12 September 2012

Five days out from our departure date, all the scientists arrived from their far flung laboratories in distant countries for pre-departure training. Over the past two days we’ve learnt how to protect ourselves from frostbite, avoid the most common injuries on a ship (slips, trips and falls) and the correct way to lift equipment, among other things. We’ve also been reminded about the need for tolerance and consideration for others as we live as an isolated community for seven weeks.

Although we’re unlikely to step onto the Antarctic continent, we still have to make sure all our gear is free of ‘alien’ hitchhikers (non-native species), such as seeds and insects. This will ensure the sea ice environment on which we work remains pristine, and to prevent any errant seeds or insects making it to land via the ocean currents or wind. “Take it new or take it clean” is the catch-phrase Australian Antarctic Division Environmental Manager, Leslie Frost, drums into us.

All the boots and clothing that were issued to us during kitting is new or clean, but for our personal gear there will be cleaning stations on the ship to wash boots and vacuum clothing, backpacks, camera bags and so on. These procedures have been informed in recent years by the Australian Antarctic Division’s Aliens in Antarctica project, which found that field scientists are among the most likely carriers of significant numbers of alien species.

Another risk of the voyage is the possibility of fuel spills when filling small generators powering equipment on the sea ice. In such an event we have field spill kits containing ‘pillows’ and variously shaped pieces of fabric made of polypropylene that can absorb up to 40 times their own weight in fuel.

Leslie also talked us through close encounters with wildlife. There are recommended wildlife approach distances depending on the species we encounter — 5m from a non-breeding seal or bird, or 50m from a breeding or moulting emperor penguin, for example. But if the animals approach us we have to stay still and wait for them to get bored and leave, before we can move on.

One of our Antarctic Division medical practitioners talked us through the four types of cold injuries we might encounter on our voyage — hypothermia, snow blindness, frost bite and polar hands. As people will be out on the sea ice for many hours, hypothermia is a real risk and Dr Strauss emphasises the early warning signs that a person’s core temperature has fallen below 35°C (from a normal body temperature of 37°C). The signs of mild hypothermia (35–32°C) can be summarised by the “umbles” — fumbles, mumbles (slurred speech), stumbles (falling) and grumbles (odd behaviour) … not unlike the signs of being a ‘grumpy old man’ (or woman).