10 days ago I was disembarking from an Antarctic tour ship to “go home”, not knowing what “home” actually looked like. While my partner and dog sweltered under a South Island summer sun, I was Hobart-bound, acting as the icebreaker and carving the channel towards the next 2 years of our lives. One week in, I’m already very glad that my suitcase was full of Antarctic thermals – they’ve already come in handy!
Hobart may seem like a strange destination to move to. Every time I have mentioned my relocation, I have met with one of two reactions: either a long pause, followed by the question ‘why?’ (from those well-versed in Australian geography), or a warning to make sure I get yellow fever shots because Africa is a dangerous place (just to clarify, Tasmania and Tanzania are on different continents). The answer, of course, is that Hobart is home to the University of Tasmania – or, more specifically, to the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), and that is where I am writing my PhD.
We’re based in a big glass building down on the waterfront, with views out over the Derwent River, which is fitting – most people at IMAS are doing work on water, frozen water, or things that live in water (frozen or not). There’s an ice core laboratory upstairs, sea water tanks full of microorganisms, and a nice collection of seal skulls to mark the area where the ‘predator group’ are hard at work. Personally, I prefer to stay dry and warm. What’s more, I’m actually more interested in people’s ideas about Antarctica than actual experiences of the place. That means that I get some very strange looks whenever I describe my project.
Despite the fact that our small cluster of ‘people’ people is dwarfed by the biomass of biologists in the building, we’re in the right place. Why? Well, look at the name of the institute for a start: Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies. Antarctica is often thought of as a place for science, but that science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Instead, it takes place within a specific cultural context. Enter my project. Most people will never go to Antarctica, so their ideas about the place are shaped by cultural production such as films, books and advertisements. Gaining an understanding of the ideas that are in circulation at any given time sheds light on the way people both think about and value that southern continent. Coming back to the science, this can tell us a lot about why certain projects are being funded in the first place.
Here in Hobart, Antarctica is a regular topic of conversation. Whether related to the arrival of the Aurora Australis icebreaker (which came in last weekend), the Mawson’s Hut museum on the waterfront, or the weather (which, as I have experienced, comes straight off the ice whenever a Southerly wind blows), it’s never far from view. That makes the city an exciting place to be, and it also means that my cruise ship parka is sure to get put to good use. Who knows what the next 10 days will bring?