Working in polar regions, especially during summer, can be a challenge. While life on a modern research ship is comfortable, the everlasting days and lack of night time can drain you. With nearly constant daylight, the opportunity to search for whales and work with them never ends. As well, the evening and early morning light are magical and one can’t help but be entranced in the pastels and vibrant colors beaming from the horizon while the sun scrapes just below it for a few minutes.
Our research vessel, the ARSV Laurence M Gould, hosts about 25 scientists and nearly that many more officers and crew. The ship is active 24 hours a day and scientific teams generally are split into two shifts, each for 12 hours. My team, however, is on call whenever it is light out, whenever there are whales around, and whenever we have the opportunity. When the ship is in transit between oceanographic sampling stations, we maintain a watch on the bridge to log sightings: species, group size, location, behavior, etc. If we come across an unusually large number of animals in a small area or have time before the next station is to occur, we take the opportunity to deploy our RHIB (rigid-hulled inflatable boat) to collect biopsy samples and deploy satellite tags. Spending so much time on the bridge, we see all of the wonders of the Antarctic as they pas by; sea birds, seals, penguins, ice bergs, mountains, etc. You begin to get a feel for the environment and where the whales are likely to be found.
Maintaining a schedule is important on the ship to create a sense of stability. Meals are pretty early and the ships are well stocked with fresh foods that last for about three weeks. After that…things become a bit more routine and less exciting. But the galley crew do a wonderful job of keeping us well fed and healthy! Our cabins are small but comfortable, all have bunk beds and a private bathroom with shower. Two scientists to a cabin, a small desk and storage space for personal gear and clothes. Most other things remain in our labs and working space. A porthole lets us see the passing world. It is critical to be able to shut it though and block out the constant light and sleep in darkness. Routine is important, and on the ship we have a small gym and comfortable lounge where people can watch movies on a big TV. There is also a satellite phone to call home and keep in touch, as well as email. While all of the amenities help to maintain a sense of being in touch, the Antarctic is so unique that you find yourself failing to explain and express the place to friends and family in words or images.
As the whales we work with are not on a schedule or found at known locations, we work whenever they are around regardless of the time. I average about 4 hours of sleep a day with an occasional nap. It isn’t sustainable for more than a month or so, but well worth it! Each evening we put together a science plan for the following day that includes, to the best of our ability, the times and locations of where we will be. In all of my time in the Antarctic, rarely does a plan accurately forcast what we will do the next day. The Antarctic has a way of making you change your plans constantly to adapt to the changing conditions and opportunities.