People have been visiting Antarctica for over a century—and hosts Caitlin Saks and Arlo Pérez can actually see what living there used to be like, because some of the early explorers left all their stuff! One of the earliest expeditions was that of Robert Falcon Scott, from 1910-1913, more commonly known as the Terra Nova Expedition. (No, they didn’t name it after this YouTube Channel.) Its “home-base” hut is still intact: desiccated penguin, seal blubber, science experiments, and all.
Today, living in Antarctica is a bit different. But still, an eclectic band of scientists and support personnel are drawn to the continent and, every year, a crew makes their home on “the ice.” Starting at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station and then while exploring Antarctica’s natural wonders—glaciers, a volcano, Weddell seals, and even weird fish—Arlo and Caitlin meet the people who find themselves in Antarctica year after year.
But will they be able to discover what it is about this icy, seemingly inhospitable place that’s so alluring to geologists, astrobiologists, and waste managers alike?
Published: February 26, 2020
Caitlin Saks: I’m sorry—is this real?
Michael Jackson: Yeah, that’s real. It’s a dessicated penguin... that’s a 100 year old penguin, yeah. Dead penguin.
Caitlin: That’s disgusting. And you guys left this in your museum?
Michael Jackson: [Laughs] We don’t judge.
Caitlin: Some of the earliest antarctic explorers lived here between 1911 and 1917.
Michael Jackson: Things are pretty much as intact as when they left. It’s kind of hallowed ground for explorers. You see how fast they departed and how they left everything behind.
Caitlin: This was the true age of exploration.
Arlo Pérez: Robert Falcon Scott aimed to be the first to reach the South Pole… and his team made this hut their home base.
Michael Jackson: They were very much interested in science as well as exploration.They had all kinds of experiments here: meteorological, biological, and geological observations.
Caitlin: Scott actually made it, but a Norwegian beat him there, and then he froze to death on the way back.
Arlo: Living here was pretty rough.
Caitlin: Seal blubber! Gross…
Arlo: And in some ways, it still is.
Caitlin: But, despite its hostility, people are still drawn to this desolate continent, today. What is living here like, now? Who comes here? And why?
Caitlin: Alright, fresh bagels, guys!
Arlo: While living in Antarctica for a month, we experienced basically two very different lifestyles.
Arlo: I set this up all by myself.
Arlo: One in the remote field camps...
Arlo: I’m pretty proud.
Arlo: The other in what residents affectionately call “The Town”—McMurdo Station.
Caitlin: This 105-building stationwas established in the 50s… and today houses around 900 people in summer!
Arlo: And it’s got just about everything: Dorms, offices, a hospital, fire station, waste treatment plant, weather office, vehicle maintenance shop and 24/7 pizza.
Caitlin: If you’re going to get a slice of pizza 20 minutes before dinner time, I’m at least going to shame you about it…
Caitlin: And it’s all here to support science. Stuff like research on penguins, seals, volcanoes, climate science, weird looking glaciers… even fish.
Caitlin: McMurdo provides logistical support for science across Western Antarctica and the South Pole.
Caitlin: But most people in this town, aren’t scientists.
James VanMatre: Oh man, this is the best place in the world to be a trashman! No flies, no rats, nothing rots. You know, it's frozen, doesn't even really stink.
Arlo: They are the people who handle the trash, they’re the cooks, the mechanics…
David White: Without us, without support people, there would be no science. You need this big population of seven hundred to a thousand people to support maybe 300 scientists because you've got to get them more they need to go, you've got to get their equipment, their food, their water and so forth.
Caitlin: They’re essential for the science to happen. But a lot of them never even get to leave the station... which looks and feels sort of like an aging mining town. So, it’s hard to see on the surface what’s so appealing about this place.
David White: People either come down their first season and say That's it." It's a bucket list thing and then they never come back and there's others that just come back year after year after year. It’s either just out of curiosity, or adventure, or they just get into the community and stay with the community. I never thought I'd be doing this. I left a pretty good job to come down here. So, you know… And I stayed. I keep coming back.
Caitlin: What was your previous job?
David White: I worked on a space shuttle. Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
Caitlin: No kidding! Space shuttle to snow mobiles?
David White: Yeah, I know it’s kinda…
Caitlin: That’s really…You must really like it down here.
Arlo: In a way, McMurdo kind of operates like a college campus… all of your basic needs—like meals and housing—are taken care of.
James VanMatre: You can do more with your social time here than anywhere else in the world because you're not buying groceries, you're not buying gas, you’re not paying bills. I see more live music here than I do almost anywhere else, and then I get to eat 3 meals a day with eight of my close friends, you know?
Arlo: In the few weeks we spent here, we found that the bottom of the world is actually a pretty social place.
Person at lunch table: There’s a lot of people who come here to escape people. It’s not that great of a place to escape people honestly.
Caitlin: And it turns out, on a continent where there is no cell phone service… you get to know people on a whole different level.
Caitlin: Arlo, who was your teenage crush?
Arlo: Hilary Duff
Person at lunch table: Oh!
Caitlin: A Baby!
Person at lunch table: It’s okay!
Caitlin: While McMurdo station may be the social and logistical hub of Antarctica, the science it supports can happen in much more remote and isolated environments.
Krista Myers: Probably the first thing you’ll notice once the helicopter goes away is how quiet it is. It’s like absolutely just super quiet out there. You really are out there with just your team.
Caitlin: This is where we encountered the second Antarctican lifestyle.
Arlo: Out in remote field camps, you often live in a tent, cook your own food, even poop in a bucket and bring it back to town.
Krista Myers: You will be pretty amazed at how gusty it can get out there. Yeah, you’ve got to keep your wits about you. You can’t put anything down on the ground without expecting it to blow away at any moment.
Arlo: On the ice, you have to watch out for deadly hidden cracks. And of course, it’s freezing cold and windy.
Britney Schmidt: It's a strange environment to want to go and spend months away from everyone you know and everything you know in the pursuit of something.
Caitlin: In addition to completing their work—whether that be scientific research or logistical support for that research—the teams have to… well, survive. and the environment makes everything exponentially harder.
Britney Schmidt: Nothing ever works exactly how you want it to. And so there's all these different challenges, the technology for us is always a challenge. We had a software glitch... we actually really don't know what happened. So things like that.
Peter Doran: Working here is like going up the down escalator. You have to push a little bit harder or else it’s just gonna push you back down again. And so, things are breaking all the time. It’s cold so things snap. Things freeze up. You have to make that extra push in order to make things work.
Peter Doran: Time to get serious.
Arlo: There we go.
Jill Mikucki: But why do science unless you absolutely love what you're studying? I mean it's so consuming sometimes. I think you have to be really passionate and really enjoy it because this is grueling sometimes, this is really grueling. So I think you have to have the love…
Caitlin: But, despite the challenges—or perhaps because of them—comes an addictive sense of satisfaction.
Peter Doran: But I always tell people it becomes more and more like work all the time.
Peter Doran: And that's just a joke. It's not true.
Krista Myers: Ha ha ha.
Caitlin: I don’t get it.
Peter Doran: It's...it's not more and more work all the time. I still enjoy it. I actually enjoy bringing new people down. You know, and then you see how they react, right?
Caitlin: We came to Antarctica to report on the research being conducted down here… but the people we met, were just as fascinating.
Peter Doran:There's something about remote research that really appeals to me and I don't know what it is…
Britney Schmidt: It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, in the most beautiful place I could imagine.
Caitlin: It’s a bit less dangerous than it was for the first explorers. And there’s a lot more support. but this place still has a powerful allure.
Britney Schmidt: They say that when you shake the planet all the weird stuff falls to the bottom. I guess I’m one of the weird ones.
Hosted by Caitlin Saks and Arlo Pérez
Digital Producer/Editor: Emily Zendt
Producer: Caitlin Saks
Digital Associate Producer: Arlo Pérez
Field Director/Cinematographer: Zachary Fink
Executive Producer: Julia Cort
Coordinating Producer: Elizabeth Benjes
Project Director: Pamela Rosenstein
Production Assistance: Matthew Buckley, Emily Pattison, Sean Cuddihy
Audio Mix: Heart Punch Studio
Director of Audience Development: Dante Graves
Senior Digital Producer: Ari Daniel
Audience Engagement Editor: Sukee Bennett
Outreach Manager: Gina Varamo
Special thanks to Michael Amundson
Special thanks to the United States Antarctic Program
Additional Footage: Brad Herried / Polar Geospatial Center
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020