Life Around Rothera

Katie Joy | 5 Dec 2019

Rothera Research Station is located on a small peninsula called Rothera Point, protruding from Adelaide Island into Lauberf fjord. Walking around the point is a favourite evening pastime — it takes about an hour to do a circuit and return to the base, longer if you are wildlife spotting.

The view from the point into the fjord is stunning — at the moment the sea to the north is ice locked and icebergs (tens of metres in size) are released every so often, bobbing towards to the south into the open water of Marguerite Bay. Small floes drift around on the open water and cling to the shoreline when the wind is up. Since we have been here the sea has varied from angry, stormy and choppy, with small white horses whipping around, to flat and calm and totally clear producing amazing reflections from the ‘bergs (we could see several metres down to the sea floor, though apparently it won’t stay like this for long as the plankton will be blooming soon, reducing the visibility). Across the bay is a snow capped mountain range including Cape Sáenz, which is the southernmost point of the Arrowsmith Peninsula.

View from Rothera Point looking northeast towards Arrowsmith Peninsula. [Credit: Katie Joy]

We attended a wildlife briefing the other night to familiarise ourselves with the different types of animals we might see: the staff at Rothera are recording which species are spotted as part of a long-term monitoring programme.

There are numerous mammals in the area including a number of seal species: we often see both noisy elephant seals that live around base (occasionally visiting us to see what we are up to — see the post from a couple of days ago when one was hanging out next to our metal detector array in the cargo yard), and the smaller Weddell seal. There are small gangs of Adelie penguins, which are utterly comical and cute as they run along flapping their wings, and their heads down. The airborne bird life is spectacular, with Antarctic terns, Antarctic shags, snow petrel, Wilson’s storm petrel, Skuas, and Kelp Gulls. Sometimes in the austral summer orcas (also known as killer whales), humpback whales and minke whales frequent the bay. Hopefully when we come back through Rothera in mid-January we might spot these ocean dwellers.

Elephant seals disguised as rocks. These are all juveniles, although are pretty enormous beasts at a couple of metres in length. [Credit: Katie Joy]
A particularly happy looking elephant seal. [Credit: Katie Joy]
A Weddell seal, a smaller variety than the elephant seal, with a distinctive mottle patterned back. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Everyone’s favourite — an Adelie penguin hanging out on the edge of the sea ice. [Credit: Katie Joy]
The Antarctic shag in flight (not a flying penguin!). [Credit: Katie Joy]
Kelp Gulls on Rothera Point. [Credit: Katie Joy]

Note that all the photos above were taken with a zoom lens — we keep a healthy distance from the wildlife so as not to disturb them.

Research Station Life

Katie Joy | 26 Dec 2018

Spending time at Rothera before we transfer out to the field has been great and given me a chance to see some of the local wildlife, see some spectacular scenery, and meet the great people to work hard to keep the station and field operations on the go. The next few blogs will hopefully give you some insights to what life is life at the research station.

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Rothera research station viewed from the local ramp. The runway cross-cuts the image from right to left, the base behind with its many buildings and cargo yards, and then the Point. The hills to the left of the Point is the protected area. The hill to the right has a memorial.

What is there to see around the station?

When there are no planes landing you can walk around the perimeter of the gravel runway which gives some good views of the station and also of the surrounding bay. It takes about 20–30 mins at a slow (photo-taking pace) to walk around the edge. A couple of days ago I was lucky enough to see a group of three Adele penguins waiting patiently at the runway crossing point — and yes I was as excited as you can imagine. They are super cute, flapping their wings and all. Like all the animals and birds in Antarctica you have to stay a respectful distance away so not to disturb them, and these three guys moved on to an open water patch soon afterwards.

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Adele penguins on the stroll close to the runway
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Science and observation equipment close to Rothera station

You can also walk around the Point behind the station. It takes about an hour and a half to take a slow meander around a marked path, avoiding a specially protected area on a hill top behind the station (this area is kept people free to track the effects of people on the occupied part of the Rothera Point). You have to check out of the station, so that people know you are heading out and about, but once on the walk you can take your time and enjoy icebergs bobbing around and breaking up – all the time the smaller ones are on the move by the tide. The colours, especially on a slightly overcast day, are amazing different tones of blue through clear glassy and snowy white. There are some small patches of moss that grow between the dark granodiorite fractured rock. There is currently a large berg with an arch in it bobbing around in the bay. On the way you see various science experiments (a solar observatory) and radar and weather observations stations, along with the communication satellites.

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Iceberg with an arch – crab eater seals lounging on the floe in front

What wildlife can you see?

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Arctic tern

So far on my stroll to look at the icebergs around Rothera Point I have seen more elephant seals (they are everywhere…), some crab eating seals on the land and also a collection of about 30 of them fishing in the sea together in a big group, and a couple more Adele penguins hanging out on the sea-ice edge. Bird life include skuas (large gull-like birds), kelp gulls (black backed), arctic terns fishing (beautiful and amazing — they can travel 19000 km a year to migrate between polar region food grounds), snow petrels, and the little dark coloured Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. The sea here apparently has increasing levels of plankton which means that soon there will be krill moving into feed, which are often followed by orcas and other whales.

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A crab eater seal lounging on the snow

What do people do otherwise for fun?

For those living here (often for up to 18 months at a time) the appeal of living on the station needs to include recreation activities to give people some downtime to relax after working days. There are a couple of TV rooms and movie nights run, there is a well stocked library and quiet reading space, games (lots of board games), people run a knitting club, and there are yoga classes advertised on the mess room board.  There is a bar with a pool table and table football, and once a week football game. The people that live and work on station can also do other recreation activities like cross country skiing and downslope skiing on a ramp close to the base – given how clumsy I am and a terrible skier (no matter how good the coaching is I prefer to adopt the snow plough in most ski situations…) — I will be giving that a miss so that I don’t take a tumble and damage myself before getting a chance to do our fieldwork!

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Rothera research station library and reading room