Friday, 24 September 2010

You're going for how long?

When I tell people that I am going to live on a tiny, sub-antarctic island for two and a half years they generally all respond in the same way- wide-eyed, slack-jawed disbelief. This is true even of other British Antarctic Service employees, many of whom are going to live in desolate and remote places themselves for 14 months or more. The follow up question is usually "so how often do you get to come home?" to which the answer "not at all" elicits a kind of wild-eyed panic in the questioner, who now realises that he has accidentally got into conversation with a dangerous lunatic and starts to sidle away.

In a few weeks time I will be heading off to Bird Island, to work for the British Antarctic Survey as a zoological field assistant. Bird Island sits at the north-west tip of a much larger island called South Georgia, a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic (and not to be confused with Georgia, the country that Russia periodically invades, or Georgia, the US state next to Florida). South Georgia is about 150km long and lies 1,400km south-east of the Falkland Islands. It is an island that would have won Slartibartfast an award had he designed it- all crinkly round the edges and covered in glaciers.

South Georgia (image from wikipedia)

Compared to its mighty neighbour, Bird Island is just a tiny little nubbin. At 5km long and 800m wide at its widest point, is covers an area of around 400 hectares. But what it lacks in stature it makes up for in super-abundance of wildlife, with an estimated 50,000 breeding pairs of penguins, 14,000 pairs of albatrosses and 65,000 Antarctic fur seals. Unlike South Georgia, Bird Island is free from introduced rats, and is therefore a haven for smaller birds. Current estimates stand at a whopping 700,000 nocturnal petrels, as well as healthy populations of the South Georgia pipit, the Antarctic's only songbird, and the South Georgia pintail, an omnivorous duck that can sometimes be seen nibbling on old seal carcasses.

Bird Island is marked by the arrow (image from

Bird Island (image from British Antarctic Survey website)

Another question I often get asked, by those people brave enough to continue the conversation this far, is "will there be permanent darkness?". The answer is no- at 54ºS Bird Island is not even in Antarctica proper, which officially starts at 60ºS. It is roughly the same distance from the equator as York and so has a similar daylight regime to the UK, although being in the Southern Hemisphere summer and winter are reversed. It does, however, lie inside the Antarctic convergence, the boundary where cold Antarctic water meets warmer water from the north, and therefore has a decidedly chillier climate than Yorkshire (hard as that is to believe). Temperatures range between -10ºC and 10ºC with an average of around 0ºC in the winter and 4ºC in the summer. Strong, gale-force winds and snow can be experienced at any time of year.

"But why are you going to this icy, wind-swept rock?". I realise it must look like insanity to most people, and sometimes I have slight niggling doubts about the whole idea myself. My answers to this question are rarely satisfactory- the birds? the challenge? the lifestyle? I can no longer bear to live in a society that created jeggings? In situations like this I often find it helpful to borrow some flowery and poetic quote from someone else. I'm not a very flowery or poetic person myself, and someone has usually said what I'm thinking much better than I ever could. So for any of you who are wondering "why are you going? why? why? why?" I give you this from Mary Shelley:

There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand...a love
of the marvelous, a belief in the marvelous, which hurries me out of the
common pathways, to the wild sea and unvisited regions I am about to explore.
Shall I meet you again, having traversed immense seas, and returned?

1 comment:

  1. oh ruth, you crack me up! i'm already addicted to your blog, can't wait for when you get there!