Sunday, 15 March 2009

End game...

Cambourne. The future of British lifestyle, a planned community centred around a Morrison's supermarket. It's quite a distance from the nearest five-star pub. But for the moment, it's my home. I'm back.

My visit to the Falkland Islands lasted from Saturday morning to Tuesday morning. I was woken up by the Falklands by its smell - a smell of green stuff. It was delicious. Signy had its own smells - primarily seal crap - but real civilization and grass and so on was a great smell. On Saturday, we couldn't moor up - there was no dock space - so we just sat out in the bay, and used a small Fast Rescue boat to shuttle anyone ashore who wanted to go. I was first in line. Oddly, many people had no urge to go ashore - perhaps they were institutionalized already. I, for one, was ready to go to the Antarctic halfway house, Stanley.

Stanley has 2000 people, give or take. It is by far the largest community in the Falklands, and it has one grocery store, about 3 bars and 3 hotels, and several knickknack shops. Its main industry is servicing the tourists and the military base - there's a bit of a wool trade too. And us, I suppose. Feels a bit like Newfoundland, actually, which probably isn't surprising.

Definitely a strong military feeling here. The invasion and subsequent liberation of the Falklands was about 25 years ago - and the island is still riddled with land mines and spent shell casings. On the second day, I took a walk looking for a beach of penguins. Cutting across country, I got into an area surrounded by land mine danger zones. Fortunately, they're well labeled. And I got to the beach....

and saw a few Magellan (?) penguins.

On the way back, I had a good view of some ships. Two worked, two didn't.

The two beached hulks each have their own stories - which I can't recall at the moment - but the one on the left was actually used as storage for awhile. Really tempting to swim out and check it out, but it's strongly discouraged for safety reasons. The two working ships are right in the middle, off in the distance. That's us. The Ernest Shackleton, and the James Clark Ross. The British Antarctic Survey's entire fleet, side by side.

The Shackleton is more fun, I believe - the JCR is built to be a science vessel, and we're more about logistics. But we have a good place to watch movies and relax; they have more boardrooms and such.

Anyway, we spent a few days poking around - some went to the bars, some went hiking. I mostly did the latter, as Stanley's pubs all gloriously failed my criteria for pub greatness. And then finally, Tuesday morning, we went to the military airport to board our plane. I was bracing myself for a Hercules - a military transport plane that was light on entertainment but at least had some legroom. I was totally unexpected for what I saw.

A sidebar here. I've flown a lot between the UK and Toronto. I've flown BA, Air Canada, Zoom, Air Transat...and FlyGlobeSpan. I like BA, boycott Air Canada (they stole my airmiles, another story), Zoom went bankrupt, and Air Transat is unpleasant. But FlyGlobeSpan was the worst. They were nine hours late - and I know people who've had much worse. Their plane has no entertainment. And hoo boy, is it cramped. After one trip of that, I swore never to fly it again.

And against my will, I was forsworn. For I found myself staring at a FlyGlobeSpan plane as I arrived at the military airport. Of all the places in the world. FlyGlobeSpan was outsourced for the 16 hour Falkland Islands run. Needless to say, not much sleep was to be had on this flight.

We did stop in the Ascension Islands in the middle of the night. They stuck us in a chainlink corral while servicing the plane. The Ascension Islands are halfway between Brazil and Africa - right in the middle of the South Atlantic, in other words. Still pretty far from anywhere.

And then we were back. Brize Norton, a military airport in Oxfordshire. I took a shuttle bus back to Cambridge, messed around in the office a bit, and ended up back here in Cambourne. And that, dear readers, is the end of another Antarctic season.

There might be one more season for me. Next year will begin early - October, probably, but possibly even September. Until then - I've got a round-the-world trip starting in a few weeks, but other than that, should be a quiet summer.

I'll leave you with a video shot by Tony, one of our RAF mast erectors who joined us at Halley this year. This is a fur seal, who (like any fur seal) doesn't like people and gave Tony a bit of a chase. A good test for Tony's balance and fitness to run backwards and try to keep the camera properly aimed!

Thanks for reading along again.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Signy: A cosy little research station

My last night on the Shackleton. Last night in the southern hemisphere, for that matter. Tomorrow morning, at 5am, we boogie on outta here and catch a military flight back to the UK, via the Ascension Islands. 16 hours of flying. Ugh.

But! I'm not here to talk about that - or the Falklands, where I currently am. I'm here to talk about Signy.

Here it is.

Signy is a very small base - I think there was eight people there this year. It was our first solid land for quite some time, and our job was to shut it down and winterize it. This job mainly involved loading things onto the ship - actually, loading them onto a little ship called the Tula, which then took it out to the Shackleton, which was too large to get close to base. We also covered up windows, shuffled around fuel drums, and did other minor things. About five hours work.

Many differences between Signy and Halley - the major difference is that Signy is full of wildlife. I saw one penguin - a gentoo, maybe? - and fur seals, which are mean, fast little gits. But the stars of signy are the elephant seals.

I think the word "sloth" is wasted upon the three-toed sloth. Granted, they may move slower, but elephant seals epitomize the concept of fat, lazy slob. Here's a pile of them, outside the back door of the base.

A seething, heavy breathing pile of flesh. They gurgle, fart, burp, yawn...and that's about it. They do scratch themselves. They look like Homer Simpson when they scratch their asses - although identifying the ass on a fat cylindrical creature is tough - and they look really puzzled when they scratch their heads.

Two of them were engaged in an activity that was either a) courting, or b) male territorial rivalry. They would stand nose to nose and belch at one another for awhile. Then, one would use its head to poke the other one in the neck. The poked seal would bellow in rage - or perhaps it was just gas - and then bang the other one similarly in the neck once with its head. Then they would lie back down, all tuckered out, and catch their breath. And then recommence.

This went on for several hours.

When compared to rutting stag deer, smashing each other at high speed until they're bloody, elephant seals seem pretty lame. One of them happened to be in front of a door we need to access. So it had to be moved. This was the comedy highlight of my day. Toddy - my erstwhile field companion from Halley who spent this year at Signy - used a combination of flexing a metal sheet and kicking the seal to get it to move. Which it didn't.

The funny part of this was that you could exactly see what the elephant seal was thinking at this behaviour. Roaring and farting in rage, showing its teeth, it was clearly saying, "I outweigh you by several hundred kilos. I have vicious teeth, and I am a brutal dangerous predator. And I would turn around and rip you to shreds if I wasn't so damned tired! Now piss off!"

Eventually, though, the seal grudgingly flopped a few feet away. I believe they are actually quite energetic under the right circumstances - aquatic circumstances, I imagine. Seemed hard to believe at the time.

Anyway, off to bed. Early flight tomorrow. Later this week, I'll cap off the blog with the Falklands, Ascensions, and any other adventures that may happen between here and regular life!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

A tour of the Shackleton

The big journey is over. It's been ten days at sea now, and we've dropped anchor at Signy Harbour on the South Orkney Islands. I've always wanted to go to the Orkneys ever since getting to England - family roots there, and all that - but I had no idea that I'd hit the southern ones first. Didn't even know they existed, then.

Not that we're staying long. It's a day at Signy, packing up the base, then continuing onto the Falklands. But that's not far away.

In the meantime! I have been fully institutionalized onto the Shackleton. Hopefully, this is the closest I'll ever get to a prison stint - nothing to do, limited mobility, not much to see.
It was nice to relax, at first, but now I just have the urge to jump off the ship and run up that mountain in the picture, flailing my arms and screaming incoherently.

Actually, it hasn't been that bad. But I can boil down my existence in the last 10 days to four pictures.

1. My cabin. Shared with Lance and Bryan. A good choice of cabin-mates - we're all quiet people. My bed is on the left. We have our own toilet and shower, which has been a nice luxury.

2. The "social" room. Scrabble, movies, and crosswords dominate this area. It's adjacent to the smoking room, which is slightly unpleasant if you're feeling marginal and you catch a nasty waft.

3. The mess hall. This is a wonderful room, because the food on the Shack is very, very good. We had some freshly caught tuna the other night, that easily qualifies as the best cooked fish I've ever had. I would have given anything to get it in sushi form.

4. The cargo hold. I come in here every day at 4:30 pm for circuit training. This is two hours of running around that container in the middle, and doing weights, etc. at several stations. It's been an institution religiously adhered to by the doctor and captain for the last couple years; and if it wasn't for this daily exercise, I'd be "Ryan the Hutt" by the time I left the ship. As it is, I'm barely keeping up to my food intake.

But now, I'm itching to get ashore to Signy. I'm on "heavy lifting" duty, for things that will be brought aboard as they shut down the little base for the winter. I can see hundreds of penguins onshore from here, with binoculars - hopefully there'll be a chance to get a bit closer tomorrow.

And now, I shall go to the social room and see how the Scrabble is coming on.