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!

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