Sunday, August 13, 2006

Off to see the neighbours

The main theme of the last few weeks has been penguins, as this is the time of year when we get to go down and visit the local colony. This involves a short snocat ride to Windy Creek, one of our local holiday spots, then a walk to the edge of the ice shelf before abseiling down to the sea ice. Initially, however, I was worried that there wouldn't be any trips at all. Simon and Andy went down first to check out the condition of the abseil point and the sea ice to ensure it would be safe for everyone else. Protocol dictates that whenever anyone goes down to the sea ice they radio the base to inform us that they're going down, and to get the latest weather information. Simon and Andy radioed to say that they were heading down, so we got on with our day and waited for them to call in to confirm that they were back up. And we waited. And we waited. And people started checking watches, and looking keenly at the temperature and wind speed monitors. And after it got to a few hours after their scheduled call time, and we were just on the verge of setting in motion our Search and Rescue procedures, we happily spotted skidoo headlights on the horizon. As it turns out they had a run of bad luck with radio batteries, which seem to last no time at all in the cold down here, and of course had been perfectly fine all day, but it served to remind us just how dependent we are upon each other down here, and just how quickly things could all go horribly wrong.

A couple of days after those initial checks I got the opportunity to go on a penguin trip. This involved a fairly early start to pack bags, make a packed lunch, and load a sledge with spare clothing, tents, camping gear, and enough food to feed several armies in case we found ourselves trapped by the weather for any length of time. With seven of us packed rather cosily into a snocat we headed off to Windy. On arrival we got ourselves togged up in climbing harnesses, attached to which were all manner of clips, karabiners, jumar devices, ropes and assorted jangly things.

Everything you need for a day out at the seaside

Having doubled our bodyweight with equipment we then roped up for the walk to the cliff edge. There is a small risk of people disappearing down crevasses when walking close to the edge of the ice shelf, so we travelled in two groups, attached to each other by rope. The abseil down to the sea ice wasn't as bad as I had feared as the snow being blown off the ice shelf had formed a ramp down to the bottom so we were effectively just walking backwards down a slope.

Brian prepares to abseil down to the sea ice

Simon pointed out various features and potential dangers of the sea ice on the walk over to the colony, and it was very strange to think that just a metre or so below our feet was the icy cold water of the Weddell Sea. We'd seen the penguin colony as a black blob in the distance when we abseiled down, but now up close we could see there were several thousand birds all huddled together in a group. At first they seemed determined to ignore us, but once we'd settled down and sat still for a while some of them came over to check out the visitors. The best tactic for getting close to a penguin seems to be to lie still and let them come to you, as any movement on our part soon had them scurrying back to the safety of the group. On this occasion all the penguins were males, dutifully looking after their eggs as the females were all away feeding, so they moved around quite slowly, trying not to dislodge the egg balanced precariously on their feet. We've probably all seen penguins at the zoo, splashing about in a pool or behind glass in a temperature controlled environment, but to see so many of them this close in their natural habitat was like being on a nature documentary, but without the annoying voice-over. I think if penguins ever write an encyclopaedia the entry for humans will definitely make mention of their one small eye and one really big strangely shaped eye, the easiest way to tell them apart being if their big eye is labelled Canon or Nikon.

The penguin skyline

They seemed unimpressed with the new friend I brought for them

"I wonder if it's edible?"

The snow blows off the ice shelf on the sea ice forming interesting shapes

After about an hour and several thousand photos (the joys of digital photography) with the penguins we headed back across the sea ice for the climb back up to the top. This proved rather trickier than the descent even with the aid of the rope, the main problem being that as soon as you kicked a foot hold in the snow and tried to haul yourself up the snow just crumbled away beneath you, sending you slithering back down. Eventually we all managed to get back up and headed back to the snocat for the trip home. All in all it was a fantastic day, not in the sense that anything particularly dramatic happened, but just the chance to get off base for a while, see some scenery, and see some wildlife other than the 15 people you live with.

I've since been on a second trip down to see the colony, the main difference on the second occasion being that some chicks had hatched and could be seen poking their heads out from under parents brood pouches.

The advance guard were sent to meet us on the second trip.

A baby chick pokes his head out for a look

"What do you think of it so far?"

"You ain't seen me. Roight?"

Me and some new friends

The other big event of late has been the return of the sun. You may remember that Liz, as oldest member on base, had the privilege of lowering our Union Flag when the sun disappeared over the horizon back at the end of April, so Kirsty as youngest person got to raise the new one for sunup. Unfortunately it was rather cloudy on the 10th so we didn't actually see the sun until the following day, the top of the disc just peeping over the horizon to the north, but already we seem to have much more light throughout the day. You get used to the seasons changing quite slowly back at home but here it seems a very quick transition from 24 hour daylight to 24 hour darkness and back again.

Kirsty raises the new flag over the Laws building.

First glimpse of the sun over the horizon

With the increased light comes the opportunity to get all those outdoor jobs done that are impractical during the weeks of darkness. We've been out raising the drum lines which mark our perimeter boundary and show the way to the cabooses on the coast, I've been attempting to reattach an HF aerial which got broken in the high winds, and sledges which have been slowly getting buried in the snow have been coaxed in to a new position via the application of a bulldozer and winch. One of the harder sledges to shift was the Halley 6 sledge, which was brought down over the summer to test the design for the new Halley base due to replace this one in the next couple of years. The last attempt to move it resulted in a snapped winch cable, so this time we employed two dozers, 5 shovel wielding people and an entire afternoon which eventually saw it give in and slide grudgingly a few feet forward.

A very buried sledge

Finally persuaded to move

The kiting fanatics have also seized the opportunity to get out again when the contrast is good, and a few of us have been out skiing as well. On the indoor entertainment front the Halley band is coming on in leaps and bounds, we now have quite a few songs in our repertoire, despite limited equipment resources.

Improvised drum kit

We've also had another couple of birthdays. Bob our generator mechanic turned 40, which was celebrated with cake and champagne, and a weekend party where everyone had to come as a famous person called Bob. As usual some excellent costumes, the highlight for me being the newly formed Halley bobsleigh team. Kirsty turned 22 as well, so Vicki made an enormous pyramid of fairy cakes and candles, most of which disappeared very quickly.

L-R: Bob Holness, Robert Plant, Bobby Ewing, Blackadder Bob, Bob Marley, Bob the Builder, Bobby Charlton, Bob Marley II, someone who's been robbed, Bob a Job boy, Birthday Bob, Chris

Front: Bobsleigh Team

I've just started another week of nights so it's back to nightly weather observations, cleaning and maybe a bit of baking if I'm feeling brave.


Blogger Frances said...

Loved the crossaints. More... More...

5:36 pm  
Anonymous Dave said...

What hoh DA! Wakey, wakey - sun's up!
What's cooking chef - done those fancy french pastries yet? Come on the morning watch is gaspin' for 'em!!
Nice to see y'all are well and getting a suntan again!
see ya....Shakin'

9:39 pm  
Blogger Dave Down South said...

Hey there Shakin, how's tricks? Dunno about pastries, managed some doughnuts last night, I'll save you a couple for the FU when I get back......

3:30 am  

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