Veterinarian - Raina Plowright

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

Since I was 9 or 10 all I wanted to do was be a vet. I liked playing around with horses, and at about 15 I became interested in wildlife conservation and thought I would like to work with endangered species.

What town or city are you from?

The Dandenong Ranges in Victoria.

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

I had finished my third year in vet science at uni, and had taken a year off to get experience in wildlife and research.

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

In my year off I worked with seals and possums in New South Wales. I had worked in Vietnam, in difficult conditions, helping set up an overseas study program. And I had a lot of outdoor experience, particularly in cross-country skiing and bushwalking.

Why did you want to go to Antarctica?

My interest in Antarctica started the year before I went. I attended a slide show given by someone who'd just come back. I couldn't believe the beauty of the environment and the abundance of wildlife. And then unexpectedly the opportunity to go as a vet assistant came up! It seemed to me to be a chance to have the ultimate experience - to work in a wild isolated place, somewhere with very little interference. Back in Australia, even in the most remote places, you find feral animal tracks or weeds - but Antarctica is amazing, so untouched and pristine.

What is your Antarctic experience?

Spring Marine Research voyage in 1995 (including a round trip to Mawson and Davis).

What did you do in Antarctica?

I assisted two veterinarians with anaesthetising crabeater seals, collecting samples from them and deploying satellite dive recorders. I also helped with the aerial and ship-board population surveys of pack ice seals.

What skills did you need to do that work?

A general knowledge of the administration and monitoring of anaesthesia, and emergency procedures. A basic experience of anaesthetising mammals and collecting and analysing samples, and some knowledge of pathology.

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

For me there were three aspects:

  • The people were such a ball of fun. It was such an intense experience, living and working with people with very similar views but such diverse backgrounds (tradies, cooks and crew as well as scientists) but there was a real feeling of togetherness and community. I formed lifelong friendships in just a few weeks.
  • The work was great but we worked very, very hard, for long hours over a short period, because we only had this short time to collect data that would be analysed over 12 months.
  • Just being there was amazing. Every time I walked outside I was absolutely awestruck. I couldn't believe I was there. I would think, 'Wow! I'm in Antarctica!', and most of the wildlife was very curious about us with no fear of us, no fear of terrestrial beings at all.

What was the scariest thing that happened to you?

Nothing really happened to me. When we were working on the trawl deck one day, one of the vets struck her head on a large metal hook and almost lost consciousness. It made me realise how isolated we were, that it would take two weeks for anyone to reach us. I could actually feel the thousands of miles of isolation.

What was the greatest challenge for you?

Getting so cold. When I was doing the seal surveys from the top deck of the ship, it was absolutely so cold, and so hard, especially the last 15 minutes of the one hour watch when your fingers and toes were aching. Once I tried to run up and down the deck to keep warm until a crowd of people from the bridge underneath came out to see what the noise was.

What did you miss most about Australia?

I didn't miss much. But I kept imagining the feeling of sun and wind on my skin, and of being immersed in water.

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

The first thing I noticed on the night before we got in was that the clouds became very grey and moist and full, and there was a warm moist smell in the air, a very potent scent, almost as if there was a bunch of leaves and flowers under my nose. And then when I was back there seemed like there was concrete everywhere, and only tiny patches of grass. I got really sore shins from walking! The first night back I went out and so many people seemed to have sad faces (and yet Hobart is gorgeous).

Do you want to go again?

Oh yeah! It's all I could think about when I got back, but I felt I should finish my degree first and then go back. But the further away the experience, the less important it becomes, and I have a job now. It gets harder the older you get, and the more commitments you have.

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

It should absolutely not be exploited for its natural resources. It should basically be preserved as a national park. It's important to conserve one area of the world. We have encroached on, and done a lot of damage to, everywhere else.

This page was last modified on January 23, 2014.