Marine biologist - Jonny Stark

At age 13 or so, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I wanted to be many different things. I wanted to be a marine biologist (which I am!), a zoo vet, an astronaut, or an artist. At one stage I even wanted to be a professional surfer!

What town or city are you from?

I'm from Cronulla, a beachside suburb of Sydney. I grew up always living and playing near the beach or water.

What were your educational/technical qualifications when you first worked in Antarctica?

I had a Bachelor of Science degree (in marine science) and a Master of Science degree (in marine ecology), both from the University of Sydney. I also had a diver's licence, commercial diver's licence and boating licences.

What was your work experience before undertaking your position in Antarctica?

I worked at the University of Sydney for six years as a research assistant in the marine ecology department. I did a lot of scientific diving, field work and research all over Australia and even out to Christmas and Cocos-Keeling Islands. I have also done a lot of volunteer scientific work, mainly on the Great Barrier Reef, but also inland in remote desert areas. I have been involved in research on many animals, marine invertebrates, fish, sea turtles, birds, rock wallabies, snakes and lizards. I also worked for a year at a soil and groundwater remediation company, travelling all over NSW and Victoria.

Why did you want to go to Antarctica?

I have always wanted to go and work in Antarctica, as a marine biologist and a diver. Antarctica is a frontier place, full of adventure and excitement. I have long been fascinated by the Antarctic environment and its wildlife and wanted to see it firsthand.

What is your Antarctic experience?

I have done seven summers and a winter, all at Casey Station. I have visited all the Australian Stations and Macquarie Island. I have now spent about three years in Antarctic all together. I have done six dive seasons and over 200 dives in Antarctica.

What did you do in Antarctica?

I work as a marine biologist and I study many aspects of the marine environment, from how humans are having an impact on Antarctica through their presence (for example the effects of sewage), to how climate change might affect this ecosystem. I mainly study the communities of animals and plants living on the seabed. In summer this involves diving and working from boats. These communities are amazing, there is an incredibly diverse and colourful array of invertebrates like starfish, sea urchins, tube worms, sponges, sea cucumbers, seaweed and a few species of bottom dwelling fish. Its almost the opposite of what you see on land, where there is very little except ice and rock. Underwater there is a rich and complex ecosystem. I have also been involved in some snow petrel research.

I have had many station duties, including maintaining the hydroponics system and growing fresh vegetables, librarian, environment committee, cook and kitchen hand, brewing beer, fire team and search and rescue team.

What skills did you need to do that work?

I have been trained as a scientist, I need the skills to plan and complete scientific studies: organisation, problem solving, forward planning and scientific observation and experimental design. I also have extensive biology skills, identifying animals and plants, catching and preserving them, and many laboratory skills such as using microscopes. I also needed field work skills, extensive diving experience, extensive boating experience and the ability to work long hours outdoors in a harsh isolated environment.

What did you like most about living and working in Antarctica?

The beauty of the Antarctic environment, the amazing wildlife, the excitement of working in such a harsh isolated place and the comradeship you develop with the other people on station.

What was the scariest thing that happened to you?

I have had several scary experiences. A couple of them have been in small zodiacs. One time a huge leopard seal, the biggest I have ever seen, chased the zodiac and tried to get in. It kept following us for ages. My research assistant was terrified. Another time two huge bull Orcas (killer whales) swam right at the zodiac at full speed and swam only feet under the bottom of the boat. They surfaced right at the front of the zodiac and swam away. I think they were checking us out and warning us away from their females and calves. Another experience I had involved falling off a small cliff. I was doing a snow petrel nest survey on a steep rocky slope covered with snow. As I was traversing across a particularly steep bit I slipped on a thin layer of snow on rock and slid down a very steep embankment. I scrambled to get a hold but couldn't and I fell off the edge of a small cliff. Luckily I didn't fall very far and landed on snow, completely unhurt but a bit shaken.

What was the greatest challenge for you?

Coping with the isolation and loneliness, away from family and friends. It was also very challenging to organise the research program and all the equipment and materials I would need and for other scientists in my program as well. My first season was very challenging in terms of having to organise and complete a scientific survey in a short time under difficult conditions. Since then the field work has been very challenging because it is so physically hard, it is extremely tiring diving day after day for months in freezing conditions. But after many seasons what I find hardest is being away from my family and friends and living in a small, isolated and tightly controlled community.

What did you miss most about Australia?

I miss my family and friends most. While away on one trip I missed my brother's wedding, my sister having a baby and the death of my grandmother, all very significant events in my family life. I also really miss surfing, swimming and warm weather.

What was the most striking thing you noticed when you returned from Antarctica?

The first time I returned I really noticed different colours like green trees and different smells. I also noticed how many people there were and how busy life was, especially in Sydney. The traffic in Sydney freaked me out!

Do you want to go again?

Yes, I would love to go again. I would like to see and work at other stations including those stations run by other countries.

What do you think should happen to Antarctica in the future?

Antarctica should remain protected, as a place for scientific research and international cooperation, and as the last great wilderness. Mining and other development should be avoided. I think eco-tourism is a good idea, but it should be done in a way that doesn't harm the environment. It should definitely become a whale sanctuary, where whales are safe from hunting. Whaling should be banned in Antarctica and everywhere.

This page was last modified on July 2, 2014.