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Seals on ice by sea

Bottom of the World {format} {format} 7:44 Scott Carrier

Life doing dishes in the Antarctic.

Broadcast: Jun 20 2005 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Antarctica Subjects: Acoustic, Technology, Science, Labor, Travel

Profile: Decision by a woman to take a job in Antarctica

June 20, 2005 from Day to Day

ALEX CHADWICK, host: This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

By the calendar, tomorrow is the first day of summer and the solstice marking the long days of sunshine in the Northern Hemisphere. But at the bottom of the world, it's winter, and at the very bottom, in Antarctica, the sun has not been seen for months and it won't be back until sometime in September. From somewhere within that long night, writer Scott Carrier discovered a Utah woman with a story of how she found her way in life by finding her way to Antarctica. Here's Scott.

SCOTT CARRIER reporting:

Perhaps the most efficient way to introduce Penelope Chilton is to say she's the only person I have ever met who can make me feel like I'm on acid just by standing next to her. She used to work in a CD shop here in Salt Lake City, but I went in there one day and she said she was leaving town, that she wanted to change her life and didn't know how except by going far away. So she'd taken a job as a janitor in Antarctica. When I asked her why Antarctica, she said she'd been there once before on a sightseeing trip with her mother and had fallen in love with a whale.

Ms. PENELOPE CHILTON: I felt like I had made the best friend of my life. It was this animal that you're typically afraid of--whales seem like they're scary creatures--and it was playing with us. It was like a little child, diving underneath the boats and blowing right next to us. We could practically reach out and touch it. And it was totally innocent and had no idea our potential as human beings and was not afraid at all. I felt like that whale felt about me the way I felt about him.

(Soundbite of wind)

CARRIER: She left in September, flew to Hawaii, then to New Zealand, then to McMurdo Station on the frozen coastline of the Ross Sea. It's a base managed and supported by the National Science Foundation, a place for scientists to eat, sleep and stay warm when they go down there to study the ice, the atmosphere or the marine ecology. Besides the scientists there is a support staff--cooks, dishwashers, forklift operators, electricians, janitors--who take care of the base, a place that looks like a mining camp on a frozen asteroid.

Ms. CHILTON: I was told that it was a rather ugly town, and it is a very ugly town: brown buildings, green buildings, metal sidings, you know, lots of cargo sitting outside, mill vans everywhere, fuel tanks. It's not an attractive place as far as the town itself goes. The buildings are really, you know--so they leave something to be desired.

CARRIER: As a janitor, Penny was pretty sure she was the lowest-paid employee at McMurdo. She worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, cleaning up after everybody.

Ms. CHILTON: On an average day, I would start in a dormitory. I would vacuum, scrub bathrooms. It's just--you know, you're cleaning up after a thousand people, and a thousand people who don't really care about the fact that you're cleaning up after them. So--oh, somebody shaved their facial hair on the toilet so the toilet essentially had a beard and all sorts of other gross habits that people have--snot on the walls and puke on the floors and--strange. That guy who shaved his beard on the toilet--I mean, come on. Why do you do that?

(Soundbite of laughter; music)

CARRIER: Besides the tough job and low pay, living at McMurdo was kind of like living in a prison, when it comes right down to it; close quarters, constant surveillance.

Ms. CHILTON: You know, stateside in most jobs, you go to work and whether you work 10 hours a day or eight hours a day or whatever, you have the opportunity to go home and not take your work with you. Whether you do or not, that's something--you know, that's different. But when you're living in McMurdo, it's like you're living inside the corporation and everything you do is managed and watched. And, for example, we had a rash of people throwing up in places that--you know, besides the toilet or a garbage can. And because of that, people get punished by their employer, you know. It's weird. It's a strange feeling to be completely watched at all times by your employer.

(Soundbite of wind)

CARRIER: So life inside the base was harder than Penny thought it would be, but she was willing to put up with it for the simple reason that every morning, she woke up in Antarctica, and every day when she was done with work, she got to go outside.

Ms. CHILTON: It was--in the summertime, it was very pink and blue, light blue, but there was always just a tinge of pink that held over the Royal Society Mountains. And there'd be these nacreous clouds that were just these pastel rainbow colors that seemed as if they were moving, but those clouds weren't moving at all but the colors within the clouds were moving. And it was just the most beautiful feeling. You're out there in the middle of the sea ice and you know you're on top of water, you know. And there's maybe 15 feet of ice separating you from the Ross Sea, and it's just so quiet and so lonely and beautiful.

CARRIER: In the summer in Antarctica, the sun never sets. For three months, it circles higher and higher in the sky, and then for three months, it spirals back down to the horizon. Then it sinks below the horizon and disappears for the winter, six months of darkness. All the scientists and most of the staff at McMurdo go home for the winter, leaving a skeleton crew of 200. Penny had a choice to stay or go. Everyone has the choice. There's a flight out in March and then there's no plane coming back until September, at the earliest. So if you stay, you have to try not to get sick or hurt and you have to maintain your sanity. You have to live with artificial light trapped in a big metal box while the wind blows a hundred miles an hour outside.

Some people develop T3 syndrome, a hormonal imbalance causing depression, irritability, anger and forgetfulness. Penny chose to stay, but she was worried.

Ms. CHILTON: You know, I was--by the time February hit, I was completely done with summer mentally, and I thought, `God, I don't know if I can make it through the winter, you know. I'm sick of this. I'm sick of being a janitor and I'm sick of all of these people.' And nobody knows how they're going to handle total darkness. You just don't know. And that's kind of a scary feeling when you don't have that immediate access to transportation and you can't leave.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Penelope Chilton, and helping her tell her story, writer Scott Carrier. Tomorrow, Scott continues this story as Penelope faces six months of winter and the last plane leaves McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

Ms. CHILTON: What if I was one of those people who couldn't handle it? God, that would be the worst feeling to know that I couldn't hack it.

CHADWICK: Penelope Chilton in Antarctica. Her story concludes tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Life is delicious. There's the pool, and when I'm swimming through a tunnel I shut my eyes.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.