Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Escape From Station

Emperor Penguin and Chick

For at least the last four, if not five, months our lives have been confined to our small part of the Antarctic circumscribed by the perimeter of empty fuel drums. Apart from the seventeen other people on base, none of us have seen another living thing since a pair of Wilson's Storm Petrels were seen fluttering around one of the cabooses six months ago. That has all changed in the last few weeks.

The 4Km Marker on Skis

The rapid return of daylight, the quantity of which increases by 20 minutes every day, has meant that it has become feasible again to ski a short way off base to the 4km marker. Its name is confusing since it acts as a marker for the planes navigating a descent onto the skiway and as such it is probably closer to 6km from the Laws. Though not a particularly taxing 45 minute ski each way, the excitement comes from heading off into the Antarctic, with nothing but ice as far as the eye can see, met by a cloudless azure sky. Though it is a featureless trip, punctuated only by sparsely dotted flags to mark the way, the thrill comes from the escape from the station and the steady rhythm of skis cutting across sastrugi.

More Emperors

However, better was yet to come. Halley is fortunate that it lies close to one of the 50-odd Emperor penguin colonies dotted around the continent. There are only two species of penguin found in the Antarctic itself- Adélies and Emperors- with the latter found nowhere else. The colony lies at Windy Bay (see map), some 20Km off station to the north-west and trips out to see them is one of the highlights of the year here following Midwinter.

Penguin Tracks on the Sea Ice
Footprints are often scoured by the wind such that they stand proud of the snow

The penguins have been out at Windy since late April to May, when they mated and subsequently the males have been incubating the eggs through the darkness. It is not hard to imagine the miserable weather that they have endured as we have lived through the same period, but to survive it almost stationary whilst protecting their single precious egg from the icy ground, without the benefit of central heating and regular warm food is all the more remarkable.

Yet More Penguins

Just how poor and fickle the weather can be is demonstrated by attempts to visit the penguins. I was fortunate to be scheduled on the second day trip to see them about 10 days ago on a Sunday. The possibility of a trip requires the combination of warmish temperatures (that is warmer than -35°C-otherwise vehicles will not run), good visibility and low wind. Unfortunately the latter two tend to be associated with poor cloud cover, which in turn is associated with warm temperatures. It requires a special day for all three features to come together successfully.

Attempt No 1- Restarting Very Cold Skidoos
Sune and I attempt to pull-start skidoos at Windy after a rapid drop in temperature (photo thanks to Dave Evans)

On the first attempt, the weather was too cold to take a Sno-Cat, which will refuse to operate below -30°C, so we took skidoos. However, the temperature plummeted beyond an acceptable operating temperature even for the 'doos and we had to turn back at the cliff edge in sight of the colony.

Attempt No 2- Heading Back to the Laws
Loss of contrast puts an end to the second attempt

The second attempt looked like reasonable conditions but a rapid deterioration in contrast meant this time we did not even got off base. Despite having all the kit packed and ready to go, it takes at least a couple of hours to warm vehicles, lash sledges and general faff, so even an aborted trip is not without an investment of time.

A Young Chick

Fortunately, it was third time lucky; given that I have been on nightwatch again, I was roused from my bed after half an hour and despite the lack of sleep it is not easy to turn down such an opportunity. A couple of hours of faff and a ninety minute Sno-Cat ride later, the five of us found ourselves on the cliffs at Windy able to see the colony as a dark line a couple of kilometres out on the sea ice but also could hear the gentle chatter of a couple of thousand penguins.

Dean Prepares to Descend the Sea Cliff

The cliffs stand 20 to 30 metres above the sea ice and the previous trip having an identified a suitable crevasse free area, meant an easy rope-assisted descent onto the ice. Even though the ice extends nearly a thousand miles off the continent at the moment, it is punctuated by leads (open water) and thin pressure ridges, which amongst a multitude of other hazards, make it particularly treacherous. (See here for a glossary of terms associated with sea ice.) The ice at Windy is at least second-year fast ice, a couple of metres thick and so should be as safe as any sea ice but we still carry a variety of safety kit and travel unlinked.

Heading Out On the Sea Ice
Penguins form the thin black line on the horizon

The more adventurous penguins, so unused to seeing any other creatures and sharing a mutual curiosity, started to wander over the moment we were on the ice. Without any predator on the ice, they will quite happily approach to investigate further. As a result, if you remain still, the more inquisitive will come as close as a couple of metres, even though we keep a much greater distance between them and ourselves so as not to disturb them.

The Colony At Windy Bay

In some places the colony can still be seen huddling together for warmth, it may be that some are still incubating eggs. The females meanwhile are out at sea feeding; the leads mean that they do not necessarily have to walk the thousand miles to open water but they head away from the colony for a couple of months through the darkness.

Huddled Together For Warmth

Through the same period the males penguins have guarded the eggs on their feet, which bear large thick pads which protect them from the ice. The eggs are also protected from the cold by a large parental pouch which in turn is inhabited by the chicks once they hatch.

Penguin Feet

In a further contrast to our cosseted existence the male penguins lose almost half their body weight as they have not fed for several months, as opposed to Ant's vigorous attempts to fatten us up with his top notch cooking. The weight disappears as they burn fat to keep themselves warm and they initially feed the chicks with secretions from their oesophagus while waiting for the females to return with stocks of regurgitated fish.

Feeding Chicks

A couple of hours sitting stationary, watching and photographing, means the cold starts to bite into the excitement and it was time to return. Hopefully, there will be further chances to visit them over the next couple of months, particularly on the forthcoming post-winter trips.

Lashing the Sno-Cat
I pack the kit up before heading home

Meanwhile, back on station I am currently nightwatchman for the week but with the first flight due to arrive in less than two months there is a lot of work to be done around base. The start of the Halley VI build (the successor station to Halley V), means that the summer is going to be busy- there is plenty to get straight before then.

Yet Another Penguin Shot