Last October, I was lucky enough to get a station support assistant role with the British Antarctic Survery in Rothera, Antarctica. I literally had the most memorable and life changing experience down there, learning new skills and adjusting to a six month life on the ice.
I met some of the most fascinating people, many of whom I now consider friends. I firmly believe that without them my experience would not have been the same. A special shout out to my room mate and hopefully life-long friend, Saz, who made my time down there full of laughter, silliness and adventure. We were often told off for being a little too loud but totally worth it!
Having just made the most difficult decision not to return again this season, I thought I’d take the time to create some nostalgic sentiments and tell others why they should also try to work in Antarctica.
Writing this makes me question my decision and already I’m sad about not seeing some of the wonderful folk I was hoping to catch up with this October. Waving goodbye back in March to the twenty-one people who were staying behind for winter was truly upsetting, but I had hoped that it wouldn’t be long until I saw them again in October. I guess now I know it will be a bit longer until our next rendezvous.
For anyone out there is considering working or even travelling to Antarctica, here are some reasons to help make that decision for you. I can’t recommend it enough!
Despite there being no greenery of any description (except for underwater perhaps), the Antarctic coast is packed with all sorts of wonderful wildlife. Living in Rothera, on the Antarctic Peninsula our most common wildlife residents included Southern Elephant seals, Wedell and Adelie penguins.
The ‘Ellies’, as they were locally referred to, seemed to enjoy spending their days (and summer nights) lazing about on base, no fear of plonking themselves in front of access routes or doors. Finding the warm spots where we needed to get into. It’s not an easy feat moving something that ways at least a tonne!!
Their smell is also very distinctive and can be picked up from a surprisingly long way away. It’s reminiscent of rotting flesh with a high fish content. Despite their constant belching, farting, drooling and the continuing battle royales between the males, the elephant seals have a certain charm. Perhaps you need to see what I mean for yourselves!
Penguins are always a pleasure to see. The Adelie penguins, with their clumsy waddle and aptitude for falling over always pleases the masses. Whereas rare visits by Emperor Penguins feel incredibly special and a sight to behold. It’s easy to see from their regal manor, where they get their name from. Gentoo and Chinstrap are also a less common but delightful sight.
Apart from the birds on the ground, there are some fascinating birds in the sky – fulmars, Arctic turns, Skuas, petrels and gulls are just some of the Antarctic wildlife to be seen.
Add that to the numerous sightings of orca, minke, humpback and southern right whales plus the cheeky character of the fur seal, the puppy-dog cuteness of the Weddell, the laziness of the crab eater seals and the ominous and formidable presence of the leopard seal and you have an Antarctic wildlife haven to behold. A joy to anyone who has any interest at all in nature.
2. The Great Outdoors
When the clouds part in Antarctica, they give way to magnificent vistas of glistening white snow, with tall mountain peaks jutting out of the pearly carpet below.
Living on base in Rothera, there is a massive recreation area marked by flag lines. Whenever we had time off, the first thing we (some of us) would do was grab some skis or a snowboard and make first tracks on newly fallen snow…which was quite often given the environment.
We had all this great equipment at hand to use for free plus skidoos to whizz us up to the top of runs when we were feeling lazy or a snowcat to take a load of us to further a field. The snowcat was one of my favourite things on base!
Apart from some of the best sports equipment, we also had professional and highly skilled field assistants/mountaineers we could rather easily talk into taking us out ice climbing, ridge walking or mountaineering outside the flag line boundaries. And getting paid to do this!
Clearly enthused by getting out and about, there was never much of an argument from them when we suggested an outdoor activity. Some people were also into their snow-kiting – another popular sport down there.
Another rainy day activity in Rothera involved visiting the show crevasse. Entry by abseil. The hidden ice cave is something very special and very unique.
3. The Camaraderie
Living and working with the same people – day in, day out is quite a unique situation to be in. Knowing that you will be able to avoid anyone for more than a few hours really teaches you how to cope with other humans.
There will always be friction between different people. In the ‘real’ world you could just distance yourself from someone you don’t get on so well with, but life in Antarctica means you have to deal with it and let certain things slide. Public frictions between just two people can have a significant impact on everyone else around.
With that in mind, it also creates this sort of intensive atmosphere, where a day can feel like a week and a week feel like months. Not in a bad way, but when it comes to getting to know people it’s like ‘insta-friend’.
In the real world it might take years to make such a great connection with someone. In Antarctica, as you’re with the same people all day, everyday for months on end it sort of fast tracks friendships and bonds you, as you experience some of the most unique events and sights of your lifetime.
It’s a very special place and definitely makes long lasting friendships. My difficult decision not to return this season means I’ll be seriously missing seeing some great friends that are still down there for Antarctic winter. Big love to them all!
4. The Food
Contrary to popular belief, life on base with the British Antarctic Survey in Rothera, Antarctica is not lacking in culinary delights. Far from it!
In Rothera, we are generally fed every two to two and a half hours. Breakfast is until 08:30, then there’s soup and freshly baked bread at 10:30. By 13:00 it’s time for lunch again, then smoko at 16:00 and finally dinner at 18:00! Then there’s always bread and various snacks lying around if you find you’re still peckish in the evening.
The chefs at Rothera are fantastic. Good food means a happy crew and we were fed pretty darn well. Food was generally healthy and super tasty, which actually did surprise me when I went down there first.
On a saturday night, we have a semi-formal dinner that often has a theme – Indian, Chinese, American diner, etc. It’s usually a three-course sit down meal with tablecloths to boot. Saturday night also means wine with our meal, which for me as a lover of red wine, is a serious treat.
At Rothera, we’re also quite lucky in that we have an a runway, meaning regular flights in from the mainland, bringing with them lots of ‘freshies’. Last summer there was little shortage of apples, oranges and various other freshies, which was super.
The only thing I wasn’t so keen on was the powdered milk. I really appreciate fresh milk now that I’m back in the real world.
5. Co-Piloting a Twin Otter Plane
For me, a very unique and special opportunity available exclusively in Antarctica, was the chance to co-pilot a twin otter plane into the field.
The British Antarctic Survey has a number of highly talented, experienced and wonderful pilots. As I mentioned, we are one of the few bases with a gravel runway in Antarctica so we can get quite busy with air traffic.
There is one Dash-7 and a number of twin otters. They have the option to land on wheels or skis – depending on the surface conditions. With the twin otters, each flight requires one co-pilot to keep the pilot company and to take over controls to give the pilots time to do their paperwork once airborne.
What a fantastic experience. Getting paid to co-pilot a twin otter plane across vast expanses of glaciers, nunataks and ice-fields – it’s just breathtaking. What a great treat having the chance to get an aerial view of the special place where we are temporarily living and fly across icebergs strewn across icy bays, eyes glued to the window for chance of spotting a whale below.
I ended up flying with the same pilot, Mark Beasley, on all my co-piloting flights. He started to trust me and allowed me to have a go at some more ‘technical’ skills, which was terrifying but exhilarating.
Where else in the world would you get to co-pilot a plane with no experience?! Gotta love Antarctica. Couldn’t recommend it enough!
If you’re interested in learning more, check out the blog I kept whilst working far south…https://antarcticadventure.org/
And for those of you who were there last summer or those that want an idea of recreation time in Rothera, here’s a little video for you to enjoy. I put this together whilst on the Ernest Shackleton home, as I was rather bored.
Most of the filming is dodgy, the video has fallen out of sync slightly but some of it is quite funny.