How to prepare for life in Antarctica

When I first got offered the position as Marine Biologist in Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey I accepted straight away. What a once in a life time experience for anybody to be able to live at one of the most remote and hostile continents in the world and what a unique and brilliant chance for a Marine Ecologist to study marine life in a place where so few people have been before. I was bursting with excitement and walked out the house into brilliant sunshine where I got enveloped in the warmth of a summer afternoon. All of a sudden I realised that I had just signed up to 1.5 years of winter, of 1.5 years of snow, ice, wind and who knows what else and I couldn’t help but ask myself ‘WTF have I just done?‘.

Ever since then my longing for adventure and my enthusiasm for research have been at odds with my sense for self preservation. Some of my qualms were easy to deal with. Rothera, the biggest research station of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), is based on Adelaide Island on the West Antarctic Peninsula, ‘only’ 67° South. This means it will never get completely dark. Even in the depth of the Antarctic winter we will get twilight – not so much different from a grey winter day in Northern Ireland, right? And I managed to survive that. Also temperatures there range between +5 to 0° C in Summer and -5 to -20° C in Winter. Having grown up in Upper Franconia (Bavarias Siberia) I am used to such temperatures. So really, dealing with these kind of conditions should be a breeze, lets just forget about meters of snow, the fact I won’t see my family and friends for 18 months and that internet will be painfully slow (Yes, I fully admit to being a millennial snowflake who depends on her digital lifeline and don’t even get me started on the lack of avocado toast).

Before my deployment I got to spend 5 months at BAS headquarter in Cambridge. This was partly to develop a better idea of the kind of project I want to carry out whilst South and get to know my working group. Interestingly, all conversations with my supervisor regarding my project ran something akin to this:

Me (prancing into my supervisors office, after days of research): I’ve just had a brilliant idea, how about I look at x, y and z?

Supervisor (or destroyer of dreams): That is a great idea! I definitely think somebody should look at that, however not you.

Me (sinking heart but trying to rally): Why?

Supervisor (/DOD): Icebergs!

Suspiciously, ice scour (which means icebergs ramming the seabed and destroying everything on it) seems to be the major problem for all my ideas but will not interfere with any of his (Damn his experience and my lack thereof). Essentially, this means after two month of reading and planning, I am now intending to carry out all the projects he suggested in the first place – coincidence? – I think not.

Another part of my time in Cambridge was spent with training. This was kicked off by the winterers conference where I met the team with whom I will be spending the winter (April – October) at Rothera. All in all there is 20 polar heroes and 3 heroines remaining on station once the summer crowd leaves. Meeting the team was really encouraging; although the gender proportions aren’t ideal and we might not have many nights of knitting and watching Bridget Jones Diary, all the members of the team are incredibly fun to hang out with and whilst some have inspiring life stories to tell, others have worked extremely hard to get here (causing my imposter syndrome to flare up: I am only in it for the science).

Parts of our training is certainly designed to appeal to the adventurer in us. Training on how to survive at sea in appalling conditions, learning how to abseil into and climb out of crevasses and tips on how to stay safe whilst camping or exploring the unknown icy vastness of Antarctica leaves you itching with impatience to finally go and follow in the footsteps of Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott (Get a taste of it here).

Other parts of the training were specifically tailored to my role at the station. For example I learned how to drive a boat – turns out parking a boat is even more difficult than parking a car and I am not an expert in either. I spent a week diving with the dive team and the kit that we will be using – nothing like impressing your new dive officer by trailing a cloud of silt behind you whilst flopping about the seafloor like a newborn seal on land (Note to myself: Sort your weight out). And I learned how to operate a crane with a remote control – any experience with a playstation comes in useful for this one.

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Training dive to familiarize ourselves with the equipment. Photo credit: C. Stronach

One of the most important and equally terrifying parts of my training was the advanced first aid training. During three days the doctors from the British Antarctic Survey Medical Unit very patiently taught us how to suture, inject drugs, cannulate, prepare plaster casts and do CPR. During this time we were bombarded with worst case scenarios and constantly confronted with what do you do if… This is particularly important for stations that do not have a doctor (which luckily we are not) and deep field deployments. However, Doctors are only people too and we only have one. So since I am not sure how confident I feel about actually sticking a needle into somebody, I will be making extra sure, ours is going to be wrapped in bubble wrap wherever he goes.

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Producing award winning plaster casts. Photo credit: C. Fraser

Having completed my training I now have to balance mundane tasks such as making sure I am bringing enough shampoo and peppermint tea for 1.5 years with things that require a bit more thought including writing my will (Got to make sure the fossil collection is going to a good home) while my departure date creeps nearer and the excitement builds – sometimes interrupted by spouts of sheer terror. But that is how every good adventure should start, right?

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Sending some of my personal kit ahead to be taken to Rothera by ship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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