Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Relief at Rothera


A month later than originally expected, and feeling a trifle beaten and battered, the James Clark Ross finally made her way to Rothera station. We arrived at Adelaide Island on the Tuesday of last week, one or two days after the science work had terminated and spent the day steaming with eager anticipation towards Rothera point. Despite the cold temperatures, wildlife was abundant in those waters and the humpback whales came to investigate us on several occasions. With almost depressing predictability, I was sat at the stern end of the ship admiring humpbacks gallivanting perhaps as little as a quarter of a mile away, when something from the bow end of the ship caught my attention. I looked along the side of the ship and spotted the humpbacks which had apparently been feeding happily just beneath the bow. Immediately they felt my eyes upon them, they became bashful and dove before resurfacing just out of camera range. Thanks guys. I was later told by the scientists that they’d all been happily watching the whales for about half an hour. People really like rubbing salt in the wildlife spotting wound!


An elusive humpback whale
 The arrival into Ryder Bay was spectacular. I went up onto the Monkey Island early (for me anyway) and just soaked in the views. I was surrounded by a ring of mountains that reached down to the grey-black waters of the bay. The mountains themselves were painted with pale blues and purples in the early morning light. Their peaks were wrapped with milky white clouds that lent the scene an otherworldly feeling.
Views in Ryder Bay


Our day was not to be as straight forward as a simple arrival and unloading however. Strong winds blowing at about 40 knots kept us off the berth and ultimately the decision was made to go a-hunting for a mooring that was somewhere in the bay instead. The mooring housed data recorders that had been making continuous observations for the last year and was firmly anchored to the sea bed. The ship traversed the bay, “pinging” the mooring and when we finally received a response, the mooring released and the data recorders floated up to the surface with a big colourful buoy. In practice things weren’t quite that straightforward and we had to criss-cross the bay several times, always with the nagging worry that our data might resurface somewhere awkward...like under an iceberg. Still, I wasn’t complaining and I spent several happy hours on the deck, liberally coated in a sticky film of suntan lotion and enjoying the feeling of warmth on my face.
Searching for our mooring amidst all the ice

It gave me a lot of time to focus on my camera work too. I’ve been concerned that so many of my photos look horribly washed out and I was wondering how to correct for the brightness of the light down here. I struggled manfully with the camera manual and harassed my fellow seafarers until someone kindly explained that dropping the ISO might help. Apparently the ISO tells the camera how sensitive it should be to light. In Antarctica the light is so very bright that actually it’s better if the ISO is very low indeed. Happiness has resulted and my next task is to grapple with something called “f-stop”. Not a clue what that is, but it sounds deeply impressive.
All this meandering around the bay gave me a wonderful chance to watch a Twin Otter plane flying in to Rothera. These planes are painted a bright shiny red and they provide a vital link to field stations further out in the continent. They're fitted with skis which means that they can land on ice and snow. The Dash 7 planes by contrast provide the air link between Rothera and airports in Chile and the Falklands. They're also capable of landing on the blue-ice runway at Sky-Blue station which is one of the remote field stations.
The Twin Otter plane

The wind finally dropped and we were able to moor up at Biscoe Wharf and begin the serious business of the relief. Or rather the station personnel and the sailors were. I just sprinted down the gangway and into a massive hug from Jen, my opposite number in Rothera. There was a lot of squealing- there are dogs in Punta Arenas that still feel their ears are ringing- and then I was taken on a tour around the station. No doubt at all, Rothera is a beautiful place. I feel that the view into Ryder Bay would go a long way to reconcile you to whatever the inconveniences of living in such a remote location might be!
The station itself has the interesting feeling of a building site mixed with a healthily austere campsite. The buildings seem to be predominantly painted a dull khaki green, with the windows picked out in red. My favourite building had to be Fuchs House where much of the equipment for field operations is stored. The tents, skis, sleeping bags, climbing gear, rescue equipment and field rations all live here. As does the climbing wall, a field library and a small impromptu cinema! My tour of the station complete, Jen took me on a walk around the coastline which led me up onto a promontory overlooking Biscoe Wharf. As she pointed out, we didn’t need to go far from the station to experience utter quiet. In some ways it was almost eerie as I gazed at the enormous icebergs; it felt as though nothing so vast should be so still and so quiet.
Rothera station






The following days were spent in a flurry of activity. I helped Jen with unloading the medical supplies and the supplies for the Rothera shop. It made me giggle quite a bit; it’s fairly surreal to be stock-taking with your mate in Antarctica! But as a result of my activities, I’m now branded from head to toe in Rothera gear. It’s just a mercy they didn’t sell Rothera knickers- although I may suggest it to BAS for next year! If only to see the look on their faces...
The high point was definitely being taken cross-country skiing. I’ve never done any sort of skiing before so this was very exciting. I bounded up the slope behind Jen, waving a hand merrily at her whenever she turned back to check how I was getting on. The instant she turned away I doubled over, wheezing and fighting frantically with my skis which seemed to have a desperate urge to spring from my grip and fling themselves back down the slope. But we made it eventually and I think my voice was only marginally more high-pitched than normal at the top... It was awesome. The most beautiful view I’ve ever had, and once I got used to the concept it was a bit like roller-blading. But with sticks. Regrettably I wasn’t quite as talented at coming down the slight slope on our way back to the station. I couldn’t really work out how to stop so I just settled for flinging myself on the ground. This did, as JK Rowling would say, arrest momentum but is probably not the elegant technique that experienced skiers use! Still, despite my technicolour bruises, I will definitely be doing that again. And how many people get to say that their first skiing lesson was in Antarctica?
Explorer poses

On my final day I walked up to Rothera point and looked out at the friendly bulk of the JCR tied up with the mass of the mountains behind. I then turned and regarded the memorials that lie on the promontory. They serve as a sobering reminder that even in the modern age, Antarctica is still fantastically remote. It would take less time to get someone down from the international space station than it would to try and rescue someone from the continent in the middle of winter.
Memorials at Rothera Point

And then that was it. We were pulling away from the wharf; off for further adventures. We’re now Punta Arenas bound and I’m very much looking forward to some pampering activities. Like a pedicure and a swim in a hotel pool...
This little Adelie desperately trying to get an entry into a seals only club...

13 comments:

  1. Hi Helen, how long will the Rothera medic live there?

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    1. The Rothera doctor is over-wintering so she'll be there for 18 months. (The last six months is an extended handover to the new doctor) In the winter their team shrinks down from being nearly 100 people to being just under 20 and mobility can be limited by the weather so they tend to pick people who aren't just outdoorsy but also able to keep themselves entertained for long periods. And people who just get on with others. Jen's pretty much perfect for the post to be honest. Hx

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  2. That last photo... deserves a caption competition!

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    1. Lol, what would you say? I like the idea of a caption competition. The winner and runners up could get a postcard from our next destination! Hx

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    2. Concerns the small tuxedo wearing bouncer would not be able to turn the big boys away were soon put to rest...

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    3. Dave M...that absolutely rocks! Postcard from Punta Arenas?

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  3. Really enjoying your adventure updates Helen - wishing you a happy new year and safe journey to Punta Arenas! Thanks for sharing everything with us!

    Alice (Cardiff WEMS)

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    1. Hey Alice! No bother at all lovely. My pleasure to share it; I'm just pleased that you guys are enjoying the blog. Punta was great and we're now back at sea again! Off to Bird Island and the Weddell Sea. Hx

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  4. Another great read, love resding your blogs and would so love to work for BAS in Antarctica if only just for 6 months what an experience

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  5. Another great read, love resding your blogs and would so love to work for BAS in Antarctica if only just for 6 months what an experience

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    1. Hey Karen, that's really nice to hear! Thank you so much. Erm...if you're interested in working for BAS take a look at their website. They usually have a list of jobs that are going and just apply for whichever ones take your fancy. When I emailed my boss to ask him what they were looking for he just said people who are keen on the outdoors, can get on with others and that was it really. Nothing crazy. There are loads of jobs that they need- support staff, science staff, guides etc... Best of luck. Hx

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  6. Hi Helen, I appreciate your blog and the extraordinary photos you have taken. There is something about the remote areas of the earth that are truly breathtaking. I haven't had the pleasure to travel to Antarctica myself, which is all the more reason to enjoy your beautiful pictures and perhaps to live vicariously through you! Keep up the great work!

    Traci Mcdaniel @ CMH-INC

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    1. Hi Traci! Thank you very much; really pleased that you're enjoying the blog. If you really like a good Antarctic photo, you could take a look at the Purser's photography page. Richard Turner Photography. His pictures are absolutely stunning! Hope you enjoy!

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