Mid-Winter in Antarctica

We are - thankfully - just past our shortest day here at Halley and we have been enjoying a week off to make the most of our temporary isolation. Well, I say temporary, but we still have just over four months before we will hear and see the BAS planes coming across the ice sheet - so as usual this is a relative timeframe.

On a slightly shorter scale, in about 50 days we will see the sun poke her head above the horizon for the first time since May1st, an event that is much anticipated here. From day to day, our light levels don't alter too much, unless the sky is clear and we have a moon.

As the weeks go on, though, we will see the faint red strip on our northern horizon expand into full 24 hour daylight. In a way I wish that the year was the other way around, so that we had our quiet time when we have the most sun and calm weather so that we can make the most of getting out and about when the conditions are at their best.

But, it is how it is and we have to make the most of our time here. Soon, we will have the prospect of planning our second winter trips and also the chance to visit our local Emperor penguin colony at Windy Creek. This is at the foot of our ice cliffs some 15 km to the north - cliffs about 120 feet high. At their base is sea ice - stretching this year for a record distance.

The freezing of the seas around Antarctica constitute the largest physical change of any environment on earth, when the size of the continent doubles in area. The Emperor penguin colony here numbers around 10,000 individuals at the end of winter although at the moment it is made up of only males incubating a single egg each that was laid at the beginning of winter before the female penguins left to feed at sea. The males form a tight huddle through the horrendously cold and windy winter months to keep in their body heat. Through this time they do not feed or drink other than by eating small amounts of snow. As the chicks are born, they survive off large egg yolk remains in their bodies which sustain them until the females walk across the sea ice back to them as the spring gradually takes hold.

While we will have the luxury of a snow cat to travel in, early explorers had to make journeys on foot to visit Emperor colonies and one of the best accounts of such a journey can be found in The Worst Journey in the World, which is probably the best overall account of Scott's second and last expedition apart from the diaries of Scott and Edward Wilson. It's author, Apsley Cherry Garrod, Cherry for short, was not part of the polar party. He was, however, to make the journey that gives title to his book - one with Wilson and Bowers in their first winter over the ice around the foot of Mount Erebus to the Emperor Penguin colony at Cape Crozier.

You might well ask, why would they want to make such a journey, on foot, int he midst of the polar winter? They did this because they were attempting to collect whole penguin eggs in order that the embryos that they contained could be examined. It is well known that ontogeny mimics phylogeny - that is to say that in their early stages many animal embryos show signs of their ancestors in vertebrates. It was thought at the time that penguins were the most primitive of birds, their embryos might give clues to the evolution of all birds.

The three men ventured out for several weeks and managed, at great personal risk, to collect three eggs, one of which eventually made it back to the Natural HIstory Museum for inspection. Cherry relates an account of his journey, and the whole expedition with no fuss, just giving a clear and frank yet absolutely compelling account. The egg, despite being received without thanks at the time (!) is now proudly displayed in the museum, to its credit.

Our own Mid Winter celebrations have been relatively calm. A lot of time goes into preparing for the day itself - June 21st here. We all made presents - one each - to give to a fellow winterer. I made a picture frame from the runner of a Nansen sledge - from weathered and worn Ash wood that had spent thousands of kms carrying men and supplies over the ice here, and in it set a picture that I had drawn of a group of Emperor penguins at the foot of our ice cliffs here from my memory of the Emperors I was lucky to see in 1999 at Rothera, the other BAS station at which I wintered over the turn of the Millennium. They are strange, serene and beautiful animals and I can't wait to see them again when the weather gives us an opportunity.

Our week has been filled with fun and games, and yet one of the nicest parts for me has been to be able to spend time with people here I don't always get to in my working day. For the past month or two, Silver, Paul, Al and myself have been practicing a few tunes to play tonight - our open mic night. We have a few acts in addition which will mark more or less, the end of our week.

The next few months will see many changes, including the arrival of strangers, and friends, into what has become very much home to our team - a group of men who are already very good friends. So, it makes it even more important that we make the most of our remaining time as the 13 men of Halley 2014. With best wishes to all at home - Gerard