Yesterday the sun has set at Rothera Point, for the first time in 6 weeks and although it will still be a long time until darkness returns and we have nights again, it made me reflect on the time I have spent here so far.
Things haven’t always been easy and sometimes were challenging, in areas which I least expected. For me going to Antarctica was about the physical challenge of living in such an extreme environment (coming from the person, sitting on her veranda in the sunshine, sipping peppermint tea, while typing this) and the mental challenge of coping with the remoteness and the desolation of this place (casually uploading photos to Facebook).
Interestingly neither of these have shown problematic so far, the problem I seem to be having is adapting to the pace of working in Antarctica. Working as part of the marine team, we heavily rely on boats. Most of which are hardbottom inflatable boats (RHIBs) – and because conditions down here are so harsh (high UV radiation, brash ice and icebergs floating in the water) they are taking quite a battering. It is providing a challenge for even the most ingenious of our mechanics and the most dedicated of our boating officers, to keep the spark of life going in the rusty hearts of our boats engines. And we do wonder whether the working ones are only held together by hope, desperation and a bit of ice as well as the constant tender care of the boating officers. Not ideal conditions for a dive team, which is dependent on boats to get them to dive sites but also cannot have them fail during dives so that divers can be picked up out of the water immediately after they surface and thereby limit their exposure to leopard seals, orcas and other curious marine wildlife which is a lot bigger than the average diver.
Efforts are underway to replace these old trusty workhorses and some new shiny boats have arrived, which we are all very excited about. Yet, although they have been here for a while they still need to be properly serviced after their long journey South before they can go for their first dip into the cold Antarctic sea. After a short while you quickly pick up on the fact that man power and spares are extremely limited here which means dealing with problems such as a broken engine requires patience, flexibility (neither of which I am particularly known for) and creativity.
The knock on effect of all this is that the marine team has been high and dry for a while, as a task focused scientist (or beakers as we are – not always – lovingly called here) this is not always easy to take. So the moments when we do get to go out on the water are precious and come with an extreme high. Recently, I had the opportunity to have my first boat training, so that eventually I can be trusted to handle the boat by myself (I still need a lot of training! And with that I mean – a lot!). Although once on the water many of these issues and problems, that rule everyday life – even here, just seem to melt away and this place regains its magic. Greeted by humpback whales which are returning to these nutrient rich waters in the wake of the phytoplankton bloom we zoomed past majestic icebergs and explored the rugged islands which mark the edge of our boating limit. Wildlife is richer and in greater abundance there and represents a little piece of heaven for a marine ecologist.
It seems as easy and natural to get caught up in everyday problems here as it is back home, however every time I see a penguin waddle across the runway or I get to go for a skiing trip swooshing down the slopes to the majestic backdrop of the sparkling mountain ranges of the Antarctic Peninsular (the hard life of a Polar Hero!) I cannot believe how lucky I am to have made it here and although I might be able to hold myself back from doing a little jig whenever I get excited, I am most definitely pinching myself to make sure I am not dreaming.
Adaptation is a funny thing. In an ecological sense it means individuals using certain behaviours or change body shapes to thrive in different habitats. In an evolutionary process, adaptation could ultimately lead to a species becoming genetically split into two (see Darwin’s finches). So I do hope that I can adjust to living in this environment in an ecological sense of way by working on developing all these character traits which I am very clearly lacking (such as patience, flexibility, calmness and did I mention patience) and do get to leave before I evolve into a semi-elephant seal (easily achieved with 5 meals a day).