[Oral history interviews, Antarctic Reunion, Part 2]
Find out more about this item:
Interviews done by Matthew Leonard in 2002 for Antarctica NZ and Radio New Zealand on the experiences of New Zealanders on the ice.
Stan Whitfield is interviewed at the Antarctic Reunion 22 June 2002. He has a background in electronics his career started with an apprenticeship in Radio engineering, he moved onto TV and then he worked in industrial medical electronics. He has always held an interest in Antarctica. In 1980 a friend suggested he went down to the Antarctic and his application was accepted.
Whitfield’s first stay lasted for 13 months. As a science technician he was responsible for weather observations and the New Zealand representative for the International Mount Erebus Science Survey project. He was a part of a team which also included technicians from the U.S. and Japan involved in the installation of highly technical seismic equipment. Whitfield says the Japanese technician and he communicated through sign language and voice intonation, he would call him “Mr. Stan from Scott Base”. When located on Mount Erebus the team had to keep one eye on the weather so they didn’t get caught in a Southerly.
Whitfield says his wide spectrum of experience within the electronics field, his interest in both movie and stills photography and background in first aid set him in good stead, “You have to be multi-skilled to go down there”. Training in Tekapo included the psychology tests by Tony Taylor who used them as guinea pigs for analysing the psychology of living in isolation. These tests included individual interviews with ink blot and shape tests as well as a voice recording as a means of analysis.
In response to how he coped with the winter months Whitfield says it didn’t bother him as he kept busy and regular hours. Though as Medical Officer he kept an eye on others who may have shown signs of depression. People would take down hobbies, visit McMurdo base for ten pin bowling and watch videos. Whitfield was interviewed by the American Navy Medical team for four hours in regards to isolation psychology and taking his advice on the importance of ‘getting out and about’ changed regulations to allow staff to leave McMurdo base. People really look forward to spring and the return of sunlight. Whitfield says, “I think you can safely say that human beings are solar powered animals”. He believes his experience in the Antarctic has increased his tolerance, confidence and self-reliance.
The technical contribution
In 1980 Bob Thompson was director and he made it clear to the three of us who were in the laboratory that they were the nucleus and the reason Scott Base was there and everybody else was support people for that. This attitude has changed, it has become more political with the presence of a lot of countries only down there for potential energy exploitation. They need a foot on the land to lay claim, if the time comes, there is no genuine interest in science. Whitfield describes how he was aghast when two National party politicians visited the base and described their ideological economically driven plans to exploit Antarctic resources. He was absolutely stunned by their attitude. His work involved weather observations, study of the Ionosphere, processing and reading film, and the Mount Erebus project, which because it was unique had a high profile.
There were a few problems between people on the ice, some years the team knit together and would end up seeing each other for life, other seasons when the plane landed in Christchurch everyone would just go their own way. The highlight of the winter was the mid-winter dinner and mid-winter air drops. He used to attend weekly church services, held at the Chapel of the Snows and took on the role as organist. He found keeping regular hours, getting up and getting to bed at routine times, was what kept his sleep pattern healthy.
Stan would love to go back to the Antarctic because he finds the work fascinating however it would depend largely on the group involved. Each time he returned to New Zealand it would take him six months to find another job. You can save if you live frugally but most people don’t go down for the money, it’s about being involved in something exciting with interesting things to do in the environment. Some people go to experience the Antarctic, the general duties staff for example come from all walks of life and often give up highly skilled trades just to go there.
Michael Brown is interviewed at the Antarctic reunion on 22 June 2002. A retired Anglican Priest, he was the Dean of Wellington and in the course of his career was Chaplin to the Antarctic Research programme of New Zealand. He was brought up to read of the great heroics Scott and Shackleton, “… which fills the inner mind with all sorts of visions and hopes and opportunities that might come”. He explains they always had that issue of the men that struggled and achieved and failed. An idea of Antarctica held the imagination.
On his first trip to Antarctica in 1977 he experienced the old base and on his second trip in 1982, the new one. He describes the differences between the buildings in terms of structure and infrastructure. Brown was brought on board to assist the Antarctic Research programme as an independent body to deal with anyone that had problems associated with the isolation. The purpose of his role was to provide an outside entity, one able to move between the authorities but not answerable to them, someone outside of the employer/employee relationship. He paid intermittent visits to ice and was able to mediate between family in New Zealand and personnel on ice. Many of the Antarctic Research programme people were retired army officers and as an ex-Territorial Army Chaplin he was able to able to offer that support. In terms of isolation Brown likens being in Antarctica to being on the moon.
He says it is the most amazing place, so vast and the vastness is enhanced by the fact there’s no water vapour in the air which creates this clarity of space, and illusion with distances. He quotes Morris Conley, who painted pictures of Antarctica, “You think you could climb Mount Erebus on a Sunday afternoon and after you’ve gone a couple of hours you realise you’re not all that far from home and there’s too far to go”. He says it is the immensity of the place that gets you immediately.
Leonard poses the idea that within the context of Christian religious belief there is so much within the historical narratives of Antarctica that resonates in terms of the notions of sacrifice and service and wilderness. Brown is in agreement and describes travelling to Cape Royds by dog sledge (which now is never to be repeated) to visit Scott’s Hut which became a journey into history. Everything was the way it was, with joints still hanging on the wall and tins and bottles just as they were. Brown said he was taking photographs of the interior and included a quick shot of the photographer, Herb Ponting’s darkroom by just opening the door and snapping into the darkness, unaware of what was actually in the picture. On his return to Christchurch he viewed this negative and noticed there was a cross lying on a table and a box to the side with A.H.S. on it, he recognised this arrangement as an aumbry. From here he found out that in the [Ross Sea Party of Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic Expedition] there was a Chaplin named Arnold Patrick Spencer Smith who arrived on the Aurora in 1915 to accompany the team laying depots across the Ross Ice Shelf. Brown says this created a personal connection to the Antarctic for him and he went on to research the story in detail.
Brown explains that ‘Antarcticans’ are a breed that you’ll never find anywhere else; totally individualistic, totally committed to their own vision, of achieving their goal but have a heart of gold, if you were in trouble for instance they would surrender their life to save yours. For an ordinary person like himself, he says to meet these people is a unique thing, they are a breed epitomised by the Hillarys and the like but there are acres of them.
Brown describes the second time he went back to Scott’s Hut specifically to research the Chaplin’s history, he wanted to take a service employing the A.P. Spencer Smith’s Chalice, pattern and stole acquired from a relative. He set up the Chapel which was no more than eight by eight feet wide, with the curtain, cross and sanctuary lamp in the customary way and had the most amazing experience. For the 25 minutes of the service the whole place changed, it came alive, living with a presence which made their hair stand on end, an experience that lasted the length of the service. Following the service he made sure everything was returned to its original position, back to being a museum and it is this timeless dimension that the Antarctic provides. Although he is conscious of the past he also recognises the Antarctic as a place of living truths, a site of revelation. Brown remembers for instance one scientist discovering water that had been separated from the ocean for thousands of years and his relative excitement in finding what was contained in that water was extraordinary.
Brown talks briefly about the trauma associated with Erebus accident, for which he took the memorial service in Christchurch Cathedral the following week.
Reference number 235562
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
Ngā Taonga Korero Collection
Interviews (Sound recordings)
Leonard, Matthew, Interviewer
BROWN, Michael, Interviewee
National Radio (N.Z.) (estab. 1986, closed 2007), Broadcaster
Date 22 Jun 2002