Category Archives: Field Guide

Signy Research Station

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.

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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!931A9420

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).

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Pit room.  The bedrooms are tiny and there is something slightly funny about sleeping in a bunkbed as a grown up but generally you only go in your pit room to sleep anyway._MG_5992

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.931A0167

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.931A9253

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.931A9443Iain (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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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“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.

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“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)
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Taken from the old Signy recipe book.  “An excellent breakfast dish”!

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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!

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What are we doing here?

So why are there seven of us on a tiny island for the Antarctic Summer?  First and foremost we are here so the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) has a presence in the South Orkney Islands.  This is arguable (and I should probably be careful what I write here) but with an Argentinian base on the nearby Coronation island the FCO needs to keep the current BAS bases running every year which in turn helps with the British say in the Antarctic Treaty.  Science probably comes equal to that and on Signy science means penguins.  The colonies studied on Signy have the longest data sets of any in Antarctica and they continued to be monitored every year.  Along with the penguins there is also a vast amount of other bird life, seals and mosses and lichens.  Understanding what is happening to the various species in Antarctica over time gives an insight into what is happening in the larger environment.

So seeing as lots of people have asked for pictures of penguins, here it is, lots of photos of the wildlife at Signy.

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Flying the flag at Signy Research Station, Coronation island behind.  If you’d like to have a virtual wonder around Signy Research Station click – here

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At signy we have three types of penguins – Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo.931A9196So can you spot the difference?  While this looks like one massive colony there are actually distinct boundaries between groups of birds.  Sometimes this is birds of different types (this is Adelies and Chinstraps) and sometimes just different groups of the same bird.

People love penguins – I think this is because we find some of their actions endearing and somewhat humanlike – they mate for life, they return to the same colony they were born in to have their chicks and the male and females take turns on the nest and going off to feed.  They also have very little fear of humans and look funny when they walk!

931A9638Tim (the Zoological Field Assistant) has two main study colonies – one of Adelies and one of Chinstraps.  In these colonies he has 100 nesting pairs that he checks every two days.  He checks each nest for number of eggs and/or chicks.  When the chicks are born they will get weighed and their diet sampled as well.  Above – Iain (facilities engineer) recording the numbers as Tim shouts them out.

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Recording at the Adelie colony.

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Adelie penguin posing for the camera.  Its hard not to imbue animals with human traits.  If Adelies were humans they would probably be the village idiot, constantly wondering around, falling over, stealing stones from each others nests and looking quite lost.931A9232The ecstatic display.  At times is hard to imagine penguins showing emotion but this does seem to be a display of pure love and affection – perhaps another reason everyone loves penguins so much.  It usually starts with a slight bow to each other , sometimes twice, there heads almost touching and then they bob and weave there heads either side of each other dipping down as low as there middles.  They then look at each other with there heads close together before looking away as if to check that no-ones noticed.  A pair of penguins might stop and do this every few minutes if they are both at the nest at the same time.

931A9644 Chinstraps on the nest.  The chinstraps are slightly smaller than the Adelies and don’t seem to do quite so much aimless wondering around.931A9199Chinstraps standing around in their pairs.  This has changed now with one of the pair permanently on the nest.

931A9260Gentoo penguins.  The Gentoos are a tiny bit bigger than the Adelies and a lot more skittish.  They also nest further away at the North point of the island.  While the two main study colonies on the Gourlay peninsular get counted every two days the other colonies get counted every couple of weeks.

931A9648Is that meant to be one chick or one egg?  Iain checks his numbers with Tim after another counting session.  

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We also record all seals that we see and in February all of the staff on base will be involved with the annual seal census counting every seal on the island over a few days.  Above – it can sometimes be hard to work out what type of seal it actually is (these are Weddell Seals)

931A9310Leopard Seal.  These are the absolute killing machines of the Southern Ocean and actually responsible for the last fatality at BAS in 2005.  This one was hauled out just below some Adelie colonies having a rest.
931A9360No doubt what type of seal it is when you see a Leopard seal close up.

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Elephant seals – the one everyone loves to hate.  These are enormous animals and they love getting around the BAS bases, keeping you up at night burping and farting.  The bull elephant seals are enormous and can grow to weigh about four tons.  These adolescent elephant seals have found a nice wallow amongst the crosses of some Norwegian Whalers a short walk from Base.  While ridiculous and disgusting on land they are amazing animals with the ability to dive to around 4 km in depth while shutting down their brains, operating on a sort of “auto pilot”.

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Elephant seal pup and its mother.  Pretty much the cutest of all baby seals its hard to imagine it growing into a full size one!

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Fur seal trying to scare me off.  Fur seals are really the only thing we have to watch out for on land.  They look and behave a bit like an angry Doberman and if they do manage to bite you the wound would be pretty dirty.  Sleeping, they look just like rocks and then leap into action either making a big fuss or making for the sea.

931A9247Southern Giant petrel – There are also lots of other bird species on the island other than penguins.

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Cape Petrels in the water at North Point.

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Iain looking down on the Gourlay peninsular on a rare blue sky day.

If seven people seems a lot just to count some penguins here is brief run down of our jobs.  While everyone has set responsibilities its very normal to help each other depending on work schedules etc.

Matt – Station Leader.  Deals with the running of the base, Comms and the bigger picture

Iain – Facilities Engineer.  Keeps us in Electricity and Water

Jim and Tom – Carpenters/Builders.  This year fixing the base and and the huts.

Tim and Mike/ Fabrizio – Zoological field assistants.  Mike and Fabrizio change over this weekend after a visit from the HMS protector.  They have both ongoing science and sometimes other data collection for other papers and PHD students.

Me – Field Assistant/ Field Guide.  Basically anything to do with being out “in the field” from training to helping with data collection to keeping the huts restocked with food and fuel.

Other blog posts coming soon – Life on base (with better photos of the team) as well as more about the Base and the huts and of course some more penguin photos (the first chicks just hatched in the last couple of days).

 

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Heading South

Its now a week since I left home, slowly making my south for another season in Antarctica.  Traveling with the British Antarctic Survey is always slow and dates and times constantly change around you as you travel, making for lots of confusion and frustration along with a lot of time to read your book.  The changeable nature of traveling south is even more pronounced when traveling by ship to the island bases of South Georgia, Bird Island and Signy, where I will be spending the next four and a bit months.  The travel might be slow but is always interesting and this season even more so for me getting to travel through the Falklands.

I’m not great at understanding much about somewhere till I get to visit and while I had obviously heard of the Falkland Islands growing up I really know nothing about them other than they were “owned” by the UK, they weren’t very big, they were always windy and there was a war fought over them when I was a kid.  Since working for BAS I had also become aware that they were a major stepping stone for personnel going to work in Antarctica.  BAS staff are still sometimes referred to as FID’s (Falkland Islands Dependants).

931A8994Stanley Post Office.  When wandering around the Falklands a lot of it feels very British and then you turn a corner and see a penguin.

falkland-islands-location-mapI had never really grasped why Margaret Thatcher had sent the British Navy to the Falklands after the Argentinians invaded in 1982.  It makes more sense in Stanley where the people are so proud to be British and there’s a statue of Thatcher in the high street where shes heralded as the person that came to the Falklands rescue.  In a recent referendum 99.7% of the Falkland islanders voted to stay under British Sovereignty.  There was one person who voted against!

For those of us heading South the falklands is an 18hr flight in a Military Airplane via Cape Verde from Brize Norton near Oxford.   Military planes have loads of leg room and a box of food is thrust at you every two hours but unfortunately theres not 500 films to watch on your own personal screen.931A9001At one end of Stanley high street is a statue of Margaret Thatcher, at the other a statue made from the jaw bones of two blue whales.  This has stood since 1933 (with a bit of restoration) and is hard to believe that these could have come from any animal alive today.

931A9003Sort of British and sort of not.  British style town houses with tin roofs in Stanley

931A9006The only sign that you’re outside one of the most popular pubs in the Falklands.  Its very hard to tell whether a building is a shop, pub or someones house as there’s very little to tell them apart.

931A9018Black- Crowned Night Heron at Gypsy Cove.

931A9041Obviously with a major war having been fought on a tiny island there’s old ordnance all over the place.  The gun that guarded the mouth of Stanley harbor  is looking pretty old now.

931A9044I spent a day wondering in the hills above Stanley.  I’m told this weather is pretty rare in the Falklands but it was perfect weather for climbing!

931A9050Its definitely windy!  A wander along Berthas beach with some other BAS staff showed endless sand dunes and a few penguins.

931A9082Sort of like the UK and sort of not.  A gentoo penguin casually sauntering past some geese and a sheep.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABoarding the Ernest Shackleton in more normal Falklands weather.

We (the 7 of us going to Signy) should be spending four days on the Shackleton along with some staff headed to the other island bases.

Signy Antarctica.001Where is Signy?  Signy Research Station is a Summer only station in the South Orkney Islands, 600km from the Antarctic peninsular.  More people have heard of the South Shetland Islands (closer to the peninsular) as they contain Elephant Island where Frank Wild was left with some of Shackleton’s men when he set off for South Georgia after the failure of the Endurance expedition.

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While the Ernest Shackleton is an Ice Class vessel (not an Ice Breaker) she is known to have a fairly bad roll in heavy seas.  I thought the statement “If you suffer from motion sickness however slight this ship will make you ill” pretty funny at the initial brief but when we set sail tomorrow it might be a different story!

 

 

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Finlandia Foothills and a Skua Survey

The news was broken to me at Halley that I was the only person flying back to Rothera with Olly the pilot.  My dreams of alternating between napping and reading my book in the back while someone else did co-pilot duties were shattered!  As the plane was so light we flew direct from Halley to Rothera in just under seven hours with me still managing to get a bit of a nap and some reading done.  In reality it was a fun trip feeling much more like a road trip than normal with just Olly and I chatting away and me occasionally doing a little bit of flying to give Olly a break.  On the way out of Halley we flew over the RRS Ernest Shackleton doing relief on the Brunt Ice Shelf 40km from the Halley base.

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The “Shack” doing relief with lots of cargo sledges and vehicle lined up to take the cargo back to base.
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By the time we got to Rothera it was grey and overcast.  Flying from Halley to Rothera directly does mean that the last bit of the journey has some interesting views as the route cuts across the peninsular.

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Back at Rothera Julie and I had a bit of planning and packing to do before the input to the Finlandia Foothills for our final short project of the season.  It wasn’t until after Julie had flown in to establish our camp that I was shown this excerpt from the previous field party in the area in the early 80’s.  Needless to say Julie and Pete were on the ground for five days waiting for the weather to improve for the rest of us to fly in.931A6473

Julie walking away from camp with the Wilson range behind.  The team of six of us were in the Finlandia Foothills on Alexander island in the hope of establishing an Antarctic Special Protected Area (ASPA).  An area of the foothills had shown promise via satellites and four scientists were expecting a higher than normal density of biological matter and some birds. (Basically bird poo, birds, moss and lichens).  (Fossil Bluff is also on Alexander Island which at BAS is often referred to as being the same size as Wales.  I recently learnt that it is also the second largest uninhabited island in the world)

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On our first afternoon we headed up on the screes above camp looking for moss and lichen931A6490

Pete hard at work collecting Lichens931A6499Gearing up to leave camp.  On this day we decided to head down to our main objective just over 6km away.  Note the bird net Richard is carrying.931A6503

Julie and the two Pete’s skiing away from camp.

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What a lot of Lichen!  After three hours of glacier travel on skis and foot we reached the site to realise that there was…. just a few bits of Lichen and no sign of birds, bird poo or moss.  We had expected the sample collections at this site to take three to four days!
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Scientists in the mist.  While at the site Kevin wanted to collect a series of DNA samples making him and Richard look particularly strange wandering around in the mist.  Needless to say it was quickly decided that the site was not worthy of ASPA status!
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The neighbours – It was great to be in a field camp as a large group again as once we had discovered the site was not what we wanted we had to wait a few days to be picked up.931A6538

Julie and the Petes being told the planes wont arrive tomorrow.

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After eleven days for Julie and just six for me we flew back late afternoon over some amazing chunks of sea ice and the RSS James Clark Ross doing relief at Rothera.

931A6555JCR on the Rothera Wharf.

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Skua survey.  After a brief couple of days at Rothera it was straight back out with my tentmates from Finlandia, Kevin and Richard, to carry on a skua survey on the islands near Rothera.  The flags on Kevin and Richards bags are to give the skua’s something to go for rather than your head when you’re peering into their nests.931A6577

Skua chick.  While Kevin outlined survey areas and Richard counted nesting pairs I tried to count nest contents.  Despite the skuas clearly showing you where their nests are by swooping you more and more aggressively the nests are surprisingly hard to spot.931A6613

Our salubrious accommodation on Anchorage island.  Salubrious until I pulled the door off the hut within minutes of our arrival!   931A6617

More Skua chicks.931A6620

Inquisitive Weddel seal.  I’ve spent barely any time on the islands around Rothera so doing the Skua survey was a great excuse to wander around and get some photos on both Anchorage and Leonie Island.
931A6682Incoming! Despite being assured by Richard that the skuas were not that aggressive and would only go for the flag some of the birds were extremely persistent I did get a few good hits to my head by some of the more adventurous ones.

One more week in Antarctica before heading home to Scottish winter which appears to be shaping up nicely.

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Halley Christmas

A bit late on Decembers blog!  I’ve had a really varied season so far with the biggest difference getting to spend time at BAS’s other Antarctic Research Station – Halley VI.  Halley has been in the news a lot over the last couple of years as some previously dormant cracks started opening up in the Brunt Ice Shelf inland from the station.  Last year a huge team of Engineers, Drivers and support staff moved the main modules to the other side of the crack (known as the Chasm) only to discover there was another crack (Halloween Crack) even further “inland”.  Work continues at Halley this season with a lot of monitoring of the various cracks, readying the base to survive the Antarctic winter without staff and and attempt to fully automate all the long term science that happens.

From a Rothera perspective Halley is the place that all the fuss is made about while the science and field work happens from Rothera.  From a Halley perspective Rothera is not the real Antarctic.  The main difference for me is that you get bacon rolls for smoko at Halley

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At the start of December I spent a lot of time flying around the Ellsworth Mountains with Ian (Pilot) and Ben (Engineer) sorting out more science sites.  The views of the mountains were amazing as was getting to stay in the “hotel” at Union Glacier.

 

931A6048 Mt Vinson  – the highest peak on the continent (4892m)931A6052 Ben working at one of the sites south of the Ellsworths.  The first few sites were al uphill from the plane and involved lugging batteries to and from them.  A couple of these sites were at about 8000ft.  With the lower air pressure in Antarctica they feel more like 12000ft so its pretty knackering dragging car batteries behind you.931A6072 Tough place for a lunch stop.931A6090Enormous crevasses on the approach to the Union Glacier skiway.931A6098 Ben walking back to our tent on the guest side of the Union camp.  It was great to check out the setup here and catch up with some friends.931A6236 Flying again –  As field guides we spend a lot time in the aircraft.  Fellow field guide Julie knitting away on the long flight from Rothera to Halley.
931A6280 Halley VI.  The original Halley Base was started in 1956 with the most recent incarnation being commisioned in 2006.  The original four bases were snowed in and the staff lived in them underground.  Both Halley V and VI were designed to raised to deal with the snow accumulation.  931A6284 I’ve often wondered why you dont see many pictures of Halley from the air.  I think part of the reason is that its not a particularly exciting view but also that a lot of attention is focused on the space age modules.  The view from above shows the vast amount of infrastructure needed to keep the base running.  Above – Halley modules in the centre with the various vehicle lines, container lines, accommodation and garage modules.  The lines at the top of the photo are enormous windscoops leading to the “hinge zone” where the Brunt ice shelf meets the continent.931A6312-HDR Classic Halley view.931A6327 Christmas day – Doug climbing in Halloween crack.  Mark (FG), Doug (Air Mech) and Olly (Pilot) snuck off on Christmas for a quick climb in Halloween crack.  Having to ski-doo there, set up the ropes, abseil in etc meant there was only time for a couple of climbs each but a great way to spend Christmas!931A6332 Some things are the same on Christmas day the world over – lots of washing up!.  (Though I’m not sure Marks Hawain shirt and flip flops are standard)931A6343 Straight after Christmas it was back out into the field for me.  I joined Neil at Bluefields depot and then moved to a Depot in the Shackleton Range.931A6362Filling in the days with igloo building.  Rob (who switched with Neil) came to join me while I did constant Weather observations for the aircraft.  10 days of staring at clouds, drinking tea and reading.

Back to Rothera in the next couple of days and then back into the field for a couple of weeks before heading home.

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