Meteorologist - Christine Spry
At age 13 or so, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a veterinary surgeon. I did well at school in biology but not in chemistry and physics.
What town or city are you from?
Suburban Sydney, Melbourne and Sydney again as a child and teenager.
What were your educational/technical qualifications when you first worked in Antarctica?
I have a weather observer certificate from the Bureau of Meteorology (they do their own training). I started that work in 1986 and before that I was a pathology technician in hospital and veterinary laboratories. For that work I did courses for a TAFE Pathology Technician's Certificate and a TAFE Biological Technician's Certificate when I left school.
What was your work experience before undertaking your position in Antarctica?
I'm employed by the Bureau of Meteorology to do this same work back at home and I worked at weather stations at remote locations.
Why did you want to go to Antarctica?
My grandmother and my mother would never have had a chance to go to Antarctica and I would hate to think that I had an opportunity after very limited experience and did not take it up.
What is your Antarctic experience?
I was at Davis in 1991, Macquarie Island in 1992 and 1994, Mawson in 1996 and Casey in 1998.
What did you do in Antarctica?
Weather observers keep a log of data such as temperatures, wind speed and direction, pressure and pressure changes, weather description, snow, blizzards etc at three hour intervals. Twice a day we release a balloon with a transmitter tied to it which sends back temperature, pressure and humidity values every 10 seconds until the balloon bursts at about 28 kms up - about 90 minutes after release. It's a GPS transmitter so we get wind data as well. We do work for other agencies and at Casey we collect air samples for CSIRO for their clean air monitoring program.
What skills did you need to do that work?
Apart from job training, the work I do needs a lot more effort in Antarctica because it's much colder and I have to do things at set times so if there is a blizzard I cannot wait until the wind dies down. The snow outside the balloon shed is usually 1.5 metres high and I spend a lot of time digging it clear so that I can get the balloon out. Looking after the shed itself is a constant job as we cannot let the doors freeze shut or freeze in place while they are open. As the first work duty is at 7am and the last at 11pm most of the work is in darkness for a big part of the year. So I need to be able to feel my way around Antarctica in the dark and I am really, really skilled at using a shovel.
What did you like most about living and working in Antarctica?
I work with people who have a variety of job skills and who are happy to show you their work place and what they are doing. I can also be an assistant to scientists who need unskilled labour like mine in their work so I get to be involved in what they are doing. Also, when I am here I never have to worry about boring things like where I left my car keys and whether I have locked the doors and windows at home before I go to work etc. That is a real luxury. These days with the Internet we have contact with school students who are interested in Antarctica and I really enjoy being able to share it with them and tell them about this special part of the world.
What was the scariest thing that happened to you?
I was riding a quad (like a dune buggy) over sea ice and crossing a tide crack which had frozen over and looked solid. The back wheels dropped through. I was able to climb over the handlebars and winch it out using stakes on the ice. It was an awful feeling to feel the back wheels sink and see the front wheels go up in the air. No doubt there were times when worse things happened and I did not know about it. At home if you see one snake when you are bushwalking, there are probably five that saw you. I am sure it is the big openings in the ice that are covered with snow which you walk over without seeing that would be the scariest thing... if you only knew about it.
What was the greatest challenge for you?
I really feel the cold and I just have to accept that I will be cold for a long time. That does not mean that I would not want to go to Antarctica. It just means that I would not want to live in Alaska.
What did you miss most about Australia?
I look forward to experiencing familiar colours, smells, sounds, textures. I always enjoy seeing trees when I get back because they represent it all - lovely earthy tones, texture of bark, light filtered through the leaves and throwing shadows and the sound of wind in the leaves. I miss routines like spreading the Saturday paper on the lounge floor and reading it.
What was the most striking thing you noticed when you returned from Antarctica?
Traffic is so close to you. Standing on the footpath near the edge of the road I feel as though cars are at the end of my nose.
Do you want to go again?
Yes, I would always want to go again so that I do not go home knowing that it was my last trip. But there are other things to do as well. It is nice to think that maybe I will get to go again.
What do you think should happen to Antarctica in the future?
I would not like to see mining or something like that in Antarctica but eventually the resource of greatest value will be fresh water. Tourism is inevitable and that is a good idea. It should be an experience available to everyone but tourism should all be ship-based so that no more structures are built here. That would go a long way to minimising the impact of people in Antarctica.