With summer on the way, the weather is improving rapidly. The last few days have given us blue skies and sunshine and, despite some heavy snow last weekend, gravelly grey earth and icy pools of melt-water are beginning to show through around Rothera Point. Even the deafening silence of Antarctica is now occasionally broken by the distant muffled rumble of an iceberg collapsing under the heat of the sun.
The warmth of the spring is also bringing with it an abundance of wildlife. Weddell seals and fur seals spend the long days sunbathing on the sea-ice, occasionally looking up in surprise to see that their floe has gently drifted out to sea. Penguin sightings are also becoming a more common occurrence – last week a volunteer had to be dispatched to chase a penguin off the runway before one of our planes could take off.
Night-time darkness is already a distant memory – twilight is barely upon us by midnight and few people on base are early enough risers to catch the dawn. From around 11 at night the sun is only a couple of degrees above the horizon, and illuminates the islands and mountains in soft pastel shades of purple and orange. At this time of night the seals are getting frisky, and the males sit on the foreshore booming out haunting cries that echo off the mountains around the base.
My first sighting of a whale was a particular highlight. I was alone, doing some maintenance on an antenna perched high up on the top of Rothera Point, a position which gives a spectacular panorama over the bay. I heard the unmistakable sound of a whale surfacing and venting through its blowhole, and just managed to catch a glance of it diving a couple of hundred metres offshore. A couple of minutes later it surfaced again on the far side of some floating brash ice and this time I got a perfect view of the rounded back and small, rounded dorsal fin of a minke whale. It was heading South at some speed, and I managed to get a couple more distant glimpses before it finally disappeared.
As the season progresses, we can expect even more visiting wildlife. Most years a pod of killer whales appears just off the end of runway, and humpback whales are also a fairly regular fixture. Last year they even had a lone emperor penguin that appeared one winter’s day, waddled through the base and then disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. My camera has to be permanently at the ready!