Living at the bottom of the planet

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‘YVONNE O’HARA

yvonne.ohara@alliedpress.co.nz

There are moments of “pure bliss” every week for Aimee Prendergast, 27, of Arrowtown, who has spent eight months of a 13-month tour at Scott Base in Antarctica, as a field support officer.

Q What is your role at Scott Base?

My job is to manage and issue the gear and specialised equipment everyone needs, and help scientists get safely to and from their field research sites, whether that be via helicopter, fixed wing aircraft or Hagglund (all-terrain vehicle).

I also play an active role in the search and rescue team all year round.

During the winter months I repair gear, run the winter SAR team and manage sea ice travel.

Q Describe an average day.

My average day varies from summer to winter.

In the summer I was helicopter support and looked after passengers and cargo (mainly sling loads) that came to and from science camps.

I issue scientists with the camp gear then load them into the helicopter and send them off to where they were doing their research.

I go with them to help set up their camp, meaning I get to visit a lot of pretty extraordinary places.

Q What sort of trips have you made?

I have been lucky enough to visit and see so many things and places including Cape Crozier (Emperor Penguin colony), Cape Bird (Adelie Penguin colony), Cape Evans (historical huts), the Dry Valleys, and the Lower Erebus Hut on Mt Erebus.

I spent most of my summer outdoors, supporting scientists studying topics from killer whales to sea ice microbial communities.

Q Do you get to see much wildlife?

Right outside our window Weddell seals come to lay on the sea ice and on occasion give birth to their pups.

Minke and killer whales swim past the front of the base when the sea ice breaks out, and Adelie and emperor penguins visit us.

Q What is the food like and what sort of accommodation do you have?

We have been lucky enough this summer to have three talented chefs that have kept us in a constant food coma.

Now it is winter, we will have no fresh fruit or vegetables for the next three months.

The chef does a great job at disguising the lack of fresh food and we constantly try to substitute for frozen veges or freeze-dried fruit.

The accommodation in summer is a two-person dormitory, which in winter becomes one person due to more space on base.

Q What are the pros and cons of working down there?

The ability to improvise, be creative, and think outside the box grows at Scott Base and you learn how to make do with what you have.

A big joy of being down here has been the Scott Base family and I guess what we would call the friends of the family (scientists).

We have been so fortunate this year to have such a great team that gets along so well and are so willing to share their trade or skill with others, meaning we have all had opportunities to try something new.

There are so many joys of working down here on the ice, and the experience you gain here is like no other in the world.

Every week I would be off somewhere new, having what I like to call “moments of pure bliss” where nothing else in the world matters just for that one moment in time.

Q What are the things and safety precautions you have to be more aware of?

issued with a massive uniform list that covers everything all the way down to your thermals and socks.

The Antarctic environment is a lot harsher than home, the air is dry and thin and the weather changes unbelievably fast.

There are a lot more hazards here on the ice than at home, so we have to be a bit more careful about what we do.

Q How do you keep yourself entertained when off duty?

There are many local hikes and walks.

They range from beautiful ocean views 300m up, to ice-sculpted pressure ridges right beside base.

We run marathons, go camping, play badminton, soccer or basketball, practise photography and use the gym, and have an extensive book and movie collection.

Most people take on personal projects to keep themselves motivated.

I do a bit of woodworking and sewing for my indoor activities as well as hopefully finding some time to try my hand at some metalwork.

The constant darkness in winter is not for everyone, but it’s surprising how light the dark really is.