Summery Sunday

Iceberg tour near Gardner Island off Davis, January 2003.
Iceberg tour near Gardner Island off Davis, January 2003. (Photo: J Smith)
Mummified elephant seal near Davis, January 2003.Sleepy Weddell seal near Davis.Adélie penguins near Davis.

14 January 2003

Consciousness returns. Opening one eye I glance at the red glowing numbers on the bedside clock: 0650. Sounds come through the thin wall: Ward, senior helicopter pilot, is getting up early, even though we expected a late morning. The forecast was for an overcast day, providing little opportunity for distant flying (necessarily over ice surfaces providing poor surface definition in cloudy weather).

Perhaps it is clear and sunny after all, and the forecasters were unduly pessimistic. Perhaps I should give the met office a call to find out. Better still, perhaps I'd better look outside. I summon the strength to sit up and open the curtain: light streams in, the sky is blue. I blink, and wake fully.

When I get to the met building both pilots are already being shown the latest satellite images by duty weather forecaster Martin. The coast and Amery Ice Shelf look reasonably clear. It is quickly decided to attempt three jobs: collect a party of two from remote Mt Jacklyn, move gear for the Amery Ice Shelf group, and take a geophysicist to repair some field instrumentation.

Preparations are initiated, phone calls are made, and sleepy people woken. A 'shopping list' needs to be packed for the Amery camp. News sheets for field parties are hastily printed. The helicopters are loaded and finally get away at 8.45 am – about the time I had originally imagined I might be getting up after a Sunday lie-in!

I can follow the helicopters' progress by radio, but aside from that preoccupation, the day does now start to feel a little more like Sunday. The weather is positively warm. Most of the day the temperature is above six degrees, and in the afternoon it reaches 9.2°C. It feels like a heatwave, but the record is higher: in 1974 it once reached 13°C. The wind drops during the afternoon, and several people enjoy a stroll – but nobody swims off the beach, despite suggestions. Others take boats to Gardner Island, visiting the penguin colony, and then out to the icebergs.

I go for a run. I try to do this every second or third day, along a stony twisting track to Marchant's Landing. First I turn my fire tag to show I will be out of earshot of fire alarms, so in the event of an alarm my absence can be accounted for.

It's about one and a quarter kilometres each way, and I run there and back twice. The track runs within a few metres of the sea most of the way. Rocks of varied types and colours lie scattered beside the track. There are also the mummified, disintegrating carcasses of several elephant seals. In autumn they haul out along this stretch of coast to moult their skins. A few die, and their desiccated remains last for decades in this place without corporeal corruption.

At Marchant's I find a live seal, a mottled grey Weddell with its pale belly uppermost as it sleeps on its back, taking a break from pursuing fish. Hearing my footsteps it briefly opens its big eyes, but promptly shuts them again and returns to its slumbers. I am enchanted by the lack of fear shown by these marine animals when on land, where there are no natural predators.

Catching my breath, I sit on a rock in the sunshine to absorb the scene. While the seal dozes on, three previously unseen Adélie penguins come up from the shore and waddle towards me for a closer look. Beads of water sparkle on their neat black and white plumage. Other penguins are swimming offshore, and a few stand in a small group on a floe in the middle distance. Their guttural cries are the only sound except for the lapping of wavelets.

One advantage of sitting in a lovely place doing nothing is that the brain has a chance for review and recollection. I remember that I should check the hydroponic salad garden. After the run I walk to the two containers which have recently been cleaned out and replanted. Inside is bright with electric light. Pumps silently irrigate the tubs. The tiny cucumber, zucchini and tomato plants have grown just in the last day! All's well except for some adjustments to the nutrient tanks.

Outside the sun still blazes despite it being dinner time. I queue for my veal and vegetables followed by peach crumble; others choose turkey or the vegetarian selection, coconut risotto. There is always choice. The chefs' motto is 'nobody goes hungry'. The problem is not hunger but getting fat. Yesterday I was weighed as part of my first monthly medical check, so now I must try each coming month not to be heavier.

Each Sunday evening a film is shown, the slushy's choice. Today it is Young Einstein, to be preceded by half an hour of 1960s black and white 'shorts'. Instead, I choose to keep the radio operator company until the helicopters conclude their day of operations.

Then it's back to bed: it may have been Sunday, but it was a long, tiring day nevertheless.