Casey’s wharf road is completed, Shirley Island’s waddling residents return, new arrivals complete survival training and we prepare for the first flight to Wilkins.

Wharf road completed

In the photo, Matt M. drives the first vehicle (a tracked Polaris) on the almost completed wharf road. The day after the road was completed, we had blizzard conditions and now that the weather has settled down, the guys will have to clear the road again!

Joe B

Shirley Island shenanigans

Just beyond the Casey station limits, Shirley Island epitomises every preconceived notion I ever had of Antarctica. It’s all happening right here, right now. Seals are resting by ice cracks. Penguins have come back to their colonies for breeding season and skuas (large seabirds) are lurking on the edges waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Despite being only a 20 minute walk, access to Shirley Island does require travel across frozen sea ice which can be hazardous to the uninitiated. Winter over trip leaders are generously giving their time to share this special place with us — the new summer arrivals.

Trips begin with a visit to the field store to gather up the required safety gear. Each group carries several survival bags and radios, while every group member carries a throw bag, ice axe and boot spikes.

I am lucky enough to go on one of the first trips to the island right after a deep snowfall that turned the whole area into a winter wonderland. Our group breaks new trail from the station to the ice edge where we stop to call ‘VNJ Casey’ by radio to alert them we are entering the sea ice. The communications team track all groups who are out on sea ice hourly till they are firmly on land again.

Our trip leader shows us the correct techniques for drilling holes into the ice to measure thickness. We need 20 cm for safe foot travel and we currently have a robust 150 cm. He shows us how to recognise, and clear, snow from cracks in the ice with our ice axes and makes certain everyone has their throw ropes accessible in the event someone does accidentally go in the water. Later in the summer, as the ice thins and melts, the island will be accessible only by boat.

Once we are safely across, we see, smell and hear the giant huddles of penguins. They are gorgeous. They are gloriously stinky. They are loud. And — a new fact for me — they can swim through snow! A couple of curious fellows snow-swim all the way across valley to investigate the island’s newest inhabitants. On departure, we see only the tops of their heads and the winding ‘pengie’ snow-trails they leave in their wake.

As we come upon the colonies, I see hundreds of them busily building nests side by side, engaging in territorial kung fu style combat over particularly desirable rocks and yes, even a bit of penguin passion. I watch in fascination — penguins nesting as far as the eye can see and then more rippling through the water and projecting themselves onto land in a continuous gravity-defying wave.

On the way back to station we detour by a few lethargic Weddell seals taking a rest break. Their presence is yet another indicator there are ice cracks nearby, as they use them to break their way through to the surface for some quality breathing time and then a good nap. On the whole they implacably ignored us, although one did rouse itself enough to raise its head and look our way, urinate, roll around in it a bit, then go back to sleep.

A week later I return to Shirley Island and the changes are already dramatic. There are eggs this time and the breeding pairs take turn keeping the eggs warm while the other one is off fishing for food. I see one couple shuffle an egg between them carefully transferring it from the feet of one to the feet of the other before tucking it snuggly under belly to keep it warm.

The third group of Shirley Island inhabitants are the south polar skuas. These huge long-lived seabirds mate for life and form colonies just on the outskirts of the penguin rookeries. Much of the snow has melted and I become aware that just below the surface is an emerging sludge of mud, and penguin poop. More ominously it is littered with penguin carcasses and bones in varying states of decay.

Skuas often hunt in pairs — one will distract the penguins while the other comes in on the hunt. At one point I see a penguin scuffle and then an egg is left in the open which no-one immediately claims. It’s not clear to me why the egg had been abandoned — perhaps new parents? but sure enough shortly afterwards I witness exactly this: one skua and then the other swoops in to steal the egg. Both birds share the spoils.

Later, we wander back to station at around 2230 and the sun is just low enough in the sky to create the long shadows that make the floating icebergs glow on the horizon. I have to pinch myself to make sure I am really here and haven’t just fallen asleep in front of the Nature Channel (again).

Survival training

This week our two field training officers (FTOs), Anthea (aka Wonder Woman) and Mick have been kept very busy getting most of the new summer arrivals through their field and survival training. Certain training must be provided to expeditioners before they are able to travel off station or to work in the field, and this training covers all aspects of living/travelling safely in the Antarctic environment, with particular emphasis on survival skills.

The weather was kinder to some groups than others, with a couple of groups experiencing blizzard conditions on their training. The FTOs, in conjunction with the operations coordinator and the station leader, were able to modify the training. This included taking the groups to more sheltered locations to make sure that, while they would learn the skills needed, everyone would still be kept safe at all times. These expeditioners ended up getting a more ‘authentic’ experience and certainly gained the respect of most of the other expeditioners back on station (who were tucked up in their warm and cozy beds!).

Wilkins — preparations for the first flight

An early insertion team that consisted of four Wilkins crew flew from Hobart to Christchurch, then onto the American Antarctic base (McMurdo) and a short flight, only seven hours to Casey on the Basler. With arrival at Casey we added the wintering diesel mechanic, or dieso, Steve and headed off to Wilkins to start preparation of the runway. The weather wasn’t too kind at the start but once we had a break in the weather it was all systems go with the camp set up going well.

It was then time to start on clearing the snow from the runway surface with the Øveraasens (snow blowers) and Gjerstad (grader blade for the loader). With not much snow over winter, clearing the runway was achieved in a shorter time frame than previous years. After clearing operations were complete, it was then time to proof roll the runway with a 91 tonne roller to ensure the structural integrity of the ice is of suitable strength to allow for the A319 to land, maneuver on the ground and then to take off safely.

With the pending arrival of the rest of the Wilkins team through McMurdo on the LC130H, the rest of the preparations were performed including tilling the runway surface with a BR 350 Prinoth snow groomer to create suitable friction for the aircraft. A few other little touches were added such as marker poles, PAPI lights and windsocks, ensuring the aerodrome is basically a finished product ready to accept the first flight of the season.