“Hello everyone. Beautiful day here today – make the most of it. Change is in the air – it’s almost something tangible at the moment – I know you can all feel it. It’s that feeling that I always get just before the plane lands or the ship appears, just before the year, experience, adventure ends. I hate it and love it at the same time. See you at the station meeting… Ali.”
One of Australia’s most experienced Antarctic station leaders has returned home from another successful season.
Her epic roll-call of deployments have earned Alison Dean an Antarctic Medal – she’s a 10-time wintering expeditioner, six of those with the Australian Antarctic Division over the last decade.
And, she has been Station Leader at all four of Australia’s Antarctic and sub-Antarctic research stations.
With the winter season coming to a close, as leader of Casey research station, Alison took a moment to write to her team. She knows from experience it pays to prepare for the upcoming changeover and return to the rest of the world.
26 expeditioners at Casey have been living and working together since March, including electricians, plumbers, carpenters, fitters and turners, boilermakers and a doctor, as well as the Wilkins Aerodrome team and weather observers from the Bureau of Meteorology.
On top of the always-unpredictable “A-factor” challenges of managing a diverse group of people living and working in the harshest, most isolated environment on earth – the COVID-19 pandemic struck during that time, adding an extra twist and leaving Antarctica as the last untouched continent in the world.
“Initially I thought it would be a short-lived thing – perhaps something like the bird flu epidemic or SARS,” Ali wrote in a response to questions for a feature article from SBS Dateline last month.
“Luckily the AAD and in particular our Polar Medicine Unit realised what this could potentially become. Usually it has been people looking at us in isolation – this winter it has been us watching the rest of the world.”
Leading by example
In dealing with a variety of challenges as Station Leader, Ali said the biggest thing was being able to rely on the team.
“Every year and season is different and I continue to learn… my philosophy is to try and lead by example,” she said.
“I don’t task others with anything that I’m not prepared to do myself – I like to have a go. I ask for help, I use my team and find out how to get the best out of them. Fundamentally I like people. I like dealing with people and their problems, even the awkward, the horrible and the sad.”
“There is something that binds you to your team when you share sorrows and joys. It’s like a family, although if they start calling me Mum I’m out of there. What is great about station life is that once you’ve established a cohesive community, it will withstand an awful lot.”
2020 Antarctic Medal honour and the journey to get there
Adding to her leadership recognition, Ali Dean was this year named as one of the recipients of the prestigious Antarctic Medal, honoured by the Office of the Governor-General for her “exceptional leadership qualities, especially during high-intensity operations.”
Now in her mid-60s, it’s a long way from her childhood in New Zealand (she used to say she was never going to leave) and life as a young mum at 18, before she became a geologist and geochemist – an expert in the chemical composition of the earth, rocks and minerals.
She still remembers the moment she spotted a job advertisement with the British Antarctic Survey, while working in Australia’s Northern Territory.
“I remember at the time I was sitting under a tarp waiting for a drill core. It was 51 degrees and I was exhausted from the heat,” Ms Dean wrote.
“The moment I read the advert I knew it was for me. I was uncertain about using my savings to go for the interview in Cambridge – I thought I did have a good chance so took the risk.”
During her time at Britain’s largest station, Rothera, there was an unexpected meeting of the visiting operations manager for the AAD, who suggested she apply for the Australian program.
That was back in 2010.
Taking it in her stride
While on station, Ali said it was important to maintain perspective with some time outside or a trip off station, as well as maintaining connectivity with loved ones – she speaks to her 90-year-old Dad every day on Skype – and to take time for the little things.
She said returning from Antarctica was always an adjustment and this year “all of us at Casey will have to feel our way in the new normal.”
But as always, she has a positive outlook.
“We have learned a whole heap of new ways to connect. I am so much more in touch with friends and family than I have ever been before. For my grandkids in the UK it will be a longer wait to see them – not too long I hope,” she said.
“I feel extremely privileged to have had the chance to work and live in the Antarctic. Every time I’m down here I think to myself to absorb and feel as much as you can because it might not be this way again and if you are it will be a different group of people with a different dynamic.”
“This place is where I feel relaxed and at home.”
The medal gives national recognition to those people whose participation in our Antarctic program has been exceptional in effort, scope or achievement and nominees are expected to have made a unique and significant contribution.
As an award in the Australian Honours System, there is no higher award for Antarctic service.
Nominations close on February 28th, 2021.