Saturday, December 30, 2006

Christmas in the Ice

Snow Petrel

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken--
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

Sea Ice Through a Porthole

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which has provided material for many of the blog entries, again captures the sense of desolation that being in the midst of the Antarctic can inspire, along with the noises that permeate through the ship as the hull grinds slowly through the heavy ice pack. As is clear possibly from this entry, the ship is not quite where it was expected to be; as I wrote the entry last time it appeared that we were less than twenty-four hours from our destination. Around eighty nautical miles out we encountered heavy ice that meant that Christmas was spent sitting conserving fuel, waiting for the conditions to improve. and ideally a 'lead' to appear to take us close to the site for the relief of Halley.

Ship's Course Through the Ice
Intended route is along the red line heading down the screen

The major problem has been second-year ice that has been broken about in storms across the winter, piled up on top of itself and then re-frozen providing a challenge for even this ship. These links provide a glossary to some of the terms used in respect of sea ice and some more information about how sea ice forms. Icebergs are different in that they are generally parts of glaciers or ice shelves that have broken off into the sea and are generally higher than five metres, hence these are avoided, though being freshwater they provide excellent ice cubes.

A Sunstar in the East

As a result it has been one of the most memorable Christmas celebrations I can remember, though for complicated reasons relating to work, Christmas lunch was on the 27th. Celebrations all kicked off with carol singing, though given the eerie twenty-four hour daylight, it does not quite have the same atmosphere at 10 o'clock at night. Any similarities to a Guantanamo Bay exercise yard were dispelled by the strong Welsh voices of Evans, Evans and Evans.

Carol Singing on the Fo'c'sle

Just as we were getting used to the isolation, we were treated on Christmas day to a fly-past by one of the BAS Twin Otters working out of Halley. It had flown up to see whether they could identify any leads or easier sites for the ship's passage. It was co-piloted by the current Halley Doctor, Vicki, which at the moment is about as close as I have come to meeting her.

Twin Otter Fly-Past

It has been unusual not to be spending Christmas in a hospital and has made me appreciate the surroundings all the more. Lunch on the 27th was a quite spectacular blow-out where the cooks all showed off their abilities. Given that there are two ship's cooks along with summer (Issy) and wintering (Antony) chefs for Halley, there was quite an impressive array of food, all the more so given the remoteness of our location.

The View on Christmas Day

Food generally on the ship can be a pitfall, it is not unknown for people to gain two stone during a short time on board. Ships still provision for the heavy labour that would have been involved not that long ago on merchant vessels; the fried breakfasts, snacks at smoko and excellent meals provide a trap for the undisciplined. All the more so given the furthest I may walk in a day is up four flights of stairs. (For the record and before I receive abusive emails- I have lost weight on the journey down!).

The Shackleton Alongside a Floe

With Christmas a rapidly fading memory, there has been time to get off the ship. Though sea ice can be treacherous (falling through ice into water at -2°C is not ideal), the captain managed to find some large floes of reliable thickness, for the ship to sit alongside while the we kept ourselves occupied with training sessions on the ice, including 'doo school to ensure we passed the proficiency tests prior to using the ubiquitous ski-doos at Halley.

'Doo School

My main transferable skill is teaching First Aid, so as a precursor to the winter DocSchool, the time has been filled with more training for those interested. Not surprisingly attempting to suture chickens back together has become a popular diversion.

Stevie B (Ship's Radio Officer) Performs Life Saving Surgery on a Frozen Chicken

Even though I have only been away about nine weeks now, it is easy to get blasé about the fantastic environment in which I am working. However, there can be few people who have the opportunity to learn the basics of field work, such as rope work and using ice axes, on the middle of an ice floe in the middle of nowhere with only Emperor penguins for company.

Emperor Penguins

They are so un-used to seeing other creatures on the ice and so inquisitive, though we are keen to ensure we do not disturb them by keeping a wide berth, they will waddle over or slide on their bellies to examine any activity, before disappearing off into the sea. None of these photos give an idea of their size, which is about three to four feet tall. The photo below demonstrates sea ice in the foreground with the cliffs, which rise to about 50 metres high, form part of the Stancomb-Wills ice stream, part of the Antarctic continent.

More Emperors

Saturday, December 23, 2006

All play and no work...

As we head into the ice, looking back over my previous entries, it would be easy to infer that the trip has been all play and no work. It has not been the most arduous two months of work and there has been the opportunity to visit some incredible places, nonetheless there has been work to do. Hence this entry will focus on some of the work I am involved in on the ship.

Into the Ice

The ships surgery is well equipped and is set up not only for a doctor but also for a dentist. For though all the docs receive some basic dental first aid training, the ship is used to carry a dentist to do check-ups and any necessary work on those who are spending two winters on any of the British Antarctic bases. Along with a comprehensive range of drugs and medical kit, we also carry an x-ray machine, at which point the bathroom, which is usually used to store essential emergency kit, is transformed into a darkroom for wet processing. Part of the pre-deployment training involves learning basic radiography and I have already had to put that into practise. The surgery contains the only bath on the ship- not so that the doctor can keep clean!- but for re-warming any potential hypothermic casualties. (It is in the bottom photo, filled with stretchers and splints).

Surgery (above) and Bathroom (below) on the Shackleton

Emergency drills form part of the routine for the whole ship and it is the doctor's role to lead the First Aid Party. The pictures below are from when 'Bob' (the 50kg dummy), yet again had to be rescued from an engine room fire. Alongside the drills, there is plenty of scope for teaching first aid to both the crew and FIDS and this is forms part of the pre-Halley briefing sessions that are taking place at the moment on the ship. The photos below also feature Charlotte, who as the out-going South Georgia doctor, is hitching a lift to the Falklands via Halley.

First Aid Drills

As we passed through the sub-Antarctic islands, as well as looking after the crew and FIDS on board, the stations without a permanent medical presence, which are either very small (such as Bird Island) or summer-only (such as Signy), invariably required some medical input. This has meant great opportunities to get ashore as well as the occasional need to improvise.

Dental Work at Bird Island

However, the major reason BAS exists is for science and though the Shackleton is primarily a support and logistics vessel, it participates in some science work. One of those projects, which I have got involved in, has been the use of Expendable Bathythermography (XBT) as part of a long-standing study of polynya formation in the Weddell sea. (More about polynyas). These are single-use temperature probes fired off the aft deck of the ship, which are used to record water temperature to a depth of around half a mile. 'Fire' would be an exaggeration for the probes, reputedly designed for use from submarines and despite their large canister size and impressive launcher, left with nothing more exciting than a loud 'plop'.

Launching the XBT Probe
featuring Wavey Davey (Shackleton A/B) , Isa (Z Summer-Chef) and myself

Meanwhile the in-coming wintering Halley Met Team (meteorology assistants who all chant the phrase 'we are observers, not predictors', to abdicate any responsibility when asked what the weather is going to do!), continue their measurements, which are relayed back to the Met Office outside Exeter. There the information is fed into climate models run with significant computing power to attempt to predict global weather patterns both in the short and longer term. The data collected from the ship can be viewed here.

Dave (Z-Met) on the Monkey Island with the Meterology Kit

We are into the ice and should be at Halley in time for Christmas, as long as we do not get stuck.

Best Wishes for a Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

Icebergs off Signy

After some hard labour at Signy, it has been back on the ship and onto South Georgia, leaving the icebergs behind. The first stop was to the smallest year-round BAS base on Bird Island. This lies off the north of the main bulk of South Georgia and is an important site, since the main island is overrun with rats introduced on the whaling ships. These cause havoc with the ground-nesting birds such as the albatrosses and petrels, such that Bird Island is now a major refuge for a wide variety of bird species.

No photos can recreate quite how special this place is, the approach in one of the fast small boats off the Shackleton is incredible. The water is alive with fur seals everywhere and the air is filled with huge flying creatures, the cliffs that rise to form the backdrop give the impression akin to the approach to Jurassic Park. As for the smell of guano and hormonal fur seals ....

The Base at Bird Island

The photo demonstrates well the beach covered in fur seals. They are all fiercely territorial, either on the beach or the thick tussock grass that covers the island behind which they seem to hide. Bites are not uncommon with a high risk of subsequent infection since they carry as yet un-characterised bacteria at high levels in their mouths. The only tactics to avoid an assault are to walk up the streams and dissuade the more aggressive with a tickle of their whiskers using a long stick. Not everyone got away problem free.

Bird Island with Wandering Albatrosses

It was a busy day for me, as unfortunately our dentist has had to return home, I spent the day doing basic dental check-ups for those in between two winters in case their is a problem with a dentist getting in later in the season. There was however, time to walk a small way up the island to see some of the nesting birds including the enormous Wandering Albatross pairs which way up to 12 kg and have a wingspan of nearly 3 metres (see previous photo).

Nesting Wandering Albatross

After an exhausting twelve hours on the island it was an overnight sail to the base at King Edward Point (KEP), on South Georgia. This is the only inhabited bit of the island and lies next to Grytviken, a former Norwegian whaling station and famously the site where Shackleton finally made contact with civilisation again on his ill-fated trans-Antarctic expedition. Apart from a permanent BAS presence involved in fisheries research for the South Georgia Government (an overseas territory of the UK), there are a few museum staff for the whaling museum- as there are almost daily cruise ships- along with a government officer, who oversees the cruise and fishing ships.

Grytviken (Mount Hodges in the background and elephant seals to the fore)

Shackleton, as a great self-publicist and adventurer, reminds me in many ways of Cecil Rhodes, whom I have always admired if for nothing else his choice of location of his grave in the Matopos, outside Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. Shackleton similarly is buried in one of the most incredible spots on earth, for South Georgia with its wildlife, glacial mountains, icebergs and bays exceeds all superlatives.

The Obverse to Ernest Shackleton's Grave

Again, after a morning of work mainly with supplies and science equipment for the base, there was an opportunity to explore more of the island. It also provided me with a chance to catch up with Melanie, one of the other doctors with whom I have spent the last six months training and will be spending the year working at KEP. She took me over to Maivyken, as you can see despite the glaciers and penguins, it was more than warm enough for shorts and t-shirts.

The Road to Maivyken

Along with more fur seals there were more penguin species to admire. The Gentoo penguins are sub-Antarctic penguins and are populace on South Georgia along with the Falklands. Though not predated upon by the fur seals with whom they nest in close proximity, they do tend to be menaced by them.

Gentoo Penguins

The distribution of King Penguins on the other hand extends down the Antarctic peninsula, they are different however from the Emperor Penguins by their smaller size (up to one metre tall) and the distinct yellow-orange patches on the side of their head, which meets underneath the chin. Again South Georgia forms a major breeding ground for these penguins. As for the Emperors, they are true Antarctic penguins and a colony lies close to Halley, which provides a special opportunity to see them.

King Penguin with Rusting Whalers at Grytviken

A day was not nearly long enough but it is a great privilege to visit, let alone work in such a place. As we left, I did wonder what an unique place South Georgia would have been to spend a year as a doctor. As for my journey now and with no real regrets, we sail on; I have spent nearly two months on the ship but the cold one is now not far away.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Drake's Passage and beyond

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;

We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

Cape Petrels in Drake's Passage

It has been only a three day sail from the Falklands to Signy, south into the Antarctic. Though there were no icebergs, this was made up for by the abundance of albatross. There were even a few Wandering Albatross, the bird with the world's greatest wingspan but now heavily threatened by long-line fishing (more info). Bird Island, our next call after Signy, forms an important nesting point for these enormous birds which can soar hundreds of miles with minimal exertion.

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came ;

Black-browed (l) and Wandering (r) Albatross

However, the appearance of icebergs was announced in the early hours of the day of our arrival at Signy as I was woken by a resounding judder as we hit the first of our sea-ice. Like a group of small children there was an excited rush to the decks with cameras and warm clothing; it has quickly changed from the shorts and sandals that were de rigeur only a week or so ago.

Signy Research Station

Signy is a small sub-Antarctic island that forms, along with Coronation Island, part of the South Orkney Islands, at the tip of the Antarctic peninslua, lying within the British Antarctic Territory. It now forms a summer-only station and is a site for mainly biological science research. It has no doctor, so part of my role is to deal with any medical problems that have arisen and ensure the medical and emergency supplies are adequately stocked.

Coronation Island (click on photo to enlarge)

With the medical bits of the way, there was plenty of other work to help out with. Though the base had been running for a while, the ship calls to re-supply with fuel and food, as well as bringing a large team to blitz major maintenance projects.

Photoquiz time, what is odd about the photo below? There is a picture clue at the end of the blog entry.

Work at Signy

I, along with a group of other FIDS ended up helping to transport the components for a large shed on the Gourlay Peninsula a site of several large penguin colonies, where the shed is used as a base for the science that takes place there. This involved insertion by Tula (the Shackleton's cargo tender), then hard physical labour over the rocks and up a hillside. Hard exercise and work is more than welcome after being cooped up in a ship, all the more so surrounded by thousands of penguins, however foul smelling. We were fortunate that Mike, one of the BAS penguin scientists, gave us a tour round the work they do and the two different penguin species on the peninsula, before being taken out by boat again.

Gourlay Peninsula (the hut lies to the far left of the picture)

Nesting Chinstrap Penguins

Adélie Penguins

Having successfully completed most of the work, we sail north again to Bird Island. Though this may seem paradoxical, the sea ice that forms in the Weddell Sea is almost impenetrable, so the ship will head a long way east over the next few weeks before cutting back in to reach Halley. Follow the ship's daily progress here. As for the photoquiz, the resident elephant seals are camouflaged well against all the cement and building debris.

Elephant Seals at Work

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Falkland Islands

After a short run down the coast of South America, we stopped again at the Falkland Islands. The Islands, particularly Stanley, are used by BAS as a gateway into the Antarctic. The bulk of personnel are flown in on the RAF air bridge from Brize Norton along with commercial flights from the UK, before flying onwards on BAS aircraft to Rothera Station in the Antarctic.

The Wreck of Lady Elizabeth, Stanley

As the Shackleton acts predominantly as a supply ship, there was plenty of cargo to be taken off and brought on. This means that everybody gets involved with various operations.

Stevedores for the Ernest Shackleton in Mare Harbour
(L-R: Me (Z-Doc), Pete Milner (Z- Winter Base Commander), Andy (Z- Plant Mech), Jim (R- Boatman)

There was, nonetheless, plenty of time for a run ashore and explore the area around Stanley, which feels like a rural New Zealand town, given the buildings, size and waterfront. The count
ryside is rolling moorland filled with sheep and a complete absence of trees. The whole of the Falklands is surrounded by various wrecks not least in the harbour around Stanley itself.

Christ Church Cathedral, Stanley

It would not be possible to visit the islands without visiting some of the battlefields, though there are area from which mines are yet to be cleared. Given the great weather, which probably showed the islands off in their best light, given their reputation for rain, rain and more rain, we made the most of it by exploring the area around
Tumbledown Mountain, where one of the last battles took place prior to the fall of Stanley almost 25 years ago. The area still has an eerie quality given the nine British and thirty Argentinian soldiers who lost their lives.

Memorial atop Tumbledown with Stanley in the distance

360° View from Tumbledown Mountain (click on photo to enlarge)

The Falklands also gave the first chance to see penguins this trip; most of the population I saw inhabit York Bay close to Stanley, where the Argentinian conscripts dropped most of their anti-personnel mines as soon as they came ashore. As a result the area is a large minefield (the close-up is in the adjacent bay with a long zoom- I was not putting myself at great risk for a shot of a penguin!)

Magellanic Penguins

From here we sail briefly into Antarctic waters to stop at Signy, a BAS summer-only base in the South Orkneys, to relieve the base and to assist with building work.