• Matt Sykes

Antarctic Division – Voices of Regen #13: Mark Savage

Words & Photos by Mark Savage


I’m Mark Savage. I grew up in Melbourne and lived there until the end of high school when I went to a regional University. Since then I’ve lived in the Blue Mountains and travelled a fair bit. Eventually I settled in Hobart, and Tassie feels more like home than anywhere else. Most of my work has been in the outdoors, either school based outdoor education or guiding. I’ve spent more than 30 years rock climbing and mountaineering both in Australia and around the world, and in 2017 headed south for my first season in Antarctica. I’m employed by the Australian Antarctic Division as a Field Training Officer which is a fancy way of saying I’m a public servant. The AAD sits within the relatively new Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. I’m currently at Mawson.

A Typical Day in Antarctica?

There is no such thing as a typical day, which is one of the appealing things about my job. My primary role involves training expeditioners in survival and travel skills, providing Search and Rescue training, and leading trips which are more isolated, or require technical skills. These trips can be operational, for science projects or recreational. My other role over winter is in our warehouse building where cargo, food and other supplies are kept. Everyone on station also performs numerous other roles; all required to keep the station functioning. Anything from helping our chef in the kitchen, cleaning communal spaces, keeping our hydroponic plants happy and healthy. Even brewing beer.

We typically work a five day week, with Saturday mornings consisting of station duties, training, or perhaps finishing up some work. Weekends provide a chance to get off station, although if the weather is poor it’s a good excuse to catch up on a book, call home or watch a movie.

Photo 2: Waving goodbye to the Aurora Australis and the start of a year in isolation

Insights on Nature & Climate Change

One of the first things you realise in Antarctica is how big it is, and conversely how small we are. It’s a really stark landscape of rock and ice and snow. Lichens and a few mosses are the only permanent lifeforms. All the rest - penguins, other birds, seals and whales - are seasonal visitors. It has made me appreciate how resilient and well adapted they are to survive here, but also how vulnerable they are to impact and change.

I was asked by a school student if I’ve seen the effects of climate change in Antarctica, and as one individual it’s really impossible to say. Elsewhere there are glaciers or permanent ice routes I have climbed in Ecuador, the USA or New Zealand that have shrunk or disappeared within my own lifetime.

Studies have found micro-plastics in Antarctic sea ice and sadly the suggestion is that it came from local sources. It is a reminder that despite the best intentions and practices to minimise our environmental impact, humans inevitably do impact. It is a reminder for me to try and make my own environmental footprint as small as possible, and to carefully consider the choices I make.

Photo 3: Emperor penguin rookery

Spirit of Collaboration & Community

There are nineteen people who call Mawson home this year. The majority of roles are trades, essential for keeping the station functioning; plumbers and electricians, diesel mechanics and carpenters. We also have a doctor and a chef, weather observers and a station leader. People come from a wide variety of backgrounds and it’s important to be able to get along harmoniously.

We are also part of a larger community of Australian and international stations, as well as the AAD and scientists back in Australia. It’s great to be able to contribute to long standing science projects, gathering data on sea ice thickness, taking census photos of Emperor penguins to monitor population size and breeding success, or maintaining remote cameras. In my previous season we supported an ice core project as well as a study on a nearby glacier.

At a larger level we are part of the Antarctic Treaty which seeks to conserve and protect Antarctica and promote shared science.

What connects us? There are some common elements; a sense of adventure maybe, an appreciation of the environment, the ability to endure a long, isolated existence. For some it might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but others who keep coming back there is something about the place that captivates.

Photo 4: Mark contemplating a jade berg

A Message of Care

How do I distil my experience down to one message?

For a start I’m reminded of how the lives we live, and the decisions we make ripple far beyond that which we perceive. If we continue to live lifestyles that contributes to climate change then the effect is felt not just by ourselves but the entire planet. It’s easy as one person to feel insignificant, as if our actions really don’t amount to much; but they do.

We can also share our stories and our experiences with others. People need to understand and care if they are to make changes to how they live. Very few people get to see Antarctica, but if I can connect with others and share that connection then hopefully others will care about this place as much as I do.

For more information on the Australian Antarctic Division go to:

Photo 5: Adélie penguin rookery

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