So as promised here are some pictures taken on my first penguin trip. This is one of the unique things that you get to see when you overwinter at Halley. The penguins in question are Emperor Penguins and there is a colony of them on the sea-ice at Windy cove. Windy Cove is approximately 20 km North West of Halley apparently the penguins like it because they come here every year when the sea-ice forms in March. Kirsty and I visited them at the end of April just before sun down (click here for blog entry) and we walked along the ice-shelf and saw the colony forming. There were all these penguins arriving on their belies and it was an awesome, if somewhat cold weekend.
So every year as it gets close to sun up you start to get a lot more light and the temperatures increase. At this point the Simon the GA gets all excited and starts to think about penguin trips. For these penguin trips you have to basically abseil down the ice cliff and onto the sea-ice. Once you have chilled out with these crazy animals you have to then jumar back up. You also have to be careful when walking on the sea-ice because if the wind changes it can break up easily. So Simon has been got us practicing our abseiling, jumaring and gave us a talk about how to survive on the sea-ice. He then had us practicing hauling ourselves out of an imaginary crack with an ice pick or warthogs and finally had us throwing hand lines to each other if the worst did happen and someone went through.
A week before sun up Simon and Andy (Metbabe) went out on skidoos to check out the cabooses at Creek 2 and Windy, and the access down to the sea-ice at Windy. It was a really cold clear day. So there was excellent visibility but it was freezing. At the time I was raising more turnbuckles on the Comms masts with Dave, the Comms Manager. At the time Simon had radioed base at 2pm to say that he and Andy were going down on to the sea-ice and that he would call back at 4pm when they got off the ice. We heard nothing. At 5pm John, the Base Commander, got concerned and started to get ready to a Search And Rescue (SAR). The plan was for Anto, the Vehicle Mech, and I were going to get our equipment and head out in a snocat to find out what had happened. It was sort of exciting to be on a SAR but at the same time a bit scary that something had happened. In the end, just before we were about to leave (6pm) we saw lights on the horizon. It took them an hour for them to arrive but we knew they were ok so we stood down the SAR. It turns out it was so cold that all the radio batteries failed. The GPS units got so cold that they didn't work. They tried to light the stoves in the caboose but couldn't get the paraffin to light. They decided to get back to base. Apart from that they had a successful trip and had found out that there was easy access to the sea-ice.
A few days later the first group of sightseers went down onto the sea ice and came back with fantastic tales about how difficult it was to get down and up and how amazing the birds were. A couple of days later the next group went down to see the penguins, this group came back with even taller tales of giant cracks in the ice and immense ice climbs. The last group was mine. Like on the winter trips you can all just leave base when you want. People with similar jobs have to cover each other and so can't leave the base at the same time.
So we got our equipment together (P-bags etc... for camping out) and loaded everything onto a sledge and jumped into the snocat. In my group were, Kirsty, Bob, Simon, Andy and Me. It took just over an hour to get there along the familiar drum line and windy caboose, with Bob driving (it was his birthday). We woke up, jumped out and immediately got into our harnesses and roped up as an alpine five and made our way along the ice shelf to the abseil point.
Our view of the Penguin Colony from the abseil point. This was at about 12 GMT two days before the official sun up (local noon is at 13:45 GMT) and you can already see that we have quite a bit of light.
It was pretty cold just getting here and once we got here we stood around and set up the equipment to get down to the ice.
Setting up our abseil anchors. You just get two stakes and push them into the snow. Its amazing how strong the anchors are and then at the end of the day you just bend down and pull them out.
You then have to stand around and freeze even more while each person clips onto the rope and abseils down. Really cold.
Kirsty starts her decent onto the sea ice. We are abseiling on a dynamic (stretchy) rope with no safety line. In order to make it safe we abseil with a french prussic below the abseil device so if you let go of the rope the prussic will catch you.
As Bob sets up for the abseil, Simon swings his arms around to keep warm. It was a cold day. Apart from the cold there are a lot of dangers going onto the sea ice. In the background you can see the ice-shelf, and the sea ice. Just at the bottom of the ice-shelf where it joins the sea ice there is a tide crack, this is caused by the differential movement of the two sheets of ice. The sea ice also can be blown around and breaks up easily. Its exciting going on it.
Finally its your turn and you realise why everyone seemed to take so long getting going. Because your hands are frozen its really difficult to get the figure of eight on the rope properly and you fingers have no feeling. Once you get going its wonderful and once you are leaning back on the rope you know everythings going to be ok. The abseil point was chosen as there was a nice bank of snow that had formed against the ice shelf. The only difficult bit was the lip at the top. Once you get on to the sea-ice proper you have to still go quite a distance to make sure that you have passed any dangerous tide cracks. You then unclip from the rope so that the next person can get down. Its amazing how much warmer it is once you are down on the sea ice.
Simon makes his way down the ice-shelf as you can see Simon our guide chose the easiest slope to get up and down to the sea ice.
Once everyone was down we made our way to the colony itself. This is about 500m from the abseil point. On the sea ice you don't rope up but rather stick close together and have easy access to throw lines. If you actually went through it would be absolutely freezing so we also carried a whole rucksack full of spare clothes.
As we got closer to the colony we passed a few cracks in the ice that had refrozen but weren't that dangerous, Simon was checking them with his bog chisel. We got the colony itself and after a briefing from Simon just wandered about taking photos. My camera decided to take a few photos and then packed up. This must have been from the cold. Later it suddenly started working again, really odd. Anyway this is one of the reasons I came to Halley and I was finally here among the craziest creatures on the planet.
The penguins doing their stuff on the sea ice. The snow underfoot is browny-yellowy and is stained with Penguin guano.
The penguins are very curious and will come to within arms length and then stop. At the beginning it seemed that they really liked Bob.
Most of these emperors are males and haven't eaten for 3 months. They weigh about 20kg now and have lost about 10kg since the beginning of winter. To me they look extremely healthy. Most of the chicks have hatched but are hiding on their fathers legs. The females are starting to arrive and they swap roles so that the fathers can go and get some food.
A few more curious chaps. The more curious ones are usually the males that didn't find mates or who discarded eggs (we saw a few of these).
After about an hour we started to get cold and the temperature started to drop, so we decided to head back. Essentially we just followed the reverse procedure.
Me just before I climbed back up to the ice-shelf. The moustache keeps you warm but it gets frozen and then sticks to your balaclava. Photo courtesy of Kirsty.
Instead of abseiling, we had to Jumar back up. In fact the slope wasn't that steep so you could just kick your boots hard into the snow and walk up. The jumar was just to prevent you falling back down if you did fall. Simon went up first and then Bob and I went up. We then roped up and headed straight to the snocat in order to get it heated up. We loaded up and collapsed back in the vehicle. We then tried to eat frozen sandwiches washed down with warm ribena. All in all a pretty amazing trip. Hopefully I will get to go on a some more and hopefully will see some chicks.
The last thing we did see before we left windy caboose was a faintly miraged sun. This was two days before the official sun up date.
Two days later we had our official sun up ceremony, this was to greet the returning sun. Having not seen the sun for 100 days, its something we have been looking forward to.
Everyone standing around watching the Sun-up flag raising ceremony.
Kirsty being the youngest on base raised the flag. She did a very good job.
Kirsty ties off the flag and there it shall remain until next sundown.
Having done the job so well the local media (John the WBC) flock to get Kirsty's story.
The Piggott platform just after the sun up ceremony.
The Laws building looks better with the flag flying.
As you can see from the picture it was a fairly overcast day with a lot of cloud in the north so we didn't actually get to see the sun on that day. I also went on nights immediately after the sun up day so I didn't get to see the sun for another week.
Nights is fine. There seems to be more and more interesting cooking going on during nights. So far I seem to be cooking new cakes every night. Donuts, croissants and bread which are all easier than I originally thought. I've also been more efficient in my night cleaning so I've had more time to watch the films in the Halley video library.
Hopefully I will get some photos of the sun in my next entry.