In Stanley again

March 30th, 2007

It’s quite strange being back in Stanley again – despite only having been here for four days on the way down, the town feels very familiar and there are still a lot of BAS people about so you’re always bumping into people you know. It still feels disconcertingly like the UK – the street furniture and road signs are all UK-style, and the food shops are full of British brands. My first morning in Stanley, however, was spent dealing with the Great British Bureaucracy – I needed a visitors permit stamped into my passport. Dave the Purser on the ship organises immigration – and for most people it was straightforward. However, for the ten of us who were staying in the Falklands as tourists there was a problem – travel insurance. The customs officer needed to see proof that we had insurance to cover medical evacuations in the event that we became seriously ill or injured during the time we weren’t covered by BAS’s insurance. This had been a saga in itself – it’s almost but not quite impossible to buy travel insurance if you haven’t been living in the UK for 12 months and your journey doesn’t begin or end in the UK. After a tip-off from a colleague I bought a policy before leaving Rothera from Travel Nation which doesn’t have those irritating residency requirements. Anyway, three of us trekked up to the Customs office and stood around for twenty minutes whilst a slightly bemused official read our policies and eventually issued us two-week visitor’s permits.

Anyway… yesterday we went to Volunteer Point, which despite being expensive (and boy is everything expensive in the Falklands!) is well worth it. We’d organised two Land Rovers and local guides to take us there, as the journey is quite difficult – firstly you drive for about an hour and a half along the gravel roads to the tiny settlement of Johnson’s Harbour, and then you drive ten miles across rough peaty moorland until you reach the nature reserve. This is a little neck of land with a long sandy beach on one side facing the sea, and a muddy lagoon on the other. On this small piece of land, perhaps half a mile long, there are Magellanic penguins (Jackasses, the locals call them, because they bray like a donkey) in their little burrows, and noisy, smelly colonies of both the small Gentoo penguins and the much larger King penguins. The Kings had chicks, too – small grey ones still huddling around their parents, and much older ones covered in a mass of brown fluffy down.
It’s a magical spot, particularly as the penguins are quite unconcerned at your presence and happily wander around mingling with the scruffy local sheep.

king penguins
King Penguins on the beach at Volunteer Point
Lots of pictures of Stanley and Volunteer Point

Not seasick

March 26th, 2007

As I’m writing this, the Ernest Shackleton’s about 50 miles south of the Falkland Islands and we’re expecting to dock in Stanley tonight. The first part of our trip across the Drake Passage was (relatively) calm and so the ship’s made good speed. Yesterday, however, we had Force 7 winds and huge waves crashing over the bows – making the whole ship shudder and sending a lot of people (crew and Fids alike) to their bunks. It turns out that I don’t get seasick (although I feel a bit dodgy if I’ve been reading a book or sat in front of a computer for more than about half an hour) for which I’m profoundly grateful!

On the Shack

March 23rd, 2007

We sailed from Rothera yesterday morning, waving farewell to the winterers and leaving them to the mercy of the practical jokes we’d played on them! With glorious weather and calm seas we made our way into Margerite Bay, round the southern end of Adelaide Island and out into the Southern Ocean. At this point, the Ernest Shackleton’s legendary hydrodynamics began to produce the chaotic pitching and rolling for which the ship is infamous. Everyone took their Stugeron, and only a few people retired to their cabins. I found I was happier when watching the natual horizon, and headed up onto the Bridge. I found Vicky there already, and as the two of us looked out to the west we saw three whales blow several times in succession a few miles away. You can usually tell a whale’s species from the shape of its spout, and subsequent research revealed that these were most likely to have been the very large but now very rare blue whales – wow!

last view of rothera
Through the porthole – a last view of Rothera

This morning we woke in the calmer waters of the Argentine Islands, where we were to drop of a small team to help sort out some faulty meteorological equipment at the Ukranian base, Vernadsky. This used to be a British base (initially called Argentine Islands but later known as Faraday) and we still have a good working relationship with the cash-strapped Ukranians and tend to bail them out from time to time.
Whilst the ship held her position behind the base, rumours circulated around the crew and Fids as to our intended route. The captain had initially said “no scenic route” – meaning that after leaving Vernadsky we’d go directly to the open sea and set a direct course for the Falklands. In fact, as it was a glorious day and the conditions were calm and largely ice-free, Captain Marshall treated us to a small detour through the utterly spectacular Lemaire Channel before cutting round Anvers Island (passing the American Palmer Station on the way). Lemaire is a narrow channel flanked by high rocky mountains, and in an area with an abundance of wildlife. Stood on the “monkey island” – the upper deck above the bridge – we saw Orcas, penguins and seals in the water, as well as more whales (we think they were humpbacks). Should you ever get the opportunity to take a tourist cruise down the Antarctic Peninsula, make sure it includes this route as it is stunning!

Now we’re back in open waters, with the ship’s motion making you feel like you’re on a slowed-down Waltzer ride at a fairground. We should be in Stanley harbour on Tuesday morning.

Pictures of the journey

We’re history

March 20th, 2007

On Saturday we had a hugely successful fancy dress night with a historical theme. Lots of people dressed up in a variety of intriguing costumes: cave-people, cowboys, Romans, crusaders, hippies and so on. Roger and Pete almost stole the show as Stonehenge (yes, they made a “henge” out of cardboard and danced around in it for a significant amount of the evening) until Kai appeared in a robot outfit made from plumbing spares!
With a certain inevitability, I came as Brunel…


…with a frock coat made my creative modification of a vicar’s cassock from the dressing-up box and a top hat made from corrugated cardboard and gaffer tape.

On Sunday we had a heavy fall of snow, which makes the base look pretty again.

base in snow

bransfield in snow

This morning the Ernest Shackleton has arrived to take us home. I’ll be moving on board tomorrow night, although the ship will actually leave on Thursday morning.

Shackleton at wharf

This may well be the last post for a while – I’ll try and keep updated whilst I’m on the ship but as the Shackleton is famous for making people seasick then I may be indisposed…

people on point

Final photos in the snow- Lowri, Jade, Tom and (not leaving yet!) Roger

Final furlong

March 11th, 2007

What’s happened since I last wrote? Folk Night – the traditional blend of talent and silliness that forms a kind of end-of-season revue – and the departure of two of the Twin Otters for their winter maintenance in Calgary. We also said farewell to one of pilots, David Leatherdale, who’s retiring after a long period of service with BAS. We said farewell to David in giant orange letters laid out on the apron as he flew past!

We also had a brief visit from Malcolm Wicks, who’s Minister for Science and MP for North Croydon. He came, looked around, gave a *lot* of media interviews over the phone and then went again. He did host quite an interesting Q&A on the value of Antarctic science, although it degenerated into a set of harsh questions and defensive answers on why the previous day his department had announced cuts in the Research Council’s budgets despite these being supposedly “ring-fenced”…

Anyway, we had a final week of flying, mostly in support of the MASIN airborne meterological study, and as part of this I got a morning’s co-pilot down to Fossil Bluff and back. It was mostly clear down King George Sound and I managed to get some nice photos of the ice formations and mountains – Alexander Island and its immediate environs certainly count as one of the finest sights I’ve seen.

crevasse field

Extensive crevassing in King George Sound

Not long after this we had a barbecue over at the Hangar to say farewell to the Air Unit, which somehow became blended with a volleyball tournament! I’m pleased to inform you that the Comms Team (consisting of myself, Crispin, Chris and Mark) made it all the way to the final only to be beaten by Morrison Construction!
The following morning the remaining two Twin Otters departed, followed by the Dash the following day, although the latter made one more trip to bring us the last air mail from Stanley and finally left for good on Wednesday, doing the by-now-traditional flypast of the Ops Tower (“Negative, Ghostrider, the pattern is full…)

D7 flypast

Dash-7 flypast

One of the other things about leaving is that you suddenly realise that there are things you meant to do that you never quite got around to. So yesterday I went out with Roger and Alistair and went to explore the crevasse up near Reptile Ridge. It’s quite a strange experience – much more like caving than I was expecting – with chambers interconnected by small slippery passages and occasional shafts of diffuse light coming down through the snow bridges overhead. at one stage we heard a skidoo drive past overhead, which really brings it home to you how important it is to stay inside the safety of the flag lines.

crevasse entrance

roger in crevasse

Inside the crevasse

Next Sunday the Ernest Shackleton will be here and it will soon be over, bar the journey home. I should be back in the UK on or around June 5th, at Portland in Dorset, although this is still subject to change.