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Helen Czerski: oceanographer


Helen Czerski, 33, is a physicist, oceanographer and co-presenter of BBC Two’s Operation Iceberg. She lives in Southampton.

"Waking up on a ship in the middle of the Antarctic isn’t particularly normal, but it’s the way I’ve spent more mornings than I can remember. As a research fellow at Southampton University, my job can take me anywhere from the Pacific coast of North America, to the island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic. I study bubbles and what makes them break apart and join together, which helps develop new climate and weather models.

On location – normally a boat somewhere in the middle of the sea – I’ll get up at about 6.30am. However, when I’m at home in Southampton I don’t even set an alarm. I let my body dictate how much sleep it needs. When I do wake up, normally around 8am, I assess what needs to be done that day. My university duties include experiments in the lab, keeping up to date with research in my field and managing funding for projects.

It’s a far cry from my routine when I’m on a research trip. The only way to really study the ocean is to go and look at it, so if I’m not at the university, I’ll be bobbing about on a boat praying for stormy weather as it generates bubbles. I’ve been thrown across the deck of a ship on more than one occasion.

On ship we wear full fishermen’s oilskins and insulated trousers as the temperature drops as low as -6°C. You can normally tell if it’s going to be a bumpy day because the soup we have for lunch gets thicker as it gets churned up by the movement of the boat. If the weather is really bad, we’ll get out the non-slip mats and do our best to hold on tight.

Most recently I travelled to Greenland to film Operation Iceberg, BBC Two’s upcoming documentary about the life cycle of Arctic icebergs. There were 27 of us in total, including scientists, presenters, safety and production crews, and we spent three weeks camping on the rocky outcrop of a glacier. It was like a little village. Everybody knew everybody’s business so you’d wake up in the morning and know who had gone out to track the Arctic fox or who had gone for a hike up the mountain.

Living in 24-hour sunlight was not easy, but if you stick to a routine (and use a sleep-mask) you can get by. It took ages to do anything though. If I wanted to wash my hair – which I did about every three days – I had to trek uphill half a mile with a bucket to a lake, wash and rinse my hair, and then pour the dirty water downhill so it didn’t contaminate the lake. But vanity wasn’t an issue. It couldn’t be. Not only were there no mirrors, if I turned up for the camera looking like I was about to walk down a catwalk (when in reality I’d just come out of a tent and hadn’t had a proper wash for two weeks), it would look odd.

On the same trip we also spent a few weeks on a boat next to a huge iceberg. We couldn’t camp out on it because there were so many polar bears and the fog was so thick. The bears are hard to see in those conditions, and the last thing you want is to be on the ice and have a polar bear poke his nose out of the mist 10 yards away. We had to ensure that we had at least 200 metres of visibility at all times, and had people on constant polar bear watch.

My Southampton life is often so hectic, that I really relish the quiet time I have when I’m away filming or doing research. In Greenland, I’d often get up early to bake bread for the rest of the crew (using our makeshift ovens and supplies we took out there), and I’d sit on my own in front of the glacier kneading it for hours.

Spending so much time at sea means there’s lots of time to think about what’s important in life, so back at home I now refuse to do any work in my evening downtime. I make an effort not to look at my laptop or answer any emails but my head will be buzzing after a busy day. So I’ll come home, cook something healthy and simple like chilli or lentil soup and do some crafts: knitting, making accessories or lacquering wood. I try to get a decent night’s sleep (although never enough) and normally head to bed at 11pm."

Operation Iceberg is on BBC Two at 9pm Tuesday 30 Oct and Thursday 1 Nov



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