I’ve been obsessed with the idea of going to Antarctica for awhile now. I can’t actually pinpoint when it started or why, but it’s one of those ideas that I can’t get out of my head. So I was super excited when I learned that my former co-worker, Morgan Seag, was going to spend three months working in the McMurdo Research Station as a dining attendant. Morgan is a fantastic writer, so I followed her blog, oniceonice, closely while she was there (I especially recommend her last post about the scientific research going on in Antarctica). When she returned she kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about her experience.
After learning more about life on the ice, I am more excited than ever to get to the edge of the world. Your dose of inspiration is below.
Morgan Seag: There were a lot of factors here. I wanted to test my limits; to spend some time off the grid; to see one of the last true wildernesses, spectacular and untouched. But I guess I could say that my fascination with Antarctica began in the third grade, when I stumbled upon a book about the Titanic in a public library in Kansas. I became fascinated by that big iceberg, which was followed by an obsession with tornadoes, then natural disasters, and then any large-scale natural phenomena. I think even as a child, I felt a sense of awe – and maybe, ironically, comfort – around big, powerful, beautiful things that made me feel small.
I initially thought I’d end up an Earth Scientist, but ended up in the humanities – so long, Antarctic pipe dream. Then a few years ago, Warner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World gave me the idea of trying to get a job in Antarctica as part of the McMurdo Station’s support staff. It took a while for me to get the guts to apply, but here I am.
EI!: What was a typical day like at the station?
MS: It depends completely on what your job is, and what your shift is (the station runs 24 hours). The station is a lot bigger than most people expect: there are about 1200 of us at the peak of the summer season, and with that many people, the station has as many jobs and characters as you’d expect to find in a small town (in fact, people aptly describe McMurdo as a cross between a college campus and a mining town). So your day will vary pretty drastically depending on whether you are a hairdresser, a helicopter pilot, or an overnight cook.
Here’s what a typical day is like for a dining attendant (“DA,” my job) on the “PM” shift:
9:45am: Wake up, throw on my uniform, brush my teeth in the women’s bathroom down the hall, and stumble toward the galley at the other end of the building.
10:00am: The workday begins. Frankly, the work of an illustrious dining attendant can be grim. Our day is split into five or six tasks lasting one to three hours each, which is meant to prevent us from overusing any one of our muscles and getting a repetitive motion injury. Our responsibilities include tasks such as washing dishes, scrubbing pots, sweeping and mopping, monitoring and stocking the all-you-can-eat buffet, and generally attending to the community’s needs.
The work day in many departments, and especially in the galley, is also broken up by the shenanigans of the fantastic people you work with. DA’s are allowed to listen to music in the dish and pot rooms, which you can imagine leads to a fair amount of singing and dancing.
The people you work with are unbelievable… there’s the guy who biked alone across South America; the woman who hitchhiked across Africa; the guy who sailed across the Atlantic; the guy who thru-hiked both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail; various PhD’s; Peace Corps alums; amazing men and women in their 60’s and 70’s…
8:30pm: The workday ends. In terms of after-hours, there’s a ton to do at McMurdo – at least, relative to what you might expect – so it’s hard to say what a typical evening would be like. A lot of people spend their off-hours hanging out, playing board games, chatting at the bars (yes, there are bars – plural – at McMurdo). There also are all sorts of community-organized classes and special events like weekly bar trivia and concerts by McMurdo’s many live bands.
And then, of course, there is Antarctica itself, beckoning those with energy left at the end of the day out toward one of the four hikes near station. Usually three times a week I’d head out with a friend to hike, look for penguins and whales, or go snowboarding. It’s pretty incredible out there; like walking into a painting. Or being on another planet.
EI!: What surprised you the most about being there?
MS: The biggest surprise was how disconnected I felt from the U.S. Antarctic Program’s research. I had assumed that researchers would be like rock stars on station; instead, their presence is hardly felt. My impression was that the average “townie” respects and appreciates science, and perhaps is even proud to support it, but that what makes McMurdo such a special place to most of the support staff is the common spirit of its adventurous proletariat. There are weekly science lectures and tours of the main research building, but other than that, you do have to be proactive to get involved with science. I wrote a couple of blog posts about research in Antarctica, one about how separate it feels from the everyday functioning of town and one about some of the unbelievable projects that researchers are working on – ironically, things I had to learn from researchers I happened to chat with at the bars. It’s oniceonice.blogspot.com if you want to check it out.
EI!: What’s something most people probably don’t know about Antarctica?
MS: Wow, good question. A lot. Here are some fun facts that most people probably don’t know:
- Much of Antarctica is actually a desert. In fact, it’s the driest continent on Earth, as well as the highest, windiest, and coldest.
- There are no polar bears in Antarctica. Polar bears are in the Arctic; penguins are in the Antarctic.
- No nation owns Antarctica. The U.S. is one of 49 signatory countries to the Antarctic Treaty, which sets the continent aside as a scientific preserve, banning military activity, mineral extraction, etc.
- There has never been an indigenous population in Antarctica – but there were dinosaurs once! In fact, it’s possible to find dinosaur bones and other fossils at certain places on the continent.
- Spending a summer at McMurdo is probably a lot more pleasant than you think, in terms of weather. I have friends who felt temperatures of -80 F in August, but we also felt temperatures in the mid 30’s in January.
EI!: How can you possibly top Antarctica? What’s next for you?
MS: I don’t know if it’s possible to top Antarctica. It’s a pretty spectacular, and spectacularly bizarre, place. Which is why what’s next for me is hopefully another summer in Antarctica.
(All photos are from Morgan’s blog.)