As an apprentice working in the ship repairs department at Portsmouth Dockyard, Ian Prickett used to relish the chance to get on board one vessel in particular.
For up to six months at a time, the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship HMS Endurance would take to the stormy seas of Antarctica, providing support to the scientific research community who make this inhospitable environment their home.
At the end of her tour, the Red Plum would arrive in the dockyard for a refit and pictures of the magical places she had been to fired Ian’s imagination.
Every time he stepped aboard he’d dream about travelling to the stunning landscapes he saw displayed in picture frames around the ship.
And when he returned to the dockyard after a back-packing break, he got the opportunity of a lifetime.
‘One of my first big jobs back was a refit on the RRS Sir Ernest Shackleton, which is one of two ships owned and operated by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS),’ explains Ian.
‘It was here that I found out about all the work that BAS undertake in Antarctica. I applied straight away for a job and was lucky enough to get it at my first attempt.’
At the beginning of November, Ian set off to start another season working for the BAS at Halley Research Station, positioned on the Brunt Ice Shelf.
Flying from Punta Arenas in Chile to a commercial airstrip called Union Glacier, bad conditions and a backlog of personnel meant he was stuck there for two weeks in a tent, braving temperatures around the -20 mark.
Stories like that offer just a glimpse of what it’s like to work in Antarctica. It’s a place of immense scientific interest – but living there comes with some very unique challenges.
Those working at Halley must race against time before the onset of winter. By the end of February the sea will begin to freeze over once more, cutting the station off completely. Only 12 wintering staff will remain. Living on their own at Halley for nine months, they will spend up to three months in complete darkness.
But in mid-November the summer crew arrive to break the solitude. And as the external works foreman, Ian’s currently leading a small but experienced team who arrived early to prepare for Halley’s other inhabitants.
‘The pros of being in such a stunning environment outweigh the cons,’ says 34-year-old Ian.
‘We have 24-hour daylight, no rain, stunning unpolluted and clean areas to work and play in and on days when the sun is shining it is absolutely amazing, with no place quite like it in the world.’
Ian – who grew up in Gosport and went to Brune Park Community College – began working as a steel erector at Halley in 2005 and is now in his seventh season in Antarctica.
His main role is overseeing the build of the new research station, Halley VI, which will eventually replace the old station, Halley V.
The current base is built on huge stilts, buried deep in the ice. Each year the stilts are raised to keep the base above the snow line.
But due to the constant flow of ice off the main continent, the base has been drifting further away from the hinge zone – the place where the continent buried deep below the ice disappears and becomes the ocean underneath.
There’s a chance that the ice the base is built on will float away as a giant iceberg. So Halley VI is being built on giant skis and each building can be disconnected so that the whole base can be towed further inland in future.
Ian’s been building the steel frames for the new base, cladding the modules, fitting architectural steelwork, helping the mechanical and electrical teams and even fitting the kitchens.
‘The challenges we face out here are certainly one of the reasons I enjoy the job so much,’ he adds.
‘We constantly have to overcome certain problems that arise, such as a lack of stock, no stock, or pre-fabricated components that don’t fit.
‘We can’t just pop down to the local hardware store to buy what we need so it involves a lot of head-scratching and improvisation to get some jobs completed.
‘As well as this, the Antarctic weather can be a major challenging factor. We often have storms passing through that blow constant 30 knot winds which pick up all the snow and bury anything left on the surface within minutes.
‘Visibility can drop to less than a metre in minutes and the temperatures can plummet to -30 with wind chill towards the end of the season.’
A five-kilometre perimeter surrounds the base and no-one can step outside that zone without the base commander’s permission as it would be very easy to get lost.
Workers stay fit by running, walking and skiing around the perimeter. And trips to see the ice cliffs or the Emperor penguin colony are organised.
‘The ice sheet itself is a huge flat expanse of nothing and when bad weather comes through you can’t tell where the sky begins and the ice ends,’ says Ian.
‘It feels as if you are in a giant snow globe with no idea which way to head.’
The living conditions are cramped, with an annexe of containers used for sleeping space. At the moment, Ian shares a container with three other roommates.
But there are plenty of facilities to keep people occupied. A team of three chefs cook the meals and there’s a gym.
‘As bleak and empty as it may seem out here there is always something going on to stop you from being bored.
‘We have a movie room, along with table tennis, bridge and poker nights, spinning classes, skiing, snowboarding and kiting, a library and every year we also host a charity event to raise money for an appropriate cause.’
Last year they raised £1,000 for Orchid Cancer Research by running around the perimeter fence nine times to complete a marathon distance. This year they’ll run a half-marathon from the old base to the new base with Ian taking to his skis to pull the support sledge.
Luxury items are few and far between but Ian did pack his snowboard and kite and loves exploring around the perimeter.
‘When the conditions are right with no wind and the sun shining, you can go out to the perimeter line and take in your surroundings,’ he says.
‘The silence is amazing with the only sound being the constant pulsing in your eardrum.
‘Sometimes you can even make out giant icebergs off the coast.’
Ian Prickett is one of more than 400 staff employed by British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
As one of the world’s leading environmental research centres, BAS is responsible for the UK’s scientific activities in the region.
There are three stations in the Antarctic at Rothera, Halley and Signy plus two stations on South Georgia, at King Edward Point and Bird Island.
And there are two ice-strengthened ships – RRS James Clark Ross carries out oceanographic research while RRS Ernest Shackleton is a logistics ship used for the re-supply of stations.
BAS has a distinguished history of carrying out research and surveys in the Antarctic.
Its long-term observations have already revealed much about Antarctica, its wildlife and how the landscape is changing.
In 1985, British scientists at Halley first measured the ozone depletion of the Antarctic stratosphere.
To find out more about the British Antarctic Survey log onto antarctica.ac.uk
There’s plenty of wildlife to keep the scientists and support crew company.
The famous Emperor penguin colony lives nearby and there are Minke whales and Leopard seals. Birds such as the Snow Petrel pay them a visit, as do the less-friendly skuas.
‘We also get the occasional Adelie penguin who will wander onto base and hang around for a few weeks while shedding their feathers,’ says Ian Prickett.
‘A few seasons back after a particularly bad storm, all of the sea ice that the Emperor penguins live on was blown out to sea.
‘We woke the following morning to be greeted by a few hundred penguins wandering around base looking rather lost and wondering where all their chicks had disappeared.
‘Very sad but an amazing experience to have these metre-high birds wandering through the base.’