The Effects of Sleep Deprivation in Antarctica


First of all, sleep and I have always had a tenuous relationship.  It’s elusive, it’s bothersome when I want to do other things, it feels so good once I surrender to it.
Secondly, this season has been marked by a 500% increase in hours clocked with our eyes closed.  Which has been awesome.  And which, for now, is over.

Kevin and I have taken on the night shift, known in Antarctica as midrats (short for midnight rations) until Christmas.  This means that we, with three other janitors, work from 10pm-8am, cleaning the main building (155) and Crary (the building where all the science takes place).  While we hadn’t planned on ever working as midrats (this is one of those Antarctic lingo terms that serves as a noun, an adjective, etc.), we’ve already started seeing its benefits.  The day before we began transitioning, we stood in line for fifteen minutes for a dollop of salsa at lunch.  The galley had officially become a madhouse.  Now our dinner has about 25 people spaced out to only a few people here and there at tables.  It’s almost silent, and it’s awesome.  Cleaning in Crary is also proving to be quite the experience, as we now get to talk with scientists and see their experiments and research in process.

But I won’t lie, I’ve done a whole lot of whining the past week.  Transitioning is rough.  We got a couple of days to completely shift our sleep pattern, as we would now be waking up 15 hours later than we were used to.  While some people pined after the four day “vacation” we were embarking on, it felt more like amateur torture hour.  Every night we had to stay up as late as possible, which resulted in a lot of rather loopy and bizarre adventures.  We watched movies, tried to be creative and productive, walked around station, played basketball, etc.  We even went to the gym at 4am after almost 24 hours of being awake and “worked out” as a desperate measure to stay awake just a little bit later.  We had a lot of goofy fun laughing at things that exhaustion illuminated as hilarious.  I also discovered that I become vulgar and rude after 20 hours of being awake.  Growing up, I was told innumerate times by both my mother and grandmother that swearing is for people who aren’t creative enough to think of a better way to express themselves.  So, I rarely swear.  But at that 20 hour mark (and Kevin will certainly confirm this), the profanities let loose.

When we did actually sleep, it was broken and brief, like those nights where you lay there and feel like you never slept but rather just thought about sleeping.  In the dramatic haze of it all, I started to feel like I had been sentenced to never sleep again.  The Worst Thing.

Getting back to work has helped even us out.  We’re still dropping asleep like little narcoleptic goats as soon as we get out of work, but we’re making it through the night and it feels slightly more normal every day.  But, do be warned, if we sound a little odd this week with a higher proportion of run-on sentences than usual, now you know why.

Wandering around outside at night, trying to stay awake, we examined statues and other things we wouldn't normally have time to stop and look at. This is a statue of Richard Byrd, one of the early Antarctic explorers.

Rummaging around in the craft room with a completely loopy brain, this flock of tiny, marble-sized chicks seemed like the greatest discovery ever.

Seeing the Ob Tube for the first time feels a little bit like you've suddenly been dropped into an Antarctic version of Mario Brothers.

A late night picture, making the faces of how transitioning makes us feel.

The sun is now officially up all the time but for a few hours in the middle of the night, it dips low and rolls along the horizon like a giant blazing bowling ball. People on day shift don't get to see these glorious colors anymore, but we've been relishing them as we walk between buildings.


As station continues to get busier and busier, the need for 24-hour operations has arisen. Because of this need, Liz and I ended up transitioning to the night shift for a portion of the season. Our schedules turned completely upside down, but we were given two days off in order to adjust ourselves properly. This happen to coincide with a day off we had saved up, and our weekly day off. The result of this was almost four consecutive days off, something that (with the exception of sick leave) is almost unheard of in McMurdo. Our time off left us to try and stay up as late as we could every night, therefore providing us with the need for enough stimulation to keep us awake and to keep pushing us into the wee hours of the morning.

We spent hours in the station craft room, me painting our new “Daysleeper” sign, and Liz painting pictures of a cat’s butt, finding a flock of miniature chicks, making “relationship bracelets” and sewing envelopes made from pages of a high fashion magazine. We went to the store to rent movies. Liz picked a film by Wes Anderson. I choose Hayao Miyazaki. We spent time outdoors hiking the surrounding hills above McMurdo. We watched the final sunset and sunrise of the season, occurring just before 3am. The brilliant orange ball dipped below the white horizon for less than six minutes before lazily curving up to resume its low crawl across the southern sky. We walked to Hut Point, where we witnessed the remains of a seal birth. Dull red blood stained the ice connecting the hole she created to breech the surface, and a melted out, seal-shaped basin where she had lay to give birth. Upon initial glance, the whole scene appeared murderous. We paid a visit to the “Ob Tube,” a marvelous apparatus recently erected off of the shore of Ross Island. A hole is drilled into the ice, and a large steel pipe is inserted into the seawater below. At the bottom of this pipe is a viewing compartment, large enough for a person to fit into.

Looking like something out of a video game, the mint-green pipe opens to reveal a ladder leading down into the darkness. As you climb down, you begin to feel the constraining space and the oppressive darkness take hold of you. Soon the pipe opens into the viewing compartment, and the surreal blue glow of light filtered through the ice envelops you. Your eyes, adjusting from a landscape of sun and snow, begin to see through the dark water to notice the signs of life in the frigid depths. Hundreds of inch-long, semi transparent fish come into view. A matte-white jellyfish floats above the sea floor below. The unearthly sounds of seal calls suddenly seem deafening in the sound-conducting waters. You try to pinpoint what direction the sound is coming from, but the water and the echo in the tight viewing chamber make it seem like the sound is coming from every direction at once. Finally, you notice a large shadow moving briskly in the distance, an oddity in the otherwise slow-motion world of Antarctic ocean. Without blinking, you struggle to follow its movements. Then, it breaks the darkness, and the blimp-like stature of a Weddell Seal approaches you. Its puppy-like face scans the waters around it, twitching whiskers and beady eyes looking for a quick snack before it again surfaces for more breath.

The surreal nature of these events was accentuated by four day’s worth of sleep deprivation. Staying up until 5 or 6 in the morning, sleeping until 11 or so, then trying to function for another four hours before staggering into a long nap, then repeating the process again and again. Once work started, the transition became easier. Having 10-hour’s worth of tasking to complete makes staying awake, as well as getting solid sleep, much easier. All and all, it is another set of new experiences in Antarctica, which at the end of the day, is the ultimate reason any of us are here to begin with anyway.

Find the weirdo. Click to enlarge.

The last sunset.

Birth on the ice.

The view from under the ice, in the Ob Tube.

Poppin' out to take a peek.


4 thoughts on “The Effects of Sleep Deprivation in Antarctica

  1. ooo…that observation-tank thingy sounds AMAZING. i would probably vacation in antarctica just to be able to see that kinda stuff underwater/underice. (for now, i’ll live vicariously through you guys! haha)

    those sunsets look incredible! i’m glad you got to share them together. 🙂

  2. Laughing my head off in the computer kiosk about the narcoleptic goats and the little chick choir. Transition purgatory, here I come. Your blog is getting better and better! I love it!

  3. which one of you is mario and which one is luigi? i would give kev mario, not because i think he’s the the main attraction necessarily, but he’s a red man. liz, you’ve got green vibes too. not in a envious way, just in a cool ass nature way. anyhow, i’m the princess.

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