Not many people can say they’ve spotted a killer whale sailing through ice caps whilst at work, but Rhea Barnett is an exception.
The 28-year-old University of Newcastle student has just returned from the adventure of a lifetime to Antarctica, where she journeyed aboard the Aurora Australis as part of her studies in Physics.
“It was so peaceful,” she said.
“You just go out there and it’s completely silent. You can look one way and there’s the ocean, and then you turn the other and it’s just white and completely flat… I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Rhea was responsible for calibrating the magnetometers on Casey Base, which are owned by the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Space Physics, with whom she is completing her Honours year.
“Most days I was up at 4 or 5 o’clock, because generally the quietest times magnetically were local mornings… You’d get this constant twilight phase where the sun didn’t quite set it would just skim across the horizon and light up the icebergs in this pinky-orange hue – it was surreal.”
Initially, she and her colleagues were supposed to stay at base for eight days, however weather conditions meant they extended their time to 10.
“We had a couple of days where the wind was gusting at 60 knots, so the ship actually had to leave and come back… You couldn’t actually walk against the wind. You would try and move your leg and it wouldn’t go anywhere, it was that strong!”
Not only did they experience gale-force winds, but the large swells caused a few rattled nerves and turned stomachs.
“We had one day where we were tipping at 40 degrees the swell was so huge. It was the day after we had our Christmas and New Year celebration, so there were a few people that were a little bit under the weather!”
Rhea travelled with around 30 other people, including a plankton researcher, a researcher monitoring pollutants in ice, and drone operator. After a total of 30 days at sea and on land together, tight knit bonds formed between the travellers.
“Everyone was really nice. I think when you spend that much time with such a small group of people it’s hard not to end up close. Everyone had really interesting stories and of a night time people would do presentations so you could see why they were on the Aurora.”
Rhea’s work at Casey Base helped to ensure the maintenance of the magnetometers, which are measurement devices used to store and send data from their location. Having developed her love for science later in life and followed an alternate pathway into the University of Newcastle, Rhea is happy with the direction she’s headed.
“To be able to get out and do something a little more practical and more hands on… that was a really good experience. It has just made me realise just how much I do love doing Physics, and how many opportunities there are in this field.”
Now with her feet firmly back on Newcastle soil, she’s already lusting after the next adventure.