Thursday, March 18, 2010


I've 'done my time' in Antarctica and now I've been 'released' into the real world. You hear lots of stories about struggling to re-integrate into real life after wintering in the peaceful existence of an Antarctic base. For the moment I'm on holiday in Chile, and it's been a pretty easy transition. The wide open spaces and welcoming people of Patagonia make it a good place to reflect on the last 18 months. But I'll reserve my judgement until I've been home for a month or two.

It was an emotional departure from Rothera on the last flight of the season, leaving behind my home of over a year and being split from the fantastic group of friends I've made. The remainder of my wintering team, apart from the three opting for a second winter, will travel back home together to the Falkland Islands on the Ernest Shackleton. As the only winterer on the flight, I was given the privilege of sitting up front in the jump seat as we landed in the strange new, green, world of Punta Arenas, Chile.

I was suddenly aware of all the small things I hadn't experienced for over a year. The good, the bad and the plain ugly.

Freedom to choose - menus, accommodation, where, when and how to travel, what to do and when to do it. Unfortunately choices require you to take responsibility for your own actions and generally require payment of some sort.

The ubiquitous mobile phone with its annoying ring tones and loud conversations interrupting my peaceful meal or distracting me from enjoying the large Patagonian vistas.

Advertising and global media accost you, starting the moment you arrive at the airport. Those subliminal messages that emanate from the billboards, TV's and magazines telling you to spend, spend, spend, become very obvious and offensive after living without them for a year.

I traveled to Puerto Natales with the idea of getting away from the busy city of Puerto Arenas and getting some time in the world renowned Torres Del Paine national park. When I arrived the wind was blowing strongly, as it often does in these parts and heavy rain came down in the evening. The following day dejected hikers arrived from the park after packing in their ideas of completing the 5 day 'W hike'. As I wasn't really geared up for walking in inclement weather I decided to head for the park on a day hike. Fortunately I chose the best day possible to do it. I was rewarded with blue skies and stunning close up views of the Torres.

The park as a whole was not quite what I had envisaged and if I'd spent a lot of money getting there from Europe I'd be a little disappointed. Unfortunately for those hoping to travel to somewhere remote for some wilderness experience it's a huge honeypot for the masses of backpackers who hike around these small group of mountains along the same trail. There are much quieter 5 day hikes closer to home in Scotland/Norway/Alps/Pyrenees with more varied landscape and scenery.

Ironically it appeared less busy in Puerto Natales, the town that all the backpackers pass through on their way to the park. I spent a glorious calm day walking along the shoreline of the town past the beaches and the piers, taking photos, watching the wildlife and taking in the views with only the odd tourist (without backpack), local and dog walker in sight.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Antarctica Closes Down For The Winter

I expect this will be my final blog post from the Antarctic. The summer is drawing to a close, the nights are getting dark and the weather is turning windy and snowy. All the aircraft are withdrawing from the continent and those bases which are still open during the winter months are battening down the hatches.

We have seen a large amount of aircraft passing through here on their way home. At one point we hardly had enough room to fit them all in.

The Polar 5 Basler (modified DC3) from AWI (Alfred Wenger Institute), the German equivalent of BAS left today. It has been flying with one of the BAS twin otters doing meteorological science for the last few weeks.

Two of our own Twin otters departed last weekend and the last of our aircraft will depart this week. I'm due to fly out on the last aircraft, the Dash 7, which will fly me to Punta Arenas in Chile where I'll begin my slow travels home.

While I'm looking forward to getting home, it will be sad to leave my home of the last 15 months and all the friends I've made down here. However we'll all be getting together again in June for Andy's wedding.

The last of the personnel on base who are not staying for the winter will be leaving on the Ernest Shackleton which arrives in a couple of weeks time. The winterers can then get some peace and quiet for 7 months until the aircraft arrive back for another busy summer science season.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Frozen Planet

The BBC Natural History Unit have just spent a couple of weeks working down here on footage for their latest blockbuster David Attenborough narrated series called the Frozen Planet. It's due to be broadcast in the UK in November 2011 and will feature the wildlife of the Arctic and Antarctic.

They arrived with the latest high tech equipment including a 1/2 million pound high magnification gyro stablised HD cineflex camera. This was mounted on one of the twin otters for footage of the another twin otter flying over the Wilkin's Ice Shelf.

Unfortunately they blew up the power supply for the camera during that trip, so I had to cobble together a bunch of laptop power supplies to allow them to run the camera off batteries mounted on one of our RIBs so they could get some footage of our diving operations.

They gave us some amazing sneak previews of some of the footage they had gathered already at McMurdo base. Time lapse photography of underwater icicles forming and slow motion footage of Emperor Penguins leaping out of the sea. They also produced a short comedy movie for our 'folk night' and gave us a presentation on how to do our own time lapse photography.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Breneke Nunatak and Isostatic Rebound

Earlier this month I made a visit to Breneke Nunatak, the site of a science project to measure something called isostatic rebound. In essence the mountain is rising again after the weight of the ice sheet has shifted from it and they are trying to measure this movement. This a tricky thing to measure requiring several years of GPS measurements, and it can only be visited once a year to collect the data, so has to be fully self sufficient for its power during the year.

Not only that, it sits in a very exposed spot where during the winter it will experience hurricane force winds and temperatures down to -50deg C.

Since my last visit a year ago, the solar panel had cracked and become buried under the snow and one of the three wind turbines had blown away! Fortunately there was good data available for the majority of the year.

After all the repairs had been carried out, a change of batteries and a relocation of the solar panels we headed back up the peninsula on a fine evening.

Our route back to Rothera took us over the isolated Argentine base of San Martin and gave them a wave as we passed overhead.