Slobodanka Graham


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How to be an awesome Antarctic explorer

How to be an awesome Antarctic explorer

Antarctic explorer

Adventure, danger, exploration and excitement - who hasn't at some stage wanted a thrilling lifestyle? I recently chatted to Kieran Lawton, Antarctic explorer, who's experienced what the rest of us only dream about:

In the past I've worked on expeditions all over the world for research science, filming and adventure, and have led many and diverse expeditions, particularly to the polar regions. Wilderness, wildlife and mountains are inspiring to me and I aim to explore, enjoy and help protect the planet in my short time here.

Listen to our interview at Planepack Radio or read the transcript below:

Kieran working in the Antarctic

Kieran working in the Antarctic

Slobodanka: Hello Planepack readers and listeners. I'm sitting here on a beautiful summer's morning at the Manhattan Café and I'm joined by Kieran. Welcome, Kieran.

Kieran: Hi.

Slobodanka: Okay, Shackleton, Scott, and Ross are famous Antarctic explorers,s which brings to my mind daring, bravery, and romance of polar expedition. And for some time you were an Antarctic explorer. Can you tell me, is it really like that?

Kieran: Wow. Well, I guess those guys are from a certain era where they really were exploring new ground. And well, to be honest, that's still possible. So, you know, I've done a lot of work in the Antarctic and the Antarctic is a big place. So, you know, think of some place one-and-a- half times the size of Australia but gets 30,000 visitors a year and they're nearly all tourists and they all go to one sort of area, generally. So there's a lot of ground to explore.

So, yeah. Yeah, there is a lot of opportunity for daring, yes.

Slobodanka: Now, at different times, and I'm taking this from information that I read about you online, you were an expedition leader, a mountain guide, a field training officer, and a biologist.

Kieran: Yeah.

Slobodanka: So which of these was the most challenging for you? Can you talk to us a little bit about them?

Kieran: Okay, so I think you know I started working in polar regions as a biologist. And well they're all different I suppose. As a biologist one of my earlier experiences was over winter in working on Emperor Penguins.

Slobodanka: On what? On penguins?

Kieran: On Emperor Penguins.

Slobodanka: Emperor Penguins.

Kieran: They're the only species that are in the Antarctic. The only animal that's in the Antarctic in winter. You know and the story they breed on the sea ice in the middle of winter and the male holds, you know, broods the egg while the female goes to sea which can be 100s of kilometres across the sea ice. And you know, it's minus 30 every day and dark and windy and all that kind of thing.

So you know that being a biologist down there is very interesting but also they are very long term gigs. So you know we at that time were out on the ice for seven months living in a shipping container and you know, so life's kind of slow and you work away at it whereas the other jobs, being an expedition leader or some of the more logistical jobs that I've done down there are full of excitement and movement - happen in summer. Lots of people around, lots of activity. So quite different.

Slobodanka: So when you went to Antarctica how did you get there?

Kieran: So ... I've been doing it for 20 years. And uh, most of my trips have been by boat, by ship, or by yacht. So if you come, if you go from Australia, you're at least a week at sea, longer. Generally ten days.

The shortest route is from South America across the Great Passage. And you can do that in three days. If you're on a ship, a week. If you're on a yacht ... so you know that's part of the adventure, I suppose.

I have flown in in more recent years. So there's an airstrip on the Antarctic peninsula and the Australians have got an airstrip on this side now and there's one at McMurdo's south of New Zealand. So people do fly in a bit now. That's a different sort of experience because when you sail you get there gradual and it's a real journey. And you know the wildlife emerge as [inaudible 00:04:00] coldness happens over a period of time. You kind of get immersed in it.

When you fly in it's a bit more like you go and look so. I'm a bit of a fan of sailing.

Slobodanka: Work your way into it?

Kieran: Yeah.

Slobodanka: Right. So you've arrived in Antarctica. Where did you stay? What sort of camps while you were there?

Kieran: Well I had a variety of trips. Most people will stay on a vessel. So few - 95% of people when they go as tourist or even as a scientist will go on a ship and stay on the ship - and not stay ashore.

But a lot of the Antarctic coastline is either surrounded by sea ice or in the case of the Antarctic peninsula, which is south of South America, has massive fjords so there's a lot of calm water and you can get right up close to the land. So you feel lik you're a part of it.

Obviously I've camped out a lot and stayed in field huts and static stations as well so there's the whole variety. But I think you know, most people will be staying on a boat close to shore in calm waters. That kind of thing.

Slobodanka: So just take it to [inaudible 00:05:07]. That kind of thing?

Kieran: Yeah, yeah.

Slobodanka: So can you describe for me or for the listeners, what's a typical day living in Antarctica? How would you spend your day in Antarctica?

Kieran: Well, if you're a visitor like if you're going down as a tourist on a, on a ship -

Slobodanka: Not as a tourist, probably as a scientist as you may have done.

Kieran: As a scientist. Yeah, as a scientist. Well science is pretty repetitive.

So say for example when we we're working on penguins or albatrosses I did a lot of work about understanding where those animals, how they use their environment, what they feed on, where they go to feed. The sort of resources around how humans use those resources as well. Cause some of those species are in decline.

Emperor Penguin chicks on the foot in spring. Photo: Kieran Lawton

Emperor Penguin chicks on the foot in spring. Photo: Kieran Lawton

Cause you know albatrosses for example get caught behind fishing boats. When I was working on Empire Penguins there was, they feed on a mixture of things but a lot on krill and there was a krill fishery, a Russian krill fishery at the time. So there kind of, you know looking at those impacts.

So basically [inaudible 00:06:12] was trying to understand you know how those animals use their environment. Sort of baseline stuff when you don't really know that stuff.

And we do that by tracking the animals. So I worked at a time when satellite tracking was just being developed and we had basic devices for animals that lived at sea called Time Depth Recorders. And if you pulled an animal and glued these stuff on its back you could figure out where it was going, what it was feeding on, how deep it was diving, how it was using its environment.

So we basically camped out with the species we were studying. We'd catch say an Empire Penguin, put on these devices, let it go to sea. Do it's foraging trip and when it came back get the data and see what it had been doing.

So there'd be lots of camping out, getting up in the morning, finding an animal. Deploying a device, letting it go, and then perhaps waiting for several hours for animals coming in from the sea to see if one of your animals was there. And then you know catching that animal, taking the device back off.

You know, so lots of time outside all day. Yeah.

Slobodanka: How long was the day? How many hours? Was there a lot of sunshine or . . .?

Kieran: Depends on the season. So in winter obviously we're just working at night by headlamp. Well working by day but it's dark. By headlamp. And we would still work sort of a normal day so-

Slobodanka: [inaudible 00:07:37]

Kieran: Nine hours. Thereabouts. And in summer of course it's 24 hours sunlight. So you tend to be more active and working longer than say - yeah long days. Long days.

Slobodanka: How do you catch a penguin?

Kieran: Haha. If it's a small penguin they're kind of easy. You can just go up and grab them. With your hands.

But Emperors are, you know they're big. They can be 25 to 30 kilos. And they're very mobile. Because the sea ice. They travel 100's of kilometres across the sea ice. So they're good at it. Better than we are. So we had quite an elaborate technique for those.

We had a massive well, we had a very long shepherd's crook. And we would identify the penguin we wanted to catch. And run after it and it would do this thing instead of walking. It would flop onto its belly and tobogan. So it would be on its belly and push with its feet. Which is really fast. It's about as fast as you can run. And so when it started doing that we'd run behind it and put this 12 foot long shepherd's crook around it's shoulders and just pull it up. And then, and then move up on to it. And sort of hold it down. Get it on it's back. So yeah, a bit of a technique.

Slobodanka: Astonishing! You have to be pretty fit to do that I would think as well.

Kieran: Yep, you need to be fit.

Slobodanka: So I think you were a keen photographer, is that correct when you were there?

Kieran: I was, yeah yeah.

Slobodanka: So what sort of things did you like to photograph, what were your favourite subjects?

Kieran: God, there's so much to photograph there. So, wildlife, and ice and the light on the ice and the ocean. All those things that change from hour to hour so ... And the light is beautiful as well. So landscapes, really. Wildlife and landscapes. Yeah.

Female Emperor Penguins,  returning from the ocean towards the end of winter. Photo: Kieran Lawton

Female Emperor Penguins,  returning from the ocean towards the end of winter. Photo: Kieran Lawton

Slobodanka: Beautiful. What have you done with those photographs? 

Kieran: I used to be really keen and I got a lot published in calendars and magazines and that kind of thing. And I used to write stories and that sort of thing. I worked on some doing some shoots for film companies as well. That, you know, so a bit of everything.

Slobodanka: Lovely. Well let's talk about packing.

Kieran: Okay.

Slobodanka: So what did you pack when you'd travel to the Antarctic?

Kieran: Well, I'm going to guess for me, I'm thinking about the trip and what I'll need. But I did you know in preparation for this I kind of thought well if I was packing light how would I go about, how would I go about that? And I think there's some specifics that.

So one thing to go to a cold place I don't think you need a lot of clothes. You need just the right amount of clothes. So I think and that's one thing I try and do because, you know, space and weight is always at a premium. So I try and do some research about where I'm going and what the sort of minimum temperatures are going to be. And how wet it's going to be or dry because the Antarctic being a big place, you know ... some of it is maritime and quite warm so even in summer, say on the Antarctic peninsula it will be wet-ish and kind of hovering above zero, minus two degrees. So that's kind of, you need certain clothes for that.

Which is quite different from if you're going on land and it might be minus 20. It's quite dry. So you don't need waterproofs at all. But you need, you know, an extra layer of down or something like that. So ...

Slobodanka: Are you describing what you would take from leaving Australia say-

Kieran: No.

Slobodanka: For a few months stay in Antarctica.

Kieran: Yeah, so what I would do is research where I was going. Make sure I understood what the climate was like specifically and pack one or, one, really one set of clothes to cope with the coldest temperatures. And that would not be one big jacket or anything. That would be layers. So that then you're really adaptable. So if you've got several layers.

Slobodanka: Yeah, can you describe what those clothes are?

Kieran: Yeah, yeah. So they're um. So I would layer up so if I was going to the Antarctic peninsula and expected a minimum temperature of like minus ten degrees in a maritime climate I would have like a thermal layer against the skin. You know, a wool thermal layer. And then a couple of layers of pile over that. And then-

Slobodanka: What's pile?

Kieran: So like polyfleece.

Slobodanka: Oh right.

Kieran: Polyfleece. And then a down layer. And then a waterproof, wind proof layer over that. So with that that means I can be comfortable at the coldest temperatures. But I'm also, I got all the clothes I need for when it gets warmer as well. So you can just peel off some - wouldn't be taking a big heavy jacket that filled up my suitcase. I would just be taking those layers.

And not many duplicates. You know, even if you're going away for a while you always end up wearing the same clothes, right? So the only duplicates you need are underclothes and a spare pair of gloves and socks if something goes wrong and you get wet.

So you don't actually need that much.

Slobodanka: No.

Kieran: That much more.

Slobodanka: No.

Kieran: Yeah.

Slobodanka: And what about footwear?

Kieran: So I think you can get away with one pair of shoes if you select wisely. And you know, if you especially, if you're trying to pack light. Footwear is massive and heavy and so yeah, I would be taking a pair of hiking boots that can, that I can walk on snow and ice and put a light set of crampons on. But also that I can wear in the plane and get around the ship on and that kind of thing. So, yeah.

Slobodanka: And if you were going on say a short expedition, let's visualise you're in Antarctica and you got to go onto the ice for a week or so. What, how would you carry your gear with you? Would you go use some transport for that or would you be walking, hiking? And how would you carry your food, for example?

Kieran: I guess it depends on the trip. And uh, of course you need to know that before you go. Plenty of times though it's been in a rucksack.

Slobodanka: In a rucksack? On your back?

Kieran: On your back. And you might, say you might be on skis and you have your stuff in your rucksack. So that's the way I always pack. With a just a rucksack, minimum amount of clothes, and room to add those things like food or whatever, whatever I need. Yeah.

Slobodanka: Yeah so, I understand.

Kieran: Never been a suitcase person.

Slobodanka: No, no, no. I imagine you'd have to carry everything on your back.

Kieran: Yeah, yeah.

Slobodanka: Everything that you could travel with you have to carry on your back.

Kieran: Yeah, you need to be able to truck stop in boats and dingies and um ... you know, have it on rough services, yeah. So I've never been a wheels person.

Slobodanka: No, no. I think wheels wouldn't work [crosstalk 00:14:39] wheel somehow down the ice and in the snow.

So if someone were thinking of making a career for themselves by doing something similar how would they go about doing that?

Kieran: That's interesting. So there's a number of ways to get into that field of work. Obviously there's the way I did it. Which I think is the classic way, it's the way people's mind go, there's lots of scientists that work in the Antarctic so, you know, you could embark on a scientific career.

But there's also a lot of other avenues. And one of the ones, you know, there's essentially more people doing trades than there are scientists by about you know five to one.

Slobodanka: What do you mean by trades?

Kieran: So diesel mechanic, carpenter, electrician, plumber, um all those people who are there to keep things working and keep stuff happening.

Slobodanka: So the communities that are living in Antarctica.

Kieran: Yeah, that's probably one of the, you know, that's one of the ways -

Slobodanka: A cook I'm sure. A chef would be well sought after -

Kieran: Doctor. Yeah. All those sort of -

Slobodanka: All those.

Kieran: Those people that deliver an essential service.

Slobodanka: Yes.

Kieran: So if you, you know, to go onto a base for you know a government sponsored Antarctic programme. Those people headed under the scientist's [inaudible 00:16:03] tend to work there.

Slobodanka: Interesting.

Kieran: Yeah, yeah.

Slobodanka: So do ever go back to the Antarctic? Since you've stopped doing this as a kind of profession.

Kieran: Yeah, yeah. I'm still um, so I am potentially going back in February of this year. So but I just pick and choose the trips now. And, you know, my role now has become I guess a bit of a local knowledge person. So people get me into running trips when I know an area really well and they need someone who knows the area really well to make the trip amazing. So I'll go and do that and I love going down there. But I guess I think I ... Out of 20 years I spent seven-and-a-half years in the Antarctic. All wow. 25 trips and um, you know so I needed to do something else -

Kieran in Canberra, taking time off from visiting the Antarctic

Kieran in Canberra, taking time off from visiting the Antarctic

Slobodanka: Different.

Kieran: For a while.

Slobodanka: Yes, that's right.

Kieran: I invested so much time. So, you know, so I definitely, I don't want to close it off.

Slobodanka: No.

Kieran: But, yeah, but I need to just do the right amount.

Slobodanka: Yes. So if you can describe just one absolutely fabulous highlight of all those many many years that you spent working in the Antarctic what would that be? Or there's so many that it's hard to nominate one?

Kieran: Well it's very varied. And I spent such a long a long time there. I'm going to think the highlight really in those places is, I mean they're beautiful places to be. And the rhythm of life is much more dictated by nature and the environment which is really lovely. But I think you're always there with people. And the relationships that you develop with people ... much stronger, for me anyway, they much, they seem to evolve much more quickly and be much more stronger. Much stronger and quite long lasting. When you're in that kind of environment that when you're together all the time. So I guess the friendships are the things that you know. Are really meaningful to me. And all the wonderful photos and -

Slobodanka: Science, experiments.

Kieran: Yeah, yeah.

Slobodanka: Well it's been amazing talking to you, Kieran. Thank you very much for this brief insight into the Antarctic. I'm sure we could spend a lot of time talking about many more things but it's just been wonderful to get that little taste so ... I'm sure the readers will appreciate it. So thanks, again. Thank you very much.

Kieran: Thanks, Bobby. It's been a pleasure.

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Microlight flight in New Zealand

About the author and interviewer

I'm Slobodanka Graham, extreme light traveller, digital publisher, content entrepreneur and adventurer - of a different kind. I like things that take me up high, like a microlight.


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