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Mairi Nicolson In Antarctic
14 October 2001

Mairi's Antarctic Pages  

14 October 2001

Hi Folks

Sorry for the delay in writing but weíve had quite a lot of drama on base. On Friday 28th September a fire at Rothera completely destroyed the Bonner Laboratory and its contents. Pictures are available on the BAS website: www.antarctica.ac.uk    Fortunately, the accommodation buildings and main facilities were not damaged and the twenty-one wintering staff are safe.  The Rothera team's response was exemplary, but with the worst winds of the winter and generally atrocious conditions there was little chance that we could save the facility.

BAS Director, Professor Chris Rapley, and senior staff are looking at the full impact of the fire on the BAS operations and research programme.  The terrestrial work I am involved in, and the marine research at Rothera represents around 15-20% of the BAS programme.  We are only one week away from the start of this yearís Antarctic field season so science managers are looking in detail at both the short and long-term implications for biological research.  My summer field season has suffered very minor changes, thanks to the excellent support and help we have received from our managers and colleagues at B.A.S. HQ in Cambridge. In a few weeks time I should be camping at Mars Oasis, our remote field on Alexander Island.

It is now two weeks after the fire and I still cannot get used to seeing the pile of debris that once was a splendid building.  Not only was the Bonner lab an excellent science facility, with itís own aquarium and dive facilities, it was also a great place to socialise. The library was home to lively tea-break discussions, and we also hosted a few evening slide shows. Having to watch the building burn was absolutely heart breaking for the science team, we have lost personal belongings as well as results, data, our experiments and equipment.

On a lighter note, I have been able to get out and enjoy some very special moments in this last month.  On Sunday the 31st September the sun finally decided to shine on us after several weeks of gales and snow.  The sea was calm and there was very little in the way of ice in the bay.  This allowed us to launch two of our inflatable boats for a daytrip to the local islands.  We headed for Leonie Island, which boasts an amazing array of Antarctic flora and fauna.  The snow has started to melt back revealing spongy carpets of green moss, clumps of grass Deschampsia Antarctica, and small compact cushions of our only other flowering plant, Colobanthus quitensis

Boating The Icebergs

Small insects that have spent the winter frozen in the ice are now beginning to move around again.  They have developed several survival strategies to help them cope with the harsh winter conditions, for example, by producing special anti-freeze compounds. As the ice melts around them and water becomes available they literally come back to life and I was lucky enough to see some jumping around under the moss and algae. It is still very early in the season and only one third of the flora was free of snow.  In a few months time the island will be transformed as the snow disappears and melt streams help revive all the plants and animals.  It is even possible to find small mushroom-like fruiting bodies if you look hard enough among the cushions of moss.

In a months time the Skuas will also return to Leonie and I will not be able to walk around without a hard hat.  These gull-like birds have no fear of humans and are highly protective over their territories.  If you accidentally enter a nesting area you will be greeted by shrieks and threatening dives.  Depending on the nature of the individual bird, these dives can result in painful smacks to the head.  I will write more about the Skuas when they return to Rothera in the next few weeks.

The main focuses for wildlife spotters this month have been the Weddell seal pups. During our island daytrip we were overjoyed at the discovery of several of Weddell seals and their pups on Leonie and Lagoon islands.  The pups were days old, some only hours, and the islands were haunted by the sounds of the mothers calling to their pups. We have not been able to return to the islands due to bad weather to check on the pups but luckily both a Weddell and Crabeater seal have given birth on North beach behind our aircraft hangar.  The Weddell pup was born on the weekend of the fire so we have aptly called him Phoenix, (from the flames).  He is a furry ball of blubber with big brown eyes, the cutest things Iíve ever seen.  He is now 12 days old and we have watched him grow fatter and fatter every day.  He has started to moult and change colour and today I saw him take one of his first swims in the icy waters.

Phoenix & Mum

Spring is definitely in the air and during our daily wildlife counts we have seen and heard increasing numbers of birds.  The twittering of the Antarctic Terns and the squabbling between the Antarctic Fulmars really signify that summer is on its way.  The days are getting longer and soon the planes will arrive with new personnel, supplies and more importantly our first batch of post for seven months.

The summer is a very busy time on base and I am looking forward to a busy and successfully summer field season. I will write again soon with an update on our progress.

Mairi Nicolson
Rothera Research Station