A very big ‘hello’ from Bird Island!
This is to be my new home for the next 5 months. The temptation to return to Antarctica was just too strong, so a few months ago I took the decision to head south again. This time I’m working as the Base Commander of the British Antarctic Survey’s research station on Bird Island, just a stone’s throw away from the remote craggy mass of South Georgia.
OK, so it’s not technically Antarctica – the South Georgia archipelago lies at about 54 degrees South, roughly 1000 miles south-east of the Falkland Islands, in a zone termed sub-Antarctica. However, it lies well within the polar front, the vast weather system that constantly circles the continent, so gets battered by the same cold, stormy air as the rest of Antarctica.
Bird Island itself is a 5km x 1km lump of tussock-covered rock, which is home to one of the greatest densities of bird and seal life anywhere on the planet. Our scientists here spend their days out on the hills and beaches, monitoring the vast populations of albatross, penguins, fur-seals and myriad other species, giving very long-term datasets which clearly illustrate changes in the population or behaviour of the creatures.
The base itself is small; a maximum of 10 people inhabit the scattering of buildings on the beach in a small bay called Jordan Cove. A scaffolding jetty provides access for small boats – the only way to get on or off the Island. A couple of streams and rainwater collection systems provide fresh water. A generator powers the base, and the BAS ships anchor outside the cove a couple of times a year to ferry across passengers, fuel, food and all of the other bits and pieces needed to keep the place running. The main building is small, but cosy and well thought-out, providing accommodation, storage, kitchen, dining room and laboratories.
Our journey to the island was long and complicated. The first flight from RAF Brize Norton took us as far as Ascension Island, hot and humid in the equatorial Atlantic. After a couple of hours of refuelling, this continued on to RAF Mount Pleasant airport in the Falkland Islands, a total of 20 hours of travel. Then an hour spent on a bus to Port Stanley, the diminutive Falklands capital, where we boarded the RRS James Clark Ross, the BAS ship that take us the rest of the way. After four days spent crossing the Southern Ocean, we finally awoke to see Bird Island. Of course, the ship can’t make it all the way into the base, so had to unload its small cargo tender to drop us, our luggage, fuel, food and lots of other cargo off. We were welcomed ashore by the intrepid team of 4 who over-wintered here, keeping the base and the scientific research ticking over for the winter months.
The first thing that hits you when you arrive at Bird Island is the noise and the smell. The beach that the base stands on is a fur-seal breeding colony, and by this time of year the adult males are already vying for territories, squabbling and growling at each other in a constant war of attrition. The diminutive female fur-seals are being snapped up into harems, and already the barks of the adults are interrupted by the occasional squeak of a tiny furry pup. In between the seals waddle the gentoo penguins, awkward and gormless-looking out of water. Overhead circle the skuas and snowy sheathbills, opportunistic scavengers always looking for the next dead chick or scrap of placenta. On the hills and out to sea soar the albatrosses – wanderers, black brows, grey-heads, with their vast wing spans and effortless gliding, a stark contrast to their ungainly flat-footed waddle on land.
Bird Island is an assault on the senses. Though lacking the permanent snow and ice of Rothera, its storm-swept remoteness is equally inhospitable. But where Rothera felt clean and pristine, here it is all about the life. Outside my window as I write is a constant soap-opera of birth, death, fighting, mortal injury and motherly tenderness.
People often wonder whether I get bored down here. I ask you – with all of that going on just outside, who has time to be bored?