About Me

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Bird Island, South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands
I work as a Zoological Field Assistant, and am the 2009 Winter Base Commander, at Bird Island Research Station, one of the British Antarctic Survey's five research bases in Antarctica. The main remit of my job is seal fieldwork as part of BAS' Long Term Monitoring and Survey programme. Science has been carried out on Bird Island since 1958. I work with Antarctic fur seals and leopard seals, as well as assisting with the seabird fieldwork programme. Contact me on: ewanedwards at gmail dot com

Monday, 27 October 2008

27.10.2008 - Winter Review part 2

Gentoo penguins crowd Johnson Beach at sunset

Coming ashore in huge numbers...

Sunset on the ski slope

Fur seals play in the snow

Sunset over South Georgia - leopard seal on ice in the middleground

Ski route, marked in red, from La Roche to base

Skiing high on the eastern slopes of La Roche, in Mountain Cwm

Post-winter-haircut, skiing in Mountain Cwm

Ski area on the SW slopes of La Roche

Snowboarding on La Roche

After midwinter, of course, the days start to grow longer. This meant we had more time to get out and about to enjoy the island at its wintery finest. Winter sports were popular, and a shallow-sloping coire on the SW slopes of La Roche, just above Wanderer Ridge, provided the closest and best conditions, only half an hours walk up from base. During July, August and early September, it was possible to ski directly to Freshwater Beach, and the back door of the base, from a height of around 200m on La Roche, via the stream beds and tussac meadows of Wanderer Valley.

Around the beginning of September I made a bit of an expedition into Mountain Cwm, a scree-lined coire towards the eastern end of the island, overlooking the narrowest bit of Bird Sound, separating us from the South Georgia mainland. The skiing conditions out here, where the slopes rarely (if ever) saw the sun, were a mixture of fresh, wind-blown snow and hard packed icy conditions, coupled with the steeper slope made for some brilliant, exciting skiing. Always in the back of your mind, however, is the fact that we are at least 5 days from the nearest hospital, so we aren't so inclined to push it too hard!

The leopard seal fieldwork kept me busy most days, with a considerable increase in the number of sightings from the previous year, owing perhaps to a relatively large sea ice extent further South. On calm sunny days, sometimes eight or nine different seals were seen, but when the weather was lousy, or there wasn't much ice around, the seals would tend to stay in the water, largely out of sight. I managed to put tags on several of the animals, which makes identifying them easier when they return in subsequent years.

At the beginning of every month we do an all-island wandering albatross census: this involves checking all the nests that were marked by Derren at the beginning of the year to check whether the chicks are still surviving. Once they hatch from their eggs, survival of wandering albatrosses is very good, although the numbers have declined from 1500 nests each year twenty years ago, to only around 800 these days. The census allows us the perfect opportunity to go out for a good tramp around the hills, checking on the fast-growing chicks.

In addition to the fieldwork (much reduced from its summer peak) there are various office tasks to do, such as the compilation of various reports for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and our own annual Bird and Mammal Review, detailing interesting wildlife sightings from the past year, which gets circulated internally at BAS HQ in Cambridge. But aside from the work, the winter is a very fun time on Bird Island for relaxing, hobbies, and fun evenings.

We organised several themed nights during the winter, usually on Saturday nights (our weekly three-course feast, washed down by several gin and tonics) and on a few occassions we fired up the hot tub - this is an old water tank that sits outdoors on the walkway, with comfortable space for four people but not much more, which can be filled with hot water from the tank and is a really nice way to spend a cold dark winter's evening. We had several barbecues outdoors under the stars. It is important to have time to relax during the winter, as the summer field seasons are so busy.

We continued skiing and snowboarding into September, and Flea celebrated his birthday high on the slopes of La Roche, albeit in the fog, getting a few late-season runs in. In fact, I was skiing only last week, and the base seems to be holding up. My intention is to get some skiing in at the beginning of November, and if at all possible, a few turns on Christmas day, after midsummer!

The arrival of the Golden Fleece at the beginning of September brought to an end the official winter, and in fact thereafter the weather was fairly mild. Our winter minimum temperature, which came about on the night we had a barbecue, was -6.7deg C, nothing like the extremes of temperature seen further South, or even at similar Northern latitudes near my home in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, but during these cold, dry periods we could see temperatures remaining below freezing for several days or weeks at a time. We didn't see temperatures above +2deg C between May and September.

27.10.2008 - Winter Review part 1

Tagging a leopard seal, Freshwater Beach

Midwinter photo 1

Midwinter photo 2

Midwinter Games 2008

Testing the rescue sledge on the beach

Flea (base technician and winter base commander) pumps water from the stream

Derren and I brandish our ice axes on the summit of La Roche, July 2008

Its not the North Face of the Eiger, but the winter conditions meant we could play on some frozen waterfalls. Here, Derren leads me on the cliffs of the south coast

Freshwater Inlet from Cave Crag (jetty and base visible); South Georgia behind

Icebergs in Bird Sound, from near the Special (seal) Study Beach

Leopard seal has a stretch and yawn whilst hauled out on a bergy bit

Tonk and Freshwater Bay from Molly Hill

Various landmarks from Wanderer Ridge

The base in a snow shower

Winter already feels like a distant memory, but it was a hugely enjoyable time. One of the true advantages of a Bird Island winter is that, unlike Halley and Rothera further South, we never lose the sun completely. The days around the end of June (midwinter) are short and gloomy, and in truth the sun never actually hits the base itself (as it barely rises above the cliffs to the north), but at least we have daylight, and it is possible to get into the sun if you walk up the hill to the meadows or the slopes of La Roche.

Winter began for real on April 29th, when Fabrice arrived back from a dental trip to the Falklands. The fishery patrol vessel took away Chris, who had been visiting doing some plumbing work, and returned Fabrice so that we could all settle into our winter proper. By the end of May we'd seen our first big dump of snow and the first of the hauled-out leopard seals which would become regular visitors over the next few months. The days grew shorter rapidly and this meant that it was dark well after we awoke in the mornings.

June was on the whole not a very snowy month, although near the beginning we had some stunning crisp, cold and clear days when the bay filled with a mixture of brash ice (from disintegrating glacier ice (icebergs) offshore) and pancake ice - newly formed sea ice which starts as small round plates on the surface of the sea, the edges turned up by constant rubbing together. This never froze solid enough to support our weight but it was enough to support the weight of some smaller fur seals.

Midwinters Day is traditionally a big celebration for wintering teams in Antarctica. We received messages from the many stations all over the icy continent and its offlying islands, from almost all nationalities that maintain a wintering presence: Australia, Brazil, Chile, USA, Argentina, Japan, New Zealand to name a few - as well as our British colleagues at Base R (Rothera), Base Z (Halley) and King Edward Point, on the South Georgia mainland. As Christmas Day falls in the middle of summer, Midwinter feels more christmassy than Christmas!

The day itself (June 21) started with a big cooked breakfast, and once it got light (10:45am) we headed outdoors, armed with flasks of mulled wine and mince pies, for the annual Midwinter Highland Games! Events included crossbow archery, snowball target shooting, welly-wanging (hold a wellington boot in your teeth and throw it as far as possible!), hurling the haggis and tossing the caber. We were outside for over three hours, dressed in kilts fashioned from old tartan shirts. Fabrice clearly relished his role as the old man of the island, by making up the rules as he went along!

Our annual midwinters day swim had to be postponed on two accounts: firstly, the large accumulation of sea ice in the bay would have made jumping off the jetty a painful affair, and secondly, the presence of a hungry-looking leopard seal lurking in the shallows near the jetty was enough to put anyone off. These animals are fierce predators and have big teeth, and our seal-like appearance after several weeks of Bird Island winter rations may have been too tempting for a leopard seal to resist.

Later that day we enjoyed a huge feast, several courses that had us eating through until after midnight! Afterwards Fabrice dressed as Santa and produced some gifts that had been sent by friends and family last year on the ship and stored secretly until midwinter. This was a really nice surprise as we hadn't been expecting it. We listened to the midwinter broadcast to all wintering FIDs (BAS 'South' personnel, from the days when the British Antarctic Survey was known as the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, or FIDS) on the BBC World Service, and heard greetings from friends and family at home.

During the rest of the midwinter week we enjoyed many fun events, including a beer festival (with 20 varieties of ales, lagers and ciders, including our own Albatross Ale homebrew!); a pub crawl, where we each outfitted one part of the base as a pub in a style of our choice; a 24 Marathon, where we watched a whole series of 24 (the US TV show starring Kiefer Sutherland) during one day (07:00 to 07:00 the next day); as well as the usual mix of fieldwork and base duties. The end of June was a very busy time for leopard seal sightings, with 11 seen on one day, and the weather was largely settled and cold.

Friday, 24 October 2008

24.10/2008 - Spring on Bird Island

Winter has come and gone in the blink of an eye. Our peace and quiet was cut short by the arrival of a BBC film crew on September 10th and an additional two scientists towards the end of the month. Now, as we approach the end of October, the short, dark and cold days of winter, with only four of us on Bird Island and no visitors for five months, seem a long time ago. Recently the weather has been feeling much more springlike, with temperatures approaching 4 deg C (although only a few hours later it was freezing again).

Mark and Matt from the BBC Natural History Unit visited Bird Island to do some filming for a new BBC high-definition super-series, in the same vein as Planet Earth. Unfortunately their month-long stay coincided with the worst weather that we'd seen since the end of the summer, and mild temperatures (and hence rain), strong winds and the infamous Bird Island 'mank' (fog) make shooting a television programme a real challenge, but they put in some long days in the field, braving not just the weather but the wildlife! I hope they produced some footage that will make the final programme. Being restricted by what they were trying to film didn't help their cause - when one of the main things they wanted to see was wandering albatross chicks in the snow, the lack of significant snowfall in September didn't help...

Of course, the day that they left, it snowed.

Jaume and Glenn in the snow, the day that the BBC departed

Jaume Forcada (a senior scientist from BAS) and Glenn Crossin, working on the physiology of seabirds, arrived on the fishery patrol vessel towards the end of September and have slotted right into island life. Jaume is a Bird Island veteran (this being his seventh season visiting the island) but for Glenn it is a new experience. He was inspired to seek out a project working with albatrosses following several oceanographic cruises in the Ross Sea with an American research programme.

The leopard seals that were present throughout the winter have now more or less all departed. A couple of animals have been seen until very recently feasting on the gentoo penguins returning every evening to Johnson Beach. Jaume estimates that leopard seals could consume as many as 12% of the BI gentoo penguin population each year! We had the very exciting sight of a leopard seal eating a South Georgia pintail (Anas georgica), believed to be the first time a wild leopard seal has been recorded eating a duck!

Leopard seal hunting a duck

The first large fur seal males are starting to return to the island, as are all the other breeding species. The giant petrels, black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses are all sitting on eggs, the gentoo penguins are laying just now and the macaroni penguins are beginning to arrive. Our daily visits to the fur seal Special Study Beach begin on November 1st so the hard work begins again, after the relative calm of the winter.

Macaroni penguins have started to arrive on BI after the winter

White-chinned petrels were first heard at night at the end of September

Our main base resupply, with the visit of the RRS James Clark Ross, will be occurring towards the end of November, when we shall also meet two of next years wintering team and our new base commander. We look forward to meeting everyone and to receiving a consignment of fresh fruit and veg and mail from folks at home.