No ‘one size fits all’ for Antarctic station leaders

Aerial view of Davis station.
Robb Clifton is heading to Davis research station this summer. (Photo: Justin Chambers)
Mawson station covered in snow.

2nd October 2017

A diverse set of skills is often one of the few things station leaders have in common and the newly appointed team is no different.

Robb Clifton, whose regular job is as the Division’s Operations Manager, will head to Davis for the 2017–18 summer and oversee a busy science and trades schedule.

“I work really closely with the station leaders to coordinate the program on the continent and manage shipping, aviation, and station resources,” Robb said.

“For me to kind of get back on the tools at the coalface of our operations is a really great opportunity to reconnect with life on the continent and the challenges of delivering the Australian Antarctic Program.”

Five-time station leader Jason Ahrens will spend the 2018 winter at Davis, with a team of 18 expeditioners, who will be isolated for close to nine months.

“I really enjoy the fact that you are so remote, and you're a small community who have to look out for each other,” Jason said.

“Whatever happens, there's no one coming down to help in anything we do - it's just us and we have to work as a team to.”

Rebecca Jeffcoat grew up reading about the heroes of Antarctic exploration such as Mawson and Shackleton and has long aspired to live in Antarctica. She is taking leave from the Royal Australian Navy to be the station leader at Casey research station.

“Not having a trade, the station leader role was an opportunity for me to live and work in Antarctica and I just love the environment down south,” Rebecca said.

“I was lucky enough in 1999 to do a resupply voyage on Aurora Australis, to get experience forecasting in the Southern Ocean and I’ve undertaken the fisheries patrols down at Heard Island and McDonald Island with the Navy. 

Rebecca will oversee a busy aviation season.

Esther Rodewald will head to Mawson research station for 12 months in January 2018. She finished her first station leader stint on the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island in March this year.

Esther spent 25 years working in production in the film and television industry, both in Australia and the UK.

“It was reassuring to learn that years of budgeting, scheduling, equipping and moving film crews around cities was suitable training for the rigours of managing a station and resupply activities,” Esther said.

She’s looking forward to the new challenges Antarctica will bring to the station leader role. 

“In Antarctica you have to travel in pairs, unlike Macquarie Island where you can go for a walk on your own,” Esther said. 

“Mawson's also very windy, so you're often quite restricted just to even how you can travel around the station and these factors will present their own challenges in terms of how the group connects and functions when we are in each other's pockets the whole time.”

Antarctic veteran Alison Dean will be the station leader for Macquarie Island from March 2018.

Alison first joined the Australian Antarctic Program as a geologist and has worked in operations and been a station leader at all of Australia’s research stations.

[Video]

Antarctic station leaders – season 2017–18

Video transcript

Robb Clifton: In my normal role, it’s as the operations manager, and I work really closely with the station leaders daily to coordinate the program, to manage the projects that we’re doing; shipping, aviation, and station resources. So for me to kind of get back on the tools and go and do it at the coalface, if you like, on the ice, is a really great opportunity to reconnect with that.

It’s fantastic working with the Australian Antarctic Program and the challenge of actually delivering the program on the ice. We’ve got some really exciting science, with a large ice core drilling camp. We’ll also be working up on the glacier, looking at glacier dynamics. We'll be doing some seabird research. We're also running a project looking into a potential new runway site in the Vestfold Hills. It’s great to live in a small community, in a small remote community, and we recruit some fantastic people. So I really enjoy the people side of it as well. And then there’s just the pure leadership aspect of leading a team, of you know 80 to 100 people, a long way away from Hobart, with a lot to do, and the joys of the Antarctic weather making it difficult for us.

Rebecca Jeffcoat: Station leader was an opportunity for me, not having a trade, to go to Antarctica. I’ve always been interested in Antarctica. I grew up reading about Mawson and Shackleton and Hurley’s pictures. I was lucky enough in 1999 to do a resupply voyage on Aurora Australis, to get experience forecasting in the southern ocean. And then with the Navy, I did fisheries patrols down the Herd Island, McDonald Island. So I love, love, that environment. My experience in the Navy for the last few years has been in command and leadership roles. I just finished a role as the commanding officer HMS Kuttabul in Sydney, at Garden Island, and I was in charge of nearly 2,500 sailors, keeping a port operation running. It's a similar job, just a lot more isolated, less people, and a bit colder. Casey is very busy this season. With the aerodrome and the ski way, we’ve got lots of air operations coming through, and we are supporting some international programs.

Esther Rodewald: I’m most excited about going to Antarctica, and specifically Mawson, because everyone has told me how extraordinarily beautiful it is, and that it’s basically on a mountain and the landscape everywhere is amazing all year round. The idea of going to Antarctica was looking for a challenge, looking for something new, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. We go down on the Aurora, so it’ll take about 10 days to get actually from Hobart down to Mawson.

We’re looking at mostly monitoring projects, automatic systems that go all year round. So there’s climactic systems, there’s atmospherics, there’s seabird monitoring, as well as geoscience and ARPANSA who’ve been there for years.

So I was lucky enough to spend last year living on Macquarie Island, and it's a lot like living in a David Attenborough nature documentary. It’s extraordinary. Living down in Antarctica, I imagine will be different to living on Macquarie Island, mostly because of the weather and the restrictions that that imposes on what you can do. On Mawson, as the other Antarctic stations, you have to travel in pairs. You have to be together. And I believe Mawson’s very windy, so you're often quite restricted just to even how you can travel around the station. So I think that will present its own challenges, just as to how the group connects, and how you actually function when you're in each other's pockets the whole time.

Jason Ahrens: This will be my fifth trip south. I've been station leader at Davis on another occasion, and I’ve also been at Macquarie Island, and Casey last season. What gets me back to Antarctica is the environment and the remoteness of the place. I really enjoy the fact that you are so remote, and you’re a small community who have to look out for each other, and you are a team, one team. There’s no one coming down to help in anything we do. It’s just us.

I think one of the biggest challenges for me is having to leave my family behind. It is one of the toughest things about working in Antarctica. It’s a joint decision for my family and myself, to be able to go to Antarctica and work down there. So, at Davis, we don't see the sun for six weeks, which certainly has a – plays a bit of a part on people’s moods and how they feel and how they go. And we certainly enjoy when the sun comes back up, and we know we're starting to head out to the other side of winter. Sitting up in the lounge, looking out the windows, over the bay when it’s all nice and frozen, is just magnificent. And watching the sun go down shining off the icebergs – what more could you ask for?

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