You heard it here first: An unofficial history of Britain in Antarctica


Dog-sledge team

30 November 2012

Formal records are generally silent about the human details of events, the things that really bring the past to life. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) oral history archive gives a new view of the British endeavour in Antarctica.

The archive focuses on the period from the first continuous British presence there, during Operation Tabarin in 1943-45, to the present day. It includes testimony from a wide variety of people, including those who served the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS) and BAS. The bulk of this collection is the work of the ongoing British Antarctic Oral History Project (BAOHP), which so far has 200-plus audio and video recordings.

These recollections of men and women who worked in Antarctica give a unique perspective on the social, scientific and political interactions of their times, the development of polar science and technology, and the hardships, triumphs and eccentricities of everyday life in one of the world's most hostile environments. For all the audio clips abridged below, and many more, visit the BAS oral history project webpages.

Petra Searle, map officer Directorate of Overseas Surveys 1953-60, BAS 1984-88

"Women didn't go further south then, it just was not done. Sir Raymond[1] was from the heroic age, women stayed at home and waited for their men to come back again. Women didn't start going south certainly until Bunny[2] had retired. I think probably Dick Laws[3] was against it as well actually."

John Huckle, FIDS 1946-62: Falkland Islands and Dependencies Aerial Survey Expedition helicopter pilot 1956-7

"We were sending a surveyor to the top of Tower Island by helicopter, and the helicopter as it came in to land stirred up a great deal of loose powder snow which gave the pilot a whiteout and he unfortunately missed his landing. And the helicopter overturned and of course was smashed up. Later on there was an inquiry into what had caused the crash. The colonial secretary asked the surveyor, 'What did you think when the helicopter overturned as you landed?' And the surveyor said, 'Well, it was the first time I'd ever flown in a helicopter and I didn't know quite what to expect, but it did seem a bit peculiar when I found myself hanging upside down.'"

Halley team

Halley team in 1971

Richard Taylor, meteorologist 1954-56

"The most wonderful thing - the most joyous thing - was the actual beauty of the place, and the physicality of it. I can still remember now those times when you had really marvellous, perfect sledging weather. You had this deep blue sky, this whiteness everywhere, you're on the sea ice, it's crisp you can just skim over it. And around you this wonderful fjorded coast, these magnificent 6000ft peaks all around us. And you had the dogs, so excited too. The exhilaration and the purity of it was just magnificent. And all the petty little squabbles were totally forgotten - this made it all absolutely worthwhile."

Alan Wright, surveyor 1961-62

"I had one experience on [Mount] Bransfield - I lost the tent. It is bad weather up there, you're in the cloud very often and you can't see any detail. I went out to feed the dogs and then went to the toilet, and I lost the tent - completely! Luckily by then I knew how you could make the dogs howl, so I worked my way upwind and howled, which I hoped would set the dogs off. Then I went downwind until I picked up the sound of the dogs, so I could go back upwind to the dogs and then I found the tent."

Peter Robert 'Bob' Bond, RAF pilot seconded to BAS 1960-63

"There was quite a sizeable cargo area [in the Single Otter aircraft] and you could get a dog sledge in there with dogs either side quite happily. If you needed to transport a dog team we put the sledge in first then tied the dogs down either side of the fuselage so they couldn't get at each other - huskies love to get at each other. We would have the lead dog up front with us. He'd sit between the pilot and whoever else was up front, tied to one of our seats, so he could sit up there and keep an eye on them. And that suited his status, he was something special. We turned the heat up full and generally speaking they went to sleep, which was nice."

Stuart Lawrence, ship's master 1970-2003

[Unrest on BAS's main supply ship RRS Bransfield, during the Falklands conflict.]

"Everybody was wound up, it's not surprising that they were. I was woken at about midnight to be told the whole ship was being taken over and they were going to sink her in the narrows in the entrance to Stanley Harbour. They'd got somebody in the engine room who was on their side, and it was all definitely going to happen. So I sat them all down and said, 'OK, let's talk this through. But before we do that, anybody want a drink?' So I got a case of beer out and everybody had a beer, then another case of beer and everybody had a beer... By the time six o'clock rolled round I'd sat there for about six hours, with my brandy and my cigars, letting them have their say, and we continued on our way rejoicing."

Julian Taylor and Alan Precious 1954-5

"Ron Mottershead and I built - I don't know what you would call it - a dog's urinal. We did it with sheet metal, a sort of big square funnel with a grid on top and the dogs were supposed to stand on the grid and do a wee wee, which would be collected underneath in a suitable vessel. Only the dogs wouldn't cooperate... No and you complained bitterly when I boiled the faeces... So the next thing was to hang around with a bucket of some kind and when they cocked their leg up at the base of the hut you collected it as it came out, and gave it to Julian."

An albatross with a satellite tag attached to its back

An albatross with a satellite tag attached to its back

John Croxall, BAS bird biologist 1976-2006

[On noticing a drop in albatross numbers in the 1980s.]

"We got a bit of an alarm call - the albatrosses aren't doing too well. Our first thought was: is this something to do with us? We were studying them fairly intensively, disturbing some colonies on a daily basis. We quickly set up controls - areas where we didn't go - and found actually: no - it didn't seem to be us. We then started to look at the ringing recoveries. We knew these species migrated to Australia and New Zealand as we had ringing recoveries from there since the 1960s in the BAS archive; now we were getting a completely different pattern - all these birds reported from fishing vessels, many in the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean. So something completely strange was happening.

"That led to the recognition that it was a problem to do with fisheries. And we started to team up with other people, who had been on fishing boats and seen albatrosses being killed. We had data on population-scale impacts and enough data on marine recoveries to make at least a plausible case. From that we felt, not only did we have a huge responsibility to document this, we actually had some responsibility to fix the problem."

[On the best walk on Bird Island]

"That was the walk I never tired of doing, even though every morning, and particularly on a Sunday when you had the hangover from hell, you had to go up 250m of pretty steep climb to get off the base - up the slope to go down to the interior of the island. But then this panorama opens up and you've got this wonderful short-sward grassland flanked by tussock, with screes to the left and this wonderful view out to the Willis Islands and the ocean on your right. The whole of the meadow is just full of wandering albatross. There's this huge macaroni penguin colony, you can hear it - it's like a football crowd, as you came over that ridge the crowd applauded! If it was a blue day with icebergs in the background you'd sit down, you couldn't keep walking you just had to stop and take it all in. It was just such a magnificent spectacle, still a view to conjure with."

Vicky Auld, physicist and base commander 1997-2008

[At Birmingham University] "A BAS man came and gave a lecture - I'd just seen a poster and thought that looks pretty exciting. I had a word with him after that talk and he said, they're not actually taking women down there for any physics-based work, so come back in a couple of years and see what we're doing. That was 1994. There were women doing summers, but it was the wintering positions I was interested in."

  1. Sir Raymond Priestley became Director of FIDS in 1955. He had been a geologist with Shackleton in 1907-09 and with Scott in 1910-12.
  2. Sir Vivian Fuchs, first Director of FIDS.
  3. Richard Laws, Director of BAS 1973-1987.

The BAOHP is a collaboration coordinated by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) and involving BAS, BAS Club, the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) and other funding partners.

A detailed database and access to all archived items is available through the BAS Archives Service - external link. The service holds a unique resource of physical and digital collections, including scientific data, maps, administrative records, publications and artwork. A list of interviews and audio clips held by the archive - external link - is available online.
Email Ellen Bazeley-White or Joanna Rae at .