When I came on board the ship Silver Explorer, my job title was ‘lecturer’. Usually the main hazard of such a position is stage fright, but with Antarctica you do have to expect the unexpected: in this case precipitous cliffs and frigid swims were also part of the deal. Having explained the intricacies of the Antarctic Treaty System and outlined who’s who of the Heroic Era explorers, it was time for a little more adventure.
That adventure started off innocently enough. Upon landing at Neko Harbour I was sent up the hill to scout out the options for sliding down the snow slope. I hiked up, called in the snow conditions, marked out the starting point – so far so good. All that remained was to slide back down. Unfortunately, I took the instructions to report back a little too literally, with the commentary continuing as I picked up speed: ‘good gradient… not too much friction…’ Upon looking down, however, all coherence was lost to the kind of bloodcurdling scream that belongs in the sound bank of a horror movie audio technician. While my terror was heard all over the ship, it only resulted in two suspected ruptured eardrums and a very pale Safety Officer…
These days, I am fondly known as the ‘on board crash test dummy,’ and my colleagues carry spare earplugs, just in case. Every time we offer an activity like hiking or snow sliding, I’m the first to be sent up and pushed over the edge for a close encounter with gravity. Apparently seeing as I am the youngest member of the expedition team, my bones will heal the fastest – here’s hoping we never have to test that hypothesis.
Taking a dip in the freezing waters of Antarctica resembles the treatment for those broken bones, but it is not practiced for its medicinal value. Instead, going for a swim in the Antarctic is a rite of passage known as the ‘polar plunge.’ If diving into water that is-1.5 degrees Celsius sounds unpleasant, that’s because it is – it usually results in animated facial expressions, purple toes, and a great photo opportunity for the on board photographer, but you do get a certificate at the end for your efforts.
By the end of this season I have a feeling my walls will be plastered with certificates from end to end, and I may need to update my business cards to reflect this new-found skill of bring hurled into fast, cold and extreme situations (and coming out in one piece). ‘Lecturing’ has certainly taken on a new meaning over the past few weeks, but all those ski crashes on Mt Hutt that I cursed about at the time have actually primed me for this position better than I could have imagined.