Monday, December 26, 2005

The big day - arrival

At last we arrived at the Antarctic coast. Unfortunately, due to a lack of sea ice at the favoured locations we moored up at N9, about 65km from Halley, which meant unloading the ship would take much longer as it's a 6 hour trip in a snocat. Halley sits on the Brunt Ice Shelf, which is not part of the Antarctic mainland, but is still about 100 metres thick, so fairly stable. Where the ice shelf meets the sea it usually ends in a very high cliff, which is no good for getting off a ship. As a result we need to find a creek with some sea ice in order to be able to create a ramp up to the ice shelf. As the sea ice is much thinner we need to be sure it is stable enough to moor the ship to. In order to check this, the ship simply rams itself into the sea ice, breaking off any weak ice and hopefully leaving only the good stuff. This was incredible to watch as we careered toward the coastline, beached ourselves on the ice, then broke through, reversed, and went again. We did this for about an hour, while bewildered penguins and seals scattered about, not quite sure what to do about this big red pointy thing bearing down on them. Once we'd cleared ourselves a space drilling teams went out onto the ice to make holes and put in mooring stakes which the ship tied up to.

Run away!

Drilling mooring holes

In the evening we had Christmas carols with mince pies and mulled wine on the fo'c'sle (pointy end). This proved highly entertaining, it took us a good two minutes to realise we were singing Once in Royal Davids City to the tune of Hark the Herald Angels Sing..... After a few more glasses of mulled wine no-one was really that bothered though, and we got through about a dozen carols and generally felt very festive. *hic*

Christmas Carols on the Shackleton

The following day I was up early as I was due to fly up to base. At last I'd get to see the fabled and much talked about Halley V. Having loaded up a sledge with some cargo we clambered on board to be towed by a snocat along the sea ice and up the ramp to the departure point. We got a last view of the ship moored up by the sea ice as we bid a farewell to the Shackleton. Up on the ice shelf we waited, and finally saw the plane, a speck in the distance as it came in to land. Once the plane had stopped we loaded the fresh food from our sledge onto the plane. Our plane was a De Havilland Twin Otter, which is a fairly small twin prop craft, about the size of a large transit van inside. Once the food was on we squeezed our way up to the seats toward the front. There were five passengers on the flight, with one acting as co-pilot, so we weren't too squashed in the back. We could see straight through to the cockpit which looked like something out of a WWII film. Takeoff is quite an experience as the engines have to be revved hard in order to break free the skis which by now have frozen to the snow, then it was a bumpy and exhilarating ride to get airborne. We did a brief loop to get a last view of the ship and then headed off. We had a fantastic view of the coastline, also passing over the Rumples, a heavily crevassed formation in the ice not far from Halley. After just 15 minutes we were on finals for Halley. First impressions from the air were of a lot very small spaced out dots on the snow. We were met by another snocat, and after unloading the plane were ferried to our new home. Despite having seen all the pictures and read the descriptions nothing had quite prepared me for arrival at Halley. Everything was much larger than I had imagined, all the buildings much further apart. On arrival at the Laws building we were given a very brief tour and basic safety briefing, then instructed to relax for a while. In true BAS style it wasn't long before we were being fed...... I found my room, and met Mike, the current Comms Manager who I'm taking over from. Everyone was very friendly, especially considering we were interrupting their 8 months of relative peace.

Twin Otter aircraft

In all the excitement I wasn't very tired so stayed up late to lend a hand with some cargo, and also managed to get a brief lesson and my first go on a skidoo. I finally crashed out wondering what tomorrow would bring, after what seemed a very long day indeed!

Home for the next 15 months

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Final Leg

After Bird Island, we were now on the final leg of our journey, a 10 day sail to the edge of the Brunt Ice Shelf. Luckily we had plenty to keep ourselves occupied on the way down. On Al the Chef's birthday the girls made a range of cocktails which everyone enjoyed. We had a quiz night organised by Nathan, kicking off with a viewing of his star appearance on Weakest Link, which he won! I think he was trying to set a standard. Our team came a creditable third, despite only getting about two right on the literature round. We also had an acoustic night in the bar where the more talented members of the party played and sang a very wide range of numbers in the bar , much to everyone's appreciation. However, highlight of the social calendar was undoubtedly Race Night. This was advertised as Ladies Night, top hat and tails required! The whole day was spent by most people in a frenzy of costume making, cardboard, silver foil and gaffer tape everywhere. I cheated somewhat as I had a dinner suit with me (knew it would come in handy), but managed to make a silver cane out of a mop handle, and even topped it with a horse. The evening was great fun, betting was in 'Shackles' which were purchased beforehand. There was also the option to buy horses, which were raced round a course marked on the floor of the bar according to the spin of a wheel. I won on one race, but neither of the horses I owned came anywhere, one of them baulked at the water hazard 6 times!

All dressed up for Race Night

Apart from the socialising there was of course work to be done, we had a series of training sessions covering first aid, vehicles, harness checking and more, designed to complement what we learned in Cambridge before we left, as well as ship emergency drills. I also volunteered to help with a project launching probes off the back of the ship in order to measure sea temperature at different depths. This information was then sent off to the Met Office in England.

In amongst all this hectic activity I even managed to find time to test out the samba drums kindly donated by Bloco-Do-Sul ( Dorking's premier samba band rehearsals every Monday first two workshops free is that enough of a plug Mick?). After just a couple of hours a keen group of 12 amateurs had managed to put together a decent sounding batucada. Hopefully this is the first of many, as we hope to have some samba going on at Halley as well. We celebrated our success by playing out on the Poop Deck, luckily the sea was quite calm!

Shackleton sambistas

During this time we also passed 66 degrees south, into the proper Antarctic, and had our first days with no darkness. So far I haven't been affected, it'll take more than a bit of sunlight to stop me sleeping!

Sea ice and sunshine, about 1 am

Monday, December 19, 2005

KEP, Hound Bay and Bird Island

After a couple of days sailing we arrived at King Edward Point. I was on cleaning duties in the morning so didn't get to go ashore straight away. KEP is quite a small base like Signy, but just round the corner is the remains of an old whaling station, looking very strange, huge buildings and rusty old boats in the middle of the lovely scenery. Very interesting to walk round though, and imagine what it would have been like at it's peak. There's a small museum there covering a lot of the whaling history, along with a very detailed history of Shackleton's voyages, and some artefacts from his ship. Further round the bay there is a whalers cemetery, where Shackleton is also buried. Again there were more seals and penguins, although these seals were a bit more territorial, and believe me they can move pretty rapidly when they want to!

Grytviken whaling station and cemetery

Some fool suggested a game of football in the afternoon, quite interesting on a pitch that was either rocky or a marsh depending where you stood. There was a large tourist ship in as well so there were lots of rich Americans in matching red jackets, not sure what they made of the game.... In the evening the base hosted a barbecue, with the boat shed being converted in to a bar/disco/buffet/refuge from the cold.

The following day we were just round the corner at Hound Bay, where we were dropping off a science team. Considering it was only about 5 people for 3 months there was an incredible amount of cargo to move ashore so everyone was involved. This involved getting the cargo and several people into a landing craft, which then went ashore to be offloaded. While the cargo was manhauled from the landing point to the camp, I was detailed to dig a square hole, as deep as I could go. I can now proudly add Antarctic Toilet Engineer to my CV.

Reindeer at Hound Bay

Next we were a little further round to visit Bird Island, just off the tip of South Georgia. Again we were mostly shifting cargo ashore. This relatively simple task was made much more difficult by the local seal population. They completely covered the small beach and most of the jetty. On arrival we were each issued with a 'bodger'. This very technical name actually refers to a broom handle, which is used to fend off aggressive seals. As it was breeding season there were a lot of boisterous males about. We had an interesting time, two people trying to pull a cart load of cargo across a shingle beach, surrounded by a phalanx of bodger wielding bodyguards. Things weren't made any easier when the handle on the cart broke, but luckily the base handyman effected a quick repair and we were soon underway again. We were also lucky enough to see a seal being born, I half expected to look round and see David Attenborough with a film crew.

Swimming seals

Back at the ship, my new cabin mate had unwittingly nicked my bed. Not wishing to wake him up at 2am I decided to take the recently vacated top bunk, and in my efforts to leap athletically up for a well earned nights rest I promptly broke the table. Oh well, something to do tomorrow.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Signy Island

On our way down to Halley we stop off at a few other bases to deliver supplies, collect rubbish, or pick up and drop off people. The first of these was Signy Island, in the South Orkneys. We arrived in the evening, but anchored up a little way out as we were not due ashore until the next day. Having been breaking through sea ice most of the day there was much speculation as to whether we'd get onto the base, but the bay seemed very clear. Up early to go ashore, we were taken a few at a time in one of the ship's outboard ribs. It was quite strange to see the ship disappearing, but the scenery was quite spectacular. There were some large bergs in the bay, and as we skirted these we could see the base coming into view. It's strange to suddenly see a collection of large green sheds in the middle of a remote and very wintry scene.

Welcome to Signy

Having been welcomed ashore by Steve the Base Commander, we were free to have a look around. One of the guys invited me to come and see the 'pets'. We strolled round the front of the main building to be confronted by a dozen elephant seals lounging about making loud belching noises. Never again will I complain about smelly dogs, these things are incredibly pungent, I wouldn't fancy having one in the house. They seemed fairly unconcerned by us though. I suppose any argument between a human and a 1 ton seal is a foregone conclusion, and after all they were there first. Exploring the base didn't take long so I lent a hand digging out some old pipe that was encased in snow and ice. Apparently shovelling snow is something you soon get used to when working for BAS.....

Signy Base

After lunch there was a walk organised, so a bunch of us hiked up the hill behind the bay to explore. The view from the top was breathtaking, with the base way down below, the ship out at anchor, and some stunning scenery over the other side of the water. We explored quite a way, seeing plenty more elephant seals, and the odd fur seal and a few penguins. It's all starting to look very antarctic now, and everywhere we looked the view was better than before.

Out for a stroll

Ship at anchor

Next day we were due to go ashore again but the sea ice had come into the bay very quickly so it was decided we'd better be on our way. Next stop King Edward Point on South Georgia.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Making waves

On the morning of our departure I was volunteered to help out. The ship needed to be turned around so the crew could test one of the landing craft, so four of us went ashore to cast off lines while the ship turned. I don't think I impressed any of the crew with my rope skills..... It was very impressive to watch the ship turn though, it's incredibly maneouvrable for such a large vessel, just pulled out sideways from the quay, turned 180 degrees and came back in. We departed in the afternoon, and after a quick safety brief were pretty much left to our own devices.

Life on board is very good, we have an excellent galley serving full cooked breakfasts and a huge array of dishes for lunch and dinner, a lounge/bar to relax in with a well stocked beer fridge. You take what you want, tick it off on your sheet and it comes off your account. This provides an excellent way of not knowing how much you're spending on beer..... There are two quieter rooms where people tend to read or play cards or chess, also a couple of TV's with a large selection of videos and DVDs to choose from. There's even a gym in the hold, and I've been to it twice, although the rowing machine is a little too authentic in rough seas.

So far I've had no problems with seasickness, although we've only had a couple of rough days so I think we've been pretty lucky. The ship has a kind of figure of eight motion in the water which is quite hard to predict, so moving about can be tricky. There are stories of people being thrown out of their bunks in the middle of the night but so far I've been OK. The ship moves around much less when there's sea ice around. Although not an ice breaker, the ship is ice strengthened, and moves very easily through what looks like very thick ice. Everyone got very excited when we saw our first icebergs in the distance, then a few hours later we were surrounded buy them!

First bergs

Breaking through the sea ice

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Stanley and the Falklands

After the drive from the airport to Stanley, about an hour on interesting roads, complemented by an even more interesting driving style, we arrived to be billeted. I ended up in a bungalow with four other guys. We immediately set about exploring the local pubs places of interest. Stanley is a small place so we soon knew our way around. There's not a huge amount to do, and we ended up spending about a week there, but luckily had a few diversions. I spent a day at Stanley airport in the radio tower, trying to reminnd myself what I was supposed to have learned on the radio courses. There were two or three light aircraft back and forth all day, acting as a kind of taxi service between remote farms and other islands. We got to see the BAS Dash 7 aircraft come in, bringing people out from Rothera.

We managed to see a couple of bands during the week. Stanley's best known band are called the Fighting Pigs, and have their own purpose built venue out of town, an excellent night in a packed venue. The guitarist also has another band, a much more low key affair, who played in one of the pubs. Met many strange characters in Stanley, including a bunch of Kiwis who had just canoed round South Georgia. The things some people do for entertainment.......

One morning a couple of guys suggested a walk up Mount Tumbledown. "Nothing too strenuous." Their idea of strenuous and mine are vastly different. It was well worth it though as we had a great view of Stanley and the harbour. The following day we had an invite to look round the RFA ship Grey Rover. Essentially it's a giant floating tanker, currently employed supporting HMS Southampton. The visit consisted of three hours in the ship's bar with a 20 minute tour of the vessel. Terribly hospitable these naval types.

View back to Stanley from Tumbledown.

We joined our ship, RRS Ernest Shackleton, a couple of days before we were due to sail. The ship was moored up at Mare Harbour, so it was an hour coach ride either way in to Stanley. We had a couple of nights at Mount Pleasant base, availing ourselves of their facilities, principally the bowling alley and the pool tables. Also had a walk out to a nearby bay and saw my first wild penguin! (Wild it was absolutely livid etc etc) Looked a bit lost all on his own but someone said they saw a colony a bit further up.

Next it was time to depart and on to stage 2 of the trip, conquering the high seas......

Travelling out

Having had all the months of training and a chance to get a holiday and several farewells in, I was finally on the move. Mick kindly gave me a lift to Brize Norton and, after giving the RAF the benefit of his wisdom on airport layout and security arrangements, dropped me and my bags off at the terminal. Any worries about being late were quickly quashed as we sat around for a few hours before getting a coach to the airfield we were actually flying from. We were loaded onto an unmarked white aeroplane, all very strange. I briefly wondered if we were the aerial equivalent of White Van Man, screeching up behind other aircraft, flashing headlights and honking horn to get them out of the way. In the end it was a fairly unremarkable flight, consisting of two 9 hour stints, with a break at Ascension in the middle. We whiled away the hours wondering what all the loose wiring in the cabin was for, and how a dead spider had managed to get between the two panes of glass in the window. On landing at Mount Pleasant Airport at the Falklands we were accompanied down by two Tornadoes, looking impressive as they appeared first on one wing tip, then the other. Then it was onto a coach for the drive to Stanley to find our accommodation.


Hello there, welcome to my diary of events. I'll try and keep it updated fairly frequently unless I'm interrupted by something important like beer or music. If you've just stumbled in and are wondering what the hell this is all about, I'm on my way down to the Antarctic for a year and a bit, working for the British Antarctic Survey. It promises to be a fascinating experience. Having gone through 4 months of training it's good to be finally on the way, and this seems a good way to keep in touch with friends and family. I'm sure I'll miss you all loads, and can't wait to bore you to death with endless stories and slide shows on my return.

Happy reading