Normally, our second round of winter trips start in late September. I’m on the first of the trips and our call sign is ‘sledge alpha’. As a result of moving the summer season forwards we had to start our winter trips earlier. There looked to be a good weather window starting on Sun so we spend Fri and Sat getting ready and making sure all our work was covered for next week. On Sun our boys were called out on short notice to use the good weather to survey the new site, so we couldn’t leave. Then sadly on Mon morning the temperature was below -40 °C, which is too low to operate skidoos in meaning we couldn’t leave again. We spent the day prepared to go as soon as the temperature picked up, but by the afternoon it was clear it wasn’t going to. Instead we took minimal supplies and walked out to the perimeter caboose to stay the night. Man food for dinner and the light of the Tilley was enough to make it feel like a holiday. Tue morning we radioed the station for a weather forecast and once more our departure was delayed due to the temperature. We had missed our window to get to our destination, Windy Bay, where the emperor penguin colony should be breeding at this time of year. We spent another night at the caboose. The next morning I spotted some beautiful polar stratospheric clouds over the E horizon, which are very high clouds (15 – 30 km), made of ice crystals and have an unusual chemical composition which aids the destruction of ozone creating the seasonal ozone hole over Antarctica in spring. It was only the second time we had seen them. With a bit more excitement we packed up and headed back to the station.
This time the temperature was high enough, only just with -34 °C, but this time there was a different problem stopping us. Our field GA had gone to warm up the skidoos from the storage container and had already spent hours trying to start them in the cold before realising that there were battery problems with two of them and a coolant leak on the other. A few weeks earlier one of our engineers managed to find a deep hole between the wind tails and broke one skidoo exploring said hole nose first. Thankfully, he was fine, but the handlebars were bent and the windscreen broken. So with not enough field rated skidoos available we came up with the plan to take the snocat, which had just been defrosted and serviced. With the back filled to the windows and pulling a siglin sledge behind us with the tent and our P-bags (sleeping bags and mats) we set off west towards Windy Bay.
On the way we replaced a few flags and marked the new GPS coordinates (the ice shelf flows around 1-2 m per day so last year’s coordinates are somewhat off). The sun was out and we watched small whirls of wind pick up the snow in patches like dust devils. Soon we could see the coast and the caboose. Quickly, we parked up and dug out the caboose. Everything looked in excellent shape and we decided to head out towards the edge of the shelf where our local emperor penguin colony lives. We heard them before we saw them huddled in small groups with straight roads of penguins connecting each sub-colony. We set up the snow stakes and rope to abseil down onto the sea ice. After Mat had checked the thickness of the ice (it needs to be >15 cm and lower than -5 °C) we headed down.
At the bottom I was stunned to see a wall of penguins pushing closer to get a good look of the newcomers. They have no fear and waddle right up to you, draw themselves up while lowering their heads and make the typical call, singing at you, then turning their head to watch you, clearly awaiting an answer. After their display they walk back into the crowd giving way to the next penguin to come forward and repeat the same call. Only at a sudden movement do the front penguins turn and scurry away flapping their flippers in disagreement and some tobogganing to safety. The sound of their little feet compacting the snow as hundreds of them all scamper off is very strange. They only go a few metres before the turn back round deciding it’s safe. We’re supposed to keep 5 m distance, but they waddle right up to you and surround you. I can imagine that this is the feeling Hitchcock wanted to convey with thousands of birds standing around you and watching. Although these birds don’t feel menacing, you do feel their presence. They let you pass easily and follow you as fast as their little feet will carry them to watch us “strangers”, probably the most entertaining thing to have happened to them all winter.
Sometimes you can smell a musty scent if they’re in a big group and the ground is splattered with droppings resembling a Pollock painting or artisan paper with embedded camomile leaves. Sadly, the only thing we can’t see, but were expecting to find, were the chicks! No sign of egg nor chick. They were all happily striding and tobogganing around with a little roll of fat at the bottom of their bellies, but none that were hiding any offspring. They looked to be in good condition with gleaming feathers and vibrant colours, only one or two had blood on them (one poor fellow was hunkered down shivering, but otherwise ok) and one of them had a cold and couldn’t stop sneezing, shaking his head each time as if confused about the suddenness of the outburst.
Penguins are pretty impressive on screen, but in the flesh they charm you and keep you locked almost in a trance. While you are sat there watching them time seems to stand still and has no meaning, only the cold slowly creeping into your fingers and toes reminds you of its passing.
Finally we jumared back up the rope using two hand jammers and a foot sling to climb back up onto the ice shelf. Back at the caboose we unpacked everything and settled in with some more man food.
The next day the wind picked up and we only managed to walk out to the edge of the shelf to peek down at the penguins, now huddling in tight groups keeping near the walls of the shelf for shelter. The day was spent walking out and back having some food in between before turning in for the night. The next two days the winds reached gale forces (30-40 kts) shaking our little caboose and once even extinguishing the Reflex stove during the night. We mostly stayed inside apart from one evening when the wind eased off for a few hours and we returned to the edge to watch the huddled penguins below us in the moonlight with spindrift gusting off the shelf. We tried to explore around the edge avoiding the cracks and walking in a sea of drifting snow, but the contrast of the snow was too low, so we headed home again.
Our lie-up in the caboose, as it’s known in high winds, was luxurious with warmth, extravagant food (we had steak and mash, cheese on crackers, noodles and satay sauce, pancakes, as well as the usual man food and biscuit browns), watching movies on a laptop, listening to music, reading, and playing card games. Sadly, the wine had frozen and was less enjoyable once defrosted, but we had an ample supply of beer and whisky.
On the last day we took advantage of the clear, but cold weather and visited the penguins on the sea ice again. This time the wind had broken up the sea ice at the edge of the inlet and the penguins were frolicking in the water. We watched them again charmed into a trance as they jumped out of the water onto the ice, laughing when they failed to jump far enough and slid back in the water. We wandered around to look for better access routes onto the ice, but the few ramps turned out to be quite steep. The clouds drew in again decreasing the contrast, but creating a magical lighting with the ice cliffs in the background and the steaming water outlining the penguins ambling around on the ice and crowding around us. After saying goodbye to our devout followers we climbed back up, packed up our camp and set off in the snocat for home, all in all a short, but rewarding trip.