Week one of my new job saw me at BAS HQ in Cambridge, where I would be based to do training for the next few months before making my way South. With a bit more of an understanding about what I’d be doing down there, it’s time to answer a few questions!
Where am I going, and what will I actually be doing? My job is based at Rothera, a British research station based on Adelaide island, about halfway up the Antarctic Peninsula (the pointy bit that sticks up towards South America). I have the responsibility of looking after the various communications systems on base, including satellite links, HF radio and computer networks. In addition, I will also do a chunk of the ground-to-air and maritime radio comms. Rothera’s location makes it a useful stop-off point for traffic from Chile to other bases deeper into the continent. It therefore gets a fair amount of planes passing through (relatively speaking, of course. It’s still no Heathrow!).
How long for? The trip is for 18 months, starting in October 2011. This means that I will arrive right at the beginning of the Antarctic summer season, the only time that the scientists can get out and complete their field-work. I then stay on for the cold, dark winter and for a further summer following this before boarding the ship to come home.
How big is the base? During the busy summer season there are over 120 people based from Rothera, although at any given time many of these will be scientists who are out on field-trips. However, as the summer draws to a close, nearly everyone boards the ship and heads back home, leaving around 20 wintering staff (including me!), just enough to keep the base ticking over.
Don’t people go mad during the Antarctic winter? Hopefully not. Only time will tell.
I spent my first week at BAS HQ in Cambridge during which I was introduced to millions of people, from the vital logistics experts through to the die-hard scientists (one of them appropriately clad in running-shorts, white socks and sandals). Subsequent weeks would be spent travelling round the UK on various training courses, to bring me up to speed on how the BAS comms systems work.
It struck me as being a very cheerful place – a large chunk of the staff get an annual trip to the Antarctic, and this seems to inspire a profound sense of well-being! Without fail, everyone I was introduced to was interesting, welcoming and more than willing to spend some time chatting to me.
I was shown around the aquarium and introduced to various Antarctic urchins, squid and a grumpy-looking cod who was apparently over 30 years old. The aquarium is a pretty exciting place for an ex-vet, made all the more impressive by the fact that it lives inside a giant fridge.
Other highlights included tours of the mapping department, the photography unit and the research labs. The slightly more mundane task of learning the ropes of my new job was interrupted by a trip out to a field somewhere South of Cambridge to assist in assembling a brand-new glacier drilling rig. This was like a giant, phenomenally over-priced Meccano set, and the plan was to make sure that it all fitted together properly before being shipped down South! Fortunately, it did.
In between all of this, we managed to squeeze in a few lessons about Antarctic comms. This is good preparation for next week, when I’m down in Surrey, learning about one of the vital satellite systems.