Engineer Keith Jacob, from Northland, is one of 11 New Zealand crew members spending the winter at Scott Base in Antarctica. It’s the only continent free of Covid-19, yet one where isolation is part of the usual drill.
Anke Richter: How was your last weekend, Keith?
Keith Jacob: Very social. We had a whole bunch of people from McMurdo, the American base, come here and play darts, and some of us went over there for swing dancing. I can mix with almost 180 people. At Anzac Day, we held a dawn service in the morning.
No social distancing in Antarctica then – the only continent that’s free of Covid-19?
Yeah, that pandemic has stolen our bragging rights about spending a year in isolation on the ice. I feel less special now. The tables have been turned. We came down here to have this extreme experience, and now we are less isolated than most people on the planet.
Technically, we’re forming a bubble with McMurdo Station which is only a 10-minute drive away. We are 11 people here at Scott Base, another 167 over there. Our next neighbours are the Italians who are about 600 kilometres away. There is no aircraft service to their place.
And no more visitors from outside Antarctica?
Some cruise ships were in the area in late summer and wanted to come on shore to see the historic Discovery hut, but we did not let them come to the base. We watched the situation very carefully. Our job down here is all about risk assessment, that’s what we do every day. And we already have many things in place that other countries suddenly had to adjust to.
Measures like hand sanitiser in the dining room and always washing your hands – everyone here is pretty good at that discipline. With so many people in a confined space, you cannot afford to have an illness, no matter what sort of virus it is, because it would go through the population very quickly. There are some very time-critical operations going on here and people go out into the field. You don’t want them getting sick with a gastro bug.
Quarantine is not a new concept to you then?
We always have these procedures in place and do that very quickly, with different parts of the building, as a precaution.
So the Covid-19 crisis has changed the whole world, but not yours?
Since it doesn’t really affect us, it’s all business as usual here. All of a sudden, we have a whole bunch of freedoms that others around the world have lost. The only difference we feel is that we would normally get flights through the winter, but now the last plane went out this week. There won’t be another one till August.
To what effect?
Since we don’t know what’s happening with the science programme next year, the Americans are keeping some staff around in case they cannot get relief staff in. The winter crew signs up for 13 month and comes down in the summer, then the summer crew goes home, and the winter crew stays on. Some of the Americans were expecting to fly home and are now staying. Some wanted to leave but couldn’t or needed to change flights. The Antarctic gateway was moved from Christchurch to Melbourne because of the border entry restrictions in New Zealand.
Tell me about your crew at Scott Base.
It’s a trade environment in winter, with a mechanic, a carpenter, an electrician – three women and eight men. Three of them have wintered here before. We’ll have to run one scientist up the hill where she’s spending time on science experiments, and one sea ice probe needs to get out, but otherwise it’s pretty much all maintenance.
What’s your job?
I’m the water engineer. My responsibility is making drinking water from sea water under the ice with reverse osmosis, and to treat the used water before it’s returned to the ocean.
What kind of person spends a winter on the ice?
Winter people are handling some things better, but you can’t pick whether they are introverts or extroverts. We’re probably all a bit odd. What we have in common is a taste for adventure, and that you have to be vulnerable and step out of your comfort zone. They say you come out a different person.
How dark is it at the moment?
Last week there was a little bit of daylight, but we’ve lost it now. I was outside at quarter to five today and I could just see the horizon. The stars were out. Next week will be dark 24 hours a day. We won’t see the sun again until the end of August.
No daylight for four months sounds more challenging to me than five weeks in lockdown.
Well, we had six months to build up to it over the summer, which is very different to what happened to you in New Zealand. We talk on the phone, we have internet, I’m feeling pretty good. And we signed up for it and knew what was coming. The coronavirus situation was unexpected.
How did you prepare for your winter in isolation?
I was a stand-by guy for 12 months before coming down here and had a lot of time to research the psychology of it, how the darkness and isolation can affect me. Being aware of it helps, that a change is happening. I’ve spent 25 years on boats in remote places around the world and am used to solitude, being away from family. And I’m always thinking about what can go wrong, which is a good attitude to have around here.
Is the health and safety prep from Gateway Antarctica focused on mental health?
The pre-deployment training is excellent. We look out for each other and give people space. Since we’re normally not used to being in closed quarter environments for such extended periods, we have to learn new measure, like being empathic and judging people’s moods. Some people need to withdraw and do things on their own. But when they withdraw too much, it might be good to invite them to do a group activity.
We have quite a lot of jigsaw puzzles and card games going on here. Crosswords in the morning and afternoon tea breaks. Good to have something different than normal day-to-day interactions. We are aware of everyone’s family back home and watch the news together every night.
Many people are struggling in self-isolation or in their bubbles in New Zealand. Any tips?
Keeping a routine helps, and setting yourself a goal, even just daily. Have your recreational time and your mealtimes. Your body and brain are used to those things. It gives you stability in the uncertainty. Reconnect with people you have not been in touch with for a while – don’t become a hermit. Challenge yourself a bit.
How do you spend your time after work?
Less is happening outside now so we move to the gym. There are lots of social club activities and dance classes or yoga. There’s soccer tonight, and after dinner I’ll go and watch Star Wars.
Can it get a bit claustrophobic? Any cabin fever?
In the summer it gets really busy with scientists and support staff. We had 85 people working here at Scott, and around 350 passing through, plus 1,200 at McMurdo. I’m actually enjoying having the place to myself now, with fewer distractions. I can get to know people better through longer conversations and am still finding things out after eight months. Some people hold talks about their climbing adventures or give travelogues.
Any positives for you personally in this pandemic? Because there’s always a silver lining…
It’s been really nice that I can actually catch up with friends around the world. Because they’re at home in lockdown, they have more time to talk to me over the phone.