Monthly Archives: December 2015

South Georgia – Back again!

November 2015

Well, I’m back in my frozen paradise after what seems like a four month holiday. What’s it like to be back? That seems to be the most popular question from back home. It’s great to be honest, I didn’t really doubt that until a day or so after I got back – “wait, I might have done my time here, this might not be fun anymore!” But that only lasted a few seconds. Honestly, I feel I have the near perfect job and on top of that it’s on possibly the most beautiful island in the world…what more could I ask for!?

The Journey back started with a seven hour drive from Edinburgh to RAF Brize Norton. I picked up Lewis (new fisheries scientist) just north of the England/Scotland border before meandering our way south, via various service station coffee shops.

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Another favourite question is about the RAF flight. Most people think it’s one of the flights where you face each other and have various cargo nets hanging about and big cargo boxes in the middle etc. The reality is more like a very spartan commercial airliner; a few TV screens that drop down from the central overhead luggage compartments (i.e no screens in the back of the seat in front) is as much as you get. Depending on military movements the flight can be ram packed or very light. Fortunately this time it was light.

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The good thing about the flight is the leg room…I guess they are used to flying big military blokes around.

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The flight time to the Falkland Islands is about 18 hours. Luckily thats broken up by a refuelling stop on Ascension Island about 9 hours in.  During the refuelling we are kept in a small compound (cage?) but fortunately there is a coffee shop.

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I was surprised I got away with taking the last shot and was sure I was pushing my luck too much taking this one on the apron – I half expected to be tackled to the ground and have my photos swiped by some unpleasant military type. But they didn’t seem to care. The same can’t be said of Mount Pleasant in the Falklands, it was made very clear that I couldn’t take pictures from the plane on approach, on the runway or in any of the buildings.

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We had a very short stay, less than 24hrs, in the Falklands and most of that was geared towards getting Rodger (left), the new Station Leader (formerly Base Commander), sworn in as the new magistrate of South Georgia in Government house, Stanley. Colin (right) is the Governor of the Falkland islands and also the Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

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After the swearing in we were bused out to Mare harbour to meet the fisheries patrol vessel (FPV) Pharos before departing. Mare harbour is another military installation that doesn’t like anyone taking photos. Jamie (new scientist) spotted this Commerson’s dolphin playing in the bow wave of the tug boat that escorted us out of the harbour though. So we sneaked our cameras out for a few shots.

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Albatross, as promised! This is the famous Wandering albatross, famous for a few things but perhaps most of all for it’s wingspan. Fully grown adults can extend their wings about 3.5m!

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Not as well known as the Wanderers but by far the most beautiful of the albatross, (in my opinion), are the light mantled albatross (it used to be ‘light mantled Sooty albatross’ but that apparently caused too much confusion with another species, the Sooty albatross.  It is a hard one to photograph because their heads are so dark it is hard to capture detail.

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So beautiful I’ll give you two shots of them!

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The black browed albatross is easy to confuse for a wanderer at distance, if you can’t see their eyeliner. The other give away is the black back – wanderers have a white back and the black retreats towards the tips of the wings as they age. But once you are familiar with Wanderers the size difference is obvious, even from a distance.

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The Pharos can do the crossing from the Falklands to South Georgia in four days. Regular readers may remember a photo from my departure several months ago where it took 6.5 days to get back! Well I paid my dues last time apparently, this crossing was as good as you can ask for. We were allowed rare access to the main deck below the bridge to enjoy some early summer sun. Jamie (visiting artist in residence at the museum – isn’t that a oxymoron!?) is enjoying the sun and his book leaning up against the blue container.

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I even managed to get some sun on my fee (not the most attractive I know!). Speaking with the crew it’s one of the calmest days between the islands they can remember.

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I was up at 4am on the fourth morning to catch a glimpse of the island as we approached. There was fog for the first hour or so but it relented and gave us a fairly stunning welcome. If you were wondering what kind of artist Jamie is, he’s a landscape photographer. He is about for six weeks or so hoping to get enough shots for a landscape book. This is great news for me as he actually knows what he’s doing with a camera  (even if he does use a nikon!) and I know the local area. Hence the deal is – I show him about when I can, and he shows me how to use a camera.

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Home sweet home! It was about here I developed a massive dumb grin that didn’t go away for some time. At this distance I could make out who everyone was on the wharf and in front of the boat-shed. I think I might have been as happy, to be back, as I have ever been returning to Edinburgh!

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Russ is my partner in boating duties this year, he’ll do the next twelve months on the island and will be the lone ‘boatie’ after I depart around July time. We are in the middle of ‘handover’ at the moment. The scientists, station leader, doctor etc have just under a month to pass everything over before they depart in early December. For me this means getting Russ familiar with everything boatie, which includes days out visiting the various areas we go boating.  Calm sunny days are good for this!

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Elephant seals seem to lead a charmed life at this time of year. They look comfortable most of the time they are lying about, but this ‘weaner’ (the stage after pup) seems to have found the perfect rock cushion. The adults have gone back to sea now but the weaners will hang around and gain weight for most of the summer before heading off.

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Continuing the local area familiarisation with Russ we headed round to Cumberland West Bay on a grey and overcast day, but that’s always a good recipe for photographing ice. Dense ice appears blue as the air has been squeezed out due to the pressure. If you chip some off it appears clear – like taking a glass of water from the sea.

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These grounded bergs stopped us getting any further, the front of the Neumayer glacier is about 8k (5miles) away. There are often icebergs from the glacier grounded on the submerged terminal moraine.

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Steph, Emma, Lewis (new fisheries biologist) and Jamie (new zoological…or higher predator scientist as previous ones have, somewhat pretentiously, renamed themselves haha!). Emma showing the appropriate maturity levels expected of a Doc here.

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The blues in some of the ice coming off the Neumayer glacier are ridiculous right now.

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Erny (mechanic) is staying on for a second double winter at KEP. He was on his way out when I arrived in Nov 2013 after a double winter. That means he will have done four of the last five years on South Georgia by this time next year. He was returning from a walk when I was getting a BBQ ready. He stayed around a while to keep me company so I rewarded him with one of my treasured cans of Tennent’s.

If you’re on Facebook you might be familiar with Humans Of New York (HONY), where a guy basically goes round NY, chats to people and then puts a photo along with some text from his encounters. I’m going to do something similar this year when I can. So here is Ray (electrician) to get us started…

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‘She’s as stable as my mental health’

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The builders put on a very impressive pirate themed party for us. Some of the costumes were very impressive, Rodger’s peg-leg was as impressive a bit of carpentry as it was a feat of endurance keeping his leg tucked into his trousers all night.

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Lewis, James and Russ line up for a tug of war battle. I think thats a look of confidence on all three faces.

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About ten days after I arrived BAS’s Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross (RRS JCR) arrived with our year’s supply of food, drink and equipment. The last two years it has taken two days, one to get everything off the ship and the second to get it to where it belongs on base. This year it took two days to get it off and another two to get it to where it belonged. As well as the food and drink for the year there was two new RIB’s, two new tumble dryers, a -80c science freezer, five tonnes of ballast, 60 bags of cement, over 100 tins of paint, a year’s supply of washing powder, toilet roll, shampoo, soap and several hundred condoms (that’s massively over the top, if you’re wondering).

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The boatshed is used as the holding area for everything that isn’t food or drink, which goes straight in. It’s also a temporary ‘bio security’ area. Bio security is taken very seriously, a huge amount of money and effort has gone into restoring the island in recent years – rat and reindeer eradication projects. Now the focus is on invasive plants. The most common way for them to get in is on peoples’ clothing, we give our clothes a thorough clean when we arrive to get soil and seeds out of pockets, zips, folds and shoe treads etc. The other way is in packaging like this.

A few before and after shots of the food store. This is one half of the dry food store taken from each end, the frozen and refrigerated rooms are pretty much the same size as this one.

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I should point out the yellow Nido tins on the right, our powdered milk supply. We don’t get fresh milk on base so accepting this stuff and getting used to it is one of the bigger challenges of living here!

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The last Saturday of the month was a scorcher! James, Ian, Rod (Station support manager – basically my boss who’s based in Cambridge most of the year) decided to do the ‘holy trinity’, the three main peaks that make up hodges bowl – Hodges, Petrel and Narval. We ran into the Museum girls (Louise, Danielle and Sharon L-R) on Hodges summit as they were on their way back from Petrel.

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Petrel is an intimidating peak from most angles.

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Ian just below the summit and the second one just left of centre shot. I headed over to the second summit to get the classic shot…

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I’ve been giving James hassle for the last two years for wearing black when we’ve gone out. He put his orange jacket on when he reached the summit – better late than never! The summit is only 627m above sea level, a great reinforcement of the description of South Georgia being like the top of the Himalaya being chopped off and thrown in the southern ocean.

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Ian on the ridge between Petrel and Naval. The base is run from hydroelectric power that is fed from Gull lake (left of Ian’s knee). It has been as low as 36% recently, but now the snow is melting in Hodges bowl it’s starting to rise, I think there is enough snow, that when melted, would fill the lake several times over. I also think that with a few warm days it could reach 90% by the end of December. Erny thinks that’s nonsense and has said he is so confident that if I’m right (bear in mind he’s thoroughbred Yorkshireman  i.e if you stick a lump of coal up his ass, in a fortnight you’d have a diamond – that is a little uncouth but it paints a picture) he’ll buy me a beer! I’ll let you know how that goes next month.

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Holy trinity complete! You can’t quite make it out in the shot but the edge James is sitting on is actually overhanging – he wasn’t too quick to shuffle out to the end until Rod and Ian were acting as counter weights!

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Ian checking the descent off Narval. You can just see King Edward Point to the left of the shot.

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I have a love-hate relationship with the Terns. They are great to photograph and are particularly challenging as they are so quick. But at this time of year they are fiercely protective of their young so take to dive bombing you if you get close to the nest. I managed to catch this one feeding among the kelp, not sure what it is eating though!

That is a monster post! I think I’ve set the bar quite high for the next eight months or so.

This time next month we will have said goodbye to the previous winterers and hello to some other summer visitors. I’m heading towards my third Christmas and new year on South Georgia in a row. I shall wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year now!

You might have heard about a British man from a tourist ship being bitten by a fur seal recently at Salisbury Plain on South Georgia – it made national news in the UK. My understanding is it caught one of his arteries while he was lying down taking a picture…male fur seals are fiercely territorial at this time of year – breading season. I’ve also heard there were two doctors on board, and by sheer good luck one of them was an arterial specialist! So he was in good hands early on, I’ve not heard any more since the ship left SG.

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