Chocolate for Breakfast

Like many other things about life in Antarctica, diving here is difficult and definitely not straight forward. Forget about the challenges of diving in really cold water, the list of things that will keep the dive team out of the water in the first place seems endless and varies from weather, sea-ice, charismatic megafauna (especially big sea pandas – Orca and sea-voldemorts – Leopards Seals) and well being of the dive team itself to whether we have enough personal on station to operate a decompression chamber in case of an emergency. So my morning routine now involves the attempt to equalise my ears as soon as I wake up and a short prayer to the weather gods before I frantically check on wind, waves and visibility outside my window.

Photo credit: T. Back
A Leopard Seal popping up next to the boat, before we were about to enter the water. Photo credit: T. Back

Generally whether, where and who is diving is decided first thing every morning during boat brief, here a bunch of scientists (me very much included), who are desperately waiting to collect data, have to prioritise what gets done on which dive and who will have to wait for another day – a scene pretty much resembling feeding time at the zoo. Once called to order by our diving officer, the dive team gets assembled consisting mostly of 4-5 people (2 divers, 1 supervisor, 1 coxswain and if necessary 1 tender). The divers then prepare their equipment and get ready to suit up. And this is where I generally get caught out. I am not a big breakfast person first thing in the morning (I know – most important meal of the day and all that) so I tend to skip it, thinking that I either will not be diving that morning or that the dive will be so late that I’ll have time for smoko (second breakfast). So every morning that I am told I’ll be diving straight away, I get surprised all over again (very much like the UKs grasp on snow during winter) and then spend the next 15 minutes frantically stuffing myself with any kind of food available in the building. I might not be big on breakfast but nobody wants to spend lugging heavy equipment around and diving in 0°C water without some fuel in them to burn. A lesson very quickly learned in Antarctica.

Sometimes we get equally curious but a bit less formidable visitors when diving.

Sometimes a dive site is more remote or takes longer to reach because of brash ice on the water or heavy swell and that is where chocolate comes in. Chocolate is basically its own food group down here and can be a substitute for any type of meal – whether breakfast, lunch or dinner. And it is more or less essential pre- or post-dive.

Photo credit A. Reichardt
Ready to roll into the water. Photo credit: A. Reichardt

Diving here is demanding, mentally and physically, even when all the stars align and we do get to go out. To protect ourselves from the cold (water conducts heat 20 times faster than air) we are wearing several baselayers, specialised undersuits and a thick neoprene drysuit (unlike a normal scuba suit it means, apart from hands and head we are staying dry during the dive, at least theoretically). Because of all the layers we are wearing, we tend to be very buoyant and require extra weights to sink – which we wear as part of a harness. One of my foes here is the BCD (basically a vest that can be filled with air) which has two steel cylinders attached holding our main breathing air and a bail-out system (in case of emergencies). It is incredibly heavy, difficult to handle because of its size and just generally unpleasant to lug around, especially when your movement is already restricted by your drysuit and you are about to collapse from heat stroke because of the many layers you are wearing. I have to admit, that when it comes to loading up the dive boat I tend to eschew the issue, until it becomes very apparent that no knight in shining armour is going to pick up the slag for me and I’ll just have to bite the bullet and lift it myself (we are all about equality). Once we arrive at the dive site the divers get kitted up. This involves putting on a full face mask which apart from the obvious benefit of keeping your face dry and allowing you to be in constant communication with the boat, definitely adds a touch of star wars to the whole operation. Any additional equipment needed during the dive, such as knive, collection bags, cameras etc. are being clicked onto the harness or BCD within easy reach (A great blog on the kind of science we do by the outgoing Marine Biologist, can be read here). So by the time, a diver is ready to roll into the water he very much resembles a cross between a Christmas tree and a storm trooper.

Boaties need to keep warm too!

Getting cold is a more limiting factor than air consumption. And generally, after 30-40 min in the water we are more than happy to return to surface, where we are greeted by the boat team with hot tea or coffee, hot water bottles (which were used to keep our kit from freezing on the way to the dive site) and more chocolate. Upon return to base all of the kit needs to get carried back into the dive store, disassembled, rinsed in fresh water and dried before we go and do it all again. On very good days we do this 3 times a day, on good days – twice, ok days – once and very bad days – such as when wildlife strikes not at all. However one of the many benefits of all of this is, that by the end of the day you can collapse on the sofa (again – it’s a tough life down here) and continue to munch all of the chocolate without the slightest bit of remorse – your body needs refuelling right?

Photo credit L. Peck
A pod of Orcas, after a successful hunt. Photo courtesy of L. Peck



Antarctic Ramblings

Traveling in Antarctica is difficult. Most of the continent is covered by snow and ice layers that have accumulated over 1000s of years and are reaching hundreds of meters depths, so much so that the weight of it actually pushes the continent down. On the coast we also have glaciers slowly edging their way through mountain valleys. Hence, the ground is often unpredictable and unreliable. Crevasses and avalanches are some of the major concerns when leaving the relative safety of base. Another aspect of this is the weather that can – not very unlike the British weather – change from one second to another. This means that generally people cannot leave the station without the assistance of an experienced mountaineer and alpinist – one of our field guides.

Snowy landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula

At Rothera we are lucky in the sense that an area that has been deemed safe has been marked by flags (the flag line) and can be used for recreational activities such as downhill or Nordic skiing or just going for a walk. However after being used to freely

Taking the plunge – diving in Antarctica. Photo credit: C. Stronach
The only place to find colour in Antarctica – under the sea! Photo credit: L. Peck

roam the countryside (British or Franconian) whenever and for how long I please, those 4 km up the hill can quickly start to feel claustrophobic. For the last month most of our field guides were deployed in the deep field to help out on scientific missions or prepare for next years projects. With only very few field guides on base opportunities to leave the flag line have been far and few between. As part of the marine team I am lucky – as I do get to go on the boats and leave the station behind on a regular basis as part of my job. I also get to experience the surprisingly rich and colourful underwater world of Antarctica and am very much aware what a rare opportunity and an incredible privilege that is.

Yet, with the return of our field guides the possibility to explore the icy realms of Adelaide Islands re-appeared. As part of the wintering team most of us will have to complete different field training modules, such as basic mountaineering (or how to walk with crampons and not hurt yourself), avalanche recovery (how to use a long stick) and crevasse rescue training (lets just all not fall in). The best part of this is when training can be combined with an exploration of our wider surroundings. So last week I had been badgering one of our field guides long enough for him to take me and our meteorologist to hike along the traverse of Stork’s ridge, right next to Sheldon glacier in Ryder Bay. A small snowy mountain chain consisting of 3 hills, it looks extremely innocent and small from the southerly site visible to us. Yet once we had scrambled up the first hill, we got an idea of how steep those benign looking snowy slopes actually were and what the northerly side looked like. Sheer brown craggy rock cliffs bend around Sheldon Glacier several hundred meters below. The ridge we were walking along sometimes was widened by snow scoops and sometimes narrowed to about 1 m in width, leaving us to balance along what mostly consisted of loose rubble. We descended steep snowy slopes (slowly and backwards using our ice axes and crampons) and ascended the craggy cliffs (gaining a faint impression of what climbing in Antarctica is like – a lot of loose rock).

Walking along Stork’s ridge on a bluebird day


Our path provided a perfect window into the heart of Adelaide Islands and made my feet tickle with the longing to go and explore more of it. On reaching the highest mountain we had snow petrels flying about us. As they came duck diving at us we suspected that they had a nest close by and we tried to give them as much space as possible without endangering ourselves. Yet for the blink of a second there was a moment almost frozen in time when our field guide stood on a small ridge, steep ragged slopes dropping off to either side of him with the image of the background of the mountain cliff in front of him and a snow petrel was hovering right beside him, both just looking at each other. – One of the incredible memories that will stay with me and that make living in this place so special.

Adelaide Island, Photo credit: T. King
The view into the heart of Adelaide Island. Photo credit: T. King

Although Rothera station wasn’t far behind us this little exploit felt dramatically more serious and adventurous than just going skiing on one of the slopes available to us. It also provided a much clearer picture of the risks and dangers associated with life in Antarctica and gave a very small indication (a whiff if you like) of the length polar explorers of bygone days must have gone to in their Antarctic quests, and how much more hardship they had to experience. To be completely honest hopping on a skidoo and ambling back to base for a nice hot shower and some hot chocolate at the end of the day does not quite get you the polar hero glow, but here is to hoping that this is still to come in the next few months.

Hiking on Storks Traverse, Photo credit T. King
We made it to the top. Lots of equipment needed for a short hike. But the view to Sheldon Glacier is worth it. Photo credit T. King


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.

An almost sunset off Adelaide Islands. 1o’clock in the morning is the best time to catch them

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.

An orca checking out a seal on an ice float. Photo credit: M. Steel

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.

After a dry spell the marine team is getting wet again. Two of our divers are attached to the end of the ropes so that we can be in constant communication with them. Photo credit: L. Peck

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.

Skiing at Vals

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).

Some elephant seals living it up around the station – thrown in for good measure

First week at Rothera

Having just completed my last shift on the JCR, I arrived at Rothera covered in mud, slightly damp, a bit disorientated and in a whirlwind of emotions. Since the team had worked to the very last minute – goodbyes to old and new friends was short and overshadowed by the fact that we (another scientist staying for a couple of month and one of our engineers destined on the next flight to her new assignment) were about to be craned off the ship – as usual under time pressure. So here I was at Rothera watching the JCR (my security blanket) steaming away, while everybody was busy moving the few bits of cargo we had brought with us away and, as it was Christmas evening, finish work as soon as possible – leaving me feeling a bit blue after the buzz of the cruise, slightly panicked and full of anticipation and excitement for the weeks to come.

View from my office

However, after having scrubbed off most of my mud and in search of a comfort cup of tea, I ran into some familiar faces from wintering training which instantly helped to make this place feel more like home. It feels good to know that the wintering team 2019 is almost completely assembled and we are here to help each other out.

An elephant seal napping around the station

One of the first things I learned as soon as I arrived on station, is that life in Antarctica requires an intricate layering system of personal protective equipment (PPE) and adherence to station protocol to protect you from the anger of the gods (Depending on the situation, they might be represented by the weather or station management). So to start a day, you are strongly encouraged to

  1. Apply a layer of factor 50 suncreme (To shield you from the unfiltered UV through the Ozone hole), then you move on to
  2. Thin base layers (based on weather conditions and work requirements) after which you move to
  3. Normal wear (this could be anything from ballgown to boilersuit) and
  4. Outer wear (again choose according to weather conditions). All of this will be toped up with
  5. High visibility attire, including hard hat and vest (Because we are living on a building site for the new wharf) and accessorise with
  6. Steel toe cap boots and
  7. A handheld radio as well as
  8. Sunglasses (completely non ironically, as the sun may burn your eyes out) and last but not least
  9. Gloves

Once you managed all that you are then required to walk to one end of the station to indicate on a big tactical board which zone you are planning to spend your time in and come back and alter your position on the board as soon as you are going somewhere else (So that you may be found in case you manage to manovour youreself in an embarrassing situation or to make sure you do not need rescuing out of a burning house).


As my scatter brain is way too busy thinking about worms and mud and what’s for lunch I generally have trouble remembering all the necessary steps in my attire or in station protocol. So I have come up with a system to appeal to my competitive nature. Every time I manage to leave the house appropriately dressed and sticking to protocol I get one point. Every time I forget something I lose one. – Needless to say, I am not even breaking even (I moved to -0.5 points if I only forget one item – it makes no difference). Fortunately there are many kind souls on station who shout after me to wear a hard hat or sign me in and out whenever I’ve, again, walzed past the sign-in board in complete obliviation. We do have a saying in Germany: What you don’t have in your head, you have in your legs – I expect to return from Antarctica thoroughly fit.

First sleep over in the snow
View from the tent

However, once you master the art of dressing appropriately, Rothera has so much to offer: The station is surrounded by majestic icebergs and still incredibly clear waters (As plankton bloom hasn’t fully arrived yet) with a view over the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula. We have two ski slopes for general use, a runway used to run or cycle on – if not occupied by planes or elephant seals, a few tracks around the area – for some peace and quiet and bird, seal and hopefully whale watching and an incredible team of people. And although turnover rate of people arriving and leaving the station is pretty fast, it is amazing how quick you can make really good friends here. Of course, the timing of my arrival was impeccable as I got here just in time for Christmas and New Years.

Doing the traditional 10k New Years run

Although I did stick my head into my new and shiny office now and again – between the holidays – I was mostly busy with training, such as how to drive skidoos (Surprisingly easy), gaitors (- Not doing well if I need to pull a trailer) and how to tow boats with a tractor (- People actually fled when they saw me coming) as well as some recapture of first aid techniques and my field training which includes spending a night in a tent in the field (That requires a whole new layering system of sleeping bags and sheepskins which I am relying heavily on our field guides to remind me off – surprisingly warm though). The holidays, are surrounded by stations traditions and so we celebrated in style starting the day skiing, moving on to some truly sublime feasts – courtesy of some very hard working chefs – and finished with a walk up to the memorial to ring in the new year.

2018 turned out to be a brilliant year (personally – not politically), here is fingers crossed for a snow, fun and Antarctic marine ecology filled 2019

A Happy New Year 2019 from Rothera Station



The Goldilocks Ship

After 20 days at sea my time on the JCR has come to an end. We had an incredible productive time at Borgen Bay and my new homey, Sheldon glacier at Ryder Bay, and I can’t help but think back to some of the most amazing and surreal moments I’ve experienced during this time and feel like I have to jot them down quickly so that they won’t be forgotten or diminished by new experiences at Rothera.

Sailing through the sea ice
Doing the mud dance – Photo credit: A. Roman Gonzalez

Naturally, as a marine biologist, I was mostly interested in all the little critters living on the seafloor and how they change with distance to the glacier. However, this meant I seemed to have spent most of my time on board with my head stuck in giant sieves, patiently extricating teeny tiny worms from amongst gravel and muddy bits (sometimes there were more exciting animals too, but mostly it was worm central down there). Spending all your time within an enormous tube should mean you wouldn’t have to worry about the increased UV radiation in Antarctica right? This is where choice of material becomes really important. Turns out metal sieves reflect UV rays and you still burn although you feel like a giant mole most of the time – Factor 50 it is, even for furry underground rodents. When in full work mode, it is easy to forget where you are and whenever looking up now and again it is almost a startling experience as the beauty and difference of this place strikes you again and again. Even spending several days within the same small bays doesn’t get boring as the light constantly changes and every day new wildlife appears.

During the cruise one of my favourite moments, was working on a nightshift helping the grab team. Grabs are almost like big digger shuffles, to sample everything living on and within the sediment of the seabed. When they are being retrieved they are generally filled with mud and need washing and – surprise, surprise – sieving and sorting. It is incredible muddy and cold work to prepare the samples to a degree that they can be brought into the wet lab for the rest of the team to sort through and because certain members of the team had made a solid scientific case (this enthusiasm, funnily enough, wasn’t shared by other team members at the time) for sampling more stations than originally planned we were under time pressure. So while I was busy on the aft deck washing my sample at 2o’clock in the morning, our engineer – kind soul that he is – had made cheese toasties for the team. Since I didn’t want to stop working on my sample, he eventually took pity on me and started feeding me. So here I was in the middle of Antarctica – on a research vessel, watching the midnight sun, picking out worms from a pile of mud, being fed cheese toasties while a group of penguins floated by on an iceberg. Life doesn’t get much better than this!!

Yet, there were so many more happy and wonderful experiences I have made during the past four weeks, such as sitting in the conference room of the ship, working on my laptop while somebody played the piano and I could see the incredible landscape of the Antarctic peninsula floating by, or getting up in the morning to find the ship enclosed by sea ice making it possible to see seals and penguins resting on it from very close up. And even though at times work was hard or exhausting or sometimes we were incredibly tired and everybody on board pretty much resembled the precursor of a zombie apocalypse the underlying feeling was happiness and seldom a day went by without my stomach muscles aching from all the laughter. My supervisor called the James Clark Ross the Goldilocks ship, and he is spot on – she is just right. Big and strong enough to withstand some of the most dangerous seas while at the same time small enough to feel homily and be able to get to know everybody on board. It is a strange thing to feel anything for an inanimate object, though my heart went out to her when I saw her sailing away after she dropped me off at Rothera. She has kept me save and has brought me to this incredible place.  Now, a new adventure beckons…

The brilliant team of the ICEBERGS2 cruise in front of the JCR at Rothera. Very sad to see them go and hope all of them will be back next year for ICEBERGS3

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

Or the story of how engineering trumps science – big time

Writing this I am surrounded by Borgen Bay a landscape similar to what I imagine the fairy land of Terry Pratchetts queen of the elfs to look like. Glaciers softly sloping down to a mirror like sea sprinkled with icebergs and the stark whiteness of the land interrupted by the foreboding black ridges of an incredible high mountain range. Constant changes in light and weather combined with the incredible brightness of this place, play with your ability to perceive distance and size and constantly add new features to these strange and new surroundings. We sailed into the bay on a foggy and gloomy day causing a very eerie feeling as suddenly shifting windows in the fog revealed this new environment by bit, yet closed just as quickly as soon as the ship had moved past.

Borgen Bay on arrival

We have fared considerably further south making the difference between Marion Cove on the tip of the peninsula (Banana belt!) and Borgen Bay clearly perceptible and I am starting to get an idea of what life for the next 18 months will look like. My friends and colleagues are also getting a view on what their next 18 months might be like…a Desha shaped hole at Christmas, on JCR and in Cambridge..)

Face of glacier in Borgen Bay

We had left Marion Cove victorious 20h earlier and ahead of time having managed to complete all our sampling stations. However half way through our time there this did not seem likely let alone possible. This was mainly owing to one major piece of equipment failing – the multicorer from hell! During the cruise several major pieces of equipment are being deployed (e.g. Grabs – to take sediment and specimen samples from the bottom or CTDs to take water samples at different depth levels), each generally coming with their own dedicated team whose projects are centred around these specific type of samples. The main reason I was asked on this voyage was to provide a helping hand to the multicorer team. Generally, the multicorer is an ingenious piece of equipment featuring 12 (not any more!) hollow tubes (cores) set around two pieces of weight. When lowered to the seabed the weight will drive the cores into the sediment which will trigger the release of a catch causing the top of the cores to be closed, creating a vaccum within the cores which allows for the extraction of the sediment. Once the multicorer gets lifted up from the seabed another catch is released closing the cores on the bottom, allowing them to be safely returned throughout the water column to the ship. Just a bit of a shame if that trigger doesn’t work and all you get are empty cores that might have contained mud (repeatedly all fecking night long).

Multicorer – in all its glory – being deployed. Photo Credit: K. Retallick

Because operating a ship in Antarctica is tremendously expensive, science time on board is precious and whenever we reach a sampling station, scientists work around the clock in shifts – having 24h of daylight means the transition between days becomes very quickly very blurred during these times and the only way to distinguish between both seems to be the abundance or lack of food. Multicoring fell within the graveyard shift. So after dinner at 8 o’clock I got ready for my first real science gig in Antarctica throwing on my sparkling brand new and very orange waterproofs and hard hat. Tumbling over each other like excited puppies under the supervision of a very patient engineer we got the multicorer ready for its first deployment. We were full of anticipation when it came back out of the water, the lab team ready to extract the mud cores and slice samples for various different projects into containers, and slightly underwhelmed when realising we only got three cores from this deployment (we need 15 each from a total of 5 stations). No matter however, we were all still full of energy and got the engineer on the case to have a quick look at why the closing mechanism didn’t trigger for some cores. Full of confidence that everything is fixable and was fixed the multicorer was cleaned and redeployed only to come up with absolutely no mud cores whatsoever, not even a teeny tiny one, nada. Clearly not having learned our lesson we continued our quest for mud with a constantly low success rate throughout the night. The multicorer seemed to sense the general shift in mood and whenever we were close to giving up would tease us with a full core or two, and like the fools we are we took this as a sign that things had arbitrarily turned around (yes even scientist find it hard to be reasonable when they really, really want something to happen). At 3 o’clock in the morning, when tiredness and disappointment had kicked in our engineer stepped in for some serious fixing. While he worked away, rounds of tea were brought around and the inexplicably muddy (where did it come from with all this lack of mud?) Aftdeck was cleaned. The rollercoaster of hope soared high as the multicorer successfully triggered on a dry run only to plunge into depths of despair when it –again – came up absolutely, completely empty after re-deployment. By this time we had used up all our allocated time for the night and there was nothing left to do but to go to sleep, dreaming of better days and leaving our engineer, who must have been almost crushed by the weight of our dreams and hopes we had pinned on him, to try and work out the problem.

Short moments of rest during science time

Work on the devil’s own torture device continued and by the arrival of the second night the engineers declared that they thought there is a 50 % chance of it working. However, the first multicore was to go to a different team and it is remarkable how testy people can get over the potential of receiving a few slabs of mud (myself very much included). So when we got ready to deploy the multicorer the whole team assembled. Watching it come back up from the deep – the tension was palpable and was broken by an incredible cheer when we realised we had got 6 tubes of fresh, brilliant Antarctic mud. Having to give these precious cores away was difficult but we were sure the vicious circle was broken and we would just get the next ones. The multicorer – instrument of the demons, however, had different plans! As if exhausted from the effort of producing 6 good cores, it then proceeded to fail every single deployment. Very much aware that the definition of crazy is to repeat the same action and expect a different outcome, we couldn’t help ourselves but do exactly that – surprisingly enough we were not successful. By 4 o’clock in the morning most of the team was asleep in the coffee room and again it was time to call it. We went to sleep knowing that we had failed and since we were leaving the next day that we would not get our samples.

I woke up the following morning feeling a bit dejected but, knowing that I will have no work to do during the day, decided to have a leisurely morning taking my time to get ready. As soon as I stepped out my cabin looking for my first jolt of peppermint tea I got confronted with a picture of the morning team holding fresh mud cores which, in a considerate, collegial manner, had been left in front of my door. Not believing my own eyes, I gave up every thought of minty refreshment and immediately went downstairs to the wet-lab. Here the early risers of the multicore team where assembled working away on the samples taken this morning. Our engineer – true polar hero that he is – had called the people responsible for producing this mechanical manifestation of pure evil (must have been costing quite a bit to ring Hell from Antarctica), while we were asleep and after having made clear to them that he is not just dabbling in engineering they came up with a workable solution (basically removing the over-engineered black heart of the multicorer).

Morning team with all of the mud. Photo credit: K. Retallick

After this successful exorcism the multicorer is now reliably producing mud cores to our hearts content. This meant we had 6 hours to complete all the sampling we were meant to do during two 6-hour shifts. However, this is when the beauty of working within a team becomes apparent. All scientists assembled and came to help, crew members, including the captain rallied and facilitated us as much as was humanly possible. The winch lifting the multicorer never stood still, cores filled with mud were constantly brought to the lab, and the lab itself was a blur of orange (Scientist wearing PPE)

A buzzing wet lab

and bit by bit every core was processed and all the sampling stations completed. While finishing the last core the James Clark Ross headed for the open sea, leaving Marion Cove behind and leaving us, covered in mud but very content and looking forward to a massive glass of wine!

A very happy and tired Cambridge/Rothera team. Photo Credit: D. Goodger

The Journey South

Hair chopped off, teeth checked one last time, family and friends hugged, and I am off – on my first adventure as a minion on the ICEBERGS2 research cruise. As part of the cruise we will be looking at how the environment and the many different critters colonising the seafloor of the Southern Ocean respond to glacial retreat (Climate change is real).

Boarding the JCR in the Falklands
Route of our Research cruise

The last few weeks before departure were just a big blur of things that needed to be done, and although I was trying to be incredibly German and organised by compiling a very long list, it became very clear, after the first few days on the ship, that apparently this list had not been comprehensive. Whoever bothers with buying shower gel when about to embark on an Antarctic adventure anyway? Certainly not me.

Owing to storms our much anticipated flight was delayed by 24h, but on the evening of the 29th of November, the European contingency finally met at Brize Norton to fly to the Falkland Islands were we were meeting our ship. Very much to the entertainment of my fellow travelers, I got called to the check in desk several times (apparently keeping a nice sturdy dive knife in your luggage is frowned upon by the RAF).

During my time at Cambridge I had heard so much about the RRS James Clark Ross (JCR) that when she finally came in sight after an 20 h journey, it was almost like greeting an old friend. We got a very warm welcome from the crew and were assigned our cabins. I am sharing a very cosy and tiny one with another scientist Alice Guzzi from Genova University and we have to stagger our morning routines so as not to fall over each other. Once we settled in, life on the ship quickly turned into routine and was ruled by mealtimes, which I am all for, lots of food as well, which is even better. There is also a very good blog of life on board the JCR available here. Although we were all keen to leave the Falklands and start work on board, our departure got delayed owing to a lack of pilots on Sunday (Polar science is most definitely not for the impatient). Fortunately, we used the free afternoon for a walk along the beach and encountered three colonies of Gentoo Penguins. They were breeding at the time just a short distance from the beach, and seeing them waddling past newly born lambs on their way to and from the beach presented a fairly surreal picture to an inhabitant of the Northern Hemisphere.


At 8 o’clock the next morning we cast off, waved goodbye to the RRS Earnest Shackleton, who was about to leave for Rothera,  left the sheltering islands behind and made our way to Burdwood Bank. Now, having already panicked about being seasick several months ahead, I had stocked up on travel medicine big time before even arriving in the Falkland Islands. Some people on board might tell you that the conditions we’ve been facing (50 knots wind speed and 4-5m swell) means we were barely moving – tell that to all the china that got broken.


I very quickly realised that just pills wouldn’t do it for me so I dragged myself to the doctor and got rewarded with a marvel of modern medicine in form of a sticky patch worn behind your ear for several days. This patch very quickly alleviates any feeling of nausea, however comes with interesting side effects such as losing your near sight (my plate at meal time turned into a big blur and for the life of me I could not attach a USB cable to my computer) as well as getting an extremely dry mouth (makes eating toast a bit of a challenge). However, ultimately I am more than happy to endure this trade off as long as it means I will not spend the whole journey hanging over the site of the ship, feeding the charismatic megafauna (which is very much frowned upon by BAS anyway).

We spent two days at Burdwood Bank taking short trawl samples (between 400 and 1300m depth) to find out what was living on the sea floor. This will help to inform the South Atlantic Environment Research Institute (SAERI) about the potential to establish a Marine Management Area on the Bank.

Dt6tXAIX4AAL_pf.jpg large

It was the first real science that happened on board, after a few days of inactivity and the whole team made an appearance at one time or another during sampling to take a look at the strange and wonderful creatures we had brought up from the deep. It was my first proper encounter with deep sea fauna and I am pretty sure this is where costume designer for the alien movies get their inspiration from.


Once we completed our work here, we continued our quest to the West Antarctic Peninsula. While crossing Drake Passage and the Brunsfield straight, conditions deteriorated and we found ourselves in something akin to riding a rollercoaster while balancing hot soup plates – certainly made meal times a bit of an adventure. We continued our work (preparing sampling containers – yes, this is what cutting edge science looks like) as best as possible during transit, but at one point even the hardiest of seadogs had to give up and we spent a day huddled together watching nature documentaries, wedging ourselves in corners and holding on to anything that was nailed to the floor.

Drake Passage, Photo: A. Guzzi

After two days of being battered about and having to buckle ourselves into bed we finally reached the safe haven of Marion Cove. We had successfully crossed perilous seas and arrived in Antarctica – home for the next 18 months!

Marion Cove. Photo A. Guzzi


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.

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.

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?

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