This week we prepare for midwinter, had our first night at Beche and answer questions on life in Antarctica.

Everyday life at Mawson

At Mawson station we always get asked lots of questions. People are fascinated with our everyday lives and it is kind of interesting to find out how our little community functions. This week I thought I would share some questions I was asked by the students in class 5/6 White at St John’s Catholic School in Richmond, Tasmania. Thanks for the great questions guys, we appreciate being able to share our lives with you.

What sort of milk do you drink?

We drink powdered milk, we make it up in large buckets, nine litres at a time.

Are you always cold?

My office is nice and warm and I very nicely asked the electricians to set the heating higher than normal at 20ºC. Usually the bedrooms and living areas are at 18ºC. Our buildings have really thick walls so that it stays warm, but it is still so cold outside that the windows get ice on the inside. Outside today it is −23ºC but feels like −28ºC with the wind added in. It is so cold outside that when your eyes water the tears freeze on your cheeks and when you breathe out your breath instantly freezes on your balaclava. We are always cold outside!

Can we make ice-cream with the ice from outside?

We take a chainsaw outside and cut up blocks of ice to put it in our drinks, but there is no ice in ice cream! Ice cream is made from milk, eggs and sugar :)

Have we seen Santa?

Of course not! Santa lives at the North Pole, we have visiting aliens from the Stargate instead.

Where do we sleep?

We all have our own rooms, with a single bed and a desk and a wardrobe. There are 40 rooms like this and they are all together in a large red shed with a huge living room, cinema, kitchen and gym. That way when there is a blizzard we can all stay inside and have everything we need.

Do you exercise? What do you do?

Yes we do exercise. For fun there are lots of mountains that we can climb up, or we go skiing on the sea ice. If it is too cold we have two gyms with rowing machines, exercise bikes and treadmills. In July we have set the goal of walking 2500 kilometres, the distance from Mawson station to the South Pole.

What type of toilet system is at the station?

At the station we have a smaller version of the waste water system you would use at home. All the grey water goes into a holding tank and then it is processed using a mixture of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria before being discharged into the ocean. In the field we have to collect all our waste and we use bottles to wee in and a garbage bag for solids, then we bring them all back to station and get rid of them.

Do we have narwhals?

No, we do not have narwhals. They live in the Arctic. We do have orcas (killer whales) and we had a large group of those playing in the water near station over summer.

Has your tongue stuck to ice?

No, I haven’t got my tongue stuck on ice, because I haven’t tried to lick any! I did get my hand stuck to a door knob the other day because I didn’t have a glove on… it was quite painful and I left some skin behind. It is still there and probably won’t come off until summer.

What type of bedding do you have?

We have normal doonas at the station but when we go out into the field then we have a woolen inner bag, and two sleeping bags to sleep in.

What type of heating do you have at the station?

At Mawson we have two wind turbines and four diesel generators. The energy that they produce heats large water boilers. The water from these boilers is constantly circulated through the buildings to keep them warm.

Have you been fishing?

Yes, we have been fishing. The fish are very odd looking and you can’t eat them because they have a type of antifreeze in their blood to stop them freezing in the water.

Do you have a cook or do you have to cook?

We have a chef, Gav, who cooks five days a week and serves up three meals a day. Then on Saturday we all take turns in cooking brunch and dinner. On Sunday we have what is called ‘catch and kill’ which means anything left over from the week that is in the fridge is fair game. You have to be quick on Sunday because all the good leftovers go pretty quickly and usually dinner is beans on toast.

What is the first thing you are going to do when you get back home?

The first thing I am going to do when I get back is get a haircut and eat an avocado.

How many layers do you wear?

We wear woolen thermals, then polar fleece top and pants, then a goose down jacket and pants and two pairs of gloves and a balaclava and massive boots. Some people even have heated jackets and gloves as well.

What is the most important thing you need in Antarctica?

The most important thing you need in Antarctica is a sense of humour, and lots of books to read!

A weekend trip to Beche

The sea ice is finally open at Mawson, this is an event that we have all been waiting for. The sea ice provides access to the emperor penguin colonies along the coast as well as allowing us to access Bechervaise Island, which is only 3.5 kilometres away.

Bechervaise Island, or ‘Beche’ as it is affectionately known, usually has a large colony of Adélie penguins in residence but currently they are all out at sea feeding. For the next couple of months this is our closest getaway, ideal for a midweek card game or aurora photography session.

The camp is well set up because Beche is used as a research centre over summer, with scientists staying at the hut for over six weeks to observe the Adélie penguins raising their young. There is a living hut, science hut and sleeping hut as well as a storage shed and toilet. The huts are all well laid out and stocked and even have some battery operated lights.

We set out after brunch on Saturday. It was a balmy −20°C with almost no wind, ideal conditions for a quad bike ride and explore of the island. The sea ice was smooth and had a light covering of snow. On the quick ride out, we passed only one baby berg (a small ice berg) stuck in the sea ice, and then it was on to the rocky foreshore of the island.

Beche is one of two islands that are nestled quite close to each other and the little channel between the two is usually filled with tide cracks and large ridges where the ice has broken up in the fast currents and then frozen in large lumps. This year the channel is quite smooth, with only a couple of small tide cracks. We clambered up the rocks to the huts and quickly got the heating, kettle and radio turned on.

After this we all went in separate directions to explore. It is a strange sort of feeling seeing the island deserted, with no penguins arguing and nesting. There is just lots of guano and the occasional little frozen penguin that didn’t get safely away for the winter. One of the things that is always present in Antarctica is the realisation that life is a cycle and we are a small part of that.

Looking back at the station from the far end of the island puts into perspective how small our footprint is on Antarctica. The station is dwarfed by the surrounding glaciers and mountains of the plateau. On the western side of the island was a beautiful strip of bright blue ice caused by the seawater washing over the sea ice at high tide.

The daylight faded at 2 pm and we retreated inside to share the compulsory cheese platter and game of backpacker. Unfortunately we had forgotten that with no sun at the moment the solar charger for the hut batteries had not had much chance to recharge, and the radio and lights had gone out. It was a good job that we had taken a sparky, and Shane set to work trying to figure out if he could rejig the electrics somehow, leaving Tony D and I to eat cheese and marvel at his abilities.

Jen Wressell

Midwinter planning

We are busily planning for midwinter at the station, with only 11 days to go until our biggest day of the year.

The Olympic Games are being thought up by Shane and Tony D, and Gav is busy in the kitchen planning the formal dinner. The infrastructure team is considering where to dig a swimming pool and making sure the spa is serviced ready for people to jump into after the midwinter swim. The Doc is making sure everyone signs medical clearance forms and I am working on the job hazard analysis… I never thought I would have to do a risk assessment that includes having someone on leopard seal watch!

As well as being a day of fun and relaxation, midwinter is a time of reflection. For some of us it marks the midway point in our journey, for all of us it marks the lengthening of the day and the return of the sun in a couple of weeks.

Of course everyone is welcome to come and join us, we have lots of parking and spare rooms!