Stars in their eyes
Blue icebergs glowed in the bay; with not a breath of wind, mirror seas reflected majestic mountains; the still waters only rippled by the occasional proposing penguin: this was the scene last night as we soaked in Port Lockroy at its best. We gazed at the sky and to our delight we saw a star! Our excitement on seeing the first star of the season was also tinged with sadness. Although a thrill to begin to see constellations appearing in the sky it is also a sign that the nights are getting darker with each passing day, as the earth tilts and spins and the sun dips further below the horizon: a reminder that our time here on the island is beginning to draw to a close. The passing of time was cemented this week when we found out that we’ll be leaving and heading North with Akedemik Ioffe during the first few days of March.
A leaving date stirs all kind of emotions and also prompts a flurry of activity. The next four weeks are mapped out with lists of vital tasks to make sure that the remaining maintenance and conservation work is completed and the base is properly winterised, ready for the onslaught of harsh weather and freezing temperatures.
Last winter the temperature in the museum reached -15°c. We know this because there are digital dataloggers installed around the museum that record the temperature, humidity and dew point in each room. One of our seasonal tasks is to download the data at the start and end of the summer so that the statistics can be analysed and compared year on year. This helps to better understand the environmental stresses that the artefacts have to endure, which helps the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust make conservation decisions to ensure the objects are preserved for as long as possible.
Another environmental factor that affects the museum and artefacts is guano. Penguin and Sheathbill guano is not only toxic if inhaled, it has properties that can damage and speed deterioration of some materials. Long time blog followers and fellow Lockroyans will know that the team has a daily battle to keep the guano outside of the museum. Our dedication in this task was put to the test this week. Rain and snow had made conditions ‘muddy’ underfoot. Whilst we always clear a guano-free route to the museum from the landing site we could not have anticipated the levels ‘mud’ people would bring across from Jougla Point. Visiting ships will often split their landing operations between Goudier Island and Jougla Point: giving people the chance to see nesting Antarctic Blue-eyed Shags, gentoo Penguins and of course, visit the Base A museum.
Ordinarily dipping boots in a bucket of water and using a boot brush will clean most footwear of offending materials. But on this day people were plastered, some up to their knees in “mud”. We had to physically scrub people’s boots by hand to clean them before coming inside. The technique looked similar to that used by a blacksmith to re-shoe a horse. A continual supply of buckets of clean water, brushes, mops, towels and elbow grease meant the operation was a success and the museum stayed guano-free.
Talking of Jougla Point, Lucy took the opportunity to visit there this week to count the number of Blue-eyed Shag chicks. Most are starting to fledge, so this week was our last opportunity: 95 chicks were counted.
Back on Goudier Island it is almost time for our final penguin count. The young gentoos are starting to crèche: this is when they group together for protection and warmth. The chicks are now beginning to get their adult feathers with the distinctive white band between the eyes showing signs of emerging along with the brush-tail feathers. Non-breeding juvenile birds have already started to moult. When visitors are ashore we carefully manage the site so that the moulting birds are not disturbed. A penguin will feed itself up before moulting, as it will not be able to return to the sea to feed until all its old summer feathers are replaced by new winter ones. The moulting process takes between 3-4 weeks, so the penguins stand very still to conserve their energy. We station ourselves and expedition staff at key places on the island to guide visitors and ensure the birds can moult in peace.
As the birds are preparing to head North, so are we. Our minds are turning to practical arrangements for travel and our plans for when we get home. But before we each leave and start a new chapter there are first a few jobs still to do. The sun is shining and the air is still, it’s a perfect maintenance day! So as you read this blog think of the four of us with overalls on, brushes and paint cans in hand; carefully painting the red and white trimmed windows and the shiny black bitumen walls, working cheerfully under an Antarctic sky to keep Bransfield House looking beautiful and preserved for another year.