It’s hard to appreciate what living and working in almost total darkness, blending to twilight, is like unless you’ve experienced it. No sunrises or sunsets, just days blending into days, lit by head torch or station.

Even on Macquarie Island at this time of year, there’s only about six hours of daylight.

The winter solstice is a highlight of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic calendar because it signals the slow withdrawal of the darkness and the return of sunshine, blue skies, day trips and animals.

“While Midwinter celebrations are a tradition dating back more than a century ago (around Mawson and Scott’s heroic era of exploration), in more recent times we celebrate it to acknowledge that we are roughly halfway through our stay in Antarctica,” Casey Station Leader Dave Buller said.

“We’ve made it to the shortest day of the year and are looking forward to seeing the sun in full flight again.

“Our Midwinter activities help boost team morale over a time where we are currently enduring dark and cold winter days.”

A feature of the celebrations is the Midwinter swim. At Casey, Davis and Mawson, a hole has to be made in the ice using a digger or chainsaw, with curious Weddell seals sometime popping up to see what all the fuss is about.

Then, with air temperatures hovering around −20 °C, brave expeditioners assemble on the ‘beach’ and are lowered into water that's about −1.8°C.

“As seen in previous years, some will demonstrate a new-found skill of simultaneously entering and jumping out of the water at the same time,” Dave Buller said.

“It’s a somewhat brisk and confronting experience.”

Casey research station is doing its swim a few days after the solstice this year because of extremely cold weather.  

"It's felt by our community to be an honour and a privilege"

Davis station leader Brett Barlee is “in charge of towels” on the day. He says as well as being a chance to look forward to sunlight, the Midwinter tradition is also an opportunity to look back.

“These occasions are important precisely because they call you to take pause and reflect not only on our achievements in this current season but of the shoulders we stand on as we do our work,” Davis Station Leader Brett Barlee said.

“We are known as the Davis 77th ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition). That’s 77 years of history and a chance to honour those who have gone before us.

“It’s felt by our community as an honour and a privilege to be part of this legacy and we look forward to welcoming the 78th ANARE to these icy shores in what will be a very emotional changing of the baton.”

After the swim comes mid-winter gift giving, a video hook-up between all the stations and headquarters, and a festive meal.

Antarctic traditions of winter

At Macquarie Island, there’s no ice to cut through and the water is a relatively balmy four or five degrees Celsius, but it still hurts.

“It’s a rite of passage,” Station Leader Rebecca Jeffcoat said.

“An extremely uncomfortable rite but it feels like it needs to be done!

“It’s really unpleasant while it’s happening but once it’s over it’s exhilarating and an amazing team bonding activity.”

Macquarie Island expeditioners dip not once but twice, jumping into the Southern Ocean on the eastern side of the isthmus before belting across to the west.

Someone keeps lookout for orcas or leopard seals (everyone has to get out if one is spotted) and then after the swimmers have warmed up, the mess is decorated with flags of all the countries represented in Antarctica.

Homemade gifts are exchanged and a pantomime performed – both things the early Antarctic explorers did to celebrate the shortest day.

“We love to retain the Antarctic traditions of winter,” Rebecca Jeffcoat said.

“The gifts, the pantomime, sending invites to all our families and friends. We know they won’t be able to attend but we’re hoping they’ll RSVP with grand explanations about their attempts to get here or lame excuses for why they can’t.”

In an ideal world, Dave Buller says the day will end with a quiet drink at the bar, clear skies and a magnificent aurora to farewell winter with a light show, Antarctic style.