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A different kind of ice-olation

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Before joining the Lifestyle Communities team, I was fortunate enough to be successful in obtaining a role and opportunity that was high on my bucket list – the Station Leader at an Antarctic research station. This dream was years in the making and when it finally arrived, I was all in, and blessed with the support of my amazing family.

With the unique place we find ourselves in and our world changing so quickly due to COVID-19, I thought it would be great to share my experiences at the Davis Station and the similar changes to ‘the new normal.’

My world changed dramatically from living and working in Melbourne to finding myself on a ship heading to one of Australia’s busiest Antarctic research stations. I was on RSV Aurora Australis, with a team I had never met, and 24 overlapping projects to co-ordinate in a 3-month window.  How do you adapt to something like this?  The people.  Build trust.  Respect.  Leverage success from experience and collaboration.  Celebrate together.  Look out for each other. Laugh.  And most of all – be real. I am proud to have worked alongside some exceptional expeditioners.  We kicked goals and forged enduring friendships.

FUN FACTS      

  • Davis Station is affectionately known as ‘The Riviera of the South’ on account of its often-freakishly good weather. We would enjoy Sunday BBQs on the front deck, lounging on couches carried outside and walking around in shorts and t-shirts in sub-zero temperatures.  No wind and bright sunshine make all the difference!
  • For around two months of the summer season we’re in spectacular 24-hour daylight, giving you the longest sunset/sunrise phases you’ll ever see with giant bergs floating past on the horizon. It was gobsmacking and I nearly needed counselling to stop photographing every single sunset!
  • Summer isolation much? Sure, we’re 4,500km from home in one of the most remote places on Earth…stuck with each other, some penguins and huge elephant seals with our nearest neighbours a spectacular 75-minute helicopter flight away (Indian, Russian and Chinese stations positioned on the Larsemann Hills).  BUT you can fly out pretty much anytime with a 4.5-hour small fixed-wing flight to Casey Station (Google Image: Twin Otter and DC3 Basler) before boarding a Qantas A319 (sans Frequent Flyer points) or a military C-17 for a 5-hour flight to Hobart.  We also have 2 resupply ship visits in November and February, taking 12 days at sea for the Hobart-Davis journey.
  • November is the major resupply (V1), dropping off about 90 eager-beaver expeditioners, 800kL of SAB (Special Antarctic Blend diesel fuel), 200kL of fresh water and about 500t of cargo. The February visit (V3) is a much smaller resupply, bringing mail (our last for 9 months), limited fresh food (this disappears pretty quickly) and cargo. No fresh water is required as we’d been running the reverse osmosis for the best part of a month and had produced around 1-million litres of the cleanest water on earth to refill our tanks.

So, when did iso really hit us? Early February! The RSV Aurora Australis leaves with a bit of cargo and about 75 of our mates, abandoning 19 of us with no options for return to Australia until it reappears again in November.

The winter darkness was also definitely one of the hardest periods; 24-hour darkness for 8-weeks.  THAT feels isolating.  Pitch black walking to lunch.  Auroras dancing overhead at 10am.  We all felt our moods drop but it wasn’t really apparent how low we got until the sun came back.

SCARY STUFF

If relationships go bad – you can’t leave. If someone you love at home dies – you can’t leave. If you change your mind – you can’t leave.  These all happened to various team members during my stint as Station Leader and it was our collective responsibility to circle and support our station family members through these hard moments.  We also had a specially trained 24/7 counselling service available.

We give up plenty to be there and isolation is a big part of that transaction.  We leave our partners, kids and friends; and generously, they give us their blessing to experience it all.  It’s a team effort where the toughest job definitely rests with those at home.

SOUND FAMILIAR?  

  • To feel connected with our favourite humans we could only video-chat, sat-link phone network or email. It is impossible not to go through periods of sadness but it’s a matter of being open about it and recognising it as completely normal and temporary.
  • There would be extended periods where we couldn’t leave the building; not so much due to contagions but where the Antarctic winter strutted her stuff and sent us to our rooms. Temperatures down to -36°C (windchill to -44°C), winds exceeding 150kph (Category 1 hurricane) and visibility literally zero.
  • Isolation means missing our people and the parties that go with them. A few family milestones merrily went ahead without me – my wife’s 50th birthday, our 20th wedding anniversary, my brother’s wedding (I later discovered I was supposed to be best man which I’ll admit I felt bad about – this was a big deal and it was hard not to feel a bit selfish, even if he was always completely supportive of my unusual career path) and finally my lovely cousin’s wedding.  With the help of our Media Department I did a pretty good video montage for my brother and watched my cousin walk down the aisle via Facebook Messenger. I couldn’t watch my brother’s wedding as this was during our summer season – with so many of us on station at that time there just wasn’t enough bandwidth to support any video connection.

Isolation on station means many things to many people; some embrace it, some struggle, some hover in the middle.  I never would have thought that such a unique experience like the one at the Davis Station would coattail onto one of the biggest shifts to occur in the world and the similarities of isolation would come again.

Simon Goninon
Head of Operations

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