Celebrating midwinter on one of the coldest places on earth comes with a set of traditions that have evolved over more than 100 years.
- Antarctic expeditioners celebrate the solstice by cutting a hole in the 2-metre-thick ice and jumping in
- After thawing off, they enjoy a lavish feast throwing back to the time of Mawson
- Temperatures in Antarctica around mid-winter can get down to -60C
After weeks of living without sun and enduring temperatures of around -20 degrees Celsius, Antarctic expeditioners are more than ready to celebrate the shortest day of the year.
That means a subzero swim in a hole cut in the sea ice and a feast of epic proportions.
Electrician Lisa Wilkinson has spent two winters in Antarctica and says the winter solstice celebrations are better than Christmas.
“From probably a couple of weeks beforehand, the excitement just starts to build,” she said.
“There’s not a lot else at the time to look forward to because it’s dark and you’re just working so it’s a real event, it’s a real beacon.”
Like the current expeditioners wintering in Antarctica, Ms Wilkinson embraced the -2-degree dip.
“The first time, I said I would never do it again because it is freezing cold and it takes your breath away but of course I did it the second time,” Ms Wilkinson said.
A 3×4-metre pool is cut into the sea ice.
Long chainsaws and ice drills are needed to cut through the 2m-thick ice.
Chef adviser Noel Tennant took the plunge in the 1990s.
“It’s as painful as it sounds,” he said.
“Some people bear it better than others. I know when I did it, I just used a lot of profanity when I came out.
“Some people do tend to linger. I don’t know how they do it because they’re just wearing budgie smugglers or a bikini so you’ve got no thermal protection at all.”
Atmospheric physicist Dr Andrew Klekociuk said the water temperature was not as cold as the air temperature.
“The air temperature can be around -20 or -30 sometimes … the water is much warmer, it can be just on -1 or -2 degrees — it’s close to the freezing point of seawater.”
Caviar, crocodile and ostrich are all on the menu
The stations are equipped with saunas where expeditioners thaw out before embarking on the next part of the Antarctic midwinter tradition — the feast.
The feast can be traced back to when Mawson and his team dined on penguin and tinned mushrooms.
These days, the menu is more lavish and less lethal to the local wildlife.
He said chefs at the station had special items in the freezer and pantry ready for the feast.
“Caviar, a little bit of sashimi-grade blue fin tuna from Tasmania, some specialty meats, crocodile, ostrich,” he said.
“It’s a meal that would often live in people’s memories for years and even decades after they come home.”
It’s also a chance for expeditioners to dress up.
“Both of my midwinters I put a dress on and I’ve got some photos somewhere of doing observations down at the power house in my dress and beanie and big coat,” Ms Wilkinson said.
She remembers wintering in Antarctica particularly fondly, it’s where she met her husband who was working as a diesel mechanic.
“We got to know each other and I think that being down on the station you really get to know people so well,” she said.
“Especially different people of different walks of life, so you may not get to know in your normal day to day and it was just something that was completely unexpected.”
Like the rest of the planet, the coldest time in Antarctica comes after midwinter — in August or September.
“At our stations, -30 degrees is not uncommon, places like Davis get down to -40,” Dr Klekociuk said.
“Occasionally, once you get up onto the high plateau, the air thins and it gets much colder, so South Pole, -60.”
He said the South Pole did not see sunlight for six months of the year and the sun did not really rise at the Australian Antarctic Stations for several weeks around midwinter.
He said the clear winter air meant auroras lit up the sky over Antarctica.
“It’s not often that you have such an experience isolated from the rest of the world in an amazing place,” he said.