At the end of winter as the daylight hours get longer and the temperature starts rising we go for a trip off station in the field to explore the local area.
I was part of the first trip to go out however and we had some very cold weather to contend with, as it was still early spring. Due to the station move, this year’s summer season started early.
After eagerly packing our bags for a week long trip out in to the field the first hurdle was the temperature. At -45°C we couldn’t use skidoos without risking damage to the engines, so the only option was to wait. Not wanting to waste our week off we skied out to a caboose 2km away to get away from station life and relax. I found it hard to relax fully as I was eager to get out in the field on the skidoos and explore but in hindsight there was nothing I could do, as always doing anything in the Antarctic is highly weather dependant.
Off to the seaside
After two days in the caboose the temperature increased to -35 only just within the limit for skidoo use. We rushed back to station to try and get the skidoos started but hit wall after wall of issue with them, with our field guide and mechanic working hard to get them fixed. It seemed like we’d never get out but after lunch we switched to plan B and took the Sno-Cat, a tracked vehicle, which while it is slow, is dependable.
We were on our way at long last however the weather forecast wasn’t looking good for the week with 45 knot winds and snow, we hoped the forecast was being pessimistic as it usually is.
Once we arrived, unloaded our kit, and get the caboose set up we ventured out to the edge of the ice shelf to checkout the sea ice conditions and crucially if there were any penguins.
After a short walk we first saw the sea with loose pack ice, then sea ice extending about 2km from the ice shelf, and finally groups of penguins. We were the first people to cast eyes on the Windy Bay Emperor Penguin colony after the long winter they had endured on the ice.
We were lucky with the weather as it was good enough to go down on to the sea ice. We roped up and abseiled down we were greeted by some very curious penguins. Penguins are very inquisitive creatures and at the sight of the rope they huddle around waiting to see what happens. As you descend the penguins watch you come down and then come in for a closer look. This is the first wildlife we’ve seen for 5 month, and the first human the penguins have seen all winter.
After a couple of photos the wind was taking toll as it ripped through our down jackets and stung our faces finding it’s way through the small gaps between hat, goggles, and face mask. That night we got the caboose up to temperature, had a quick bite to eat and went to bed. The next day we would go and visit the penguins and stay all day.
At the waters edge
The weather held and was even better than expected with broken cloud and a low sun hanging just over the ice shelf. We prompted got up melted snow for water, had breakfast, and headed for the sea ice.
When we arrived we were greeted with the wonderful sight of penguins slowly walking between different groups however the sea ice had changed drastically overnight.
The 2km of sea ice had reduced to less than 1km and open water was clearly visible at the edge. We rigged up the ropes and abseiled down on to the ice.
Before venturing further on to the ice we drill down with a hand drill to check the depth of the ice. After the all clear from Mat our GA we can proceed without ropes, but checking the ice every 100 metres or so.
Walking around the Penguin colony is a special experience; the penguins come up to you and inspect you with their beady eyes. Some make a mating call to which you feel guilty you can’t reply.
We quickly notice there are only adults on the ice. Where are all the chicks? What about the eggs? It appears there are only adults, and they look very healthy, well-fed and feathers shimmering in the sunlight.
It appears this year the colony has failed to breed, a bitter disappointment as I was looking forward to seeing the chicks all winter. There are two theories why this happened, either the storms during the winter blew out the sea ice they were incubated on or due to the “El Niño” weather pattern this year there wasn’t enough krill to feed off to breed successfully.
While the lack of chicks was a disappointment the chance to see penguins in their natural habit is always a pleasure, especially with the open water so close we had a chance to see them swimming and torpedo out of the water.
By far my favourite experience is watching the penguins jump out of the water. They swim with so much speed and power they can get some serious air before they land on their plush stomachs. It doesn’t always go well and some times they comically slip back in to the water or even collide mid-air with another penguin.
We returned to the caboose in the late afternoon to get warm and have some food. The sun was glistening against the water but the clouds starting to roll in.
The next day the weather had descended over our caboose. 30 knot winds was blowing snow up well above our heads reducing visibility to 300 meters. Days like today in the field are known as “lay up”. We ate crackers and cheese with creamy chicken soup, drank tea, ate chocolate, played cards, and read our books.
As the day progressed the wind was easing off and by 9pm there was enough visibility to talk to the edge of the ice shelf and take a look at the colony. The sea ice had held and hasn’t changed much but the penguins were going about their busy moving slowly from one group to another. It was a surreal experience watching by moonlight a long line of penguins heading in one direction towards the sea, I imagine a scene that not many people have experienced.
The next day brought with it even more wind, this time we estimate gusts of over 50 knots. Getting to the poo tent was hard enough as the soft snow built up around the caboose and snocat. Today was another day of lay up.
The next day the wind had eased to allow us to venture to the edge of the coast again. While it was too windy to go on to the sea ice, we set up ropes to allow us to lean over the edge and watch the penguins from above. It gives you a good perspective that you usually only watch from for a few minutes as you’re keen to get down on the sea ice. What we saw I’ll never forget, the Emperors were huddled together, braced against the wind.
To see them in their natural environment, huddled, as they would survive during the winter was superb. They were slowly rotating, those in the middle migrating to the outside of the huddle with those on the outside slowly making their way to the centre.
Return to base
The weather continued to be windy with poor visibility; on the day we planned to depart the nearest flag only 100m away was barely visible. We have a slow breakfast and drank tea waiting for the visibility to improve. Eventually in the afternoon the wind eased and the visibility improved, we packed up camp and crammed all the kit back into the sno-cat. We were on our way back home to station, listening to music while having a beer, hoping it wouldn’t be the last time we saw the penguin colony.