This week we bring you some interesting facts about Weddell seals, a radio signal bounces off the moon and J’s nine questions with one of the comms team.

Did you know?

Here is a bit of interesting information about the diving specialities of the Weddel seal that I came across while reading one of the books in the library here at Mawson.

  • To reduce buoyancy and therefore save energy, they exhale before descent.
  • They have twice the volume of blood per kilogram of body weight than humans and their blood contains about 1.6 times more haemoglobin than us. The combined result of this is that the seal’s blood can store up to 3.5 times the oxygen we can.
  • A Weddel seals dive can last for up to 73 minutes.
  • When they make long dives their heart rate slows and blood is circulated through the heart, brain and lungs only. Blood flow to the muscles and other organs is reduced by 90%.
  • A dive lasting 45 minutes requires a recovery time of around 105 minutes.
  • They often feed on the sea bed at depths of 400 — 600 metres.
  • Seals have a system of blood vessels within the middle ear that fills with blood as they dive deeper to prevent the walls of the middle ear collapsing due to pressure.
  • Unlike humans, they don’t have nasal sinuses.
  • A small amount of air is retained in the lungs and wind pipe so they can produce underwater vocalisations.

All in all not just a slug lazing around all day on the sea ice but a unique animal perfectly adapted to life down here in Antarctica. 

Radio signals bounced off the moon

Mawson goes high tech

When I was offered a position as a 2013–14 expeditioner I realized spending twelve months at Mawson station would not be new, exciting and interesting 24/7. I knew I would need to have a few hobbies to entertain myself throughout the year during the quiet times as well as during inclement weather. One of my many hobbies back home is amateur radio and I thought this would be an ideal hobby to pass the time away during those cold, dark winter months so I applied for permission to operate, obtained a special Antarctic call sign and packed up my equipment to be sent down to Mawson with me.

During the short summer while conditions were mild, I worked fast to put up an antenna and get my station set up before winter set in. Antarctica is one of the rarest locations in the world to operate from and as soon as I go on air I am usually bombarded by hundreds of operators all over the world calling me to get my unique call sign into their log books. This is usually great fun but can also be a nuisance when all I want to do is have a quiet chat with a friend back in Australia.

The hobby has given me a lot of enjoyment over the years so I also see this as an opportunity to give something back. The hobby has many different facets and it’s not just about calling for someone to talk to. There are many different frequency bands and modes of operation. Some of these modes use computer to computer digital transmission and there are even amateur radio satellites including the International Space Station where you can dabble in long distance space communications.

My interest in amateur radio tends to be in the more exotic, difficult and complex modes of communications as well as using unusual types of radio propagation methods such as bouncing radio signals off the ionized trail of a meteor, but that’s another story.

The ‘Holy Grail’ for a lot of serious amateur radio operators is bouncing a radio signal off the moon and reflecting it back to Earth to have a conversation with another station on the other side of the world. The technical challenges to perform this are immense, but with modern high speed computers and sophisticated software it has become a lot easier in recent years.

On Saturday 4 May, using an amplifier I built here at Mawson, I managed to communicate with Peter, another amateur radio operator in Cornwall, England by bouncing my radio signal off the moon from here at Mawson. The conversation had a one way path of 742,000 kms and, as far as I know, this is the first time for an Australian Antarctic station and only the third time this has been achieved from the Antarctic continent.

Proving this was no fluke, on Monday 6 May I made contact via the moon with a further two stations in Sweden and also with a station from New Zealand.

2013 is the 100th year of radio communications in Antarctica. 100 years ago on the 24th February 1913 the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), led by Australian geologist Sir Douglas Mawson, used radio communications for the first time in Antarctica reporting the sad news of the death of his two colleagues. Every expedition thereafter relied upon reliable radio communications. Back then it was a major technological challenge to get a radio signal 3000kms back to Hobart, Tasmania via Macquarie Island. My, have times changed!

Craig H

Transcript of Sir Douglas Mawson’s radio broadcast

Aurora arrived January thirteenth, all sledging parties returned hut by January seventeenth excepting my party. Lieut Ninnis Dr Mertz and myself on December fourteenth, whilst exploring new coast line three hundred miles south east of winter quarters, Ninnis with one dog team and almost all the food disappeared into an unfathomable crevasse. Mertz and I, with inadequate provisions and six starving dogs, struck out over the plateau for the hut encountering unexpectedly bad weather retarding our progress. We subsisted chiefly upon the dogs. On January seventh Mertz died from causes arising from malnutrition. On February seventh I arrived at hut — six men are here with me at the hut left to prosecute search namely Madigan Bage Mclean Bickerton Hodgeman and Jeffryes, the Aurora intends to return from the west and is expected in a few days when an attempt will be made to get off but on account of heavy winds we are unlikely to get off regular wireless communication. May be expected in future, please communicate to Daily Telegraph, Douglas Mawson.

J’s Nine with Chris (Pepe)

This week we find ourselves conversing with a comms tech over a game of pool, glass of red and a lot of content worthy of editing. Both a merlot and a cab sav were brought along by Pepe, with an option to try either. So it was that the cork was popped (unscrewed) on a Brown Brothers Merlot, 2008, smooth and tasty — as easy as drinking a glass of water.

Age before beauty — Chris breaks. “Oh look, I am on bigs”. Welcome to the world that is Pepe. Grandpa jokes, innuendos and general light hearted humour follows this man around like Keldyn follows Cookie. Always up for a chat, full of digression - I can see I’ll have my hands full with this one. Right, questions. 

A birdie once told me that you used to run with the dogs down here? Would you like to elaborate on that? (no prompting needed)

Well I did my first winter here in ’92 and I was really lucky because I was destined to go to Casey — one of the guys pulled out and they had a bit of a reshuffle. So I got down here to Mawson in ‘92 which is good because I knew they had the dogs. So I was here for ‘92 and stayed the entire winter and summer and into the summer of ‘93. I loved being with the dogs. We had a lot of people experienced with the dogs and they taught me a lot about running with the dogs. So I went out on about 20–25 dog runs throughout the year. We went on the sea ice as well as the plateau - we went to all of the huts on the plateau. The sea ice was better going for them as it was relatively flat and the plateau ice was a lot sharper and could sometimes cut their paws.

Pepe laughs.

We actually made little booties for the dogs so they wouldn’t get cut feet. I loved them so much that I bent over backwards to come back down here in the summer of ’93–94. It was interesting - they were bringing in summer positions then and I was lucky to get one back down here. So I did my winter and my summer then left here for most of ‘93 so basically arrived back in Australia in late March then virtually, immediately got back on the boat in early October. So I was away for only six months from here. And it was really kind of funny because I was on the last voyage out. I was on the first voyage in and I was like, I knew everyone on station, I was just rejoining my old team - yeah, the ones I had just left. It was as if I had just gone away on a big jolly back to Australia. The dog experience was pretty good, I loved it. Yeah and that was the other thing I guess…

Here we go — the Pepe we have learned to love comes out, digression begins.

…and it was the last summer for dogs. They pulled the last remaining six out in ‘93–94. It was quite a big emotional thing and the guys…

A full transcript of this interview can be obtained for download. There is over 3TB of mp3 - in other words he is still talking.

Question 2. Would you consider yourself a Jack of all trades, um, master of none?

We both laugh for a while.

Yeah look, it’s fairly obvious. I’ve been in quite a number of different jobs so I’m a Jack of all and master of a few. I find different aspects of a job, well — I’ve worked as a truck driver, cameraman, veterinarian, sound technician, university researcher, outside broadcast guy. Actually, I worked in television for over 11 years. For four years I did solidly sports.

Looking at his waistline, I gather it was quite a few years back.

At one time I worked for every Australian network. For those of you who don’t know I actually had my video camera down here in my winter here in ‘92 so I ended up shooting seven or eight minutes for ‘The Last Husky’.

Ignorant as I am , I have to ask what ‘The Last Husky’ is. Aas it turns out, it was an ABC production about the dogs down here — well done mate!

You now call Tasmania home. What was the journey that got you there and did Antarctica have any influence?

It had every influence! As I said before, I left here in about March 1993 - I was based in Melbourne - and I had let all of my stuff go. You know, the flat etc. So I was working in Melbourne as a sound technician and cameraman, then I got this offer to come down here.

I just win the first game of pool.

I was good friends with Judy Clark, the penguin bioligist down here. She actually match-made me to Ilene. I didn’t realise this. When I got back to Hobart I was going to go back to the mainland. I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I did know I was going to attempt to come back for the summer of 93–94. So I got invited out to this meal with a few of Judy’s’ friends and she had invited Ilene along. We fell in love and I hung around Tasmania with her and the good times. Since then I’ve been to Macca twice and Casey. I was able to get work with the division on and off and a that’s why I’m now down here on my eighth trip. I also got into the veterinarian side of things.

We start to digress about helping pregnant cows have a safe birth and spend another 20 minutes chatting about farm animals.

So I’m a bit of a Murray Ball fan. You being a fellow Kiwi and a farmer, the footrot flats lifestyle, can you relate to it?

Yeah, not so much the lifestyle but definitely the things that happen on a farm are very true. Like when you accidently get electrocuted on the electric fence because somebody told you they had switched the power off, and they hadn’t.

We both start chuckling.

Or the dog starts to do the wrong thing, like he starts off alright and then all of a sudden he starts getting it wrong and cattle head off in all directions. The old next-door neighbour —  the dry sense of humour. I love it.

We both chuckle over the little incidents that happen on farms.

I’m actually really just a hobby farmer, though I ‘m taking it a bit more seriously these days.

And for the next ten minutes, I listen to the stories about farming and being a vet. It’s interesting, but just a little too much for this interview. If you haven’t realised yet Pepe loves to talk. So the rest of the questions will be just a couple of words — let’s see how he does.


Hmmmm this is what my shrink asks me. Word association.

Well it’s interesting because I’ve had a break from the Antarctic thing for the past eight years and there are big differences. There is more regulation, more paperwork, the type of people that come down here, and I think it’s slightly better? We used to have a very wide range of personalities. Maybe there were more clashes before?

I now hear stories of the incidents that happened back in the day, both good and bad. An hour later…

What’s the next question? As you know I don’t mind a yarn. I think it’s a good thing rather than a bad thing if you think about it. If you had someone doing an interview that didn’t talk much it would be pretty hard.

Um, yeah alright mate! 5 minutes later we get back onto the topic.

So probably the big difference would be on the comms side of things. II guess it’s the — yeah, well to be honest I get a little scared about how much we rely on technology down here and am wondering what happens if it all goes wrong?

Wow, are you trying to instill confidence in this interviewer?

I think it’s interesting anyway — blah blah blah. 

Oops, sorry I glazed over there for a while. Let’s get back to it.

…and so the priest says to the postman “time for another”.

Aren’t we lucky to have you around Pepe?

Anyway there was a time when communications would be out for weeks on end, the HF would be down and you know…back in ‘92’ (concentrate Justin, concentrate!)...and now we have GPS. It’s the green grass...

Ten minutes later we pause for a breath.

Likes? (15minutes)

Well, to be honest the food has been pretty good (What a guy, knows just the right things to say), and I’m putting on weight as you can tell, and I’m enjoying it. Ah yeah the food’s good and you get looked after, there’s no doubt about that. Actually getting into a simple basic routine where you work for a few hours and play for a few hours and you sleep over a few hours — that was one of the things I liked. Life was simple.

Past tense? I guess the wine is kicking in.

It is paperwork and stuff. To give an example, I was called out to put down a dog by the police and then so I grabbed my gun…

I’m now having a big chuckle to myself as I write this interview up about the amount of digressing that’s taking place. Pepe, you’re a great fun character to have around. Hahaha! You crack me up.

…well generally speaking, having a good station leader and…

Wish ( another 15 minutes)

I wish I had done three years of computer science.

Cookie comes on by for a chat and I’m pretty much done with writing up this interview.

Three more questions were asked and unfortunately we have run out of time to post them. Look out for the answers in a future edition of station news!