Let us start today's blog by wishing you all a merry Christmas. Because we are in a festive mood today, we have prepared an additional blog post for this week, you can consider it as our little gift from us APECS Belgium to you, our beloved readers.
Aaah it’s Christmas... the time of year when we come together with our family and friends to eat and drink and celebrate the lengthening of the days. It seems that everybody across the world is doing the same thing, but are they really? What about polar scientists who have to go on a mission to Antarctica? I’m sure they wouldn’t sent people there during the holidays? Oh yes, they do, and today we tell the story of Marie Cavitte and Sarah Wauthy who spent last year’s holidays down under, in the cold Antarctic summer..
Fellow APECS Belgium members (who might have been a little jealous of their adventure) came up with some burning questions they wanted to know. Let’s found out what Sarah and Marie replied to them.
When and where did you spent the holidays sampling?
SW: It was a year ago, during the winter holidays, Marie and I were in the field in Antarctica at 200 km from the Belgian Princess Elisabeth station. We spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve there, celebrating in a container.
What were you doing?
MC: We were a team of 4 scientists and a mountain guide, and were there to collect new ice cores to better understand the chemical variability of the snow at the surface, collect more radar data to understand better the spatial variability of surface mass balance and the ice flow characteristics of the area we were in.
SW (complementary to Marie’s radar): I did some sampling of the surface snow along the transect from the station to the coast where we were staying to analyze the variability of the chemical composition of the snow and I did some shallow ice coring. The main ice core was 10 m deep and allows to get a chronology for Marie’s measurements.
How did you stay in contact with your family and friends?
SW: we were lucky to have a sat phone that allowed us to call and send short texts to family and friends. Some texts never reached my contacts and I usually spent half of the phone conversation saying I didn’t understand what had been said but it’s really nice to hear your loved ones anyway. MC: We were super lucky to get a sat phone pay card that we shared amongst us 4 scientists, so we each had a quota of phone calls or messages we could send/make per week! It was really a blessing, especially for wishing merry xmas and happy new years to family!
Anecdote(s) you want to share?
SW: Marie nearly lost her tent that was buried by a huge storm!! It has been quite a stressful period when we were stuck inside the container and could see the tent being slowly buried by the snow. Then we had a nice “shoveling party” all together to recover everything. MC: In Antarctica, you start appreciating vintage foods! Sentences like “oh yeah, 2012 is a great year for canned pears…” lol
What surprised you the most?
SW: How vast is Antarctica and how you are far from everything and a very small piece of a very big world, even though I already went once, it amazed me again this time.
MC: Just how vast and WHITE and QUIET Antarctica is. I’d been told before, but it’s really surreal when you pause for a minute and listen… you hear literally nothing. Well, you do: your heart beat drumming in your ears because it’s THAT quiet!
What was the biggest difference with how you celebrate normally?
SW: The absence of family and friends is the biggest difference, but we had such a nice team that it was okay to be far from them. Also, as we worked the day of the celebrations and the day after, we needed to keep some energy and be responsible on how we did party. No time to sleep in!
MC: It was definitely the most private party of the year: 5 of us, dancing to ABBA in our little container, miles away from any other human… a treasured memory.
How was the language barrier/your ability to communicate with the rest of the crew?
SW: we were all speaking English but many of us were French-speaking so we had some fun multi-languages conversations. I didn’t feel any barrier because of the languages, we easily switched from one to another depending on who you’re talking to. MC: That was easy: we all spoke French :-)
What did you do for the food? What did you eat?
SW: we had fondue for the celebration’s dinners! It’s great comforting and friendly food and it made these dinners special. We also had some apéro (with crisps and a beer or two). MC: The way things are organized at the Belgian station is that the cooks always prepare way more food than for dinners every day and the leftovers are vacuum sealed and frozen for people deploying into the field (like us!). Once in the field, we stored this food in the freezer container that we used to preserve the ice cores. So all we had to do for dinner was go for a little food hunt in the freeze and just warm it up! So easy and so yummy! At lunch, we had many frozen bread loaves and some cheese, so we often made hot toasties, accompanied with hot rehydrated soup. Grand cuisine!
Did you bring gifts/make a Secret Santa with the team?
SW: we made a Secret Santa. It really was a nice moment, we had a lot of fun when opening the gifts! MC: YES! We each packed a small gift and then swapped them on Xmas morning! I was lucky that one of my colleagues, Maaike, was also a game enthusiast and we ended up each getting a board game for each other!
What did you pack that came in handy to celebrate the holidays?
SW: I took a second “Christmas jumper” that I lent to Marie for Christmas’ dinner, it was cool to be in the theme all together, it gets you in the party/celebration mood. MC: Before departing, I saved a very embarrassing playlist of music that we could play for our private soiree! Sarah was more organized: she had packed three xmas sweaters that all got to borrow for our xmas dinner!
What do you wish you packed with you?
SW: a bigger notebook/diary! I’ve been journaling quite a lot in there and I had to write in small letters by the end of our field trip. MC: Fresh salad haha...
Did you notice any cultural differences with the people at the station/camp/..?
MC: not so much, because I’ve lived a very long time in Belgium and since the team is mostly Belgian/French/Swiss, I felt comfortable very quickly with everyone. And everyone working at the station is just amazing.
Did you experience any frustrations on your trip, whether related to the destination itself or the actual traveling?
SW: I hate flying… I’m the type of person who is constantly moving but put me on a plane and I will sit for the entire flight. But it takes what it takes to get there and it’s so worth it. MC: I guess the quarantine at the start was a little long when you’re ready to get going ! But it was for the right reasons: to try and avoid bringing Covid to Antarctica!
What advice would you give someone going there for the first time during this period?
SW: Ask tips and tricks from people who already went. It’s super interesting to be able to benefit from the experiences of others, especially when you are in such hostile environment. Oooh and take something to occupy yourself, you might experience several days of being stuck in a container because of a storm and time goes slower in these cases. MC: Bring some nice warm pyjamas and in particular, warm socks to sleep in! You wouldn’t believe how nice it is to have nice smelling and warm socks at night :-) Also, never forget to bring some games (cards, etc) because bad weather can sometimes keep you indoors for days… so it’s nice to have something fun and light to do while waiting.
What was the most enjoyable or relaxing part of your campaign?
SW: The great company, we had a lovely team and we could count on each other’s. I also loved the landscapes so much, this immensity brings me serenity. MC: I think it was a little of everything really! Getting to collect my own radar data for the first time was really exciting, enduring the storms in our little container all the while being in awe of the force of nature … But getting to visit a little the area around the Belgian station and climbing Utsteinen, the towering nunatak near the station!
Did you go anywhere super beautiful where you felt like your photos just couldn’t do it justice?
SW: lots of places around the Belgian station are incredibly beautiful and even if the pictures are amazing, there is something more when you are in there (the silence, being so small in the middle of the nearly pristine nature).
MC: Oh, I’d say all of it. It’s really hard to capture the immensity of Antarctica, of the whiteness, of the quietness on photo…. And the scintillating snow surface…
Would you go back during the holidays?
SW: Absolutely! We are all in the same team: away from families and friends so we bond easily and celebrate nicely. When I got back, we organized a Christmas + 1 month with my family, so I didn’t feel I was missing anything. MC: I think so! Because everyone is in the same boat, spending the holidays away from home, you build a really strong sense of community and friendship!
If so, what would you want to do next time you spend the holidays there?
SW: same as last time: being surrounded by nice people and having a great time all together! MC: I think I need to download a Xmas movie to watch… I mean it’s a must during the holidays!
What would be your ultimate destination to celebrate the holidays?
SW: I think the company is more important than the destination but let’s say on a boat in a sunny and warm place, that would completely change from what I’ve known before. MC: Mmmm… I can’t decide! On the one hand, I really loved sharing the holidays with my colleagues at what felt like the end of the world! But I also very much like spending it with my family and in particular my son who was so little last year when I was away, it was not easy!
Thanks to Sarah and Marie for sharing their story with us and all that remains is to wish you a cosy and warm Christmas with maybe some fresh salad! Enjoy!
The APECS Belgium team