This week at Macquarie Island: 2 June 2017

This week at Macca, we feature a day in the life of the doctor and get know research assistant, Mel Wells.

A day in the life of the Macca doctor

Life for the sole doctor at Macquarie Island is hopefully a quiet one. When the doctor is busy it means that something is not going well. My work at Macca is very different from my very busy practice back in Australia where I look after patients from a few days old to the very elderly.

Here at Macca we have no children and no elderly folk, plus the sorts of medical problems I see are very different too. In Australia I see lots of chronic disease such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and asthma where people may take medications to stay healthy. The expeditioners who travel to Antarctica have been screened for these conditions and are very healthy. Once the last ship leaves at the end of summer there are no new germs introduced into our community so we don’t suffer coughs and colds until new people arrive at the end of winter.

If any of the expeditioners do get sick or hurt themselves then I do look after them plus they all have a monthly check up to make sure they stay in tip top shape. Most of my time is devoted to looking after the very comprehensive medical facility that we have. I make sure all the equipment is working properly so that we can deal with any medical problems that occur. If necessary I can perform x–rays and ultrasounds, do blood tests and bacterial cultures, look after injuries and fractures and do any dentistry required. Hopefully I am also someone to talk to about any worries or issues that may arise from living and working so far away from family and friends for such a long time. I also test our drinking water every month to ensure it is safe to drink.

As well as doing my doctor work I am part of the expedition team and have regular duties cleaning and as slushie. I also train the other expeditioners in advanced first aid and take part in the search and rescue training that everyone does.

Even though I work alone without any other doctors or nurses, I have lots of support from the Polar Medicine Unit at head office and I can chat to the other Antarctic doctors at the other stations if I need to talk ‘shop’.

A photo of a woman who is the doctor on Macquarie Island outside her surgery
The Macquarie Island doctor 2017/18 - Dr Jan Wallace
(Photo: G. Wallace)
A woman dressed in all of the winter clothing looking frosty, taken during her time at Davis station.
A frosty doctor Jan Wallace whilst working at Davis station in Antarctica
(Photo: J. Wallace)
Doctor Jan Wallace undertaking stock control in the Macquarie Island Medical Facility
Doctor Jan Wallace undertaking stock control in the Macquarie Island medical facility.
(Photo: G. Wallace)
Doctor Jan Wallace undertaking microbiology training before departure
Doctor Jan Wallace undertaking microbiology training before departure.

Macca winter expeditioner profile: Mel Wells

What is your occupation on Macca? Describe the main responsibilities of your role on the island.

I am working as a field biologist on the Albatross and Giant Petrel Program, which has been running for over 20 years on Macquarie Island.  We are responsible for monitoring population trends for the four albatross and two giant petrel species that breed on the island. This includes searching for and identifying nests at the breeding sites, monitoring breeding success and banding chicks in order to identify individual birds when they return to the island later in life, as well as some tracking work to investigate at sea movements. In this volunteer role we are very lucky as we get to spend most of our time outside in the field and work in some of the most incredible places.

Where are you from?

I grew up in Dandenong, in south east Melbourne. However have lived in Warrnambool in south west Victoria for the past six years.

What is your normal job back in the 'real world'?

I work for myself as an independent contractor, in fact I have just started my own little business called Wild Reach. Some of the recent work I have been doing include monitoring a threatened little penguin population and coordinating volunteer monitoring efforts for the Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Network, caring for and training Maremma guardian dogs to protect a little penguin population from fox predation for the Warrnambool City Council, tour guiding, environmental interpretation and education and working as a casual academic and field assistant for Deakin University.  

Have you been to Macca or other Antarctic stations previously?

No. Excitingly, this is my first time!

What was your main motivation in coming to Macca for 2017?

The incredible and rare opportunity to work on the greatest seabirds in existence. To be a part of an internationally significant project working towards the conservation of some important species. The opportunity to see wandering albatross. The lure of the adventure of spending a year in such a wild and isolated environment.

List some of your favourite aspects of life on Macca so far:

The wildlife and the weather! This place belongs to the wildlife, we are merely visitors. The island is abundant with wildlife wherever you look. The weather is wild and we are completely at the mercy of it, being here is a wonderful reminder of our place within nature. I love living with the mighty Southern Ocean.

Also the human company is pretty great, our little community comprises of the nicest most interesting mix of people – including a very talented chef!

What are some of the most challenging things about living on Macca?

I would say probably living and working in this climate. The weather here is unpredictable and wild (which is why I love it so much), but working in the field you basically need to plan to have sunshine and snow all in the one morning and our work is dictated by the conditions.

What is the one thing you miss most whilst on the island?

I miss sunshine and being able to walk around wearing not much clothing and going barefoot. I miss my family and friends, and going out dancing and meeting new people and experiencing new cultures.

What do you NOT miss about normal life whilst on the island?

Money. Although most expeditioners do get paid to work here I don’t miss living in a society that is governed by money. I am also very happy to go without cars and driving as well as my mobile phone.

What do you like doing outside of work on Macca?

Work is the best thing I could be doing while I am down here, because it means I am out there with the birds. When I have time off I enjoy watching and photographing the wildlife, reading, writing and planning fun social events as well as playing pranks on fellow expeditioners.

Name your go-to snack whilst out in the field?

At the risk of revealing this to other expeditioners and compromising the availability of the ingredients, it would have to be a choc ripple + PB sanga (two choc ripple biscuits with peanut butter in the middle).

Identify your favourite piece of AAD (Australian Antarctic Division) - issued kit?

In the field I am a big advocate for the yellow shell hat issued. Also I love the huge thermal socks.

One thing you wish you had packed but didn’t?

My reading glasses (oops…). Also I wish I packed my thongs and maybe more clothes.

Is there anyone you would like to give a shout–out to back at home?

I’d love to take this opportunity to acknowledge a dear friend, Maud Berlincourt, who allowed me my first opportunity to live within the realm of the seabirds many years ago. Someone whose passion and love for these sentient beings and whose work ethic and capabilities in the field constantly inspires me. Your presence in my life has led me to where I am today.

Two female albatross researchers standing on the top of a hill in green vegetation with the water behind them.
The Macca Alby (albatross) researchers - Mel with fellow research assistant Emily…
(Photo: A. Turbett)
A female researcher navigating the human sized tussocks along the Lusitania Bay slopes - Macquarie Island
Mel navigating the human sized tussocks along the Lusitania Bay slopes.
(Photo: P. Pascoe)
 An adult wandering albatross lying on the green tussocks.
One of Mel's favourite birds - an adult wandering albatross.
(Photo: M. Wells)
A very yellow sunset over the water with some rocks poking out.
Sunset at Macquarie Island.
(Photo: M. Wells)