Pancake ice
Pancake ice at Davis. March 2003 (Photo: J Smith)
Moulting Adélie penguinsRoadblock. Elephant seal blocks the way.

17 March 2003

A few weeks ago, at King George Island on the opposite side of Antarctica, a marathon was run. Here at Davis, running is on a more modest scale.

Actually, I hate running. I do it because it's good for me, but I really don't enjoy it. I suppose I feel better afterwards, but the real reason I do it is because it gets me into the open air, out in the countryside where there are so many interesting things to see, hear and smell.

That's as true in Antarctica as it is back home in Australia, at least it is at this season. Whether I will emulate a former fellow expeditioner at Davis who ran on most days right through the winter, I'm not sure. He used to wrap himself thoroughly to run through the midwinter gloom in temperatures well below −20, and return encrusted in ice.

Yesterday there was no such difficulty. Although at −5 it was cool enough, there was little wind and the jog quickly warmed me. As usual, I ran out to Marchants Landing a little over a kilometre from Davis Station and back, twice. The track is a roughly graded road along the shore just a stone's throw from the sea.

Early in summer there had been thick floes of decaying sea-ice in the water and on the shore. More recently the sea had been ice-free but now, in autumn, it was refreezing. The surface water, thick for the past few days with loose ice crystals called frazil, was starting to congeal into pancake ice. Each rounded pancake, between a half and five metres across, was rimmed by an upturned crust formed by repeated gentle collisions with neighbouring pancakes pushing the mushy ice at the edges into miniature ramparts. The low sun reflected dully off the surface.

I could only admire the ice by stopping. Running required close attention to the ground which as well as being rough and stony was streaked by snow drifts. I was therefore startled when a raucous cry from close by alerted me to a group of moulting Adélie penguins standing on some overlooking rocks. They were a tatty lot, with tufts of old feathers sprouting from their bodies, and loose feathers flying in the wind each time they moved.

The road called for concentration for another reason. Lying right across it at one point was a large bull elephant seal, also on land to moult. Elephant seals annually grow a new skin beneath the old one which sloughs off in brown, bristly pieces. Like the penguins, they have to leave the water for a few weeks while this is going on. Each autumn, Davis plays host to more than a hundred of the huge, pungent-smelling animals.

Altogether there were five elephant seals near the landing, giving me yet another excuse to slow down, both to get round them giving them a wide berth, and to admire these extraordinary marine mammals. A skua (a large, brown, scavenging gull) flew low over my head, perhaps having a closer look just in case I might be about to perish and so provide it with an unexpected meal.

All these animals and birds will be gone within a month. The seasons are rapidly changing, and when the sea freezes over completely and their moult is complete there will be no reason for them to stay. Apart from emperor penguins that we see at Davis only occasionally, only humans remain here for the whole winter. It will certainly take more willpower to go running then.