On 18 March this year South Africa formally opened a new scientific and weather station on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, part of the southern Indian Ocean's Prince Edward Islands.
The state-of-the-art building complex has been constructed over a seven-year period close by the old base that was made up of a number of scattered buildings erected from as early as the 1950s - that have deteriorated over time in the harsh environment. They had also become increasingly inadequate for the amount and sophistication of research activities supported by the South African National Antarctic Programme.
The new base consists of a single building with five wings around a central hub for accommodation, logistics (power generation, waste treatment, food storage, etc.), recreation, cooking and dining, and importantly a double-story science wing with eight first-floor offices, capable of seating up to nine researchers at individual desks, and a suite of ground-floor laboratories, each well-equipped for specific types of analyses. There is also a library, a conference room, a workshop and store rooms in the science block. A separate hangar with a raised landing pad can house two helicopters and also acts as a fully-equipped emergency base for the over-wintering team (18 strong this year).
With nine four-berth modern field huts placed strategically around the island, the way is now set for an increase in both the quality and quantity of research undertaken on the island - including on ACAP-listed albatrosses and petrels (click here).
Meanwhile young Wandering Albatrosses Diomedea exulans have started courting within metres of the old base, now effectively abandoned, occupying land their antecedents deserted due to too much human disturbance more than 50 years ago. Plans are afoot to dismantle most of the old buildings in the next few years (it is intended the oldest will be kept as a museum), giving even more space back to the island's birds.
Next year, South Africa will commission its new Antarctic supply and research vessel to replace the ageing S.A. Agulhas, further demonstrating the nation's resolve to continue to support research endeavours "down south".
John Cooper, ACAP Information Officer, at Marion Island, 1 May 2011