The Vernadsky scientific base – a handful of grey huts surrounded by penguins in Antarctica – was once home to some of the world’s most important climate science. It was here, in 1985, that British scientists did some of the key work to discover the hole in the ozone layer. But today, it’s home to something altogether different: the closest thing Antarctica has to a rock star, a 44-year-old long-haired Ukrainian geophysicist called Bogdan Gavrylyuk.
“Here it’s a special place for writing songs,” he says, standing in his laboratory, where musical instruments are propped up among the scientific equipment. “We’re like prisoners, locked up for 10 months in the cold. Alone! But it creates a special mood. Possibilities!
Nothing can prepare you for the strangeness of Antarctica
“I write all kinds of songs: about pirates and gangsters; about sailors hard at work; about the salty, sweet taste of kisses; about hope and love. I can’t write about those things back in Ukraine – there’s too much noise.”
When you visit Antarctica, music isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. One of the most striking things about it is its very lack of sound. There are no revving cars, or people barking into mobile phones. There aren’t even trees for the wind to rustle. You only hear sounds in snatches – when you stumble into the middle of a penguin colony, or the ice cracks and sends part of a glacier plunging into the ocean. That silence may seem obvious: Antarctica is the world’s last wilderness, a continent of over 5.4 million sq miles (14 million sq km), almost all of it under ice. But nothing can prepare you for the strangeness of it.
Music is, however, a surprising constant in Antarctica’s history. It’s been crucial to every exploration that came here, providing the most vivid link home, and it’s just as crucial today for the few thousand scientists who work hear in the continent’s summer (in winter, the population drops to around 1,000).
You only have to read the accounts of the original polar expeditions to realise that. Captain Robert Falcon Scott, for instance, took two gramophones to the continent for his final, tragic expedition, when he reached the South Pole, but never made it back to camp. “It was usual to start the gramophone after dinner,” writes Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of Scott’s party, in his memoir of the trip, The Worst Journey in The World. “It is necessary to be cut off from civilisation and all that it means to enable you to realise fully the power music has to recall the past, or the depth of meaning in it to soothe the present and give hope to the future.”
Music provided comfort to Scott right up until his death. “We are in a desperate state, feet frozen, etc. No fuel and a long way from food,” he wrote to a friend on one of his final days. “But it would do your heart good to be in our tent, to hear our songs.”
There are many reports of sailors singing to penguins
It is not only at moments of desperation that music appears in such expedition records. There are many reports of sailors singing to penguins, for instance. The chicks especially would waddle curiously towards the sound, although God Save the King apparently sent them “headlong into the water.”
Today, scientists rarely sing to the wildlife. But music still plays just as important a role in people’s lives. At the Vernadsky base, Bogdan gives impromptu concerts on Saturday nights, mainly on guitar, but sometimes using a piano he made in his lab (probably the only instrument built on the continent). He used to be in a rock band before becoming a polar scientist. “But our bassist was sent to prison and I came here. Antarctica’s not a good place to find band mates.”
Antarctica’s musical life changes depending on which base you visit. At Argentina’s Almirante Brown station, beneath a mountain in the aptly-named Paradise Bay, they only listen to metal. “One time each week, we get to clean and cook,” says Nano Donna, a 25-year-old researcher who has been measuring the salinity of water to ascertain how quickly glaciers are melting. “We call it ‘Being Maria’ or ‘Being Pedro’ and when it’s your turn, you get to pick the music. It’s the only time you get to make yourself really feel at home.” Nano has few other links back to his family when on the continent as he’s only allowed a five-minute phone call every fortnight.
The only other music that gets a look in, he adds, is Argentina’s national anthem. The scientists sang it when they arrived and they sang it a few days before I visited. “We thought we were leaving earlier than expected,” he says. “So we all got sad and went up to the top of the mountain, got a bit drunk and sung it as loud as we could. Then we slid down.
“Do you know our anthem?” he asks. “It’s very loud and quick, like metal.”
If there’s one scientist who is moved by music as much as the original explorers, it’s a bearded, trucker cap-wearing American called Logan Pallin. He works at the US’s Palmer Station, a luxury hotel compared to the other bases, complete with streaming internet and a hot tub.
Logan became obsessed with classical music as a boy thanks to his grandmother’s record collection, and soon took up the oboe (“It seemed a bit more masculine than the flute,” he says). He then sang tenor and even tried to teach himself several string instruments. He became so obsessed by classical music, in fact, he left university to move to Italy and try and make it as a composer. “I lived in a villa on a vineyard, drank a lot of wine and wrote a lot of music,” he says. “That was great time, until my parents were essentially like, ‘You’ve got to figure yourself out, otherwise we’ll cut you off’ – you can’t make much money yourself busking oboe in a street – so I went back to university and signed up on a trip to study pilot whales off the coast of North Carolina.”
Logan is now a marine biologist, which means he goes out in a boat every day looking for whales and monitoring their behaviour. “There’s nothing better,” he insists, his eyes widening to prove it. “It’s been a slow year. We’ve only seen 18, but a few days ago, we were out and it was a beautiful day and we sort of dozed off onboard, and we suddenly woke to the sound of a whale breathing five feet from us.
“We looked out and it just came up and spy-hopped – lifted its head out and looked right at us. Then it swam under us and around us, and dragged its fluke across the bottom of our boat. I didn’t take any photos. Moments like that you don’t want to.”
Logan deals with the endless waits for whales by putting on headphones and blasting opera – Pavarotti in the Barber of Seville is a favourite. He’s even rigged up a car battery to his iPhone so it never runs out of charge. “Can you imagine listening to something like Pavarotti out here in this landscape?” he says, waving a hand out towards some ice bergs, each of which has seals lazing on them. “It’s the most amazing, exhilarating feeling. I’m very lucky.”
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