pingus knocking about too. Lots of them moulting and looking none too dignified.

Antarctic birdNo idea what the young fella above is.

There you have it. Rothera is quite good. Alright it’s fairly spectacular. Obviously more classically scenic than the desolation of the Brunt ice shelf but still pretty good.

It was nice to see the contented look on Nicks face too!

next up: The RSS James Clark Ross

The Journey Home – the first flight out.

Towards the back-end of February it started to become a little touch and go as to whether the Shack would actually get in to Halley and pick us (summer staff and outgoing winterers) all up. The sea ice in the Weddell sea was really starting to form thicker and thicker and every day it was going to be harder and harder to get through.

So, as two ALCI baslers were due to fly through Halley on their way back to Canada BAS booked as many of us as they could to get on board and fly out to Rothera and my name came up on the list.

To be honest I wasn’t the happiest camper about this turn of events and I was wandering around base with a bit of a scowl on my face for a few days. First of all I’m still not overly enamoured with flying – and going out this way meant a lot of that! Secondly I felt really disappointed to miss out on going out in the traditional manner – on the deck of the Shack, waving goodbye to the 2015 winterers who would be waving us off on the ice shelf – the same way we did the previous year and I was keen to see out the whole experience with my fellow 2014 winter team – or the eight of us that were left with ten-day cruise through the sea ice and a visit to the Falklands.

As it turns out I was a little bit wrong! Wrong to be such a mardy-arse about the whole thing and wrong because I actually got the sweeter deal than those left behind. The twenty or so left at Halley ended up having to come out in a similar way to us, flying to Rothera and then going up to South America. So sorry to all those who had to put up with being grumpy!

First part of the trip involved getting into one of these beauties:

ACLI Basler DC3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ACLI Basler DC3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ALCI – or Antarctic Logistics Centre International run a number of planes down here in the summer months carrying goods and people around the continent from on base to another and then they spend the winter back home in Canada.

The two Basler planes are updated versions of the DC-3 which have been flying since 1936! The plane I flew out on saw service during WW2 and was involved in the Normandy landings! They really are cool looking aircraft, when talking about them to people back home I described them as “Indiana Jones” planes.

Despite having the chance to fly a Twin Otter earlier in the season I still had a residual bit of “flying freak out” going on (though this seems to now have gone thanks to the “immersion therapy” of the trip home) In spite of this I was still aware of just how amazingly cool it is to fly in one of these aircraft across the Weddell sea and some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet on my way to Rothera.

So I wouldn’t go as far as saying I enjoyed but it was pretty bloody amazing!

next up: Rothera – otherwise know as the promised land!

Home!

I never thought this day would come – especially about eight months ago in the dead of the Antarctic winter, but I’m back in the UK after a last-minute decision to get twenty of us flown out of Halley. Reason for the last-minute rush was the struggle the Shack was having getting back in to Halley to pick us all up.

So as I type this I’m sat inside with the rain beating against the window on a gorgeous March day in Yorkshire.

It’s great to be back, great to see all the people I’ve missed but…

It’s just all a bit weird!  Still not quite got my head around being back in the real world – though I’m getting there.

I’ve still got a few more stories to post before I wrap up, including the trip home and some posts about the science that goes on at Halley – now that I’ve got the ability to make a post without it taking three days to upload!

Halley Highland Games

It was Burns night this weekend so despite the nearest thing to us that could be described as a mountain probably being an iceberg we organised a Highland games, with hammer throwing, tug of war and a bit of caber tossing. The sun stayed out all day too meaning my “highland attire”, consisting of a bed sheet and a vest, wasnt actually too cold. The Hammer throw was a bit disappointing – with my first throw ending up with me in a heap in the snow, though my next effort was slightly better though still off the lead. Tug of war went as well as can be expected when the surface you are trying to get purchase on is ice but I did manage to come first in the caber toss, make of that what you will.

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yup, that’s me in the dress.

Later on in the evening we had the Haggis address (given by two of the French speakers on base, which made for an interesting accent) and then, for some unknown reason, a night singing eighties power ballads very loudly!

Flying!

A while ago I got the chance to go out into the field in a BAS Twin Otter. This is a pretty rare treat for us at Halley but for me it was a bit odd. I’m not too fond of flying (in fact it freaks me out completely) but there was no way I wanted to pass up the chance to fly across Antarctica!

So, setting aside my nerves I got ready to head out and see my first bit of solid land for over a year. A field party was on the way out to the Shackleton range of mountains about two hours by plane further into the continent. Two Twin Otter aicraft were set up to do a couple of rotations out to the site taking out all the kit for the camp, skidoos and sledges and the kit needed for research. The journey out would be with passengers and then the trip back would need an extra person as a co-pilot – me!

antarctic twin otter pilot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The take off and quick flight up to around eight thousand feet gave fantastic views of the area surrounding base with some of the features I’ve been out to visit such as The Gatekeeper immediately obvious from the air. We flew off to the east and the views down onto the continent were spectacular. Glaciers spilling down to become ice shelf and huge areas of crevassing many kilometres long were all clearly visible. Some of the areas of ice, with long dark rents in the surface looked like an image taken by an electron microscope.

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then, after a few hours flying I spotted land, actual land, away in the distance!

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shackleton mountains, where the group of scientists we were dropping off were staying in pyramid tents for the next few weeks. They were taking rock samples from the exposed slopes of these mountains. Most of the mountains were buried under two thousand metres of ice,  with another two thousand feet left sticking out above.

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the mountains had peaks and valleys with small glaciers flowing downhill. Also dotted around the landscape were smaller, more isolated Nunataks. Then in some areas of the range were huge plateaus, themselves covered with ice, like a miniature version of the Antarctic plateau itself, rising another few hundred metres above the rock.

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So far so good but now the journey gets cooler. For the trip back I was the co-pilot. This meant I actually got to fly the plane back to Halley!  Mark, the pilot, put me at my ease and was quick to point out that there wasn’t anything I could do that he couldn’t take care of immediately, gave me a quick lesson and handed over the controls. Now, I’m not going to pretend I was doing anything complicated, I was just keeping the aircraft at the right height, right speed, flying in the right direction (most of the time) and was the right way up in the sky but bloody hell – flying  a plane over Antarctica! That’s not something you get to do everyday is it?

On the way back we flew closer to the coast on our approach to Halley so I managed to get a good view of the rumples and the creeks before coming down into Halley and seeing the base and the surrounding area once again.

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So there you go, another anecdote that I’ll be telling over and over when I get back because it’s  bloody awesome – “this one time, I piloted a twin otter across Antarctica….”

 

Holiday Down by the Sea….

After being stuck in the ice just around the corner from us the R.S.S. Ernest Shackleton finally arrived down at the creeks near Halley. this meant the relief could begin and we could get all the food, materials, fuel and people for the next year up on station. Relief is the busiest time of year down here and we were going to do it twenty four hours a day in two twelve hour shifts. I was on the night shift and, as a welcome change, was down at the ship helping unload cargo.

The convoy of vehicles and sledges set off down to the coast to be greeted by the sight of the Shack, moored up against the remaining sea ice about a kilometre from the shelf edge.

RSS Ernest Shcakleton against the sea ice

The cargo was unloaded onto waiting sledges and then taken up to the ice shelf where the sledges were hooked together in trains and the pulled back to base.

Despite it being nighttime the sun was well up in the sky so the night shift aspect wasn’t actually to bad. Though shifting one thousand and seven hundred drums of fuel out of the ship for twelve hours was a bit full on.

IMG_0378-001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fuel Drums. Thousands of em…

IMG_0382-001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flip em over….

IMG_0383-001

 

 

 

 

 

Then sling em up and crane em out.

Anyway, despite the long hours and hard work it was great being down at the ship. Showers you could stay in for longer than five minutes, lots of fresh food and a a different view outside were all good. The ships crew were cool too.

adelie penguin

We got plenty of little visitors hanging around near the ship too.

Just before leaving the remaining 2014 winter team came down to the ship for a meal together and then we got ready to jump ship and wave the Shack off. However, just as we were set to leave the sea ice that had seemed so solid when we were loading eight tonne sledges onto it now began to break up. Pretty cool watching it all snap off. Although you know you are not really at the coast but rather just on the ice it still felt like it. When the ice began to break up it quickly began to feel like where we actually were – above deep dark ocean rather than at the seaside!

sea ice breaking up

 

 

 

 

 

antarctic sea ice breaking up

 

 

 

 

 

It was pretty freaky watching chunks of ice that still had your footprints on just disappear!

To actually get back onto the ice shelf the Shack had reverse out to sea and then ram, back into the sea ice, finding a spot that was solid enough not to break off. This took quite a few goes. We eventually got back to stable ice and the were hoisted off the deck and down onto the ice on the wor geordie – no idea how to spell that but it’s big donut with cargo netting attached that is hoisted up by the ships crane (with you hanging onto it). That was a pretty odd end to my stay on the ship.

Oh yeah – we also saw a Leopard Seal basking down on the ice. quite a rare visitor down at Halley.

Right now I’m back up on base and the place is busier than ever – and I’m still adjusting to that!