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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 January 2006, 22:39 GMT
Reporter's log: Antarctica
David Shukman (BBC)
By David Shukman

Our science correspondent visited the researchers posted to the British Antarctic Survey's Rothera base. He recorded his journey on this page.


The pipes in the Antarctic (BBC)
Thoughts shift towards home
The base was unusually quiet this morning, for good reason.

This may be the bottom of the world but there's something about this frozen land that lures lots of Scots; so Burns Night was celebrated in style last night.

Kilts appeared, along with the tartan shirts that used to be standard issue for the British Antarctic Survey. One leading climate researcher even managed a dinner jacket, though he also still sported the scientists' regulation socks and sandals.

Outside a gale raced over the ice while inside the Haggis was piped in, the whisky flowed and the British Antarctic Survey press officer, Linda Capper, recited the Selkirk Grace.

Soon the tables were cleared for a Ceilidh and the boatman Andy Wilson, dressed in full Scottish rig rather than his usual orange survival suit, guided the dancing.

I'd never expected to feel hot in Antarctica but I suppose reels will warm you up wherever you are, especially if the windows are sealed tight shut.

So, forgotten for a while were the wild landscapes and vicious winds of the real world beyond. And that's been a theme of this visit: a strange double life of Britain inside, Antarctica outside.

Map of Rothera (BBC)
A few days ago I was asked in an e-mail what I had found most striking about this place. I said then that it had to be the constantly shifting, spellbinding scenery. But I'll also never forget entering the luminous blue of that chasm in the ice.

Or getting incredibly close to an amiable penguin pottering about on his own little iceberg. Or cameraman Tony Fallshaw establishing our first live television link to London.

Or the sheer determination and diligence of the scientists and the support teams who've done so much to help us, operating in conditions that few can imagine.

Right now there are probably no more than 10,000 people on this continent twice the size of Australia.

It's been an immense privilege to have joined them. And who knows? With the weather forecasts here always uncertain, our flight out tomorrow may be delayed and I may be with this elite band a little longer.


Ask any of the Antarctic veterans here what they do when the weather's bad and they look at you as if you're simple.

The answer, they explain, is obvious: you just sit it out, stupid.

So today with the winds gusting to 50mph we're doing just that. From my window I can see that the hangar doors are firmly shut.

There's no flying today, nor any boating. The waves are too big and the icebergs are too mobile for any of the research teams to consider venturing out onto the water.

People here seek shelter indoors, some doing e-mails, a few watching a film in the bar. But what about the teams out in the deep interior, huddled in their tents?

I visit the control tower and watch the radio operator making his regular calls.

From a camp known as Sky-Blu, marked as a tiny speck on the map, a voice crackles over the radio that the weather's terrible and the thermometer is broken but that the team of three are all well.

These people really are in the middle of nowhere. That becomes especially clear when I'm shown a map of the flight routes over Antarctica.

From here at Rothera to the South Pole it's about 1,400 miles. That's the equivalent of London to Istanbul, a statistic that makes the human presence here feel very tiny.


David Shukman on his computer (BBC)
It is a very long way from Didcot
A wonderfully weird morning. I was gazing at the icebergs, headphones perched over my woollen hat, waiting for my turn to be interviewed by Victoria Derbyshire on BBC Radio 5Live, when I found myself hearing the traffic report.

The A34 was heavy going near Didcot, apparently.

It's a road I use quite a lot, so I instinctively listened with keen interest. I had one of those moments, fuelled no doubt by the endlessly bright light and far too little sleep, when you forget completely where you are.

And then I remembered, and the only bit of traffic I could see was a small four-wheel-drive trundling across the runway.

The radio broadcast itself was fascinating. Victoria said a caller wondered if I was really in Antarctica. On radio, how can you prove it? Maybe I wasn't sniffing enough.

Issy Gerrard, one of the Rothera station's chefs (BBC)
Issy Gerrard is one of the chefs at Rothera
The best proof though is that I've become an addict for "smoko". I know it's becoming an obsession because I've mentioned it before.

It's the old tradition from the days when the Royal Navy led expeditions here of feeding everyone a mid-morning snack. And, believe me, after a morning in the Antarctic cold, a bun crammed with a slice of hot pork is bliss.

Not quite as good as the steak-and-kidney pie that one of the cooks, Issy, produced for yesterday's smoko, but incredibly welcome anyway.


We're about to head out into the cold again to try some more live television broadcasts and, hopefully, answer some of your e-mailed questions. Top of my list would be to ask about what's on for smoko tomorrow.


David Shukman and Tony Fallshaw prepare for a live link to London (BBC)
In tests, things always work...

In our lonely corner of Antarctica, we've made a little bit of media history: the first live television broadcast from the British base here at Rothera on the Antarctic Peninsula.

For me, it was a totally bizarre experience to be standing on the edge of a bay brimming with icebergs and to hear in my earpiece the voices of the studio control people 9,000 miles away back in London.

For cameraman Tony Fallshaw, though, it must have been horribly stressful. He set up the equipment - two satellite telephones harnessed to a video phone with power drawn from the base's hangar and our first test transmission, bouncing off a satellite somewhere above Brazil, went very smoothly. Tests usually do.

The biggest problem was reading the equipment's tiny screens because the light was so bright.

Tony resorted to drawing his anorak over his head to create some dark, not unlike the pioneering Antarctic photographer Herbert Ponting who would drape himself in a black cloth to screen out the polar sunshine.

David Shukman live from the Antarctic (BBC)
...doing it for real is never as easy

That sorted, we spent the rest of the day filming on a boat, visiting an island that was probably a bit too distant given what was in store for us. We did get back in time but then, naturally, nothing worked.

Tony adjusted cables and found new ones and checked and rechecked every link in the long chain between us and London and only very late in the day did he see the magic word "connected", and the first voices from distant Britain made their way to my ear.

We were live, and delighted. But at one stage we noticed a seal sleeping on the ice nearby. He raised his head briefly to see what all the fuss was about. And then lay down again, bored.


It is all part of our safety training

I've just been through one of the most remarkable experiences of my life - and it's not often one can say that.

As part of the survival training that all visitors have to go through here, I found myself abseiling right into the heart of a deep crevasse.

It was an awkward descent through a narrow entrance, not least because my handling of the ropes was hardly expert.

But when the tunnel opened up below me I turned my head to look down and saw a truly wonderful sight - a deep cavern in the ice, a chamber of a million icicles with pale blue light filtering down from above and a darker blue emanating from deep inside.

I couldn't help blurting out how amazing it was to be there and my cameraman, Tony Fallshaw, following in behind, produced exactly the same reaction.

Our guides nodded knowingly: everyone responds this way. I can't think of any natural formation quite so stunning.

And I couldn't help thinking how ice covers almost all of Antarctica, sometimes miles deep. I'd had just one glimpse inside it.

Imagine what other far more alien, beautiful scenes are waiting to be explored.


Interviewing outside at Rothera (BBC)
David is talking to the scientists working at Rothera
Antarctica is deceptive. This morning it seemed so mild, a gentle breeze and even a few glimpses of pallid sunshine. But climb as we did on to the little hill above the British base here at Rothera and the wind grabs you and serves a chilling reminder of what this place is all about.

Looking down at the huddled buildings and the tiny airstrip and the slender aerials that provide the only link with the outside world, I couldn't help thinking how fragile our hold is here.

I watched the biggest of the planes take off for the regular run to the Falklands. In the hangar the Dash-7 had loomed very large but as it lifted into the cloud and shrank above the icebergs, it looked worryingly slender.

Travelling in Antarctica can never have been safer but it's still Antarctica and from the days of the earliest explorers it has readily claimed lives.

At my vantage point, I read the memorials to those who have died at Rothera: an aircrew of three Canadians and a Norwegian; two men who vanished sledging over sea-ice; three men on an expedition in the 1950s; and, most recently, the young biologist Kirsty Brown who was conducting research in the waters just below me when she was attacked by a leopard seal and drowned.

Talk of her death brings tears to the eyes of everyone here. Yet the work goes on.

I looked up from the inscription on Kirsty's memorial to see a party of divers in a small launch.

On the shore nearby someone was keeping watch over them and reported sighting a seal - reason enough to cancel the mission, reason enough, as I headed back inside, to feel just a bit more vulnerable.


David Shukman on a snowmobile (BBC)
The dogs are no more at Rothera

There's a cliff of ice outside my window and just below it the wind sock is billowing horizontally. The blasts of cold take your breath away and reach any bit of skin left exposed. And this is the summer.

The huddle of buildings making up this base sit amid scenery that's incredible - and shifting. The icebergs just off shore keep drifting and the clouds that swathe the mountains thicken and then part. There's no flying today so technically we're cut off.

Except that the digital age has reached the Antarctic and we're all hunched over keyboards checking e-mails.

In fact, a theme of ancient and modern runs through everything. As part of the obligatory survival training, I've just been taught the intricacies of an Empire-age Tilley lamp and a wonderful brass Primus stove that those intrepid Victorians would have recognised.

David land Tony learn how to use a stove (BBC)
An old stove - technology we can rely on
Surely, I ask, there's something better now? Maybe, they say here, but not as reliable. You wouldn't want your life hanging on some modern but fragile bit of kit. So the preferred containers for field trips are wooden rather than plastic.

When we head out onto the ice tonight we'll take satellite phones but we'll also bring sheepskin rugs for insulation. The heritage of Britain's great age of polar discovery lives on.

The mid-morning break is known as "Smoko" - because in the days when the Royal Navy pioneered the first bases here, that's what they called it back then.

The buildings are named after the husky teams that Antarctic expeditions used to rely on - though dogs have long since been replaced by ski-mobiles. Right now a field guide is waiting to teach us how to cope with crevasses. The technology may have changed but the hazards haven't.


David Shukman (R) and BBC cameraman Tony Fallshaw (L)
A long flight gave us a chance to check over equipment
At first I wasn't sure if the low white mass on the horizon was cloud or ice.

I was in the cockpit of the British Antarctic Survey's Dash-7 and everyone was straining for a first glimpse of the vast continent ahead of us.

We had passed the "point of No Return" - the moment when there's not enough fuel to turn back to the Falklands and everything hinges on the unpredictable weather being good enough for a safe landing.

But the sky was clear for us today and soon the dazzling blue of the ocean was speckled with the fantastic shapes of icebergs - some of them huge neatly-hewn blocks, others softer and reminiscent of crouching animals.

The horizon drew closer and was soon confirmed as land. We were flying due south over the Antarctic Peninsula and the array of mountains, valleys, islands and ice was mesmerising but also oddly disturbing.

It looked so innocent but my head is filled with the re-read stories of the early explorers. They had nothing like our destination, Rothera, the main British research base here.

We landed on its neat ice-free runway and taxied to a halt beside tidy fuel tanks and a comforting range of well-insulated buildings in which we were fed turkey and rice pudding. Antarctica exploration has come a very long way.


Scott and Shackleton had to brave the ferocity of the Southern Ocean to reach the icy wastes of Antarctica. These days you can fly there. Not directly of course.

Right now I've got as far as the Falkland Islands. I'm travelling with the British Antarctic Survey and our trek began in a chilly breeze at the RAF station at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on Thursday night.

On a chartered jumbo jet, filled with Falkland Islanders, soldiers, polar explorers and wildlife enthusiasts, we took off at midnight and stopped this morning to refuel on the steamy tropical heat of Ascension Island in mid-Atlantic.

No photography, the station commander warned. The place was crawling with funny-looking aerials. It was like stepping on the set of a Bond film.

RAF men in tan shorts and desert boots eyed us suspiciously as we sipped instant coffee and queued to get our passports stamped. Then back on board for the eight-hour haul to the far south Atlantic, the monotony broken by the pilot's excited announcement that he'd spotted icebergs - huge lumps of dazzling white amid the ocean. The Antarctic suddenly felt closer.

Soon we landed amid the treeless hills of the Falklands. We drove past the minefields - reminders of a conflict only 24 years old - and I now write this in Port Stanley, a town of Union Jacks fluttering from brightly painted corrugated iron roofs.

It's a bright clear evening and the forecast is good for the final leg of our journey, the flight across the Antarctic waters, planned for Sunday.

See the British research team at work in the Antarctic

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06 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
Antarctica's ice bottom exposed
06 Dec 05 |  Science/Nature
Antarctic species feel the warmth
19 Oct 05 |  Science/Nature
Earth - melting in the heat?
07 Oct 05 |  Science/Nature
Base on skis wins polar contract
18 Jul 05 |  Science/Nature

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