Life in remote Antarctica, with no phone for months on end
For Irishman Jeff Dunne, knowing so few people have seen what he sees is worth the challenges
Jeff Dunne is starting his second season working on a New Zealand research base in Antarctica this month
Jeff Dunne from Bray, Co Wicklow is a base camp manager and medic at a New Zealand research base in Antarctica. He is currently preparing to lead a convoy south across the ice shelf, to set up camp for 30 researchers to live and work. He'll go months on end without a phone or internet, in a remote location where everything - from fuel to a cup of coffee - freezes.
When did you leave Ireland and why?
I left Ireland in June 2011 after completing my studies in Adventure Tourism Management. I wasn’t quite ready to jump into a career, so I decided to travel while gaining relative work experience in more challenging environments.
My original plan was to fly into Australia, however my friend who I was travelling with convinced me that a ski season in New Zealand would be a better start to our adventures. The South Island is renowned for its winter tourism activities.
What do you do for a living?
I am currently base camp manager/medic for a Scott Base expedition in Antarctica. Scott Base is the New Zealand research base on the continent.
I work with a team that provides field support, logistical support, hazard management and training to all the scientists coming down to complete research during the summer season. We also work on the search and rescue team for the region and are members of the fire crew on Scott Base.
What career path took you to this job?
In Ireland, I was heavily involved with Scouting Ireland from the age of six, until I left the country, and I completed a degree in Adventure Tourism Management at the Institute of Technology, Tralee, Co Kerry.
This degree, coupled with my many experiences in the outdoors, made it easy to find work in the adventure industry of New Zealand. I became a glacier guide in 2011, guiding commercial groups on Franz Josef Glacier. Five months in, I was promoted to senior guide and became involved in recruiting and training seasonal guiding staff.
The call of Antarctica was strong. With many former guides heading that way, their stories pulled me in. I was lucky to land a job on my first season of applying. I spent summer 2016 at Scott Base in Antarctica as part of the field support team.
What does your average work day entail?
The role varies from day to day, hour to hour. Last season my position was field support. This role primarily involved getting all the equipment organised and into the field. We would load helicopters, trucks, planes, skidoos and drive or fly hundreds of kilometres onto the ice and set up camps. We provided hazard management to groups heading out to the field and trained them in survival. We found and created routes to campsites using machines equipped with ground penetrating radar to ensure stable ice to cross. We also built runways in the snow to allow planes a safe landing zone.
This season I will be base camp manager/medic for a field camp 350km from Scott Base. We arrive in Antarctica at the end of September and spend a few weeks prepping vehicles, stashing fuel, testing equipment and packing food. About a month later we will begin our convoy south across the ice shelf with more than 30 tons of science and engineering equipment, travelling 11km an hour, through storms and crevasse fields.
Upon arriving at the event location, we will set up camp for 30 people to live and work, and build a runway to fly in more cargo and science personnel. This remote base will operate for approximately two months. In January, we will begin the trek back to Scott Base. Some of the team will stay and take on similar roles for additional summer science events, however I will finish the season and head back to New Zealand.
How long do you spend at a time in Antarctica?
Both seasons I’ve worked on the summer team, when the continent experiences full-time sun and the weather is more manageable. That team typically flies in mid-September and stays four to five months, flying out by the end of February at the latest.
However, the base operates year-round. A small winter team of 10 staff maintain the base during the full-time darkness and harsh climate. They are usually down there for eight months.
Do you work as part of a big team and are there any other Irish people working with you?
Scott Base’s summer team comprises of approximately 30 people. They are divided up into programme support, engineering, science support and domestic services. The New Zealand Antarctica Christchurch office is a large team with more than 30 members that work in the background making sure everything is done according to plan.
In addition, the base caters for around 100 scientists at any one time throughout the summer season and the New Zealand army has a few hundred soldiers involved in logistics, both in Antarctica and in New Zealand at our port of entry.
Just over the hill from Scott Base, we also have MC Murdo station, one of three American bases in Antarctica. They have upwards of a thousand staff supporting science and logistic transportation to and from the south pole base. We often use them for aviation services.
In terms of other Irish employees, Scott Base houses the Antarctica Heritage Trust Association, which had an Irish conservation specialist, Ciaran Lavelle, working on the historic huts in the area in 2016. It was a great feeling to be so far from home and discuss the involvement of Irish people in the discovery of Antarctica with a fellow Irishman. Irish legends such as Tom Crean and Ernest Shackleton inspired us greatly.
What are the challenges associated with your job?
Being away from partners and family is a big struggle. Especially this season when it’s going to be multiple months without internet or phone access.
In addition, the extreme nature of the place makes even the smallest task difficult. Fuel freezes, coffee freezes, everything freezes! Transport is hazardous with the terrain and weather. Before you even arrive, flights to the continent get cancelled all the time due to potential storms. There are no emergency landing spots to rest or refuel as the flight path travels over a few thousand kilometres of ocean.
All that aside, you can stand looking out towards the volcanoes or dry valleys and know that few people, if any, have been there before. That’s a pretty special feeling and well worth the challenges.
How do you spend your down time?
Down time on base is pretty great. We have a gym, bouldering wall, slack line, cross-country skies, fat tire bikes, recreational walking tracks, a movie room and board games. We also have a little bar open most days for social events.
On field camps, far less is on offer. Recreational walks along the ice shelf and bringing a few good books keep you sane. The work week is pretty long when you are in the field, so early nights are fairly common.
If you work in an interesting job overseas and would like to share your experiences, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about yourself and what you do.