Jean Baptiste Charcot, the French Explorer responsible for charting much of this area including Detaille Islets, describes quite wonderfully his first encounters with the ice that frequents these waters during his Porquoi Pas expedition in 1909: ‘icebergs and ice blocks are decidedly the curse of the region which we have chosen for our expedition. Great or small, they constitute a perpetual danger for the ship, which is never safe from them. Almost always on the move, changing their course with surprising rapidity according to the wind and currents, at times heading opposite ways, they give no opportunity for repose, even in the calmest of weather, and it needs the gift of philosophy and the indifference acquired by habit to have the courage to anchor anywhere. Without risk of exaggeration, I may say that if we had been able to count those which we saw, even during the summer campaign, the figure would have mounted over 10,000 in digits. Apart from the danger arising from their bulk, occasionally they break up, setting up great swelling waves which may bring danger too, and scattering over the ice pack their fragments of blue ice as hard as rocks, against which the ship runs the risk of serious injury.’
Over the last few days we too have marvelled at the enormous icebergs that frequently drift in and out of these waters, at times being drawn in towards the island by the northerly winds and then just as swiftly blown away from us by the southerlies coming off the plateau and down the Lallemand fjord. At the same time their movements create a great swell of water which gushes towards the island in great waves that smack and break against the rocks. Just as unpredictable has been the weather this last week, upon referencing our daily diary we found that we have not seen the sun since the 26th January! Good weather is not a given as all those who have worked in this region well know so it is just a matter of making the most of the weather you have when you have it. Charcot made the point nicely when he wrote: ‘Five clear days so rare in the Antarctic that one must know how to take advantage of them; for in a few hours one may accomplish a task absolutely impossible in weather that is mere overcast and the success of an expedition depends principally on the rapidity which one can grasp favourable chances'. Although we have not seen five consecutive clear days in our whole time here, we too have taken advantage of good weather and have been progressively ticking jobs from our worklist.
Having not seen the sun or ships in a while we were pleased to welcome Silver Explorer to Base W early this week. Overnight, giant rafts of ice had blown in completely blocking access to the main landing site and the expedition leader had been out in a boat scouting for alternative landings. Having had no success he called on the radio just before 6am for some local advice and we all went out for an early recce to find a suitable place to land and bring ashore passengers. They all did come ashore eventually but had to dedicate a zodiac for the duration to keep rafts of ice at a safe distance. As we have been making such good progress ticking jobs off from our work list our thoughts have also been on planning for our northbound trip. We had been busy sorting through our stocks, supplies and tools and packing up some of the materials we no longer need to head north for storage at Port Lockroy. Our thanks to Silver Explorer for easing our load and transporting some of our equipment north again.
Just as quickly the weather changed again and the following morning the wind had completely swung round and the ice was blown out leaving a clear landing for the Fram. We had a great visit with excited and happy passengers and great for us to see our friends on the expedition team again. Fram was also planning on travelling further south to Horseshoe and Stonington Islands, both of which are British Historic Sites and Monuments and also former sledging bases with a similar purpose to Detaille Island. Fram kindly offered to take with them some new interpretation signs to put up at the historic huts. Although Base Y and E, as they are also known, are currently managed by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the Antarctic Heritage Trust hopes to very soon assume care for the buildings with the signing of an agreement with BAS. As ever the team on Fram took very good care of us and the head chef Eirik prepared a very thoughtful fresh food hamper including the much appreciated ‘Mac Fram’ burgers!
During the landing we also took it in turns to go onboard for a quick shower. We had been looking forward to a shower at this point after quite a few days of outside physical work but we were also very aware of how infrequently the men on base would have enjoyed the luxury of a hot shower on a passing ship! In the 1950s at Detaille if you wanted a shower it involved going outside to cut big blocks out of snow, transporting this back to the hut, shovelling it into a melt tank and waiting for the coal fire to produce enough hot water for you to have a quick wash in a tin bath. However, in Antarctic conditions this could not have been the most comfortable experience! Derek Searle who was a wintering surveyor recounts this amusing story of his first bath after spending 8 weeks building the hut at Horseshoe Island in 1955: “by the time I got the water into the bath it was tepid, when I put the first foot in it was cool. By the time I’d finished it felt as if my bathwater was beginning to resemble the bucket of frozen water kept there. Consolation – I am the first man on base to have a bath in 28degrees of frost. They revived me with whisky and lime.”
Whilst prepping equipment to go north this week, Tudor and Michael decided to put the disc cutter to one final good use by trying to cut a channel through the ice in order to drain the ever increasingly problematic lake which has been forming around the northern end of the hut. The lake, which in places was up to 4ft deep, has formed due to snow drifts building up around the hut and then thawing out (inconsistently) in summer and it has been causing access problems to the building! This was meant to be a short Sunday afternoon task but 2 long hours later a 2 foot groove had been created and the water started flowing. Over the following 12 hours the water took its course and by morning the lake had mostly completely drained much to our pleasure and surprise!
Over the last few days we have certainly felt the onset of winter with the days getting shorter and noticeably colder. Our daily routine here has been early to rise, with breakfast at 7am, at work by 7:30am and then keep going until 8pm with short breaks in between and collapse into deep sleep after dinner. However, in the 1950s when the base was being built their routine started with breakfast at 9am – this now makes complete sense to us as over the last few days when we have set to work before 8am it is blinking cold and we now thoroughly understand why they chose to work in this way as the winter had begun to set in. We are only here for a few more days so there is no need to shift our work pattern just yet, unless of course the ship doesn’t pick us up when scheduled!
Over the next few days our focus will be on completing the last few jobs on our worklist and leaving the hut in as sound a condition as possible. But whilst we are here we continue to enjoy being immersed in the wildlife that surrounds us. The gull chicks are now beginning their flying practice and taking full advantage of the strong wind currents, even at times looking a little surprised when they take off so easily. On the few occasions when the weather is still, the only sounds are those of the bobbing and crashing icebergs, the swell of the water, the cry of the gulls and the fast growing baby skua whose appetite never appears to be satisfied.
Anna, Michael and Tudor