Isolation advice from Antarctic scientist

antartica
REMOTE ENVIRONMENT: Lincoln Mainsbridge enjoys some downtime with a group of emporer penguins while working in Antarctica. Picture: Supplied

This isn’t the first time Lincoln Mainsbridge has faced a long stretch of isolation.

The Bureau of Meteorology senior weather observer has gone on eight trips to one of the most isolated environments on Earth, spending anywhere from eight to fifteen months at a time at Antarctic research stations.

He said the key to staying sane is to find ways to entertain yourself, whether that be through reading and watching TV shows, or through finding ways to stay social.

“People who need a lot of external stimulation can tend to struggle,” he said.

“I would say that you should try to keep in contact with the ‘real world’ as much as possible, through speaking to friends and family. Now, with the internet, you have the rest of the world at your fingertips.”

Not all of his advice is applicable to those facing periods of isolation for the first time due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, he recommends at the station that anyone struggling should go and see the icebergs and the emperor penguin colonies.

But other tips are universal. Primarily, keep it light and when you’re feeling down, do something fun.

“Play Monopoly, or watch a humorous movie,” he said. “They also recommend a routine is good, if you’re able to do that that’s great. Stay in contact with people: it doesn’t have to every hour of every day, just contact someone to let them know you’re still alive and then the next day contact someone else and see how they’re doing.”

“And with the joys of the internet, you can reach out and organise to all watch the same movie at the same time, even if you’re in different houses. As long as it’s something fun that you would enjoy.”

There are between 14 and 25 people generally based at a research station in winter, often trapped indoors for long stretches when the weather gets too ferocious. Blizzards with sustained wind speeds of over 110 km/h and snow reducing visibility to zero would keep the group confined for long periods.

“You end up becoming a family for a year,” he said.

“They recommend you have tolerance to a point, but not infinite tolerance. You can be yourself, but you can’t be an idiot. And a sense of humour is vital.”

For those self-isolating with people, the collective of scientists would provide a model for staying occupied: he said they have fancy dress parties, port and cheese nights, movie nights, murder mysteries, and board games when they are confined to the base.

“You just need someone to take charge and organise it,” he said.

And then there is the flipside to isolation: coming home. For Mr Mainsbridge as well as being able to smell Eucalyptus – any kind of plant life – again, the suddenness of being around lots of people can be confronting.

“It’s like walking around now, there’s hardly anyone,” he said. “But then in six months time or whatever it is everyone will be back outside again and there will just be people everywhere.”

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