Feb – Images of Antarctica

28 February, 2006

People are always asking me what it’s like working in Antarctica; we ask ourselves the same questions, since each of us go to different stations and field camps. What can I say? I’ve tried before to put the experience in writing but I usually fall far short of the mark. I take pictures, photography is my hobby. This season I bought a good digital camera which means I can see my pictures while the image is still in my mind. That still does not do justice to the Antarctic. So what to do – talks, public speaking? Most of us are not natural raconteurs. Being a pub bore comes naturally to me; once started I can ramble on about Antarctica until even I notice the listeners’ eyes glaze over. At home I’ll talk about my experiences, if prompted, in a genuine attempt to help people understand what Antarctica is all about and what it means to me.

So that’s paragraph one done and we are no further forward in our quest to understand Antarctica. Actually the easy answer is that it’s just too big. Statistics tell us that, sorting through the map cupboard the other week I was finding maps with blank uncharted spaces on them. Not old maps either, some modern ones have ‘uncharted’ or ‘relief data incomplete’ written on the last empty spaces in the world.

Your own personal little Antarctic world revolves around the people about you. The colleagues who become friends, someone who you did not know three months ago is now a trusted tent mate. Working here does not make you special, but we recruit the sort of person who fits in with the polar lifestyle. You were a unique character before; I guess you just didn’t know it. There are friends at home who I would love to show this continent too. They have other priorities however, careers, family and so on. I find that frustrating as I stifle the urge to shake them by the shoulders and shout ‘You just have to see this’ in their ear. Perhaps we are nearing the truth; you have to feel this place to even begin to understand.

Yes it’s cold, but not always, in summer you can be roasted by the sun reflecting off the snow, stripped to your thermal top as you flog up some hill carrying equipment for our scientists. They are trying hard to understand this place too. As the summer field season draws to a close, sensors are packed up, data recorded and reports written. A lot of hard work has been put in this season, by scientist of all disciplines, in an effort to understand how the planets systems work. The cold is always a potential here. It’s just around the corner in the shadows. It waits for the unprepared and bites when the sun goes behind a cloud or when the wind creeps up from nowhere. Highest, windiest, coldest, we’ve all seen the facts.

It’s going to be impossible to mention everyone’s contribution, suffice to say that the teams who stayed at Sky Blu this season worked hard in the cold to make a record breaking depot of fuel for use in future seasons. Others were digging for science. Raising previous depots so that again they can be used next season. On station Technical Services were doing the vital work to keep the station running. Normally modest and behind the scenes their work is vital to survival down here.

I’m struggling with the diary this month as so much has happened, one of our aircraft returned home via the South Pole, so nice to see them. We had lots of visitors, aircraft from Ken Borek Aviation, German aircrew with their Dorniers, the yacht Sedna IV arrived and filmed us and we enjoyed visitors from the cruise ship Professor Molchanov. All this was going on as we worked to bring back our field parties; they have been out camping for up to three months much further south. The James Clark Ross arrived to pick up some scientists and with the end of our season we closed down the camps at Sky Blu and Fossil Bluff. Time for the end of season party, many thanks to the band, singers and stage acts, it was a great night. Morris dancing! In the Antarctic, with our reputation!

We have worked hard but that’s not the reason we come, I’ve been fighting off the urge to use the word extraordinary but now might be the time. It’s just so different to the rest of the world, we all co-operate, we help each other out, we have fun, we enjoy a beer after work, we like a joke, that’s normal isn’t it? We don’t do politics, or conflict, they have no purpose; life is for moving on, getting the job done, a positive outlook. I fail to understand why the rest of the world does not think like that. Why should this place be different, what is it that makes Antarctica unique, extraordinary even.

As I said you have to feel it. Antarctica bombards the senses, visually it’s stunning. From the islands of the northern peninsula with their glaciers slowly calving into the sea, through the tight channels when you think you can reach out from the ship to touch the ice and then south into Crystal Sound. The richness of the ‘mostly’ friendly wildlife in the north slowly fades as you arrive at Rothera. We still have our little Adalie Penguins, Weddle and Fur Seals plus the occasional whale sighting. If you fly further south the mountains of the peninsula stretch to the horizon. Past the welcoming little hut at Fossil Bluff and the landscape broadens out. By the time you reach Sky Blu you have reached the edge of the real wide open spaces, south of here there really is very little. A camp view can be 360 degrees of flat and white. Even here there is much to see. It’s in the detail, frost feathers on guy ropes, foot prints raised up as the surrounding snow is eroded by the winds, drifts around supplies, sun dogs, diamond dust. All so hard to record and explain.

The sounds of the Antarctic are strange too, different to our life at home, people try to record them. Bits of sea ice grinding up against the shore driven by the last of a storms swell. The bow of our ship, coming to take us home, crunching through pack ice and the winds, what can I say of the winds. They push you around, they stop you travelling and they keep you awake in your tent with the noise. Even their absence is strange, for in still conditions there is absolute silence. Even a short distance from Rothera you cannot hear the hum of the engines and it’s left to the Antarctic to fill in the gap. If it doesn’t there is a silence that is odd in its absence of sense, there really is no sound and you find a temptation to fill the gap with conversation.

Each of us will return with different images, different memories and different perspectives of life in Antarctica. We’ve had a good season, we’ve had a few laughs, and we’ve had some adventures. The winter team staying behind will continue the game and I hope to return. I’m reminded of two poems by Robert Service, written in the Yukon, where I trained for the BAS job, I hope you enjoy them, they make sense to me.

The Men That Don’t Fit In

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,

A race that can’t stay still;

So they break the hearts of kith and kin,

And they roam the world at will.

They range the field and they rove the flood,

And they climb the mountains crest;

Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,

And they don’t know how to rest.

The Land of Beyond

Thank god! There is always a Land of Beyond

For us who are true to the trail;

A vision to seek, a beckoning peak,

A fairness that will never fail;

A pride in our soul that mocks at a goal,

A manhood that irks at a bond,

And try how we will, unattainable still,

Behold it our Land of Beyond

If you understand, you have to come, if it’s not for you, then that’s fine, avoid the Polar Regions. We are different, we have seen Antarctica, we know, we have touched it, we have felt the winds and the cold, and we have hidden from its extremes. But we still don’t fully understand, you’ll find that faraway look in our eyes, that’s where the answer is.