Why a polar medal?

In January 2017 I received notice that I was to receive a Polar Medal form the Queen. This is an honour that few people hear about and even fewer receive. It is given to a rather small cadre of people and each recipient will have their own story about why they might have been chosen. For me, of course, it was a complete surprise and delight to receive the news. I feel humbled to be joining the ranks of many of the people I respect most, from the greats of the age of polar exploration to former colleagues.

I had spent 14 years running a research programme in Antarctica from 1987 to 2001 and during this time I spent 12 summer seasons in Antarctica. Of course, the honour of receiving a Polar Medal is small compared with the honour of having spent a significant proportion of my life in what is certainly the most fascinating and unspoiled region of the planet.

My surprise at receiving the medal was mainly because I never thought I had done enough to deserve it, although my peers obviously think differently. I came relatively late to Antarctic travel and this meant I had never over-wintered in Antarctica which is, in my view, a mark of true personal sacrifice. By the time I spent my first summer there I was already married and had two young children. Communications in those days were still by short-wave radio and I was in a remote location. This meant my ration was 30 words per month to my family. The real Polar Medallists should be the partners and families of those who disappear in to the wilds of the deep south for months on end. I never had the guts to leave the family for more than 5 months at a stretch.

I truly loved my work (and still do). The science I was doing – on the structure and dynamics of the Southern Ocean as seen through the lens of the top predators (seals, whales, penguins and albatrosses) – was gripping and, at times wild. There was a heady mixture of high science and adventure. I was exploring the way in which large, charismatic animals manage their energy budgets in the context of a very big ocean which drives the climate of the planet. This was a lens through which I was finding out how to manage the inexorable exploitation of global resources. But in retrospect one never quite appreciates the moment and only now do I realise that I was doing something special.

My science was supported by the application of technology. Success in those extreme environments always depended at how new technology could be applied to opening new vistas of enquiry. For example, together with some colleagues, I managed to measure the metabolic rate of completely wild penguins as it changes every minute, and did this for a whole year using smart recorders. Over 20 years before they appeared as voguish wrist bands, I was implanting much smaller versions of these smart recorders under the skin of seals, penguins and albatrosses to look in to the private lives of these strange and enigmatic animals. In addition I managed to calibrate the amount of food humans can take from the ocean before it has an effect on those charismatic predators.

Why go to Antarctica to do this? The reasons are many, but fundamentally some things become easier to study in that location in spite of the distance, logistic complexities and isolation. The short food chains of the Southern Ocean mean that energy entering the ecosystem from photosynthesis is transferred very quickly to the predators like seals, whales and seabirds at the top of the ocean food chain. This means there is a super-abundance of these creatures in Antarctica. By studying how these animals are responding to their food supply we probably get a better indication of what is going on within the vast ocean than by using any other method. It was my job to calibrate this response to variations in energy flow through the Southern Ocean ecosystem. This was made so much easier by the fact that these animals were a dream to work with. Unused to people, they were unfazed by me as a researcher. I could achieve things that researchers elsewhere could only dream of.

Of course, apart from the excitement of the science, part of the reward was the opportunities to travel in places never before visited by people, and to spend time in a part of the planet where people are not the dominant force.

To illustrate, in 1987, I visited a hut on the southwest coast of the island of South Georgia. It had been abandoned by a couple of scientists when they were evacuated by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the Falkland’s war. I left a note on the table but when I returned 3 years later the note was still there and there was no evidence that anybody had been back in the intervening years, even in this relatively accessible part of Antarctica.

Most of my work was centred on a small island – Bird Island – at the west end of South Georgia. The coastal regions of Antarctica are rich in wildlife but some specific locations attract especially large numbers. Bird Island was one of these places.

The British Antarctic Survey had established a field station there a few years before I first arrived. Many of the great people who worked with me stayed there continuously for periods of 2 ½ years. These were all remarkable individuals none of whom saw it as a sacrifice to give up these years to spend time in such a sublime place.

Bird Island is like nowhere else on earth. An island only about 3 km long and about 1 km across, it was the breeding home for millions of seabirds and about 50,000 Antarctic fur seals, plus a few elephant seals. The huts in which we lived were located within a fur seal colony. This co-habitation had not been intentional but the colony had expanded to surround the buildings after they had been built.

Seals used to drape themselves over our equipment and supplies – often fast asleep – and if the front door was left open the fur seal pups would venture inside the hut. It was far from hygienic but this never seemed to affect us.

There followed studies of penguins, albatrosses, southern elephant seals and, later, ice-breeding seals in the deep ice fields of Marguerite Bay, the Weddell Sea and the Bellingshausen Sea.

I honed my skills of seamanship and flying, operating from yachts and in aircraft across the frozen expanses of the Weddell and Bellingshausen Seas, and jumping in and out of helicopters supplied by the Royal Navy and the US Coastguard. I circumnavigated three-quarters of the continent in the US Coastguard icebreaker Polar Star and I made pizza in the Drake Passage – perhaps the roughest stretch of sea on the planet. I also missed the first Gulf War almost completely. I knew something was happening but news was sparse. I have stayed in deep field camps on the Polar Plateau and flown down an ice canyon created by a massive iceberg hundreds of miles across when it broke away from the Antarctic ice sheet. I worked with big, dangerous animals which had the capacity to cripple or kill me in an unguarded moment. When my wife enquired about life insurance for me the broker just laughed.

If all this represents sufficient qualification for a Polar Medal, then I still feel undeserving – because I had great fun. But most who know me will recognise that it was in pursuit of a serious end point. I was living close to the edge partly for the fun of it, but also partly because it had a serious scientific purpose.

In spite of this, I left my Antarctic work behind because, amazingly, I needed a new challenge. This took me to working with another group of people to study beaked whales in the Bahamas – some of the most cryptic species on the planet – and cope with the politics of working with the US Navy on anti-submarine warfare, but that is another story.

Eventually, the thrill-seeker in me brought me to Defra. This great Department of State, with responsibility for delivering the food we eat and for sustaining environmental quality, is no less interesting than Antarctica with its millions of seals, penguins and other seabirds, and spectacular landscapes. But they are poles apart. My passion for science in Antarctica was largely driven by the idea that it was a place where people had little influence and therefore where large scale natural processes could be studied without this complication. At Defra it is all about people, managing their expectations and building better ways of living so that places like Antarctica – and the people of the planet – might survive.