Daily Life and Relaxation
What is your daily routine, and when you're not busy researching, what do you do?
At Bird Island the daily routines are quite different from the other bases. We never have a time of total darkness or of 24-hour daylight and so maintaining proper sleep patterns isn't a big problem. In the summer our work is entirely base on the wildlife around us; seals, penguins and albatrosses, and these animals do not keep any set hours at all! This means that we also cannot.
Our day generally starts at around 9am but we often work right up until dinner at 8pm and then afterwards sometimes. Some of the work we do involves attaching satellite tracking devices to the wildlife and if our animals return in the middle of dinner we have to get up, go outside and catch them to remove the devices. Very often animals seem to manage to time this so that they arrive back just after you have showered and sat down to eat! As the animals return to the island to breed in the summer we are all usually busy every day throughout that season and weekends and weekdays blur into one. However, our work is fun for us and we are all quite young and enjoy it.
When we have a nice day of sunshine most people take the opportunity to go for a walk, to take photographs, to put on a wetsuit and swim with the fur seal puppies, to have dinner outside, to have a BBQ or to sit on the cliffs and look for whales. Our time off is very much dictated by the weather! Saturday night is usually a very relaxed night as we have a special dinner on Saturdays and then all do some sort of activity together - an outdoor sport, darts, a slide show etc - the person on cook that day gets to choose. We also have two regular film nights a week where someone makes a "goodie" to go with the film and we all watch. Bird Island life is quite simple really, but fun.
In winter there is less work to do as most of the wildlife has gone to sea. The summer's work usually gets written up into reports, data might be analysed, equipment repaired and prepared for the next season and plans made for future work. The wandering albatrosses remain all winter to raise their chicks, and leopard seals often visit the beaches, so some work is undertaken on these species. There is more time for leisure activities in winter, such as skiing, snowboarding, digging snowcaves, taking photos and developing them, reading and walking all over the island. Most days we all have lunch together and play our daily game of "Trouble" (called "Frustration" in the UK), which has become a tradition here! We have a relaxed pace of life in the winter recharging our batteries for the summer.
The normal working day at Halley during the winter is 9 am till 5 pm and most people try and stick to that as closely as they can although there are some exceptions. There is always someone on base who acts as the night watchman who has to keep an eye on everything whilst everyone else is asleep and so will do 7 pm till 9am and the 'gash' person (the cleaning person for the day) usually ends up working 9am till 7pm. The meteorology team at Halley also has slightly different working hours because their day is split into three shifts. During the summer everyone works 12-hour shifts day and night since we get 24-hour sunlight and the summer season here is quite short and there is always a great deal to get done before the ship that comes in every year to re-supply the base has to leave again.
There isn't really something that you can call a normal routine at Halley since things change a great deal between the summer and winter season and a lot of what goes on depends on the weather. As a member of the meteorology team, our normal day consists of launching a meteorology balloon and sorting out the data, making regular weather observations, looking after the range of experiments we have and making ozone observations. We have different "day jobs" to do every day of the week which include downloading all the data from the experiments, going out and measuring instrument heights, digging snow samples and taking air samples so long as it's not too windy! During the summer we have the added task of giving air observations to the pilots in order for them to decide if they are going to fly or not. We also have to raise everything that has got buried during the winter since there is quite a lot of snow accumulation at Halley so anything that is put onto the snow surface gets covered. Unfortunately, it is normally too cold to move anything in the winter (the average temperature is -30°C) because all the cables connecting the experiments become very brittle below about -20 C and so are likely to snap if we were to try to move them.
In addition to everyone's regular jobs, there are several base jobs that have to be completed. The fuel tanks have to be refilled every three months. This involves two people, one by the tank to make sure it doesn't flow over, and the other person on a fuel sledge cracking open fuel drums and moving the pump from one to the next as soon as it is empty. There are also drum lines that need to be raised. Theses are lines of empty fuel drums that are put out to mark the way to various places along the coast such as the creeks that the ship is likely to come in at, and around the perimeter of the base so that people don't get lost skidooing around.
When we're not busy working there are plenty of things to do to keep us occupied. You can go skiing and snow boarding around the base or, if the weather is good, you can take a trip down to the coast and stay in one of the cabooses there (a shed on skis) for the weekend. We have organized winter trips that can go further afield and last for either seven or ten days. During these there's plenty of opportunity to go ice climbing, walking, abseiling and skiing. You can go on penguin trips to see the Emperor penguin colony that always comes to breed on an area of ice shelf near to Halley, or stay on base where we have a gym, climbing wall, library, bar, pool table and darkroom. This winter we are also having regular cookery lessons from the chef and first aid sessions from our doctor. There are also regular video nights and plenty of art equipment if you like drawing or painting. All in all there's not much chance of getting bored at Halley!!
In the winter I have two jobs. I am in charge of the base and I also work as a Field Assistant (Field Guide).
After breakfast (cereals and tinned fruit), I generally wander through to my office and check the computer for any e-mails from Cambridge. I'll deal with these and any other matters that relate to the running of the station. Some days this will take all morning; sometimes it will only take half an hour. Once I've sorted out the paperwork and dealt with everything, I'll head over to the Sledge Store to work on the field equipment. This is the equipment that is used on the summer science projects. It all needs to be serviced and repaired over the winter. This could be anything from the large Nansen sledges to pyramid tents, stoves etc.
If it is nice day I might skip lunch (cooked lunch available), so that I can go for a ski on the slope that we have right outside the station. It is a great way of spending your lunch break and the views are just amazing. Or I might go skiing on the sea ice with another base member, checking out the icebergs. At the moment the sea is completely frozen over here.
If the weather is too unpleasant to go outside we'll often sit around the table and just chat. We always have plenty to talk about despite the lack of contact with the outside world. (Mind you, it's usually all complete nonsense)!
After lunch I'll check for any new e-mails and then go back to working in the sledge store. We finish work at six and this leaves an hour before dinner. At the moment it is still a bit dark to do stuff outside, so I'll often do some fitness training or maybe play badminton or hockey in the hangar.
We have dinner at seven and several different choices are available. Food is important as part of out daily routine and we have a very good chef. He manages to turn out some excellent meals despite having somewhat limited ingredients. In the evening I'll maybe write some personal e-mails, play the guitar (we have a band here) or do some painting. Twice a week we have a film night. There is no shortage of activities to do on an evening, so boredom is never a problem.
And then to bed to recharge the batteries for another day in paradise.
What are the best and worst things about living in the Antarctic?
To me the best things are the views. The landscape is spectacular. Some of you may have seen the photos on the BAS web site. One picture shows an arched iceberg at sunset, just stunning. Watching icebergs drift past your window is pretty cool too. I am also lucky enough to work with scientists on their projects in the summer. We fly around in small red Twin Otter aircraft and travel over the most amazing places. Our pilots are really skilled and the excitement of mountain flying and ski landings on remote untravelled glaciers has been the highlight of this tour. I have a long tour here and this place is my home. I try not to concentrate on the bad aspects. There are some of course. We all miss the comforts of home, we miss friends, green grass, trees, and fresh fruit and vegetables particularly. There are jobs here I don't like, having to dig through a snow drift with the dust bins to recycle our waste in a special container is not much fun. Referring to the question above, going to the toilet in a blizzard at -20°C is not pleasant.
Sometimes I feel like some peace and quiet, fortunately at Rothera we do have space to ourselves, that is not the case on all Antarctic stations. There is always someone to talk to if you feel down and a pal will always help with a difficult task. All in all I don't think about any negative aspects, you can be happy here and that is the best road to go down.
I think my fondest memory of the Antarctic will be the wildlife. They are not afraid of us and this means that you can watch them closely for hours without causing them any distress.
What do you do when you are not doing your research and is it hard to live when it is dark or light 24 hours a day?
Actually it is not hard to cope with 24 hour darkness or sunlight. It sort of creeps up on you and you just adapt. You don't notice the sun going, one day its just not there, but you certainly notice its return. Just yesterday we had clear weather for the afternoon and worked outside in the sun for the first time for ages. It's odd to see shadows again. People do suffer from strange sleep patterns in the middle of winter and personally I dream more than I'm used to. The change from darkness to light is gradual of course and sunrise / sunset can change by as much as 15 minutes a day sometimes.
We are lucky at Rothera as we have many opportunities for recreation. On good days I go cross country skiing in our local area and look at the views. We have downhill skis and snow boards here as well. A walk around Rothera Point spotting the wildlife is a great way to relax. In bad weather I often read, choosing books from our library. Black and white photography is a favourite hobby of mine and we have a small dark room for winter evenings. Woodwork is popular too and I seem to have learnt so many new skills on this tour, I'm actually looking forward to putting it into practice on my own house.
There are so many things to do on base in your spare time that it's hard to list them all. On good days I like to ski and snowboard, and walk around the shoreline looking for wildlife. I play badminton and table-tennis and I have also had a go on our climbing wall, although I'm not very good yet. Some nights I go to the gym or I have woodwork lessons so I can make presents for my friends and family. We have video nights, games nights and even the occasional disco. I have been out on two winter holidays, which involves going camping with one of our polar guides. It's really great fun camping in snow, driving skidoos and being able to go out skiing and walking everyday.
Do you have difficulty getting to sleep when it is light for 24 hours?
Over the summer when we have 24 hours of daylight we have to make sure we have well-fitting blinds on the windows, so that the light doesn't keep us awake. However, usually the biggest problems with our sleep come in wintertime when we have 24 hours of darkness. I always assumed that I would sleep better down here during the dark months - almost like a hibernating animal - but it's not the case at all!
We need to have lots of daylight every day so that our bodies know when we should be awake, and when we should be asleep. So long as we have plenty daylight our bodies will know roughly what time of day it is even if we don't have a watch (a part of our brain acts as our own 'body clock', but this can only work well when we have plenty of daylight to keep it set at the right time). When the light disappears our body clock basically get a bit confused! Even if we look at the clock and know that it's 10pm and time for bed, it doesn't always 'feel' that way, and we may take longer and longer to fall asleep at night. This obviously means that we start to sleep later and later in the mornings - not a good thing when you have to get up for work!
Another problem that we can have with sleep is that our sleep isn't as relaxing as normal. Often in the Arctic and the Antarctic people suffer from 'Polar Insomnia' - where they wake up in the middle of the night, and can't get back to sleep again for a few hours.
Over the three months at Halley when we don't see the sun, all of these problems can add up, making us very tired and lethargic indeed. The best way we have here to avoid the problems is to sit in front of a bright light box (which is much, much brighter than the normal lights in the buildings) - this tricks the brain into thinking that it's seeing normal daylight, and helps us sleep better!