We have a small fleet of boats at Rothera, which are used to support all of the diving projects and marine science. The current focus of this work is to study the impact of gradually increasing sea temperatures on marine life, helping us to predict the future changes in biodiversity due to global warming. Happily, a side effect of this is that we occasionally get the chance to head out on a recreational boat trip in the evening and see the sights around Rothera.
I arrived late at dinner last night, and was luckily just in time to sign up for the last seat on such a trip. After scoffing the food down, a group of us headed to the boat shed to don life-jackets and bulky all-in-one dry-suits – the sea temperatures here sit at a fairly consistent bit-less-than-zero degrees, and therefore the dry suits are essential for giving a man overboard at least a fighting chance of survival.
After struggling into the suits we waddled down to the wharf and climbed down a rickety rope ladder into two boats, Humber and Erebus (apparently Humber is brand new, and the name is only temporary – she will be re-christened with a more impressively Antarctic name any time soon). We perched ourselves on the inflatable sides of the boat and grabbed on to anything we could find as Ash, the coxswain, cranked us up to full throttle and we zoomed away from Rothera.
First stop was an elephant seal colony on Lagoon Island. The seals were large, fractious and fairly smelly, but seemed to have sorted themselves a pleasantly simple life of mainly sunbathing, wrestling and then intermittently fulfilling their basic animal needs. Lagoon is also home to a small BAS hut, which can be used for weekend breaks over the winter if you don’t mind the bickering neighbours.
The boats then skirted around a huge iceberg, nicknamed ‘Big Papa’ – this was the one which blocked the runway a few weeks ago, and has been knocking around in Ryder Bay ever since. Whilst it had looked huge from the land before, as we drew in closer on the boat it towered above us; a vast unscalable wall of ice, pockmarked here and there with vivid blue caves.
As we headed into open water again, we zipped past small icebergs, carved into extraordinary shapes by sun, sea and wind. Some of them carried wildlife – crabeater seals might just raise their head, give us benign, unconcerned glance and then start snoring again. The Adelie penguins tended to look a bit more worried, and might stand up and flap their wings ineffectually as the boats drifted by.
Last stop was the Sheldon Glacier, a huge jagged, tortured entity that creaked and groaned its way off the edge of Adelaide Island and into the bay, spawning many of the icebergs in the process. As we got closer, the boat had to nose its way through the brash ice and debris created every time a part of the ice wall collapsed.
Then it was back to Rothera, but as we approached the wharf, a leopard seal stuck its nose above the water and surveyed us from a few feet away, before diving and coming closer to investigate us. Despite its size, it movement through the water was phenomenally graceful and it wheeled and glided around us a few times before losing interest and heading for deeper water.
Someone at HQ once told me that probably the best job on base was that of the boatman. As I climbed back up the rope ladder and onto dry land, I reflected that they may well have been right.