1/ Preparing the fishing hole in sea-ice
Preparation of an ice-hole to set a fishing
net under sea ice. The snow has been pushed back from
the surface and this saw with a special ice blade is being
used to cut a hole through the ice. Once cut, the floating
square is cut into quarters and the then each quarter pushed
under the ice where it's buoyancy keeps it in place. Not
too bad a job until you hit the sea, then the blade sprays
you with exceptionally cold water.
Two holes like this are cut
slightly further apart than the length of the fishing net
that will be used here. This is a fairly shallow net, set
in about 15m of water.
2/ Send a diver, or two, down the
hole with a handy rope
Once the hole has been cut and ice removed
if possible (as here) or pushed down under the surface if
the blocks are too heavy - it's time to send a diver from
one hole to the other with a rope. Usually two divers
are sent down, in this case one of these guys has done it
before and for the other it's his first time.
A skidoo drives from one
hole to the next, so the tracks can be seen through the
ice as a lighter strip. The divers follow this at a depth
of 5-10m and surface through the second hole. The rope is
then secured at both ends to a stake hammered into the ice.
This only needs to be done
the once, these holes can be used until the ice breaks up.
3/ Go on, stop stalling, get down
Swimming between two ice holes in the
relative shallows isn't too bad as it's quite light and
you can see the bottom, but this was out in much deeper
water 60m+. The sea-ice cuts out a lot of the light
reaching beneath it and in such deep water there is nothing
to see as a visual cue. The diver in this case is dependent
on his depth gauge to stay at the right level and the line "drawn"
by the skidoo on the surface that he is following to the
Eventually, the next hole
comes into sight and light shines down like a beacon.
4/ Great relief! the divers surface
at the other hole
a very eerie place to be even before you go under water.
On this day, there was no wind at all, the visibility was
crystal clear for tens of miles around and the world was
a monochrome of blues. Then the divers go down the hole
in the ice and you really totally alone and silent. It really
is a great relief when you see them appear at the second
hole! They didn't stay in any longer than necessary as there
was simply nothing nothing to see. Two divers rather than
just one helps here as they form a visual cue for each other
while swimming through the blue.
5/ The view from one fishing hole
to the next
It's probably one of the oddest jobs I've
ever done, a combination of where it happened and what I
was doing. It was always a help if it was a little windy
I felt as if it was flat calm, you were aware of being in
a vast landscape and rather more exposed than was entirely
The rope that the divers
had placed had a net tied onto it, the guy/s at the other
end of the rope would pull the net through the hole until
they saw the end of it. At this point it would be hanging
like a curtain underneath and against the ice, you'd pull
it taught and then let go at both ends so it would fall
slowly to the sea-bed. It was better for the ice blocks
from the hole to be taken out of the hole as in this case,
so that the rope and/or net didn't get tangled up with them.
6/ When it is very cold, the fish
freeze pretty much straight away on contact with the air
Fishing through the sea-ice like this
was always a risk. Once deployed, the net would start
catching fish, if you didn't retrieve it every day and remove
the fish, they would die in the net and this would attract
various scavengers. After a short time it would be a horrible
deadly mess - and completely useless for the purpose it
was set for in the first place, to capture live fish.
If it was very cold, fish
would freeze immediately on contact with the air - or almost
so. A way around this was to pull the net as quickly out
of the water as possible and into a bucket of water which
would be then driven quickly back to the base where the
fish were removed in balmy temperatures of -5C or more instead
of -15C and well below outside (sea-water freezes at -1.8C,
so the fish live their lives at this temperature irrespective
of what the air temperature was - if it gets colder, the
ice just gets thicker).
7/ Feeding the net into a bucket to
take back to base and get the fish out
It was always good for some nice atmospheric
pictures though, fishing in this manner. You can just
about see a pointy thing about knee-high to the left of
the black bucket. This is a harpoon head taken from Grytviken
whaling station on South Georgia that we used to get people
to collect if they called in there on their way south. These
very heavy iron tips to the harpoon would be filled with
explosives and screwed onto a harpoon that would reach to
about a mans shoulder. We just used them as weights to keep
the net down on the sea-bed.
If it wasn't too cold, fish
could be removed from the net on the ice and then the net
re-set immediately. If it was too cold, the net would have
to be taken back to base and then taken back out to be re-set.
The difference about 2-3 hours work! We used to avoid taking
the net back to base if it was at all possible.
8/ Juvenile Notothenia
One of the common inshore species is this
one, Notothenia neglecta, the subject of my particular
studies. It was sometimes called "Antarctic Cod",
but then I've seen that label attached to several other
Antarctic fish species. With no native human population
and a fish population that is pretty much totally unique
to Antarctica, very few Antarctic fish actually have anything
like a common name. The people who deal with them with any
regularity are scientists rather than fishmongers as it
would be anywhere else in the world.
The result is that Antarctic
fish tend only to have a Latin name. For reason I have never
been able to fully understand this can greatly irritate
some people. The conversation goes something like this:
"So what kind of fish did
you catch out there?"
me - "Quite a few types"
me - (ok here we
go again) "They
didn't really have common names, just scientific ones"
(I know where this is going) "Notothenia
neglecta, Chaenocephalus aceratus,
Trematomus bernachii, Champsocephalus
"Well that means nothing to
me! Didn't they have proper names?"
me - "Well you could
call them Antarctic Cod, or Icefish"
that makes more sense, I can imagine what they were
- no you can't! (but I never say that)
9/ Getting a fish out of the net
A rapidly grabbed picture because I was
supposed to be involved here in getting the fish out of
the net and the fact I was taking pictures instead meant
that I was having a break instead of doing the same uncomfortable
job that my friends were doing. As our fish needed to
be alive and in good condition we had to take care in extracting
them from the nets and they seemed to have an awful lot
of little hard protrusions and bits for the net to get caught
It was a skill that you had
to develop as a fish biologist, removing a sometimes very
tightly caught fish with fingers that were at least half
numb and getting worse. Very unpleasant at first, but of
course, you got used to it and it was usually better to
just carry on with fingers that at half worked than to keep
warming them up which just made it worse.
10/ Summer fishing isn't as cold,
but can still be very uncomfortable
Fishing in the summer months means from
small boats. While it wasn't as cold as winter fishing,
the sea keeps moving about in a way the sea-ice doesn't.
Sea-sickness is fairly quickly overcome, unless your job
was to coil the rope into the rope bucket as it came in,
which could be difficult in a heavy swell.
This was a calm day wind-wise,
but there was about a 12ft (3.5m) swell and we really shouldn't
have been out in it, but it was fun, especially as we would
power up the waves as they came in and took off over the
top of them.
It meant getting the net
in was easier too. Pull in as much rope as you could when
the boat went down into a trough, then hold onto it for
dear life as the up-swell came and lifted the boat and net
with it, that way the swell did the work and you didn't
|11/ Small boat
fishing means pulling the net up manually
Pulling a net up by hand can be hard,
but not too bad if spread amongst a few of you. As driving
along in the boat with buckets full of water isn't a great
idea, the net was laid into an empty bucket and then we
got back to base as quickly as we could before taking the
fish out. The cold temperatures and wetness of the net kept
the fish alive and well.
We did have a small fishing
launch with a powered capstan for hauling deep nets, but
it was more a question of what mood you were in as to which
was best to use as the capstan turned very slowly and you
felt very sea-sick when watching the rope slowly coil into
the bucket. We used the launch on nets that were further
away from base rather than necessarily deeper.
12/ The net is then brought back to
base where it can be laid out
A fairly miserable day to get fish out
of the net. Note the two skuas waiting patiently to
pick up any tasty tit-bits that have also been brought up
with the net.
You often hear of how skuas
are hardened criminals with no sense of decorum and will
mug small children and old people for the slightest hint
of food. However, ours were far more refined and would sit
and wait like this, if nothing was forthcoming they would
go on their way again.
We had two pairs of base-skuas,
the Reds and the Blues named for which side of the base
they lived, there was a skua-landing pad outside the kitchen
window, painted red on one side and blue on the other. One
side was uphill (red) the other side downhill (blue). The
skuas would fly the couple of hundred meters from their
nest to the pad and get fed. If they were very fully fed,
rather than make the effort to fly home, they would sometimes
just flap down to ground level and walk home instead.
fish from the net can be fiddly and uncomfortable!
But a necessary part of the job unfortunately.
14/ It can take a long time to go
through a 30m net
So the more people you could recruit to
do this job the better. The problem was that you then
had to help them in return when it was time for them
to do their unpleasant job.
15/ The net then needs to be straightened
and stored neatly so it can be easily deployed again
After all the hard work, getting the net
in, extracting the fish and putting them in the base aquaria,
the last job was to sort the net for next time. Quite
gentle and therapeutic after all the recent effort. The
net had to be stored correctly as next time it was going
to be used we'd be bouncing about in a small boat with hardly
any elbow room setting it at dusk.