King Edward Point Diary – June 2004

30 June, 2004


The psychology of a sub-Antarctic winter, and how to survive it…

That there can be nothing worse than a depressive dark isolated winter has been clearly stated by Frederich A. Cook as he described the mood of the men in the first winter-over expedition in 1898-99 in the words, ‘The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has descended upon the inner world of our souls. Around the tables, in the laboratory, and in the forecastle, men are sitting about sad and dejected, lost in dreams of melancholy from which, now and then, one arouses with an empty attempt at enthusiasm…’

There are no permanent or indigenous inhabitants on Antarctica, there have been a number of ‘micro-cultures’ on the continent for the past 90 years and a continuous presence there for the past 35 years. Seventeen nations operate more than 50 year round stations, as well as field camps, summer only stations, research vessels and sub-Antarctic stations.

The Antarctic is an example of a ‘capsule’ environment. Capsule environments are isolated, confined and extreme in nature (ICE). These environments are remote from other communities, located in places where the physical parameters are potentially hazardous and are difficult to enter or leave. They are composed of artificially composed groups who are removed from their normal social structures and carry out specific roles and procedures.

There are numerous positive aspects of capsule living. Most regard the experience as an important part of their life, an impetus to strengthening and growing, to be remembered with pride and joy. There is a sense of adventure, accomplishment, enjoyment and fulfilment.

It has been shown that people who have come through a demanding capsule mission are mentally and physically healthier, more successful, more insightful that they had been. People who go into capsules usually like challenges. They may experience some stress but the vast majority of studies show little serious deterioration or psychiatric symptoms. Members of crews often come back with a less superficial set of values, more tolerance and affection toward other people and higher self-confidence.

The stressors can be divided into 4 groups: Physical, Environmental, Social, Temporal.


Cramped space, hostile external environment, light hours reduced, background noise.


Crowding/personal space. The lack of privacy, monotony, sensory restriction, confinement.

(NB- one hypothesis worth testing is that the inclusion of live animals and plants in the capsule would reduce stress and more especially boredom)

Confinement is frequently accompanied by limited physical exercise and subsequent deconditioning.

Subjects experience sleeplessness, depression and mood declines, compulsive behaviour, insufficient motor activity, lowered cognitive and motor performance. A type of hibernation.

Extreme sensory monotony can motivate coping attempts, which may be dangerous activities. It can also lead to ‘long eye’ a mild fugue state.

Social factors

The arrival of visitors may alleviate social monotony- but may be a double edged sword- visitors disrupt established routines (hence we have learnt to expect no routine at KEP).

Social roles: the individual in a capsule is removed from his/her normal social circles and put into a group of strangers, which have, or will develop their own set of social ‘norms’. Self- evaluation and self-esteem may lose their firm structure. Roles and expectations may become confused. Guidelines for ones own behaviour and predicting others behaviour are eroded. New self-concepts and micro-cultures develop at the stations.

Confinement tends to increase intimacy and depth of self-disclosure. Crewmates who disclose very private matters about themselves may later come to regret this loss of informational privacy and resent its recipients. Rumours circulate rapidly and it’s difficult to keep anything secret.

Communication with home has shown to be extremely important and difficulty with communication systems can cause undue tension in crew. Isolation, separation from home can also cause the relationship with the parent organisation to become strained.

Temporal factors

Some stressors are cumulative over time and crew may not become aware of them until their effects are serious. Motivation and moral may show a decline during confinement. Regardless of total duration important changes occur in crew morale and performance consistently past the halfway point.

Confidence and coping tend to increase with time. Scheduling- work to leisure time- empty time can be more stressful than over work because it provides no distraction from the unpleasant aspects of the capsule situation. Because of the monotony over time people may attempt dangerous activities….

The people who live in such habitats

Shackleton always considered the morale of his men more important than the practical necessities . The importance of different personalities for different problems is pointed out by Cherry- Garrard who states: ‘ For a joint scientific and geographic piece of organisation, give me Scott, for a dash to the pole and noting else give me Amundsen. If I am in a devil of a hole and want to get out of it give me Shackleton everytime.’

From accounts of early arctic explorers – successful ones – it is clear that the explorers were more concerned about the practical and social skills of their companions than with their physical performance.

When selecting participants for his expedition Shackleton looked for people with multiple skills and with the ability to get along with others. He looked for people with optimism, patience, idealism, physical endurance and courage.

Interestingly the US navy circa of 1870, wanted:- ‘Single men, perfect health, considerable strength, perfect temperance, cheerfulness, ability to read and write English, prime seamen of course. Norwegians, Swedes and Danes preferred. Avoid English, Scottish and Irish. Refuse point blank French, Italian and Spaniards.’

And finally a quote from Johann Reinhold Forster, naturalist aboard Captain Cooks ‘Resolution’ in 1775, writing about South Georgia…

‘The storm increases, the Sea runs high, the Snow makes the Air thick, we cannot see ten yards before us, happily the wind is off shore. If a Captain, some Officers & a Crew were convicted of some heinous crimes, they ought to be sent by way of punishment to these in hospitable cursed Regions, for to explore and survey them. The very thought to live here a year fills the whole Soul with horror and despair. God! What miserable wretches must they be, that live here in these terrible Climates. Clarity lets me hope, that human nature was never thought so low by his Maker, as to be doomed to lead or rather languish out so miserable a life.’

The above really says it all (see Suzi’s KEP Ladies Extreme Snowshoeing Trip) – but perhaps I should add- this month we had field trips to the Barff peninsula with Rob our GA, including trips to Sorling valley, Hound bay, Ocean Harbour and St Andrews. Rob departed on Sigma- innitially only to the beach on the far side of the base which Sigma grounded on….a few hours later when Sigma was off the rocks- to the Falklands.

A visit from the Palmer- an American research vessel whose crew know how to party.

Fishing vessel licensing/inspection/transshipping/boating.

Midwinter festivities- including 7 hours of Lord of the Rings watching, a midwinter dip, a pub crawl and other activities…..

So that’s what did happen- heres what didn’t happen….


One airdrop of the final Lord of the Rings DVD via Hercules

Did I mention snow?


Written by Dr (soon to be of psychology) Jenny

A few extra tales from the KEP ladies

KEP ladies’ extreme snowshoeing trip

On the first of June, 4 of the 5 ladies wintering at King Edward Point and Bob, set off on a field trip to be ably guided by everyone’s favourite GA Rob Smith. We had to leave the final lady Sarah, the postmistress, behind to make sure the boys didn’t cause too much trouble while we were away.

We were dropped at Coral Bay where Rob had already spent what looked like many years, surveying the Barff Peninsula to see whether it was deemed suitable for BAS recreational activity. We are the lucky winterers who have been able to accompany Rob on these trips. Rob looked afraid. We began our walk along the coast towards Sorling Valley Hut which was to be our base for the next 4 nights. There was a mist hanging in the bay and during the day we were able to pick out many beautiful icebergs and the awesome 2 mile face of the Nordenskjold Glacier. It was a beautiful walk that enabled us to get to grips with our snowshoes and learn what fun ice slides could be with a friendly GA to break your fall.

I should point out that amongst the 4 BAS ladies wintering here there are distinct differences. Notable on this trip were the differences in speed. I put my lack of it down solely to the fact that my legs are shorter though others may argue otherwise. Dr Jen, our resident double marathon runner is fit and strong. She was able to keep pace with Rob despite the enormous pack she carried everywhere containing everything any girl could need in any and every eventuality. Vicky, our base commander is also a fit lady accustomed to the Cumbrian fells that are her usual stomping ground. She has the determination (the only likeness) of a terrier and I therefore doubt if she’d let any GA open up a lead. Frin, the chief scientist, is possibly the most considerate person I have ever met and would crawl a mile behind if she thought it would make me feel less inadequate despite being one of the strongest girls Peter, our boatman, has ever met! Bob, the consummate gentleman feigned a problem with his snowshoes (they kept falling off sometimes landing him beneath the thin ice cover on the coastal streams) so as not to outpace the ladies.

Rob was privileged enough to take us to Ocean Harbour the following day, a quiet bay which has for decades been home to the wreck of a large boat Bayard and also the ruins of an old whaling shore station used to support the factory whaling ships used in the later days of whaling around South Georgia. We also visited Penguin Bay, a typically beautiful place. Lagging behind I was able to take full advantage of the tracks created by the others. I had to keep remembering to look around as I became absorbed in the details of peoples paces and whether it would use more energy to be stretching out to fit in to other peoples tracks or to make my own. For me the highlight of this day was the coastal stretch across frozen rock pools with tumbling waterfalls of solid ice and surge channels filled with giant kelp fronds.

The day after we climbed up a mountain named in the traditional South Georgia way as 2243. The sun was shining and the views were spectacular, or it was and they were until the final climb to the summit where the fog descended and we could see only 2 metres in any direction. This was probably a bonus for me having been consumed by fear since about 500ft. Anyway, a delicious lunch of stale bread rolls and tepid squash was enjoyed before we began our descent. GA Rob was a little nervous so Frin and I rigged up some baby reigns and helped him down through the fog (lies?).

It was Bob’s birthday and when we finally got back to the camp under the cover of darkness we found that the Brownies had been and made up the two bunks in the hut complete with mattresses, sheets, quilts, pretty cushions and chocolates strewn about like petals. The Brownies had also cooked a Birthday Phaal for Bobs dinner. He battled through an entire bowl full and the hut begun to feel a little warmer as his head glowed redder and redder. Well done Bob.

The final day saw a trip to Hound Bay. The wind was blowing, the legs were tired so I opted for a relaxing day in the hut with my book and taking a few photographs for my Midwinter Magazine article. I believe a blustery time was had but Frin came back excited having had her first go in a bothy (a bit of material you all squish up together in to escape the elements).

The ladies camped in tents whilst GA Rob took the entire hut. We were allowed in though to cook our sensational dinners of re-hydrated Shepherds Pie blobs and the gas-inducing (for boys) Vegetable Bean Curry. Fortunately Kriss the Sparkie had baked some heavenly apricot slices which more than made up for the re-hydrated fare. Evening entertainments were provided by Dr Jen as she regaled us with tales and all you ever wanted to know and more on the subject of….well….pee. She also told us that after a long days snow shoeing there may be a lot of fluid retained in your legs and if you sat for an hour with your legs raised you could pre-empt what would otherwise wait until the middle of the night when you were in your sleeping bag and where getting up and out into the cold would be far more problematic. Useful stuff.

Now all these walks and lamp-lit evenings were wonderful but I think the highlight of the trip for me had to be the 7 o’clock wake up calls which involved the tent door being unzipped with the cheery Irish tones of GA Rob holding out steaming mugs of tea or hot chocolate. I’ve heard a lot about GA’s in my time at BAS but I’ve never heard of this level of service before. It is this fact which I take as conclusive proof that having women in the Antarctic makes for a much more civilised world.

Thanks Rob.

Written by Suzi

Toothfish transhipping

Team Fish were particularly busy in the build up to mid-winter at KEP. As most of us were putting last minute efforts into midwinter present making, the scientists (with presents wrapped with extraordinary efficiency) spent most of the build up to mid-winter either out on the fishing ships or entertaining fisheries observers on base. The SG Toothfish fishery gained certification this year from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as a responsibly and sustainably managed fishery. All the 13 toothfish boats licensed this year have fisheries observers on them to monitor fishing techniques, investigate bycatch and help log catches. In addition, under MSC, transhipping is monitored to ensure that fish caught elsewhere are not sneaked onto South Georgia catch documents and passed off as MSC approved fish. Four of the toothfish long liners decided to transship in Cumberland Bay East this month, saving a 1600 m mid-season return trip to the Falkland Islands.

Three of the long liners were from the same company and between 16th and 21st June transferred their valuable cargo to a larger Spanish reefer vessel (refrigerated transport ship). The South Georgia Marine Officer, Pat Lurcock, his Assistant, Rob Gater of MRAG (Marine Resources Advisory Group) and BAS’s 3 scientists at KEP (Team Fish) spent this time counting every box of Toothfish trunks, heads, tails and stomachs that was transferred between the ships.

Shiftwork ensured someone was present day and night, ready with clickers and scales to count and weigh, in some occasionally demanding conditions. Clever calculations then estimated the total tonnage transshipped and we now think its very worthwhile paying that little bit extra for MSC approved fish (look out for the MSC logo in a supermarket near you).

Written by Vicky with help from fishy types

Midwinter’s day

Outside my door were waiting big, delicious and everso healthy chocolate truffles courtesy of the doc. Yum yum. Except there was also an everso funny magazine for local people by local people, well choking on chocolate would be a good way to go and perhaps this is what our considerate doctor had planned. But, ah ha, I was saved by a lovely cup of tea from the base commander. Lots of people then rushed around in the little boats, to big boats. More importantly we then ate a gianormous breakfast with eggs and beans and my favourite hash browns, yum yum again. Then we raised a flag and drank champagne. Went for a quick dip in the sea as you do. Some strange boys went three times (Annie you can guess who’s brilliant idea that was!). Then guess what? MORE FOOD! We each made a dish to feed 12. And we ate. 12 times 12 is enough for 144 people, so we were full! Not too full to open our beautiful presents, there were oil burners, model toilets, paintings, cribbage boards and on and on, the WI has nothing on us. And we listened to the radio and heard our friends and family and were happy and perhaps a little homesick. And then our own special air drop with postman pat delivered presents from home on a pink parachute. Yippee. We were happy, and then guess what again. There were some sweeties and yes we did eat them. And we drank and danced and danced and swung glow sticks like mad people (thank you Ruthie) and danced. It was fun. At the end we slept very nicely.

Written by Frin