Moving into the world's largest natural refrigerator

This is my second time to Powell Island, my first visit being two years ago.  I came here with preconceived ideas about how it would be, where I would find animals and how they would react – all based on what I had learnt during my first field season here.  However, fate (in the shape of one of the strongest El Nino Southern Oscillation events in years) decided it would be otherwise. This time the bay wasn’t full of ice, so the landing craft could put us closer to our campsite and the three of us could avoid the slow, painful process of walking backwards and forwards over a 200m stretch of beach carrying a couple of tons of equipment, food and water.  God, Buddah or the Great Pumpkin in the Sky decided to give us clear skies and calm winds which allowed us to secure tent guy lines, dig in valances and generally set up the tents properly, in preparation for the inevitable howling winds, horizontal snow and generally unpleasant weather that often swings by this neighborhood. Also, I could have sworn that the expression on the penguins faces as they waddled by our mountain of equipment was one of “seriously – you lot again ?”.

Our campsite consists of three tents; one to cook in and two for sleeping.  The cook tent is a British Antarctic Survey “pyramid” (which I keep referring to as a “teepee”, just to wind up the Brits) in which three of us would spend sometimes days trying to keep out of the weather and remember what conversation felt like.  The surface area of the tent is around 3m x 2m, and unless you are a midget you are constantly bent over double (at best) or on your knees (at worst) for the entire trip.  This is NOT a job for people who treasure the cartilage in their joints.  The sleeping tents fall into two categories; one is a three-person “teepee” which houses two people, the inside temperature of this tent reached a record 2oC, and given its enormous size the two occupants had ample space to spread out.  The other tent was mine, considerably smaller, and tended to change shape a lot depending on the strength and direction of the wind.  On particularly windy days (30-40knots and above) it resembled being inside a gigantic bag of chips while someone shook it around.  Not only is this not a job for those with joint issues, it is not appropriate for light sleepers.  My tent is not the same size as the enormous skyscraper that the other two are in; it reminds me of moving into a tiny apartment and wondering “how the hell am I going to fit all this (scientific/personal gear for 2 months) into here (a small tent 2m x 1m) ?”.  But you do, and you become remarkably efficient and stowing things away.

Antarctica is the world’s largest natural refrigerator, thus we were able to carry enough “fresh” food into the field camp to last us the first month.  The kitchen and associated cooking is rudimentary, with a paraffin stove and two pans being sufficient for our needs.  The Panasonic breadmaker with automatic nut dispenser and pasta-making menu options sat in the corner of the cooking tent is so out-of-place that you could be excused for thinking you were hallucinating.  However, when combined with a small 800W petrol generator, the production of fresh bread and apple and cinnamon cake is crucial for both morale and the consumption of bacon.  Toilet facilities include the world’s largest naturally-powered flushing toilet (the ocean) which can be an invigorating experience when surprised by seals and/or penguins rocketing out of the water next to you, or when the wind is so strong it drives snow into places it really shouldn’t go into.

We work on UTC (which is 3 hours ahead of local time) as the telemetry devices we fit to animals are calibrated to this time zone. So we settle into our routine. Now it’s time to go to work.