A visit to our medical facility, the goss on our ‘emperical’ visitors and what onions and Antarctica have to do with each other.

A visit to our medical facility

As we are in a very remote location we need to make sure we can look after ourselves. So, therefore we've got a qualified doctor in our team and one third of the available ground floor space of the red shed is allocated to our hospital. This area is like a miniature ER where everything is available to us. The different rooms are allocated to: dentistry, a laboratory, a store room, a triage department, a consulting room, a fully sized operating theatre and two hospital beds for recovery of the patients. We also have an x-ray machine and, in case of emergency, we can hook up by video-link to medical specialists from all over the world. In Australia we have one doctor per 340, in Belgium there is one doctor per 250 inhabitants and here at Mawson we've got one doctor per 15! Hopefully we will never have to use this equipment but in case something happens it’s reassuring to know that we are in capable hands in a well equipped hospital.

I’m sure the pictures will give you a better idea.

The goss on our empirical visitors

Emperor penguins

In the last couple of weeks, three trips have been made by Mawson expeditioners to the Auster emperor penguin rookery. This involves travelling across the sea ice east of the station for approximately 65 kilometres.

Keen to learn more about Auster rookery and the emperor penguins, I searched through old Macey Island hut log books which are now kept at Mawson.

The following extract comes from one of the log books and was written by biologist Graham Robertson. Graham wintered at Mawson in 1988 and spent a lot of that time based at Macey, just a few kilometres from the rookery.


Emperors are the only vertebrates to breed through the Antarctic winter. They survive snow and cold by huddling together. Although pairs change between years, once formed, pairs in a particular year remain faithful to one another through the reproducing cycle. Thus, mates must recognise each other within enormous huddles. There are no landmarks. Pairs of emperors must sing to locate one another once they have lost sight of each other in the mob. Generally, pairs attempt at all times not to lose sight of each other. Possibly pairs sing only as a last resort because singing attracts the unattached “mavericks” which interfere with their pair bond.

Songs of different birds differ but songs of every single bird are identical from one year to another. In addition, female songs are characterised by many short syllables compared to male songs. The sequence of the song, rather than the frequencies, is the most stable individual characteristic. Emperors avoid song overlap or signal jamming. During pair formation and during chick relief, emperors have only one song — that which announces both sex and individual identity. The sound pitch of emperors is similar to our own i.e. 30–12,500 Hz.

Emperors returning from the sea to feed chicks call beside huddles of chicks to identify their own. Emperor chick calls are almost identical individually over time and differ from the calls of others. Thus, parents find and feed their own chick.

Other Details

  • They breed through the Antarctic winter, the most hostile climate on earth.
  • Males fast for 110–115 days during the courtship/incubation period.
  • They can increase and decrease their body weight (fat reserves) by 40% “on demand”, apparently without endangering their health.
  • They can dive more than 900 feet deep in search of food.
  • They can hold their breath for at least 18 minutes.
  • Incubating males and small chicks shield themselves from severe weather (extreme cold) by huddling together to keep warm. This behaviour is called “social thermoregulation”. As a consequence of this, emperors don’t have territories (huddling and territoriality are mutually exclusive behaviours). Non-territoriality means birds must form new pairs from one year to another and thus they (as a pair) are inexperienced at raising a chick. This leads to higher chick mortality than, for say, Adelie penguins, which are highly territorial.
  • Because the best time to fledge a chick in Antarctica is in summer, emperors fledge their chicks at five months of age and at only 50% of their own body weight.
  • All emperors are called Roger. (This last one may need a citation)

The smell of onions

First up, let’s get a little background on our favourite little buddy the onion. According to wikipedia, onions are cultivated and used around the world. As a foodstuff they are usually served cooked, as a vegetable or part of a prepared savory dish, but can also be eaten raw or used to make pickles or chutneys. They are pungent when chopped and contain certain chemical substances which irritate the eyes. Consumption is believed to benefit health in that onions contain phenolics and flavonoids that have potential anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, anti-cancer and antioxidant properties.

Having travelled a fair bit, I have yet to find a culture that doesn’t embrace the Allium family as a fundamental ingredient in their food. I mean sure, of course there are many dishes out there that don’t have onions in them but can you go six months without eating them at all? Well here at Mawson we don’t want to have to test that one out. A few weeks ago, a technical-minded gremlin snuck into our onion store container outside and played with the electrics which in turn forced the heat in the container to rise well above decent storage conditions. It wasn’t until much later, at least ten days, that the increase in temperature was noticed. Let’s just say that it wasn’t the toasty hands that gave it away, more so, a complex heat on the nose.

Problems, or should I say, hurdles happen all the time in day to day living. Down here is no exception. The only difference is that should incidents not be managed well, consequences can render a product or service redundant. In the case of fresh food products such as onions, carrots and cabbage, not responding correctly to an incident such as this rapid temperature change would mean that the station would have to resort to frozen or reconstituted products as a alternative. Sure we can exist on the basics down here, but for the sake of good morale, fresh fruit and vegetables need to be well looked after.

Thanks to our hard working electricians, the cause of our dilemma was fixed. As for the boxes of fresh produce that needed sorting out and cleaning? Well that’s what friends are for. As a community, everybody on station set aside some time on Saturday morning to help with the cleanup. A team was dispatched to help with the cleaning and removal of onions, carrots and cabbage from the store outside while another team worked just as hard inside sorting, peeling and chopping the vegetables. Most of the stock was saved and has been put back into the store. It’s amazing just how long stuff lasts down here anyway. So with a good team spirit all is not lost and we can easily have onions every day until the ship arrives for resupply in February.