Text and pictures © 1993-2023 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2021/11/05
"Below the 40th latitude there is no law; below the 50th no god; below the 60th no common sense and below the 70th no intelligence whatsoever." — Kim Stanley Robinson.
Left: The Astrolabe, the French Antarctic ship, at bay in Hobart, Tasmania.
We boarded the day after Christmas for a week long traverse of the southern seas. With its 60m of length, this small ship gets shaken up quite roughly in the roaring 40's, screaming 50's and whistling 60's. Some say the only place were it doesn't move is in dry docks (not even sure about that one)... It was my first trip and I spent new year's eve tied to my bed trying not to be sicker than the 3 others sharing the tiny windowless room with me. The cook had prepared a special crayfish dinner and was dejected that nobody had showed up because of the storm. So he went around all the rooms distributing the plates, almost force feeding us !
There are usually 5 ship rotations every summer between Hobart (Tasmania) and Dumont d'Urville, the French base. The first in early december, the last in early march, but it depends on the conditions of the sea-ice. Some years the ship has to wait a month or more locked in the ice before reaching DdU. Never happened to me, fortunately, but we couldn't get any closer than a kilometer from the base due to too much floating ice. Near the continent the sea is not so rough anymore thanks to all the floating ice which dampens the waves, so on the morning of our arrival we are all out on the deck looking at the icebergs with their resting penguins. Next to the Petrel Island, we can see people waving at us and blowing up fumes on top of the main buildings. Everyone is nervous apart for the few old timers; are we going to be up to a year long stay on this little piece of rock in the middle of nowhere ?
Right: The Astrolabe approaching Antarctica.
The first things to board the helicopter are the bags of mail and some salad, eagerly wanted by the previous winter crew. When I finally get off the helicopter in the middle of the station, there's no one to greet me. I understand why upon entering the main building: they are ripping apart their mail packages as soon as the mailman can sort them out. No one is paying attention and the bar is beckoning; I open my first Antarctic beer while having my first glimpse at Antarctic psychology: people laughing or crying reading their mail, distributing chocolate that made it all the way around the world to end up into eager stomachs, showing pictures of their girlfriends or retiring bitter to their rooms without any mail... Am I gonna look like those shower-needing guys in 12 months ?
Left: Dan climbing up the ionospheric mast.
Every last one of the newcomers soon meet with his predecessor who's often eager to discharge his workload. The old cook greets the new one and promptly ushers him into the kitchen, the geophysicists disappear into their labs, discovering their equipment. No such thing for me, I'm here for a new experiment, "which one ?", "katabatic wind study" and here's my nickname for the year: VAT Kata. VAT refers to the half of the new team who are doing their military service. Instead of stupidly running around for a year with an empty gun, we decided to do a 16 months civilian and technical service, so here we are in Antarctica, volunteers for a year of isolation, science, electronics and cold.
The first trip outside is refreshing but not as cold as I expected. The first thing that strikes me are the penguins which are everywhere, between and even under the buildings. And the smell... And also the apparent mess of buildings which have been built one after the other in a mess of confusion, trying to use every little penguinless flat rocky area available.
Right: Scuba diving in the cold waters of Antarctica: to catch animals living at the bottom (like mussels), repair underwater equipment (warf, power cables, tide-measurers).
Left: Sketches of the expedition members (drawn by Enzo).
So during the summer we use the occasional bouts of nice weather to install scientific equipment and construct new buildings. After deciding on a place, I spend two weeks with 2 other techs to install my antennas. Down in DdU everyone must be able to work plenty of jobs at the same time: I quickly learn to operate snowcats, cranes, pneumatic drills, arc welders and more. When I tell the technical boss that there's a large rock blocking my way so I can lower the antennas in position with the crane, his laconic response is: "drill a bunch of holes and fill them with dynamite; call me when it's ready to blow up"...
Left: Gronitho starting the boat in the pack to go on a snow petrel counting mission.
So the summer passes quickly between 12 hours workdays, trips to see the penguins and the seals down by the sea, long bar conversations with the 'ancients', writing letters to family and friends to give them an idea of what it's like here and so much more. At the end of the summer everyone is quite tired and the evening before the departure of the last boat, the farewell party ends up tragically when a mechanics has a heart attack during the night and dies several hours later. It's only the second death in 40 years of missions at Dumont d'Urville. The summer personnel leaves on the Astrolabe in the morning. We spend the afternoon brooding and drifting in and out of the laboratories and main building. In the evening a party starts spontaneously: now is our time, no old timer anymore to tell us how to behave, no more frantic last minute work before departure. We feel quite happy, the winter is open for us and if some of us are worried they are not showing it. Yet.
Below is a map of the Pointe Géologie archipelago. DdU is located on the Petrel island, about one kilometer from the continent itself. The island of the original landing by Dumont d'Urville in 1840 is a little further up north, about 10 km from the Petrel island. Dumont d'Urville was an explorer who discovered one of the most famous classical greek statue, the Venus of Milo, now shown at the Louvre. Fate has it that he died in history's first train wreck, in 1842.
Left: The Pétrel island, seen from helicopter. Pass the mouse over the picture for tooltip details.
Dumont d'Urville, the main French base, is located on the shore of Adelie land, 66°south, very close to the polar circle and the south magnetic pole. It is on the top of the Petrel island, about 1km from the continent (the glacier at the top of the picture). At the lower left corner, you can see the tip of the much debated airstrip, never used due to storm damage, an ecological and financial nightmare. On the right side of the island, you see the ionospheric tower from which the next picture is taken.
Temperature in DdU is not bad: around 0 in summer, down to -37°C (-35°F) in winter. But the wind is a killer. I had 250 km/h (150 mph) and there has been recorded wind up to 315 km/h (200 mph) ! I've seen rocks and buildings fly, and I wasn't even that drunk. Check the weather table for more weather data.
Building description, from left to right: the lidar, lab#2 (weather forecast, geomagnetism, seismology...), AWS satellite antenna, garage, storehouse, lab#3 (glaciology and sodar), lab#1 (geophysics), bat#42 (in the back, rooms for winter personnel), main hall (bar, french restaurant, billiard...), post office (and radio), cold-storage.
The small white buildings in the center are freezers (warmer than the outside air !), and the small ones up front shelter scientific gear. Note that there are penguin rookeries all over the base. On the left border, notice the Sodar under construction.
Unseen here are the marine biology laboratory, the so-called blue warehouse, the summer personnel building, the fuel tanks... And the many inhabitants of the station, penguins included ! So I spent a winter and 3 summers on this small part of Antarctica.
Purchase pictures of Dumont d'Urville.
Left: Map of the Pointe Géologie archipelago
Above: 360° panorama of DdU taken from the Meteo mast on top of Lab#2.
So the winter-over starts slowly and we settle in our jobs. I spend most of my first 3 months writing code to retrieve satellite data from Automatic Weather Stations spread out on the continent, as we hope that their data can give us some advance warning about the bouts of katabatic winds that periodically hit us. We also discover other people jobs, I accompany the ornithologist a few times on bird checking trip, a good opportunity to get to know them better and to take pictures from up close.
Right: Xav, an electronician turned surgeon at the start of the operation.
Left: Our doctor talking with Charles-Gilles, the nervous patient, the day before the surgery
Three weeks after the departure of the ship we are already in deep shit: the head weather forecaster has a belly pain which is diagnosed as appendicitis... Trouble. After a week of intense medication the decision is taken to operate. There's only one doctor who's not even a surgeon, so everyone on the base is assigned a specific job: 2 electronicians end up aid-surgeons, others control the anesthetics and will monitor vital signs. The day before the operation, we practice while 250km/h winds shake up the building. I take the x-rays beforehand and fetch equipment during the surgery which turn out quite long. As it's the first time for everyone, the doctor follows the book and everything proceeds quite slowly, and there are even other complications, like an appendix on the wrong side of the intestine. After 7 hours we finally wake up our
victim survivor patient. He has a 30cm long scar and will take a while to recover but he's alive. And happy for it. He even went back to Antarctica on later missions. On average there is one surgery every 3 years in DdU but that year we had something like 7 major medical problems: cut tendons in the hand, a finger crushed by a door in a storm, the chef soaking himself in boiling water... The story by Michel Barré of the first surgery in Adelie land in 1951 is short and well worth reading.
Right: Freezing sea in autumn.
As the temperature gets lower, the sea progressively freezes, forming first what we call 'polsh' or 'soup' (picture), then 'pancakes', then 'joined pancakes' and then finally sea-ice. It is secure enough to walk on only after some snow has made it thicker. As the autumn wears on, we are eager for the sea to freeze solid enough so we can finally get out of our tiny island. There is an two month period when the sea has too much ice to use the Zodiacs anymore, and not enough to walk on; part of the sea freezes and then a storm comes and carries the ice away; thin ice gets thicker and merges with other plates. As time goes on, the icebergs stop moving around with the slowing sea currents.
Left: Prize-winning moonrise over the Astrolabe glacier, taken out of sheer luck: with some friends we were walking between the islands at sunset, and we saw the moon rise above the Astrolabe glacier, just as the last light of the sun was leaving the glacier. The glacier wall is about 50 meters high. Neat, eh ? In winter the low sun and the extremely pure and dry air combine to create astounding sunsets.
Right: Grosnitho at the entrance of a small cave inside an iceberg. The smooth ground is formed by frozen sea-water seeping through the ground. Some of those caves are very unstable, full of fallen blocks, others smooth and long-lasting like this one.
For more pictures of icebergs, look at my climbing pictures.
Left: Crossing a 'river', the soft limit between stable land ice and sea ice moved by the tide. A dangerous crossing.
Hiking around on the frozen sea is a common activity in winter. It lets you get away from the routine of life enclosed in the station. It's also a good way to do some sport since walking on snow is not so easy. As the sea freezes in autumn we get restless: we can't take boats anymore because there's too much ice, and we can't walk on it yet. Then, after snow covers the first layers of ice, it gets safe enough to walk on. Going to see the emperor penguins is the main (and closest) destination, but sometimes people go far and even sleep away from the station.
Right: Winter darkness on Dumont d'Urville. During aurora observation periods or astronomy sessions, all lights are out.
Above: The TA 43. What's left of our 35 braves of the 43rd Dumont d'Urville winter-over after a hard winter (just kidding). Picture taken a few days before the arrival of the boat. Pass the mouse over the picture to see the name of each or see the individual portraits.
So who do we have here ? Half of the population was like me, doing its civilian service, age 18 to 26, most of those scientists or technicians working on the science experiments. The other half are older contractors hired for the most important jobs of maintaining the base operational during the winter: cook, baker, power generator engineer, mechanics, plumber... Most of those come back every other winter or every summer.
Everyday life is organized so that two people take turns cleaning the common buildings and helping the chef every day. There's no official rest day, but sunday morning is pretty slow. I work in the 3rd laboratory, a little on the side of the base, and my only colleague there is Christophe, the glaciologist. And on storm days he doesn't even show up.
We try to break the monotony of the long winter nights at every chance: birthday parties, Easter, Labor Day, every date in the calendar is a reason to make an even nicer dinner than usual. The fact that half the station's population is below age 25 helps setting up the mood. There are dress up parties where people spend several days making their costumes. Two or three days a week we show movies taken from an extensive collection of VHS tapes and much older 16mm rolls dating from the start of the expeditions in the 50s.
Midwinter party. To break the monotony of the winter, there is a traditional party on the shortest day of the year, June 21st, which in our case lasted for 8 days. Although there were only 35 persons on base (all male), there was a dozen bands, theater, great food, games (both inside and outside)... That's wild partying at its best.
Left: As you see, everybody was well dressed for the midwinter... Yup, that's me, as leader of the punk band 'Les Skuas Noirs', with my Kronembourg guitar. Kro was the only beer available there... quantity in place of quality. Most people let their hair grow during autumn and shave into weird hairdos for the midwinter.
Left: Ugly ? Did you say ugly ? Hey, watch your words ! That's me there after a facial makeover for the midwinter !
Right: Uglier ? Did you say uglier ? Well... that's one of the challenger to the title of Miss TA 43, another local tradition in this womanless environment. Here GrosNitho, unfortunate MissTate contestant. Sexy, huh ?
Now don't start believing that all we do is drinking, partying and rehearsing for parties... We do science, and lots of it. Sismology, geomagnetism (dynamics of the Earth's core, measure of the components of the magnetic field), geology, micrometeorites, polar ozone, atmosphere chemistry (for link with the Dome C ice core), boundary layer meteorology (my program), meteorology, cosmic rays, ornithology (environment, physiology, thermoregulation), microbiology, ichthyology, human immunology, psychology, study of sleep... But there aren't usually any scientists during the winter, only students or engineers making experiments that are decided and later analyzed back in Europe. We often don't even know what happens with our data.
Left: An old iceberg that has scrape marks from the bottom of the sea.
Although the power plant engineer complains that we use too much water, a lot of people spend their evenings in the darkroom, processing black and white pictures as well as slides. Taking pictures of elusive events such as the green ray of the sun or auroras also occupies us for many hours.
Right: Performing repairs on the radio antenna after the storm damages.
The day after the end of the MidWinter party, a major storm moves in and lasts for 10 days of raging fury. As I'm walking back from the lab one evening a stronger gush picks me clean off the ground. I land hard totally disoriented with snow all inside my goggles. My headlamp only makes a 30cm long yellow mark in the fury of snow racing down from the continent. It takes me 10 stressful minutes to make my way uphill on all fours. I finally arrive on the roof of the post office building where I catch a breathe before doing the last 20 meters before the mess hall. After the storm ablates we count the damage: a pile of wood is gone, one of my Sodar antennas has a broken membrane probably due to snow inside, and more important a communication antenna had wires ripped off it. I have to climb up the pole to reconnect the cables.
Left: Arno skiing on the blue ice of the continent, near D-10.
Every month or so we do a 'garbage' expedition: all the garbage is carefully separated: things that we can burn like wood or paper, things that need to go back to Australia like plastics, or things that we can safely discard in the sea like glass, iron/steel or organics. We load one or two weasels and find a suitable crack in the sea ice. Off it goes.
When the days start getting longer and the temperature a little warmer, we take extensive hikes away from the base, try to find newborn baby seals, explore the glacier and even climb some icebergs. We pay a few visits to D-10, the small summer outpost used to launch traverses towards Dome C at the center of Antarctica. Only a few empty caravans to see.
For most of us, life in winter falls into a routine that is not particularly boring, a mix of work and small celebrations. I had taken plenty of books with me and I barely read ten, preferring to spend evenings talking with friends and colleagues. Others feel the pressure more dramatically depending on their personality, job and sometimes outside events; most of all the doctor who keeps worrying about what other medical tragedy is going to hit next. We take the opportunity of a passing Australian ship a few hours of helicopter away to evacuate him in early november, a month earlier than the scheduled first trip of the Astrolabe.
Right: The sea-truck ferrying heavy equipment to Cap Prudhomme, below D-10.
The last month of waiting is nervous. Will we get mail ? Will we know how to behave once back to civilization ? Will we remember how to take a shower (applies only to a few expedition members) ? We also start making plans on how best to spend all the vacation days we have accumulated during our stay. Most people decide on vacations in Oz, Tasmania, New Zealand or the far-east. By that time we are all eagerly waiting for our replacements, and when they arrive we run for the mail and make fun of them rookies, just the same way than we had to endure a year ago. The winter is over the day the Astrolabe arrives with its shipload of summer personnel, newcomers, film crews and even a (cute) tourist. I have to leave my room and sleep in the closet of the sodar room; it's dusty and smells like penguin but I don't have far to go between the lab and the restaurant. Frantic summer activity resumes and we suddenly grow tired of having our habits yanked like that. Suddenly I want to go home.
Left: The Astrolabe at bay near DdU at the same spot where the emperor penguins gather in winter, called le Pré.
Most of my friends left on this rotation, the second of the summer, after having spent about 12 months in Antarctica. A tearful departure. I stayed 3 more weeks and then went off to be seasick for a week before I could put my bare feet in the green Tasmanian grass.
Pictures of the Dumont d'Urville base itself.
Other Tasmanian Antarctic sites and external link to some more winter-over pictures at South Pole.