Now, I know you can’t visit Antarctica for a cheeky three days away, but a friend, Mark, has just come back from the most southerly continent and it’s too good an opportunity to miss out hearing more about it. Mark has been home for a week now and I took my 4 year old, Ellis, round to his while he was looking through some of his photos for the first time. He was working as a mechanic for the British Antarctic Survey, based in the ‘deep field’ for around 4 months. We both had a lot of questions! I let Ellis start.
Ellis: Did you see any whales?
Mark: No, we were too far inland for that. I was based on a glacier, on Pine Island Glacier. I saw penguins and elephant seals, leopard seals. And weddells (also a seal). The elephant seals were enormous and pretty smelly.
Me: Was it cold?!
Mark: Yes, but it’s a different kind of cold. It’s a dry cold, instead of a damp Scotland cold. It’s more a biting and nipping cold there. But if you’re wearing the right gear, the cold won’t soak through your clothing. And the snow – it’s like polystyrene. It sounds different – like broken glass moving about.
Mark shows us pictures of him in T-shirts. It’s minus goodness knows what and he’s in a T-shirt!
Ellis: How many aeroplanes did it take to get there?
Mark: Eight! And the longest flight was 14 hours.
Ellis: Did you drive lots?
Mark: Yes, I drove one of the two piston bullies that dragged everything. All we needed to survive out there, we had to drag on sledges – snowmobiles, tents, scientific equipment.
Ellis: What tent is that? Pointing at a bright orange tent.
Mark: That’s the toilet tent! You had to go in a hole in the floor, into a bucket. But then we took it away afterwards. You can’t leave it out there, so it’s carted back to base to be disposed of.
Me: Was it ever dark?
Mark: No, the sun never set. It was like midday most of the time. You get used to it. It’s harder getting used to the dark back here again.
Ellis: What was Christmas like?
Mark: Christmas was quiet but good. We had some whisky. The chefs at Rothera (the main base, a few plane rides away) had cooked us up something months ago, froze it and packed it up for us so we ate that. We also made a Christmas tree out of ratchet straps and glacier poles (hollow tubes).
Ellis: What else did you eat?
Mark: It was all packets! Army rations. They were really basic ingredients, like chicken and pasta but it was ok.
Me: And where did you sleep?
Mark: We slept in tents. There were 12 of us, scientists included, and we each had individual tents. Some nights the wind was so bad it ripped holes in the tents. On New Year’s Eve the wind was about 65 knots and it ripped out the end of the drill tent – we had to dig the snow from inside the tent out the next day.
Me: And what were the scientists doing?
Mark: It was mainly a climate change study- they wanted to know how much ice loss there has been over the years. They were researching how fast the ice was melting; the makeup of the ice; the density of the ice; if the snow was falling less. There were about 10 to 12 different experiments happening over the two science seasons – some with explosives too. We produced a monstrous amount of data and it’ll take the scientist’s years and years to process it all. 5 to 10 years ago, Pine Island Glacier, where we were based, was the least explored glacier on Antarctica. Now it’s one of the most studied due to the iSTAR project.
Me: What was the coolest thing you saw ?
Mark: Probably the day the Basler arrived. In a previous life it was an old World War Two bomber – DC3, I think – and they’ve converted it for use here, putting skis on it. I sat there watching it and thought, ‘wow, this is cool’.
Me: What was the best thing about coming home?
Mark: Seeing Savanna, my wife!
Me: Ahhhhh. (Right answer!)
If you want to read more –
Mark on being a mechanic for the British Antarctic Survey
More about the iSTAR project
And if you want to experience some Antarctic wildlife and weather, the easiest way to do that is to book a cruise. There’s a good selection online, running from November to March (summer months).
Or the more adventurous holiday…Adventure Network
But if you really want to experience Antarctica – I guess you need to do what Mark did – work hard and get a job with the British Antarctic Survey. Ellis might be setting his sights on a life of adventure now too…