LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Alex Gaffikin was just 22 when she boarded a ship destined for the Halley research station on the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica. It was to be her home for the next two and a half years.
“In the depths of winter waking up was a struggle. With 24 hours of darkness my body clock had gone haywire and I’d usually wake up feeling quite lethargic,” she said.
As part of an experiment, she sat in front of a bright light for half an hour every morning which was designed to affect her melatonin levels and make her feel more awake.
Next up, a shower, which Gaffikin soon learned was far from a luxury.
“I’d probably been on the research station a matter of minutes before the plumber Cuz warned me against long ‘Hollywood showers’. The usual procedure was tap on, tap off, soap up, rinse off. He was right because later on I’d join a team to dig ice for over half an hour to melt down for water.”
Staff at the base all fix their own breakfast. The person on night shift usually makes fresh bread, but when Gaffikin worked nights she made doughnuts, “which made me megapopular,” she said.
Gaffikin’s official job was as a meteorologist.
“A typical day would start with me putting on my doo suit which is like being swaddled in a duvet and trudging across the snow to the meteorology building. My first task would be the nine o’clock weather observation and I would continue doing them every three hours until three in the afternoon,” she said.
Her favorite job was launching the weather balloon. “I’d fill a large balloon full of helium and then release it. Sometimes it was quite a battle against the wind to get it out of the shed. But once it was up I’d track it up into the sky as it measured temperature, wind and pressure.”
The average temperature in winter is about minus 35 Celsius, but the coldest day Gaffikin remembers was minus 53 degrees. She said the chef was the most popular person on the base as food is so important in the cold.
Though the station’s chef does have to get inventive with rations of dried meat and vegetables, Gaffikin said it is weird eating lunch while it’s pitch black outside.
Boredom is kept at bay with a range of extra-curricular activities.
“Monday evenings we listened to audio books in the library, Tuesdays I taught Spanish, Wednesdays was video nights. In the depths of winter there’s not a lot to do so we all got inventive.
“I used to spend my evenings knitting presents or making cards. My favorite fancy-dress party was the beach party. Matt came in his waterproofs because, as he bemoaned, it would always rain when he went to the seaside,” she said.
Often, scientists and explorers at the research base went to sleep exhausted, but Gaffikin said there are certain things worth getting up for.
“Sometimes the person on the night shift would wake us at two in the morning. This was a magical moment. We’d wrap up warm, grab our cameras and head outside to see the aurora. The Southern Lights are amazing but eerie. White, green and orange lights would flicker across the sky. And with no light pollution the Milky Way was stretched out in a white band.”
When Gaffikin came back from Antarctica she realized that the thing she loved most was telling other people about the continent. Her dream is to open an Antarctica Museum.
“I love Antarctica because it is such an alien and magical place. You can see things in Antarctica that you can’t see anywhere else like emperor penguin colonies, enormous glaciers and gigantic sea creatures,” she said.
Currently working on Ice Station Antarctica -- a new exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum -- she is concerned about the future of her second home.
“I am worried that Antarctica will be harmed by the effects of climate change and over-fishing. I hope that visitors will grow to love Antarctica as much as I do. I hope they will be inspired to help minimize human impact so that Antarctica isn’t lost forever,” she said.
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