Experiencing two weeks without sunlight while withstanding average temperatures of -20°C would be enough to send most Queenslanders packing.
But for UQ alumnus Ivor Harris, it’s all part of the challenge of living and working on the coldest, driest and windiest continent on Earth – Antarctica.
Whether it’s travelling on quad bikes along sea ice, getting up close to the largest royal penguin colony in the world, or catching baby fur seals for tagging, the veterinarian and former UQ staff member has come to call the isolated continent his second home.
Mr Harris has completed three tours as manager for the Australian Antarctic Division’s (AAD) Casey (2003), Mawson (2006) and Macquarie Island (2010–2011) stations – spending up to one year at a time at each base.
“Going to Antarctica had always been an ambition of mine and the idea of spending a year down there in a such challenging role and in such extreme environmental conditions was very attractive to me,” Mr Harris says.
“Even though I’ve now spent just under three years in total living there, I can confidently say I’m still not sick of it.”
Often referred to as “the freezer”, Antarctica has been visited by fewer than 200,000 people. Mr Harris is one of only a small number of Australians who live there in any given year.
AAD staff venture to Antarctica to carry out environmental management and research programs that are critical to understanding global change and human impacts on the continent.
Summer is the busiest time for researchers, with much smaller numbers staying to see out the harsh winter. With a mere four hours of twilight a day for two weeks and temperatures falling to -40°C on the coastline and -80°C inland, the season is considered the most difficult time of year in Antarctica.
“It was certainly challenging, not only because of the climate, but also due to the confinement and isolation of a small community,” Mr Harris explains.
“You can’t leave from March to November, because no planes can fly in or out.
“So, for nearly eight months we were physically alone, even though we had good electronic contact with the rest of the world.”
Despite the difficulties endured during the Antarctic winter, Mr Harris is continually drawn back to “the freezer” by his passion for the continent’s unique wildlife.
“The animals you find there are such marvels of biological adaptation,” he says.
“Their sheer numbers on land is a remarkable trait of living in such a harsh environment and while they rarely see humans, they have little fear of people.”
Mr Harris has witnessed firsthand spectacular scenes that most of us only see in wildlife documentaries, including the “extraordinary experience” of standing amongst colonies of hundreds of thousands of emperor and king penguins.
“The noise, smell and huge size of the group are prominent at first, but as your nose and ears adjust you notice more of the characters and behaviours of the individual animals. You become more conscious of each penguin on its own rather than the vast group,” he says.
One aspect of Mr Harris’s work on Macquarie Island involved catching and handling fur seals to tag, micro-chip and retrieve skin scrapings for DNA analysis.
“Fur seals are one of the dominant predators of the Antarctic ecosystem. Understanding their health helps us understand whether the environment is under stress,” he says.
But traversing the unrelenting terrain of ice, rock and snow to get to the animals was sometimes no easy task.
“Vehicular sea ice travel requires a high level of awareness of the environmental hazards such as areas of thin ice, tide cracks in the ice and accumulation of deep snow on the sea ice, which can mask the danger underneath,” Mr Harris explains.
“It was scary at the time, but I look back on it now and think it was great fun.”
Knowing how to travel safely in Antarctica is just one of the skills taught in the intensive training undertaken by AAD staff.
Selection for a station manager role is very competitive and involves a number of steps including a week-long selection process in Tasmania focusing on survival skills, leadership exercises and psychological training.
“They really want to make sure you have the physical, emotional and mental attributes to cope with the isolation and confinement, as well as any people challenges that may emerge during the year,” Mr Harris says.
“I was very fortunate to be selected as a station manager on my first application. After being in the role once, it was easier to apply for the position on Mawson and Macquarie Island.”
In between his stints to Antarctica, Mr Harris works as a scientific officer with the rank of Major at the Army Malaria Institute at Enoggera in Brisbane, where he is responsible for operations and logistics, and is involved in anti-malarial drug development and veterinary supervision.
In recent years, he has also contributed to malaria elimination activities in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands as part of an AusAID-funded project.
Early in his career, Mr Harris worked as a UQ lecturer in veterinary science before taking on the role of Director at the central animal breeding house at the Pinjarra Hills farm.
His interest in microbiology and parasitology grew during his employment at the centre and he returned to his alma mater to complete a Master of Philosophy (veterinary microbiology) – researching novel ways of treating difficult types of biological wastes, particularly piggery and other animal effluents.
During his time on Macquarie Island, his expertise in this field was greatly sought after.
“Although I wasn’t at Macquarie on a scientific basis, I assisted in several biology projects where my professional abilities were put to good use, in particular for a pest control program for feral rabbits,” Mr Harris says.
“But my studies in biological sciences also gave me grounding for a broader spectrum of research activities, which assisted me greatly in my work in Antarctica.”
When asked about plans to return to “the freezer”, Mr Harris’s response is telling.
“I’d love to go to the Davis station to complete all four of the Australian bases,” he says.
“Preferably in winter.”
By Caroline Bird
In This Section
IN THIS EDITION
- marie hayes: loved her loved the discussion and considering she was in her mid eighties her intelligence was still...
- Thomas Anderson: RIP Chris.
- John Brannock: I recently wrote the following email which is self explanatory: “Dear Professor Høj, I would...
- Dr Mary Tan: Hi Prof Peter Hoj I’m Mary from S’pore, graduated from UniSA. Was glad to read updates...
- Dane: Hello. magnificent job. I did not expect this. This is a excellent story. Thanks!