Detaille Blog - 30th January 2011

Below is the team's first blog for the work period this season: 30 Jan 2011
Our home for the coming weeks is Base ‘W’ on Detaille Island.  Set in the Lallemand Fjord, off the Loubet Coast this small island south of the Antarctic Circle is in an area most commonly referred to as Crystal Sound. Dwarfed by the mountains of the Arrowsmith Peninsula, experiencing strong katabatic winds and with frequent icebergs in the surrounding waters this is a place that for the last 50 years has only been home to the numerous skuas and kelp gulls that nest on the rocky outcrops of the island.

                                     The National Geographic Explorer transported cargo and two of the team to Detaille in the 2010-11 season  Michael and a visiting fur seal
Base W, a former science base, was established in 1956 by the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS) for the study of meteorology and the ongoing topographical and geological surveying of the area.  The site was designated a Historic Site and Monument (HSM) in June 2009, 50 years after the base’s closure, and is now under the custodianship of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. This is the first time that a designated work party has been sent here to specifically focus on conserving the hut and its contents. We are a team of 4: Dave Burkitt, Michael Powell, Liesl Schernthanner and Anna Malaos and we intend to spend the next 4 – 6 weeks working on making the buildings weather tight for future years to come. Our very many thanks must be offered again to all onboard the IAATO vessels, Hanse Explorer and National Geographic Explorer, for transporting us and all our cargo here on the 20th and 24th of January and for their continued support and generosity.

Liesl working on cleaning the kitchen walls Work begins on the roof The lounge at Detaille island
We are living inside the building that we are working on so our first priority was to make our living conditions as comfortable as possible. We have set up camp in the bunkroom and kitchen as these are two of the driest and most convenient rooms to use without causing too much disturbance. After an initial walk round the island and the buildings we discussed and established priorities and set about our work.  Years of exposure to the elements, continued condensation build up, and frequent leaks have caused saturation of the floor boards and many of the buildings contents and the continued thawing and refreezing throughout the seasons has unfortunately taken its toll. Dave Burkitt, the only one of our team to have visited Detaille in the past, was last here in 2007 as part of AHT partly funded conservation survey and has noticed an obvious and rapid decline in the condition of the buildings. It is vital that we are now here to help halt the deterioration and conserve the buildings for hopefully many more years to come.
Our main priority is to get the building thoroughly dried out and weather tight. On first arriving we had consecutive good weather days so Michael, Liesl and Dave focused on preparing the roof for re-felting. Progress has been good and six strips of new felt have already been laid and secured. Meanwhile Anna worked on the interior of the building chipping away the saturated and broken up hardboard flooring and built up ice. The fine weather days were swiftly followed by strong winds from the plateau and heavy snow forcing the outside work to a standstill.
This is now our 3rd indoor day and with the four of us working inside we have made a good start of cleaning out the building, washing down the walls and scrubbing the floors. Michael and Liesl also had a chance to frame the interpretation posters that Anna brought with her and two of them are already hanging on the freshly washed walls. These posters are designed to give the few visitors who cross the Antarctic circle and visit Base W a better understanding of its history and the way of life for the adventurous men who lived and worked here.

Interpretation posters being put up  Michael  Enjoying a steak dinner (courtesy of Hanse E.) on our first night
The most fascinating part of Base W’s history is the way in which it finally closed.  Historically the location of the base often caused difficulty for travel across the sea ice as it was frequently unstable and often went out leaving sledging parties stranded away from base. However, in the winter freeze of 1958 solid sea ice was formed making it the most productive season for sledging and surveying.  When the time came for the relief ship to reach the island towards the end of the summer in 1959 it was unable to break through the sea ice and reach the men.  Even with the help of two American icebreaker ships, the use of tractors and helicopters they were unable to unload all the essential stores and equipment for another season’s work and after weeks of trying the captain of the ship made the radio call to the men and ordered for the base to be abandoned.  At short notice the men packed up their immediate belongings, got the dog teams ready and sledged across 25miles of sea ice to reach the ship. Today, Detaille Island is unusual in comparison with other existing HSM’s in that it contains many of its original contents.
Ordinarily when a science base was closed it would also be emptied of stores, food and equipment but circumstances here at Base W did not allow for this. These last few days we have all enjoyed familiarising ourselves with the buildings, their contents and their history and have made some interesting discoveries of our own including some of the official and personal messages sent by the men during the last few days of the base’s operation which shed more light on the exciting story of the base’s closure.  We are all now longing for some more clear and dry days to allow us to get outside again and for the vitally important roof work to commence again.
With very best wishes from us all,
Anna, Dave, Michael and Liesl
(who between them have 9 Antarctic winters and 49 summers already under their belts - around 26 years in total! - Ed)

Detaille Hut