Antarctica – Guide to Living and Working There.

Hello again, and not from Antarctica – iv been back out for a month now, but, considering the questions I get asked, I wanted to do an updated story on the ice, and in particular, how to get there if you want to work down there, as opposed the $20k AUD, and up, tourist options! (ok, that’s a rough estimate, but all the tourist trips to Antarctica Ive looked at are not cheap! Considering most of them go from south America to, you would have to get there first as well, so factor in the cost of flights!)

So, to work there, how to get a job? Come on people, we don’t ask this in 2012 – it’s such an easy answer, THE INTERNET! That’s right, most, if not all countries stations in Antarctica have websites, and particularly Australia, New Zealand, USA and England, have job links within those sites. 

I have been once with New Zealand and 3 times with Australia, for both, selection included psyche and medical testing.  Australians take it a step further – they flew me to Sydney (from NZ) for a ‘Selection Centre’, where they will have around 30 hopefuls together for two days, in a room doing all sorts of ‘tasks’ – which identify who gets on with who, beliefs, adaptability, reasoning, honesty etc, and all the while that this is going on there are employees from the Antarctic Division head office making and taking notes, on each of us there.  Quite scary! That weekend culminates in a dinner, with free alcohol, and that right there can stop a dream in its tracks! 


What’s involved in the medical test?  Medicals have certain things they include, regardless of the vocation, and for Antarctic summer staff, it will include eye sight, hearing, heart rhythm, breast check for women, smear tests (depending on when your last one was) BMI testing or ‘Body Max Index’ (that score has to be under 35), blood tests, (including HIV as were all ‘walking blood banks’ while we’re down south.  So newly done tattoos will mean you cannot give blood for transfusion if there was a need).  This year, my medical included fasting blood test – also, theres about a 6 page questionnaire to fill in.

 For winterers, the testings a bit more detailed.  Prostate, MRIs and some other tests – I’m not sure of all of them, I’ve never done a winter, but its imperative folk are in good health as problems down south are the worst nightmare, potentially.  Why? There’s no way to get someone back out to Australia again.  Well not easily anyway.   I wouldn’t say it was impossible (and would more than likely involve a US army plane, if it was available) and that would take work – preparation of a runway etc, and that takes time.. All the Australian stations have doctor’s and clinics with gear for dental work, a surgery, a recovery room – and they take some amazing doctors down south! 


So, why do we go? No, it’s not to work in a hotel, or for tourists.  ‘Stations’ in Antarctica are all there for scientific research purposes; we’re there because scientists go there.  These stations range in size from a dozen over summer to up to 1100 (McMurdo Station, American, just near New Zealand’s Scott Base).  The two big Australian stations (Casey and Davis) house around 100 people each for summer, down to the low 20s or so for winter. 


What people are needed to run a station? Tradespeople! They’ll send chefs (me), plant operators, diesel mechanics, plumbers, electricians, AGSO’s (air ground support who work at the Wilkins runway and the station ski ways), crane operators, stores person, station leader, carpenters, boiler makers, general trades, doctor, meteorological staff, IT guys, radio operators, operations manager.. yes, trades folk!! All these jobs are listed on the Australian Antarctic Division website – the length of stint, the pay, whats requried etc. 


So, I cook there – and I get asked so many questions about the food in Antarctica. So I’ll answer those and dispel the myths now!

Do we eat penguin? No

Do we see polar bears? No, they’re only in the north pole

Do we eat fresh fish? No, you cant just go fishing for dinner!!

How often do we get food? Resupply is done once a year, by ice breaker, for each station (Australian stations are Mawson, Davis, Casey and Macquarie Island – Wilkins Aerodrome is a temporary ‘camp’ only set up for summer months when the airbus is flying).  Some fresh fruit and vegetables come ashore – cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, pears, sweet potatoe, lemons, limes, cabbage, carrot.. those need to be eaten though as they don’t last long.  Potatoes, onions, apples and fresh eggs come by the pallet load as they last a lot longer.  Sometimes, bad luck will strike for a winter chef and they will have to destroy eggs or apples, for some reason they go off / rot / don’t last.. the eggs are double oiled to help prevent spoiling, this coating prevents air getting into the eggs.

There’s massive freezers full of vegetables, ice cream, egg pulp and meats, seafood and poultry – crayfish, scallops, mussels, squid, fish fillets, salmon (whole and fillets), prawns etc fillet steak, sirloin, ribs, back straps.. all the cuts of meat from lamb, pigs and beef – even some whole pigs and lamb for the spit roaster.  Turkeys, quails, chicken – whole, breasts, legs.. Bacon, sausages, cured meats / salami, hash browns, and more flours, seeds, dried fruits, herbs, condiments, sauces, pastas, rice etc than you could shake a stick at! Really, we eat well down there, all things considered!

Huge array of amazing cheeses, coffee beans for the big ass coffee machine – with powdered milk L actually, its not too bad!  I can still make a mean latte with that milk!  And we make our own yogurt, which is easy and fast.


What do you do as soon as you arrive?

Health and safety laws are alive and well in Antarctica also, so, we do a tour of station and its surrounds, and before anyone can go into the ‘field’ they have to do survival training, which is compass work, map reading, and sleeping in a bivvy bag – getting familiar with the things that are in our assigned survival packs.  Those packs are to be carried every time you go off station.  And then there’s the travel training – hagglunds and quad bike.  Not everyone gets trained in driving a hagglund (tracked vehicle) but will get the quad training, unless you don’t want to – like me! I don’t trust myself on a motorbike!  But I do agree, it looks fun! 


What do we do in our spare time? 

Well, we all work 5.5 days a week (chefs work 5 days a week) – for tradies they do an 8-5pm day, chefs is anywhere from 9-12 hours (hence chefs have  2 days off). There’s ‘Saturday duties’ for tradies to do on a Saturday.  1-2 hours of doing whatever you’ve been rostered on for – setting up the mess for Saturday night dinner, cleaning cold porches, vacuuming, rubbish sorting..  and on a daily basis, there will be two people rostered on to help the chefs in the kitchen, and two to clean the bar / pool table / lounge area. 

 There’s a bar, a pool table, library, cinema.. with the Australians, they don’t sell liquor, so you need to buy your own before departure and have it packaged up for passage on the ship.  Its administered, once on the ice, according to the same drinking recommendations in Australia (x amount of spirits or wines per week).  So all the personal alcohol is kept locked in a room, known as ‘Fort Knox’, and its open once a week!  There’s also the hugely popular home brewing happening on station, they’ll even go as far as designing beer labels, hoodies, stubbie holders etc! 

There’s a fully equipped music room, gyms, skis, walking loops, ‘huts’ dotted at various locations if you want a weekend away, quad bikes to take out.. or, someone to natter with on station, always!  Its like being in a big back packers hostel!


How long does it take to get there?

That depends on which station you’re going to.  Mawson and Davis, travel there is on the ice breaker, and it’s around 3 weeks to Mawson and 2 weeks to Davis.  Casey has two arrivals – flights (Australian airbus to McMurdo, then US Hercules over to Casey), or the icebreaker, which takes a week.  I’ve done a mix of both.  The flights are always great, an aerial view of the ice!, but the last two times I’ve come home on the ship, and actually this last time, I went down by ship also.  We were so lucky, it was very smooth sailing on the way down.  Can’t say the same for the way home, although this year wasn’t as brutal as last year.  Its hard work in the rough weather!  If you’re lying down, you’re concertinaing up and down your bunk, if you shower you need to hang on to the bars bolted onto the walls, walking up and down the corridors is like being really drunk and things like the chair your sitting in will slide up and down the floor with the movement of the ship as well.  But, I got to experience my life long dream of being on the southern ocean!! (and its better with seasickness pills inside the body!)


What’s the coldest I’ve felt? -47 C, which includes wind chill.  Out of the wind, it was -35 C, when I was doing my survival training at Scott Base.  As soon as the sun went behind Mt Erebus, that was it, it was killer cold! But in summer, yes, you can go outside in a t shirt and shorts.  Plus the station is warm, its never freezing inside – and we all get issued with Antarctic clothing before we head south. 


All summerers who go south with the Australians will get presented with a certificate when they get back to Australia – a thank you and recognition of your contribution and effort, to their efforts. Nice touch! I’ve now got 3 and they’re going STRAIGHT to the pool room.. haha   J



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