Castlebar man Neil Sheridan will have a white Christmas this year – he’ll be working in Antarctica
Castlebar man Neil Sheridan had long held a desire to travel to the wilderness of Antarctica since first being inspired by the adventures of Irish polar explorer Tom Crean. He thought it might be as a passenger on one of those expensive cruise trips from Ushuaia in Argentina but events this year have given the 30-year-old the opportunity to live out his dream.
“Never in a million years would I have thought people worked down here,” he now says from the Davis Station in Antarctica, where he is currently serving a six-month posting as a maintenance worker on the Australian research facility.
Four years ago, Neil first came across an advertisement in the West Australian newspaper listing openings at the Australian Antarctic Division.
“I wasn’t in a position to apply then due to visa restrictions but this year I was,” he says. “So instead of travelling to South America and paying for a short round trip on a tourist ship, I thought I could work down there for a longer period and they might actually pay me! So I applied, and here I am.”
Neil was back at home in Mayo visiting family this past March, preparing to return to his job as a plumber in Australia, when the phone rang at seven in the morning.
“The call was enquiring if I was still interested and if I could come to Adelaide the following week for a selection centre. That was really the beginning.”
The selection centre in Adelaide was like nothing Neil had experienced before. After personality assessments and a technical interview, he took his place with 19 other candidates in a conference room.
“Home for the next two days,” says Neil. “We played games, discussed different scenarios for the rest of the time. All of this was monitored to assess each individual to see how they might fit into a small isolated community. It can be very difficult if one person goes all the way down and doesn’t like it or doesn’t get along with others.”
By May, Neil got word that he had reached the next stage of the application process and would have to put his current plans on hold. He was intending to take up work in London. He flew to Perth in June to undergo a medical and a psychological assessment. “All went well,” says Neil. “And that was it. Now I’m employed by the Australian Antarctic Division.”
The next few days were a whirlwind of preparation and packing. “Think of the small things that you like in everyday life and try and plan how much you need for six months,” Neil says. He then arrived in Kingston, Tasmania for final preparation at the Australian Antarctic Division HQ.
Australia is one of the world’s leading nations in Antarctic research. It boasts three research facilities on the mainland as well as one on Macquarie Island, a sub-Antarctic island.
“Our training ranged from survival training to infrastructure training,” he says. “There were many briefings and talks to help prepare us for living in a small isolated community. Everybody has to look out for each other and respect each other. And even though we have a medical facility here, we are very far from the nearest hospital.”
A 14-day voyage took the 116 onboard the hulking Aurora Australis vessel southwest from Hobart, Tasmania through the Southern Ocean before turning south and into the pack ice. “It was around this time we saw our first iceberg,” says Neil. “Temperatures dropped as we went on, snow came in intermittent showers and then ice began to form on the decks and railings. As the ship got closer, the ice held us up more. The last two days were a tedious effort hitting dead ends and having to back up to find easier routes.”
The sight for the first time of the continent of Antarctica in all its isolated glory is not something Neil is going to forget in a hurry. “As I was on the cargo resupply team I was flown in by helicopter a couple of days out from station,” he says. “That was a pretty special flight; to see so much ice as far as the eye can see, and the Vestfold Hills in the background.”
When Neil and the crew set foot on Antarctica for the first time, he was struck immediately by the temperature but not in the way you’d expect.
“We had a reading of minus five and a wind chill brought it to minus 12, but when standing in the sunlight the heat surprised me,” Neil says. “Minus five felt more like five degrees at home. The dry air down here really makes a difference.”
Make no mistake, however. Work outside with a slight breeze and things will turn rapidly icy. “We have been provided with excellent work gear and layers by the department,” says Neil.
The working week lasts five days - from 0730 to 1630 - with a few more hours on a Saturday morning. Neil’s job is to maintain the heating and water supplies at the facility as well as looking after waste treatment.
“We have to make water from sea water,” says Neil. “As the sea is still frozen we are trying to conserve the stored water that we have. This means one three minute shower every three days. It may be January before we can make new water.”
Neil and his crewmates are adapting nicely to life on the secluded ice with plenty outside work duties to keep them occupied.
There is a good mix of nationalities on the trip. As well as Australian, he’s working alongside Kiwis, British, German, French, Belgian, Indonesian, Japanese and more.
There is also another Irishman for company. “Séamus Liston from Ardagh in Co Limerick is on his fifth expedition and is becoming a veteran of the Antarctic,” says Neil.
“Everyone is getting along really well which is the main thing. Scientific research is the priority and the rest of us are here in support of it. The entire group is made up of scientists, trades, aviation crews, and chefs to name a few.”
Fun and games
The station is equipped with a library, a cinema, a pool table, a dart board, table tennis and a music room. There is also a small bar at which the team can unwind after a hard day’s work.
Neil and the crew are not wanting for a decent meal either. “We have two Australian chefs and a French chef who do a great job,” says Neil. “The food is very good but certain food doesn’t last. It’s been a month now since I’ve had a banana and I’m sure I won’t see one again until March!”
Life outside the station is varied and interesting too. “We get opportunities to go on hikes with people trained in the field,” says Neil, who has already come across a colony of 30,000 Adelie penguins. “You could spend hours watching them,” he says.
The station’s social club organises events with Saturday bringing a big night out when the crew dresses up for the evening meal. “We also have the odd fancy dress, karaoke, play, darts competition and so on,” Neil adds.
And contact with the outside world is more to hand than you might think. “We have phones that allow us to call anywhere in the world but the internet is very poor,” Neil says. “There are 91 of us on station trying to use it. I find it easier just to do something else.”
The Aurora Australis broke free of the ice in the last week of November and is making its way back to Tasmania. Neil and his colleagues won’t see it again until March. The ice around Davis Station will be melting shortly and will give Neil and his mates the chance to explore icebergs in the bay and hike to some of the more remote huts inland.
And Neil is already planning his next trip. The winter season expedition is a gruelling 15-month posting which includes two months’ training and a month’s sailing either side of a year at Davis Station, a rare opportunity granted to a tiny few.
“For now I’m going to enjoy the short period I’m here for,” says Neil. “And I’ll look forward to get home again when the time comes.”