|Staying out for the Summer|
This time last year I'd arrived, stepped from the ship onto the ice, and begun the static stage of my Antarctic adventure. This year the sea around Halley presents a very different face to the incoming traveller. The sea ice has departed the coast right next to Halley, although a fringe remains, and further away, at N9, where we held relief last year the ice has left entirely. After five kilometers of deep blue water the cold hard crust on the sea starts once more, and remains sound and sure for around seventy miles. Over the winter the ice has grown from a thin oily film on the sea into a solid plate a meter thick and many miles from side to side.
This presents a problem for the Shackleton, a hardy ship but one currently unable to bash itself any closer to us. The last sitrep we received reported that they'd made only a few miles in twenty four hours and were now stopping to conserve fuel to see what happens. This has its upside, at Christmas last year I was working away shifting cargo from ship to shore. This year, with no ship and all our preparatory tasks completed, we get to have Christmas for a change.
But well, what's been going on. Various factors have slowed pretty much everyone trying to get to Halley this year, so the garage was short of hands in the run up to relief so I did an extra shift of nights to let our generator mechanic, Bob, help out our vehicle mechanic, Anto. Nights of course are just days now, but the sun in the South lights up the continent and plays its small part in setting up the shimmering mirages that bend and blur the horizon. The Rumples would be there one minute, gone the next, then would gradually rear out of a thin nothingness to three or four times their normal height. Ripples of light making mountains dance on the edge of sight.
After nights it was onto the dreaded Annual Reports, and one or two little jobs to get ready for the summer. I spent one day with Simon, driving skidoos out to the coast at N9 then replacing or replanting flags every two hundred meters on our way back. Having driven along and not fallen down any holes we can be fairly certain that the Sno-Cats and tractors used for relief won't encounter any dangers. It was a fantastic sunny day with only the slightest puff of a cloud hanging on the sky. At N9 a Wilson's storm petrel flittered out from the sea and danced a jittery ballet about our heads as we sipped from our flasks. The bay was filled with brash ice, but there were clear holes of rippling water lapping gently against the shelf.
The base is now a noiser place. The fleet of skidoos has been let out of its winter storage and the internal combustion engine is growling and whining its way around the otherwise unspoilt Antarctic wilderness. For shifting heavy boxes about they're fantastic, but on the whole I prefer to strap on the skis and gracefully slide a little slower. It's also a brighter place. The sky is too bright to look at, even through a window, so I'm never out of doors without a pale face slacked with sunscreen and a pair of trendy aviator goggles or a shaded mask. Although I see the shapes of the clouds dripping above the snow I see them through a glass darkly. None of my photographs come out quite as I remembered, but only because the camera won't get headaches if it's not wearing sunglasses.
A good bit of contrast and some time after work one day let us squeeze in another trip to the penguins. The colony is now spread out thinly and most adults have gone back to the sea to feed before they begin their moult. The chicks, now as big as adults, are still wearing their puffy grey down but are on the verge of shedding it. On the more advanced chicks the inner edges of their flipper have their feathers worn off and replaced by the shorter white feathers that they'll wear for the remainder of their lives. Some chicks are still feeding from their parents, even where the parent is perhaps a little smaller than the chick.
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