This week at Davis: 7 April 2017

This week at Davis we're testing the sea ice in front of station, gaining weight and bidding farewell to the penguins.

Testing sea ice thickness

As mentioned last week, the sea ice has arrived and looks like it’s here to stay. As Davis is located on a bay (Prydz Bay), the formation of the sea ice is exciting because it provides us with easy access to the huts, islands, icebergs and fjords. In other words, it’s our road system for vehicles (quad bikes and Hägglunds).

Travelling over sea ice is one of the greatest joys here. It’s a wild concept: driving over frozen ocean, and it’s one of the great things about wintering. Before all that can happen, however, we need to make sure it is safe for travel. The process for assessing this is to go out onto the sea ice and take systematic cores to assess ice thickness and quality. Once the ice is 20 cm plus we can walk on it. At 40 cm plus we can drive quads on it, and at 60 cm Häggs are an option. Some of the cores are taken in the same places each year to provide comparative sea ice data over time.

This week Lötter and Tony went out to test the thickness. They were aiming for two long-term coring sites, and measuring regularly on route to ensure the sea ice was 20 cm plus wherever they went. As it was the first outing, they wore dry suits, roped up and had a rescue platform on standby near shore in case someone broke through the ice. There were no problems though as the ice was already pretty thick (28–34 cm).

For those of us looking on from shore, we were treated to a great fata morgana (mirage) with the icebergs looking like ink blots.

The boys did relay one story. When they were out on the ice, they saw an elephant seal’s nose poking through a small hole, taking deep breaths. They watched it for a while, then moved on, walking towards the next coring point, at which time they must have surprised the seal as it gave out an almighty call. Lötter and Tony both got the fright of their life, and nearly lost all bodily function in their dry suits! They definitely would have won an award on station for that outcome.

Kirsten (Station Leader)

Two expeditioners in bright orange dry suits out on the sea ice. The pink Hägg and an expeditioner are on shore as the support system.
Lötter and Tony head out onto the sea ice.
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)
An expeditioner stands on shore watching the boys out on the ice. He holds the belay rope to the boys and has a rescue platform beside him.
Sharky provides support on shore and has the rescue platform on standby.
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)
An expeditioner uses the drill to take an ice core.
Lötter using the drill to take an ice core.
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)
Two expeditioners roped together, walking on the sea ice between coring sites. In the background are icebergs.
Lötter and Tony transitting between sites.
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)
Two expeditioners walk on the sea ice. Behind them icebergs appear stretched because of the mirage or fata morgana.
Iceberg mirage or fata morgana.
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)
Two expeditioners back on shore with all the coring equipment.
Returning to land.
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)

Chef vs Doctor and the Davis baby

Unbeknownst to the world outside, there is an 18th person at Davis this year; the Davis baby. As you can imagine things can get a little difficult managing a noisy infant in such a small and isolated place, and while it initially struggled to gain weight, the baby has been growing exponentially in recent times. As you can see in the graph below this growth has spiked quite heavily following the coming of winter and the reduced amount of people on station (more food, less people). The baby has also been allowed more time to relax, more time to sleep and more time to dine on the fantastic food provided by our brilliant chef, Kerryn.

If you were wondering, the Davis baby concept was created by our doctor, Ralph. It is the total weight, us, as a wintering crew, have gained or lost following our initial medicals prior to starting with the Division.

Unfortunately my last medical showed that I personally provide a 5th of the Davis baby’s weight. I’m still trying to figure out where that weight is; but as they say, the scales don’t lie. I keep telling myself it's muscle. A fair proportion of us as a wintering crew have taken to the gym and have been doing more than our fair share of exercise. This is all well and good while we have the sun, the motivation to hit the treadmill and the weather to get outside. It is expected that motivation will drop, the weather will turn sour and the baby will grow again. So together with my fellow training partner, Fitzy the plumber, we set out to conquer the growth of the Davis baby and keep both the chef and the doctor happy. It’s a win-win situation, people get fit - the doc is happy, we burn more energy, more energy means more food consumed - the chef is happy.

An idea was formed to hold a beep test, one now at the beginning of the season, one around midwinter and one just before the ship arrives to take our baby off to Australia. Luckily Fitzy just happened to have a copy of the Beep Test on his laptop.

The hope is to set a result and improve on it over the winter – a goal to work towards. A brilliant idea. Then we discovered it’s −12°C outside normally blowing 15–20 knots and there are still elephant seals all over the beach. So Fitzy and myself traipsed around station with a measuring tape, tracking down a building with 20 m of open space. Across the Green Store pulled up short at 16 m, the aisles in the Green Store were short again at 18 m and the heli hangar, while nearly long enough, had ice on the floor and wasn’t heated. Our last option was the nearly completed Davis Utilities Building (DUB). True to its name, the utilities building has found another use. Aside from being the future Emergency Power House, housing the waste water treatment plant and generally looking particularly good, DUB is now the Davis Beep Test track.

Still in its finishing stages, Fitzy and myself took extra precaution in preparing the track to ensure no incidents would occur while running our test. Large traffic cones were placed over obstacles, sharp objects were moved, warning tape was run around areas people shouldn’t be in and the floor swept and mopped. Last week Fitzy and myself tested the track and we both pulled a level 9.2 – not a bad effort for the start of the season.

Expressions of interest have been placed on the board and a date has been set for this Sunday. The first Davis Beep Test will be run at 3 pm. Results are to follow.

Jock (Mechanic)

Graph of the weight changes of the 17 winterers as a group since their first medical in November last year (it shows a dip in summer and a rise as winter approaches).
The evidence.
(Photo: provided by Ralph)
A Beep Test course track, with witches hats set up for fitness tests inside the Davis Utilities Building.
The Beep Test course track in the Davis Utilities Building.
(Photo: Jock Hamilton)
Four expeditioners lined up for a photo before their Beep fitness test.
Fitzy, Rhys, Tony and Jock.
(Photo: Craig Fitzmaurice)
Some of the chef's handmade treats: rocky road and marshmallow biscuits.
Some of Kerryn's handmade treats.
(Photo: Jock Hamilton)

Penguin moult

Feathers define birds. Other animals also lay eggs and fly, but no one else has feathers. Feathers are fantastic: they are light, provide an aerodynamic contour, they can be coloured for camouflage or courtship, they provide warmth and insulation. The downside of feathers is they need to be kept in good condition otherwise they don’t work as they should. For this reason, birds constantly both groom and moult. Once a year they replace their feathers so they are in prime condition. How this happens depends on what type of bird you are. If you’re a flying bird you want to replace feathers gradually so you don’t lose your ability to fly. Penguins do the opposite. They are not waterproof while they undergo the moult so they condense it into the shortest period possible, stay on land for the duration and get it over and done with as soon as possible. This type of moult is labelled as “catastrophic”. For most penguin species moulting takes place after breeding. Your chicks fledge, you go to sea and fatten up for a few weeks, then come ashore to moult. During the moult the birds are fasting. As a result they are hungry, in addition to being itchy and feeling uncomfortable and swollen as the skin becomes engorged as the new feathers grow. Their guano also turns green during this time, from having bile in their stomachs. (Otherwise guano is pink if they’re eating krill or white for a fish-based diet.)

At Davis station we currently have the last of the moulting Adélie penguins around. They are in small clusters amongst the rocks, looking shabby and swollen. They are quiet and reluctant to move, needing all their energy for the moult process. This is out of character as these penguins are usually vocal, animated and agile. As they scratch themselves to relieve the itching, the feathers catch the wind. As a result there are patches of penguin feather carpet around and a sweet smell from the feathers themselves. How lovely.

Kirsten (Station Leader)

Nine shabby Adélie penguins are standing around near some rocks, looking fluffy as they undergo the moult.
Moulting Adélie penguins.
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)
Adélie penguins looking fluffy as the new feathers below, push out the old feathers.
Penguins looking fluffy as the new feathers below push out the old…
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)
The last feathers the Adélie penguins lose are the ones hard to reach: around the head and neck, under the flippers and on the back.
The last feathers to go are the ones hard to reach: around…
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)
Adélie penguins with a mix of new and old feathers around their faces.
A mix of new and old feathers around the face.
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)
An Adélie penguin in quite a shabby state, swollen and old feathers falling out, revealing nice clean new feathers below.
Looking shabby and uncomfortable.
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)
Moulted feathers and green guano on the snow, left by Adélie penguins.
Moulted feathers and green guano on the snow.
(Photo: Kirsten le Mar)