What a Dive!


The advert immediately caught my eye: "Marine Biologist required to work in the Antarctic ... must be physically fit ... SCUBA diving experience required ... apply to the British Antarctic Survey". I was living in Aberdeen and just finishing writing up my PhD thesis. Several of my friends had previously worked for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and I was very interested in visiting the Antarctic to work, and also in some of the BAS research areas. Fortunately I had learnt to dive 7 years previously, so had a considerable amount of SCUBA experience. I applied for the job, was short-listed and interviewed, and was finally offered the post, as the wintering marine biologist within the BAS Marine Organismal Adaptations project. I was off to the Antarctic!

I started at the Cambridge, UK, base of BAS in July 1998 and was scheduled to leave for the Antarctic for two and a half years in November of the same year. I spent the following weeks frantically buying and packing equipment ready to be sent south on our ships leaving a few weeks later. Anything I forgot to buy and pack at this stage I wouldn't receive till the following antarctic summer, 12 months away. Needless to say I had recurring nightmares about missing something important!

BAS expects all new staff to attend a range of training courses. Some of the courses I attended were specific to my job, including underwater photography, diving recompression chamber operation, and boat handling. Other training was attended by all new staff, including a BAS-run briefing conference lasting a week and covering a huge amount of information on living in the Antarctic and BAS itself. All staff also received very comprehensive first aid and mountain skills training. The courses I attended were not only very informative but also excellent fun, and a good chance to 'bond' with people I would be living with, in some cases, for the next couple of years of my life.

In November, after saying farewell to family and friends, I flew to the Falkland Islands. After a few days exploring the islands and seeing some spectacular wildlife, including my first penguins, I boarded one of our ships, the RRS James Clarke Ross, bound for Antarctica. My first view of the continent came a few days later after being 'dragged' out of my bunk at 3.00 a.m. by my cabin mates to 'see the view'. At the time we were sailing through the Gerlache Straits near the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula. It was during the antarctic summer and hence still light. On either side of the ship hundreds of snow-covered alpine peaks were bathed in orange and purple alpenglow. Half the passengers on the ship were standing on top of the bridge breathing in the cold polar air, mesmerised by the stunning beauty of the landscape unfolding before them. Definitely one of the most amazing landscapes I have ever seen. After 5 days of cruising along the peninsula, with excellent weather and many more breathtaking views, we finally arrived at Rothera Research Station, my home for the next 30 months.

The Bonner laboratory at Rothera houses a variety of laboratories and the SCUBA diving facility

Rothera is situated on Adelaide Island, which is approximately 129 kilometres long and 32 kilometres wide. The base can house up to 130 people in summer but during winter the base complement decreases to 20 to 22 staff. Rothera is the centre for BAS air operations and has a 900-metre gravel runway for our five aircraft. Much of our field-based geology, glaciology, and terrestrial biology is supported from Rothera. Some upper atmospheric science and all the nearshore marine biology is also based here.

My research at Rothera was concerned with how marine invertebrates have adapted to surviving in the antarctic environment, which is continually cold, but the food supply varies greatly throughout the season. In particular, I was very interested in how the antarctic environment affected the way that animals manufacture proteins for growth. The laboratories at Rothera are very well equipped with, for example, analytical chemistry and microbiology labs, a controlled environment room, an aquarium, and a modern diving and boating facility.

Scientific divers preparing to enter the water in winter through a hole cut in the sea ice.

A typical working week for me would be very varied. If the weather allowed we would usually try to dive. I would either be in the water as one of the dive team, or on the surface acting as dive supervisor or boat handler. Weather would often prevent diving, so we would usually have a backlog of diving work to catch up on. When not diving I would usually be in the lab running experiments or analysing samples. During my second winter I was also the Winter Base Commander. This role involved managing the base and 20 other staff for seven and a half months and acting as a British Antarctic Territory (BAT) magistrate, while still carrying out my primary job as marine biologist. BAT magistrates have the same authority as magistrates in the UK but are very rarely called upon to act. The role is mainly retained in the unlikely event of a fatality in the area, when the magistrate acts as the coroner.

There is a real community spirit living on base, with everyone expected to take their turn helping with cleaning, general base duties, and handling cargo when the ships arrive. During winter we are also expected to take a turn cooking on Sundays to give our chef a day off. During the summer most people have the opportunity to fly as co-pilots in our aircraft helping to transport field parties, often to very remote field sites hundreds of kilometres from Rothera. Flying is probably the best way to appreciate the vastness of this unspoilt continent. Although people generally tend to work long hours, the working atmosphere is pretty laid back with people expected to show a high degree of personal motivation. I think people generally take a lot of pride in working for BAS, which is recognised internationally as a highly professional organisation, producing world-class science in a range of scientific disciplines.

It's not all work though, and when we do get time off there are many leisure activities. Skiing is always very popular on summer evenings and weekends. Most people have at least grasped the basics of cross-country or down hill skiing by the time they leave, although many peoples' technique would probably attract odd looks at alpine resorts from those who have learnt from professional ski instructors! Basic mountaineering is popular, with some excellent ridge traverses and simple snow climbs near base. Good photographic darkroom facilities are available and for those with a musical talent a music room provides a practice area for the often numerous Rothera bands. Contact with the outside world is free via e-mail; otherwise calls can be placed on a satellite phone, however it is expensive and must be paid for by the caller. We do get a postal service during the summer using the post office on base, the mail being transported to the Falklands by our ships and aircraft. During the 7 months of winter we don't receive visits from our ships or aircraft and therefore don't get mail.

I guess the people that BAS employ tend to be quite adventurous, practical, and enjoy challenges. You really need to be fairly physically fit and mentally quite self-sufficient. Being laid back definitely helps when things aren't going according to plan, as does a good sense of humour. Everything in the Antarctic is dependent on weather and ice, both of which can severely disrupt the best-laid plans.

Author driving Stella, the dedicated diving Rigid Inflatable Boat at Rothera.

I finally returned to the UK in late March 2001. After a taking a couple of months off, I returned to work for BAS in Cambridge. Originally I was employed on a 2-year contract to write up and publish my research. Since then I have applied for and gained a permanent, more senior post with BAS, also based at Cambridge.

Working in the Antarctic has definitely been one of the most amazing experiences of my life and I feel privileged to have lived and worked somewhere so few people will ever get the chance to see. I'm also lucky in my new job that I'll get the chance to return to the Antarctic for a few months most years. Over the next few years I aim to build up an animal physiology group of my own at BAS and establish collaborations with other researchers. I would also like to gain some university lecturing experience. I'm currently planning my research for a trip to Rothera next antarctic summer. Something to look forward to when looking out of the window at another wet Cambridge winter day; now where did I put my skis...?

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