The island of Signy was first named on a chart in 1912 and by 1945 the precursor to the British Antarctic Survey was actively looking for somewhere to site a base in the South Orkney islands. There was briefly a hut at Cape Geddes on nearby Laurie Island before the Signy Research Station was built in 1947. As with a lot of these bases this one has gone through many permutations over the years from housing up to thirty wintering staff to its current status as a summer only base with only seven of us. Before the BAS base at Signy the island was heavily used by whalers in the early 1900s and much evidence remains from this period, the wrecks of various ships, pumps and pipes for fresh water and of course enormous skeletons from some of the whales. The whale populations have never recovered from this period – a whale sighting would now be a special event on Signy though the catch data from 1920-1930 shows forty four thousand Blue whales and thirty two thousand Fin whales were caught between the South Orkneys and South Shetlands.
Signy remains significant today due to the long running data records and the fact that so many animals visit these islands. When the various animals arrive and choose to breed shows simply what is happening as global warming affects the planet while the exact reasons remain complex and hard to study. With less sea ice every year the breeding cycle of the Antarctic animals gets earlier and species that previously bred further north now do so as far South as the South Orkneys. Fur seals are a good example with only one sighted in 1949 and 13,000 sightings a year by the 1980s along with the first recorded pups.
I’m going to attempt here to answer some of the common questions posed by friends and family about life on a small base.
Sørlle house, the main building of Signy Research Station. Captain Petter Sørlle was the first to produce a chart of the islands and named Signy island after his wife Fru Signy Sørlle. Left to right – our labs, offices, living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms are all contained in this building. The base is pretty small!
The weathers not usually like this but it is an awesome view when you step outside the front door. When people wintered at Signy they would travel across the sea ice to Coronation island to climb the peaks. We have a single person travel limit (about 2 kilometers) and a two person travel area (the rest of the island).
Darts match in the living room. The kitchen joins this on the left of the image. This room is used as a dining room, living room, cinema, pub etc etc. We’re actually playing one of the other bases here via skype. Iain (far left) is updating the score while the camera is on the dart board. The connection between bases isn’t really good enough to speak but the video is just good enough to check if the other team is cheating. L-R Iain (facing away), Fabrizio, Tim, Tom, Matt and Jim
The two most important documents on base. On the left is the Earlies and Lates rota. If you’re on earlies you get up at 6am, check the generators and the water production and make bread. You are then also responsible for providing the evening meal. The blue sections are when there are low tides which in turn affects some of the travel area. Lates means you have to stay up till midnight and do a final walk around of base turning things off. On the right is the weather forecast. It is surprisingly accurate here – the big green bits are cloud cover and the purple sky scrapers are precipitation.
While we all have our own job roles on base its common to help each other with bigger tasks or if you finish what you’re doing early in the day. So – who am I with and what do they do?
Matt (Station Leader) (with Tim to the right). Matt works as a carpenter in the UK but has been the Station Leader at Signy for 13 years as well as numerous other seasons at other stations. Photo taken during one of the Saturday morning training sessions – how to fix stoves and lanterns.
Tom (Carpenter/Builder) – works in the UK as a carpenter and formerly worked for BAS during the Halley VI move in 2016/17. Tom and Jim are working this season to do up the base as well as work on a couple of the huts around the island. Tom here helping Iain and I move some new stove parts for one of the huts up to the skidoo parked about a kilometre away.
Jim (Carpenter / Builder) – Jim has spent the last eleven summers working on various different BAS bases as well as going to a lot of the historical sites such as Stonington, Horseshoe and Port Lockroy helping keep the buildings standing or “polishing turds” as he would probably put it.
Fabrizio (Scientist) – Works in the UK as a University lecturer and has formerly done a couple of short summer seasons on Signy collecting penguin data. Fabrizio’s area of study is the penguins feeding habits during the nesting season.
Tim (Zoological Field Assistant) – Tim started at BAS the same time as I did in 2015 and wintered on Bird Island as part of a group of four. Tim collects the data for the long running penguin studies along with any other science that needs done.Iain (Facilities Engineer) – Iain works as a gas fitter in the UK but has spent the last three seasons on Signy making sure the generators produce power for the base and the reverse osmosis plant produces drinking water along with a host of other necessary facilities for us to live here.
Gentoo penguin outside base. A few people have asked whether its claustrophobic living with such few people on such a small base. For me, no, not really. It will no doubt be a shock when we get back the real world but in general theres plenty of space on base and you can always step outside the front door and hang out with a penguin or a seal.
Visitors. We do in fact get some visitors through the season. The HMS Protector (The UK’s vessel that patrols Antarctic waters) was first and we will have three cruise ships visit throughout the season. The other part of our role here is to promote Antarctic Science.
The Royal Marines helping us get some building supplies ashore for “Foca” hut on the west coast with the HMS protector standing off. Six marines with Jim, Tom and I then shifted the building supplies from the shore up to the hut by hand.
The Barque Europa. Built in the early 1900’s the Europa is the only traditional boat to cruise with paying guests in Antarctic waters. The guests have to stand watch and help with the running of the ship. The captain was kind enough to give us a tour and I felt like a real pirate with Tom whistling the theme to “Pirates of the Caribbean” behind me. Cruise ship passengers come ashore for a brief tour of base, ask some questions and can then buy BAS merchandise and use the Post Office.
Those that went before. Just over the hill from base is “Cemetery Flats” – a reminder that the South Orkneys have a long (for Antarctica) human history and any hardships we think we might have are really nothing compared to those at the start of the 1900’s
“Unknown Whaler” of the six large crosses at Cemetery flats, three are unknown whalers with the others Norwegian names. Unfortunately the cemetery is now a popular wallow for elephant seals.
“Ginge” one of the longest serving BAS staff at Signy. Ginge sailed back to the Falklands in 1962 after living on the base for years. BAS are now a lot more careful about invasive species! (Photo by Fred Topliffe)
Taken from the old Signy recipe book. “An excellent breakfast dish”!
Saturday night dinner. Our Christmas decorations are up and Jim has taken to wearing a santa hat already. Saturday nights are usually a three course sit down meal with a few drinks. Hard life!