Monday, 10 March 2014
Apologies it has been so long since the last blog. We have been dedicating as much of our time as possible to filming leopard seals and tackling the elements...
Leaving Lockroy part I
The leopard seals that had been frequenting Port Lockroy disappeared again soon after my last blog and the ice packed into the bay, rendering underwater visibility poor. Therefore, we popped south for a few days again, using information gathered during our recce to try and film leopard seals in Port Charcot or Pleneau. We arrived at Port Charcot and the leopard seal was patrolling the area, exactly as we had seen it previously. We stuck around for a couple of days but didn't really see it again and the wind was due to change, which would have made our mooring spot (pretty much where Charcot himself overwintered once upon a time) pretty tough. So, we upped sticks and hopped across to Pleneau. We only saw one leopard seal there - it chased Andrew for quite some time but disappeared just as Doug turned up in dive gear in a second zodiac! The winds really picked up soon after that and we had to sit tight below deck. Filming commitments with the Port Lockroy team back at Base A (Port Lockroy), meant we had to up sticks when the weather came good and head back to our home at Lockroy.
Back at Port Lockroy, the chicks were starting to take to the water, finally! Without thought, they chased their parents into the sea - often still fairly down-covered but clearly desperate for a feed. Then they realised they were wet and rushed back out again, shaking themselves off but looking non-the-worse-for-wear. Others, that were perhaps closer to fledging, entered the water with a little more thought, standing waist-deep before putting their heads under to check out their underwater world. Often, this seemed to shock them as they would quickly lift their heads and run back out onto the rocks, before repeating the process several times. Eventually, we saw some take to the waves - tiny patches of down on their wings or neck being the only thing to give away their status as new fledglings.
St David's Day
Thoughts were with my mum as the 1st March came around. No daffodils here but we did have a Welsh flag... It was incredibly windy and blizzardy so we postponed raising it for a day or so when it could actually be seen and we didn't risk losing it! Michael (one half of a maintenance team working for the UKAHT down at Port Lockroy for the next few weeks) is from Wales and proudly raised the flag with me. A few penguins even hung around the base of the flag pole to see what was going on.
A blustery goodbye
It seems all to quickly that the 4th March came around. This was the day that the core Port Lockroy team left the base, closing the shop and post office for winter. We all awoke to another gusty day, with snow driving horizontally across the island. The ship picking them up to take them north to Ushuaia cancelled their morning landing nearby and instead gave them an hour's notice before landing zodiacs to collect them. Andrew, Doug and I quickly pulled our kit together and prepared to film them leaving the island. It was all very hectic and the driving snow made filming very tricky indeed. In fact, just as the zodiac disappeared, I realised they had indadvertedly taken one of our camera bags. There was a bit of a panic as we radioed the ship, identified the bag and arranged for it to be safely delivered back to us - a huge thank you to all involved from Ocean Diamond, especially the zodiac drivers who battled the elements to ensure our kit was safely returned! As a result of all this pandemonium, I was sorry not to say a proper goodbye to the four friends I have shared the last few months with - so here we go: goodbye Helen, Jane, Sarah and Kristy! Thanks for including me as part of your team, for sharing your living space with me and my kit, and for helping to make my experience at Port Lockroy unforgettable. Hope you are all happily relaxing by now and making the most of decent showers!
I remained on base for a while after the team had left and, although I have been on the island alone a few times and Michael and Liesl were in Bransfield House busily working, it felt empty without the Lockroy Ladies.
Blowing in the wind
We were hoping to make an escape soon after the team but were thwarted again by high winds - 40 knots in the bay! As the wind and blizzard continued to prevent us from filming and indeed even getting off of Pelagic, frustration developed within the team. Luckily, we had some friendly neighbour yachties who suggested a game of radio chess! It certainly killed an hour or so (and has become my favourite misuse of the radio this season).
Leaving Lockroy part II
After two days, the wind dropped sufficiently for us to move on and that we did. Michael and Liesl waved us off and I gave a final call to the penguins. It was hard to say goodbye to our characters but I know they will soon be fully fledged and moulted, traveling to and from sea to feed when they need.
My friends, the animals
We made two stop-overs on our way north out of the Peninsula - Waterboat Point and Cuverville Island. It was great to see a little bit more of this stunning cold world before leaving Antarctica. There were more gentoos than at Lockroy and I was able to see how they compared in terms of stages of development (about the same). The highlight for me was when one penguin presented me with a pebble. Seriously. I was stood on a rock and it came over and bowed at me, before dashing off and returning with a stone which it placed at my feet. Delighted as I was to witness / be part of this behaviour, I took it as a sign that I was blending in rather too well and subsequently showered. And, no, I wasn't wearing the hat or the onesie!
The leopard seals were pretty friendly too - we witnessed a hunt about 2 metres from the stern of the dinghy while putting out mooring lines and the seal brought us the dead penguin much like my puppy (well dog now - it's been a while!) brings his favourite toy over to me at home. As we were untying to leave, another leopard seal started chewing on the lines, treating them like a plaything. The last few weeks have really enabled me to see these feared beasts in a totally different light - they gracefully swim through the water, twisting and turning as they move beneath the surface, they are hugely curious and check out anything, they seem to enjoy playing both with food and objects they come across, and they do seem to spend time in pairs sometimes. They are clearly intelligent and inquisitive animals that are a pleasure to watch.
We wrapped up our lines and lifted the anchor for the final time in this beautiful continent this morning. It was with mixed feelings that we left behind the penguins, ice and snow and headed out to sea. In fact, as I write this we are passing the last land before Cape Horn. We haven't seen any whales this morning but i am optimistic that we might spot some on our crossing, as well as catching up with albatross, prions and petrels once again. The last few months have felt like a dream and I'm sure that feeling will become only stronger as I enter back into my normal world. I am sorry to leave the penguins and I know I will miss them and the breathtaking landscapes that have made up my backyard recently, but I am excited about catching up with friends and family back home.
Confessions to my hairdresser
Before I left the UK, I promised my hairdresser that I would try not to go outside with wet hair. Unfortunately, I have broken that rule a few times. My hair didn't freeze doing that, although it may have had a few waves and downpours of rain freeze onto it ov er the past few months. I have also mentioned showers a few times and yes I have been fortunate to wash my hair about twice a fortnight. Most of the time this has been with salt water however. I think I need a serious restyle when I get back!
Ending on a good note
The last few weeks have been frustrating and exhausting - the difficulty of trying to film leopard seals and the extreme weather has taken its toll on energy levels and morale at times. It has been tough, but I didn't expect life in the Antarctic to be easy. The kind of weather we have seen recently has made the soul of this place more extreme and rugged. Of course, for all the challenges we have faced, there have been some real moments of joy too...
Doug fixed my binoculars!! :D I am still not quite sure what the problem was and of course I will get them serviced when I return but I have been able to return to at least some level of normality, watching birds and wildlife from various perches - and now the window in my bunk!
The penguins have continued to entertain me This won't come as a surprise I'm sure. Watching them propel themselves through the water, waddle and slide across snow, and jump or fall over rocks has always brought a smile to my face.
Don't worry, this isn't the end of the blog! The adventure still continues as we have to get back across the Drake! I'm not sure how much I will be able to post during the crossing, but you can be sure a post will be available when possible. I also have lots of pictures that I have been unable to post during my time south. I will put up a selection of my favourites when I return home. I will also keep you updated with how we get on in the edit with Penguin Post Office and news on its progress and expected transmissions!