Tuesday, December 27, 2005

N9 relief - Day 4 driving the shelf

As I mentioned earlier my job during christmas has been to drive a Sno-cat for 12 hours a day, sometimes longer depending if we are running late or not. Normally wake up around 10 to seven and have a quick breakfast. Then get changed and head onto the sea-ice. Normally the happy sledge (a 6 seat sledge pulled by a skidoo) is waiting. If there is a driver then they drive us from the ship onto the shelf-ice where the Sno-cats are being serviced at the Mechanics caboose.

The Shackleton moored up on the sea-ice. Posted by Picasa

The sea-ice is about 2 m thick and the shelf-ice can be hundreds of meters thick. You have to remember that 90 percent of the ice is below the water if it is floating. Bulldozers have been used to create a ramp from the sea ice to the shelf ice.

Ice-scape. View of the shelf-ice from the sea-ice. Posted by Picasa

We then heat up the Sno-cats, hitch up some sledges and head to the halfway caboose at a steady 8mph trying to have as smooth a ride a possible. The ice on the shelf is unbelieveable bumpy especially after you have dragged a few 10 tonne sledges across it. So getting a smooth ride is very difficult. The Sno-cats cope amazingly well. They all have large turbo charged diesel engine. One, K17, has an 8.2 litre Detroit V8 in the front and I think has the most character. Our one K21 is more comfortable but is less interesting. Some of the long days have been caused by mechanical problems. First of all someone on the night shift (nickname Fish) drove K20 into the back of K21. So now K20 has no bonnet and K21 has no back door. In the 2000 sq miles of the Brunt Ice shelf there are about 10 Sno-cats and we crashed them. K20 also had a sticking throttle and had to be nursed back to the Mechanics caboose.

We get the halfway caboose, and normally have a brew.

The halfway caboose with a new grooming Sno-cat in the background. Posted by Picasa

BAS also has some planes with skis and Halley has one which is helping in the relief. It is ferrying booze, food and other essentially between the ship and the base. One of the exciting things for the shelf-ice drivers is to be buzzed by the plane.

The Twin Otter from the drivers seat of K21. Posted by Picasa

The plane has now buzzed us about 10 times.

The twin otter buzzing K21 at the halfway caboose. Posted by Picasa

After a long day's work it is nice to see some wildlife.

Adelie penguins greeted us back from a long day on the shelf. You can just see that they are standing in Sno-cat tracks. Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 23, 2005

Beginning an N9 relief - first day driving the shelf

Sorry for being a bit slow at getting these pictures up. As I mentioned earlier, this year because of the sea-ice situation (too little - global warming?) we have been forced to carry out what is known as an N9 relief. Its so called because the creek which looses its ice last happens to be called N9, this is where the ship and therefore I am based for the next 10 days. N9 is 65 km from Halley and we arrived here on wednesday evening for a quick look at the ice.

Three Emperor and one Adelie penguin came to greet us at the creek. Posted by Picasa

There were a few people on shore as well as some wildlife and the penguins above. The people ashore had driven the sno-cats from Halley and had prepared the ramp from the sea-ice to the shelf ice. Having had a good look the ship then proceeded to smash into the sea-ice.

The weaker sea ice is broken away by ramming the ship into the ice. The ship then nibbled a straight edge to dock against. Posted by Picasa

The result is a strong sea-ice for unloading onto. The ship then wandered up the coast to have a look at the other creeks closer to Halley even though it was known that there was no ice there. While this was going on the passengers (fids) sang carols and had mince pies and mulled wine on the focsle (sp?). This was strange as it was in full daylight and we were rubbish at singing.

The next morning we moored up and began unloading. While this started up I got my training for driving sno-cats on the shelf. The picture below shows my team and vehicle.

The Dream Team in front of Sally the sno-cat K21. I'm on the left and Kirsty is on the right. This was taken when we were practicing hitching on sledges which is really difficult. Posted by Picasa

After learning how to drive and hitch sledges and look after our machines. We had to wait for enough unloading to occur so that we could do a run. As I mentioned the distance from Halley to N9 is about 65 km. At about 30 km there is an antenna on a mast for VHF radios. There is also a caboose (container/hut on skis) where you can get a brew on. This has become known as the half way caboose and our run is from the ship to the halfway caboose. Other sno-cats from Halley come with empty sledges and we swop. They take full sledges to Halley and we take the empty ones back to the ship. As there were not enough loaded sledges yesterday, I help loading them on the ice.

The Ernest Shackleton discharging cargo a german sledge onto the ice. Posted by Picasa

Today had our first 12 hr shift and did two runs. The sno-cats only go at 8mph when pulling an 10 tonne sledge so it has not been the most thrilling day. But it is exciting because of the bumps. Its a totally flat ice shelf with bumps all over it. On the last run we ran into a fog bank and had to slow right down to make sure we could see the flag-line that marks the route. All it all a satisfying day but I can see that it might become a drag. Fairly knackered so I will get some sleep ready for my next 12 hr shift tomorrow. Some of us don't get christmas, which reminds me
Happy christmas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Final relief brief - I become a sno-cat driver

Just a brief entry today as I am very tired. Quite a busy day today and I think that I am feeling the effects of sleeping out on the monkey island. Nearly a full days training today, starting at 9am with radio, tent and primus training. Thats right we still use primus stoves and the design hasn't changed since Shackleton's day. In fact at Gritviken we saw the primus that Shackleton used on his famous voyage from Elephant Island. After that was a vehicle briefing. This was a little strange as there aren't that many vehicles on the ship to practice on. There are a few, but not ones that we will drive.

Finally after lunch we had our final relief brief. Here we were finally given our jobs for the relief. We are also slightly slower that anticipated and will probably make icefall on Thursday morning. As I mentioned earlier we are going to split into two 12 hr shifts in order that the unloading and driving can continue 24 hrs a day. I have been given the job of shelf-ice driver of sno-cat K21. Since we have a run of 65km to do and the speed of the sno-cat might only be 10km/h the round trip might be 12hrs. So I have been buddied up with Kirsty the MET girl. I just hope I get along with her. I guess after 12 days (estimated relief time) of sitting in the same sno-cat cab, for 12 hrs every day, I will get to know her pretty well. Oh yeah I am on days but this makes little difference as the sun never sets and won't set until the beginning of Feb (I am told).

The other interesting thing that happened today was that the winter base commander (WBC) got his video camera out and I sort of started a video diary. BAS has been asked to do this for the Natural History Museum which is doing something about the internation polar year. Anyway the upshot is I might be on TV sometime, but then again I might not. It was quite difficult to ramble on to a camera for no reason. Will add some photos tomorrow.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Samba, more training for Halley and sleeping on deck.

Yesterday after a very alcoholic race night. It has been good to have a day of relative rest. We were supposed to have an inspection by the captain but I never saw him. The biggest thing to happen was that Dave the Comms manager (he with the link on the right of the blog) got out his samba drums and invited us to join him for a bit of a bash. I can honestly say now that I don't know why I didn't do this earlier. It was so much fun.

First samba practice. Picture taken by Dave the Comms manager and the mestre. Posted by Picasa

It was relatively easy to make a half decent sound and by the end of the one and a half hour session we could play one tune with all the intros and breaks etc... pretty well. I am hoping that after a year of training we should be pretty good. I will try to get a video of us playing in the snow. I think I hurt my left hand banging it on the rim of one of the big drums (surdos apparently). In the picture above we are one the Poop deck banging away with iceberg all around, which you can't see.

Yesterday was also the day that we officially crossed the antarctic circle (66 1/3 degress south). Apparently it used to be a tradition to go and sleep out on deck the first time you crossed the circle (I don't know if this is a myth or not, but apparently its a bit like the crossing the line (equator) ceremony). So three of us, Andy, Alex and I decided to go and sleep up on the monkey island which is on top of the bridge. In order to make ourselves warm we borrowed some P bags. These P (Personal) Bags are sleeping kits for sleeping in pyramid tents in the field and are really warm.

Preparing for bed last night on the monkey island. Alex the data manager demonstrates the equipment. My bed is on the left. The temp is about -2 degrees C and the time was about midnight. Posted by Picasa

In fact last night I was too hot. I didn't get the best nights sleep as I woke up a few times. The first because I was too hot the second because my face was too cold. Then it started snowing but only lightly and not enough to worry about. I finally woke up at about 8.30 and the others had left me all alone.

We started to hit ice again this morning and that didn't help my sleep.

Our route through the loose pack ice this morning. Posted by Picasa

The rest of the day was spent getting a relief briefing. This told us what to expect on the sea-ice and all the nasty ways in which me might meet our maker. The sea-ice at the N9 creek is just over 2m thick and they are going to drive bulldozers across it. The sea-ice drivers have to drive with a hatch in the roof and the door open so that they can leap out if the worst happens. There are a lot more details about crevasses. We are also going to be given our jobs and our shift soon. We all split into two 12 hour shifts (8 til 8) . I will probably be working ship side cargo. We also practiced stropping and slinging so that we can safely load the palettes for the cranes.

Tomorrow we will learn about the vehicles, radios and some basic camping stuff incase there is a white out. I will also find out exactly what my job is and which shift I will be on. Once relief starts I will probably be to tired to fill this in, but hopefully I will fill in the gaps later.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Race night and relief training

We are making steady progress south (click for current position) and we have been told that we will be arriving sometime around wednesday. So in the last few days we have started the preparations for the relief. This involves going over the skills we learnt in Cambridge at conference. We have been split into appropriately named groups. I of course find myself in the whales group. Maybe people are starting to notice the bulge in my belly. I could have been a skua or a penguin or even a seal. The food on board is really good..... Anyway we are relearning lots of things.

First aid training in the wet labs. Ian one of the steel erectors gets splinted up. Posted by Picasa

Another thing that I have been doing is making a dummy battery for my camera out of teflon. The idea is to make a battery shaped thing with connections and a wire coming out to which I can connect the real battery. Batteries don't like the cold and this way I can keep the real battery nice and warm next to my body and can still provide power to the camera. I have carved the battery. When I get to Halley I will make the rest and show you.

On the arts and crafts side I have also made a top hat out of cardboard for the Race night that we had last night. This was an event where we placed bets on horses (that raced around the floor of the red room dictated by the movements of a big wheel) for charity. I think we raised about £800 for leukemia research.

In top hats for race night on the shack. Me with Bob the Genny Mech in the background. Posted by Picasa

Tomorrow we have the day off which will be good. I think there is a samba band practice which I might go to.

Have another crazy elephant seal.

Elephant seal opens wide. They actually make a sort of farting sound as they do this in order to scare you away. Photo courtesy of Craig Wearmouth one of the heavy plant operators. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Steaming towards a long relief

Not too much has happened in the last few days except that we have continued our steady steaming east south east as can be seen in the map below from the BAS website. The Ernest Shackleton's position is shown by the squares. The other ship (the RRS James Clark Ross) current stuck in Rothera due to really thick sea-ice is shown by the crosses. The red ones are the current positions. We are just about to make a 90 degree right turn and enter the pack ice. The ice is shown by the orange mush and the more intense the orange the thicker the ice. As I mentioned earlier the James Clark Ross is current stuck at Rothera because of too much ice. We on the other hand have just been told that the ice around Halley has blown out to sea (you can see the white on the map below).

Map from BAS website click here for fuller explanation.

Because there is no ice it will make it difficult to offload the cargo on the ship and perform the relief of the base. What is required is a bit of sea ice that is firmly attached to the ice-shelf and has good access to the ice-shelf. Normally there are suitable creeks close to Halley. The Base Commander and a couple of GAs have inspected the creeks and twin otter planes have been used to look at the ice. The nearest suitable landing spot this year is 65 km from base (this creek is called N9 for some reason). This will make the relief 4 times as long. It will take a sno-cat 6 hours to complete the journey in one direction. So it looks as if the relief this year is going to be tough.

In order to answer the question about how all the animals on South Georgia, Signy and especially Bird Island get their food. I have been informed that krill and fish are plentiful here. The krill feed off algae that grows on the under surface of sea ice. The curcumpolar current runs clockwise (viewed looking onto the south pole) about antarctica, it hits the antartic peninsula and is thrust up towards south georgia bringing the abundant food with it. Of course the animals eat each other and I include a few pictures.

Giant Pectral eating a live fur seal (courtesy Alex T) Posted by Picasa

Skua taking a Gentoo penguin chick (courtesy Alex T.). Posted by Picasa

On a dirtier note it can be seen that some seals are not very clean and they stink.

Male elephant seals are not clean a bit like male humans. Posted by Picasa

Monday, December 12, 2005

Bird Island

Been having a day of rest today having worked very hard yesterday. We are currently sailing east south east towards the Brunt ice shelf and should be fairly close to Halley in about 10-11 days. We still might not reach Halley until the 24th as there is sea ice to smash through and we have to set up a fuel dump on the ice somewhere.

Yesterday was amazing as I was lucky enough to get ashore on Bird Island. I was one of four people doing cargo handling on the shore. I got to spend the whole day ashore, working for the first half and looking at wildlife for the last bit. Other people were not so lucky and only got ashore for a short while or didn't get ashore at all. When the surveyors got around to naming this island they got it spot on. The whole island is covered in birds and seals. I saw wandering albatross, grey headed albatross, lightly mantled sooty albatross, South Georgia pintail, northern and southern giant petral, skua, macaroni penguins, gentoo penguins and of course seals. I quote from the BAS website,

"Bird Island has a rich diversity of wildlife and is afforded special protection as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is home to about 50,000 breeding pairs of penguins, 14,000 pairs of albatrosses, 700,000 nocturnal petrels and 65,000 breeding fur seals. In total, that amounts to one bird or seal for every 1.5 m 2 making Bird Island one of the richest sites for wildlife anywhere in the world."

And the island is only 5km long and 800 m wide. When you arrive you get given a broom handle to fend of the the seals which are very terratorial. It is best to avoid eye contact and move past them quickly. I must say that having a stick gives you a lot more confidence but you still have to wary.

Fending off the fur seals with broom handles. Posted by Picasa

In order to get the cargo to the base a trolley had to be pulled through the seals. A number of minders for each trolley were used to keep the cargo and pullers safe.
Looking at the picture below you can see that the beach in front of the base is prime seal territory and is covered in seals.

Black browed albatross and Bird Island base Posted by Picasa

This is also the busiest time of the year as the females have just given birth and the males will soon mate with them again. The fur seals have some sort of suspended pregnancy thing going on (5 months after insemination the egg develops and the pups are born 12 months after insemination).

After moving all the cargo and helping clean up the jetty (cleaning and hammering) a group of us went to "Big Mac" a macaroni penguin colony on the other side of the island. To do this we had to pass all the breeding site of the other birds. It difficult to describe how other worldly this place is. You have to be very careful you don't step on something. The wandering albatrosses were amazing and the adults can weigh 15kg and have a wing span of 11 feet. Luckily we were with one of the scientists who was an expert on the sea birds so he explained everything. We got to Big Mac to see thousands of the little cuties. In the picture below you can see that the slopes behind Austin (one of the steel erectors) are covered in penguins and you can imagine how long and hard it must be to make it up that far for them.

Austin at Big Mac Posted by Picasa

Macaroni Penguin at Big Mac Posted by Picasa

Finally after an amazing day we got back to base, had a cup of tea and then got back on the boat. The ship then left pretty much immediately. There is more to tell but as I said before it is hard to decribe what it is like and I urge you to visit bird island if you ever get an opportunity. There is a party on board today as it is one of the chef's birthday. I better go and join them. Have a penguin.

Penguin on a pelican case. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, December 10, 2005

South Georgia - KEP and Hound Bay

Its a lot colder than you think. Posted by Picasa

Well done to Alex and JT back in Cambridge, I guess you should be married by now and soon you will be at your reception. I wish I could be there (only for the evening though as it is pretty cool here).

I've been incredibly busy over the last two days and would have been busy today but the sea is too rough for us to put ashore at Bird Island so we are steaming up and down in a long rectangle of water to the north west of the islands. Apparently it is probable that we will be doing this until tomorrow. It is also the safest thing to do when the swell is too big. This lull in the activities gives me the opportunity to update this thing.

So we arrived in KEP on the 8th at about 6 am and immediately unloaded supplies. Because lots of ships come here there was not that much food, but there was a lot of gravel and wood as they plan to build a new jetty here. As there was little to man-haul most of us had the day exploring. I when with a small group which first looked around the old whaling station at Gritviken just around the corner.

This a an very strange place with a film set feel. It was a Norwegian whaling station until the end of the sixties. They then left it, fully intending to return in a couple of years to restart it, but then internation pressure forced them to close. This meant that everything was left exactly where it was including loads of whale oil. A very good museum has been openned and the place has been tidied up but all the equipment is still there. This is also the place where Shackleton is buried on his last trip south and where he came to get help in his famous expedition. There were elephant seals and this time the more aggessive fur seals. These fur seals are very territorial and will attack you for no reason at all. They don't cause a lot of damage but because their teeth are so dirty bite get badly infected. There were also king penguins on the beach, these look like smaller less fluffy emperor penguins.

Our group then climed over the col at the back of Gritviken down into the next bay Myviken. Here there was a large fur seal colony and also a gentoo penguin colony. Luckily we had a GA in our group who knew how to handle the fur seals (you have to stand your ground making noise such as clapping or smashing rocks together) and we shuffled onto the beach. We set up camp and it was a bit like Zulu surrounded by males who wanted us off prime real estate. We spent the whole day looking at the seals and penguins before returning to the Shack. I was completely knackered and my right knee was busted. Had a BBQ in the evening with the KEP people in their boat house.

Yesterday, got up at 4am (it gets light at 3am) and went for astroll to Shackletons memorial which is not where his grave is but is on the point behind KEP base.

Shackleton's Memorial Cross at King Edward Point Posted by Picasa

The fur seals here were very aggressive and a few times I lost my cool and had to run away. Had another look around Gritviken. The boat then left KEP to steam around to Hound Bay also on South Georgia where we unloaded food and equipment for a 4 year project looking at a king penguin colony. This took all day and everything had to be man-hauled up to the camp. In my broken state, from the day before, I hardly made it. The camp was about half a km, of seal infested tussac grass, from the boat landing point and some of the boxes were close to 50kg.

Unloading things at Hound Bay Posted by Picasa

Once again the fur seals were dangerous and one charged a few times. These ones had many more pups and although the tiny fur balls were very aggressive and inquisitive they were cute and not dangerous. There was even a white one.

Fur seal family at Hound Bay Posted by Picasa

So in all likelihood I will be working again tomorrow unloading cargo into bird island. There are even more fur seals. Apparently every year everyone who winters there gets bitten. I'm not looking forward to it.