Medics view of ships stuck in ice and life as a polar medic

Dr Andrew Peacock, Medical Director of Expedition & Wilderness Medicine (Australia) writes about his interesting polar season as a ships doctor on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Polar medicine

I write at a latitude of ~59º South onboard the Australian Icebreaker “Aurora Australis” as it  steams at 12 knots northward toward our destination of Hobart, Tasmania. It’s been my home for 15 days. The Southern Ocean continues to be kind to us as we enter the ‘furious 50’s’ having passed through the ‘screaming 60’s’  in only a small swell. My fingers are crossed that it stays this way! The ship rolls and bucks still though and many passengers have retreated to the comfort of their bunk to watch movies on various computer devices while snoozing intermittently with a little help from 25mg of Promethazine, my preferred sea sickness remedy.

This ship left the Australian Antarctic Division’s Casey Station in Wilkes Land, East Antarctica 48 hours ago after a complex and protracted resupply and refuel operation that was interrupted by a 2 week mission to evacuate myself and 51 others (the logistics team, scientists and paying passengers) from the Akademik Shokalskiy, a chartered Russian vessel that was beset in ice on December 23rd toward the end of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). To read about its background and aims go to

The media focus on the event was intense but that perhaps spoke more to the typically slow ‘news’ period at Christmas and New Year than to a genuine interest in covering what was happening in a rational and informed way. There was enough initial concern about large icebergs moving within the pack ice near the ship to require a request for help to be sent by the Russian Captain to maritime authorities. Once that immediate danger had thankfully passed, for those onboard, it was a case of sit tight and celebrate Christmas Day and New Year in the usual fashion while enjoying a unique environment. Each day was a case of  wondering what would transpire next as authorities canvased options and made and changed plans.

On January 2nd a helicopter from the Chinese Icebreaker, “Xue Long”, that was unable to forge a path to extricate the Shokalskiy, was used to shuttle us across a vast expanse of glittering pack ice to the Aurora which had been dispatched from Casey. It was a thoroughly professional operation conducted in good weather and all of those evacuated are very thankful for the help that was offered, especially in light of the considerable inconvenience to the Chinese and Australian ship timetables and missions in Antarctica.

I was employed and paid to be the AAE Doctor by a climbing friend, Greg Mortimer, one of Australia’s most lauded mountaineers. We climbed Manaslu (8163m) together in 2002. I have been fortunate to work around the world in diverse remote environments and never work in Expedition and Wilderness Medicine for free. I take a dim view of operators who lean on doctors to undertake a lot of responsibility without adequate recompense for that, other than the offer of “a free trip”. As an experienced polar tourism operator and Expedition Leader Greg was tasked with running the logistical operations for the science leaders who proposed and arranged funding for the trip.

In such a remote location prevention is far better than cure with regard to medical misadventure. A rolling ship, slippery with ice on the outside areas is an environment to be taken seriously when older, less stable individuals are part of the passenger list. Add a well stocked bar to the situation and you have a recipe for disaster. Sea sickness aside, there were no other medical issues of significance on our journey south from Bluff in New Zealand to the white continent. On a sunny evening at the fast ice edge however, while most expeditioners were off the ship watching the delightful Adelie Penguins cavorting about, a 70 year old woman took a tumble on a flight of outside stairs. She was aware that one too many glasses of fine New Zealand Pinot Noir accompanied her lunch and wisely decided that wandering around on the ice was not a smart move so she stayed on board to watch from afar. Unfortunately that prescience didn’t extend to limiting her movement on the deck! Luckily a fractured clavicle was her only injury when clearly the result could have been much worse. There are no options for effectively and quickly treating and/or evacuating a traumatic brain injury that far south.

In addition to Expedition Medical, A&E and GP locum work I have a passion for Adventure Travel photography and as usual…and deliberately…in these situations I ‘morph’ into the Expedition Photographer, giving instruction and talks on photography to the clients. I find that being an Expedition Doctor can be a thankless task because I’m only useful when things go wrong and nobody wants that to happen so it helps to have another useful skill to add to the mix that can benefit others. Combining the two pursuits – medicine and photography -  has always stood me well as a way of getting some great images in remote environments. To see some of my  photos and commentary about the AAE have a look at these two National Geographic website posts:

Access to an excellent Inmarsat communications system and the presence of social media savvy science leaders onboard played no small part in enabling the media attention that the AAE garnered – both good and bad! For my part it became a way to share images from all aspects of the expedition – not just the ‘rescue event’ – with a worldwide audience. Because we needed to point the Satellite modem skyward a tent was lashed to the top deck of the Shokalskiy and from this cozy little media hub I uploaded images while being battered by gale force winds.

I subsequently received an email from a press agency and negotiated with them an contract to provide exclusive photos of the helicopter rescue. It was a fun but challenging process to be ‘in the field’ shooting a dynamic and quickly unfolding event knowing I had to be ready to leave on the 4th helicopter load and I hadn’t expected the transfers to occur so quickly. I photographed the first evacuation, rushed back to my cabin, downloaded the images, selected an edit, quickly processed the RAW files (my preference) and then rushed again to the bow of the ship where I had set up the satellite link and uploaded the photos into a shared Dropbox folder. It all worked really well.

In five days we will reach Hobart and I’m looking forward to our arrival, it’s a wonderful city with some nice watering holes. Have I mentioned this is a ‘dry’ ship?!! It’s been a fascinating expedition, one with many twists and turns and I look forward to other interesting journeys as an Expedition Doctor in the years ahead. Coming up in March though I am excited to be running the inaugural EWM course to be held in Austra

Antarctic Wilderness Medicine Conference

lia [insert link here]. It promises to be a fun, educational and active four days in the beautiful world heritage listed area of the Blue Mountains just outside of Sydney. Then in July I will be part of the faculty for the EWM Polar Course at another special location, this time Queenstown in New Zealand.


Please come and join us at one or both of those courses, I’ll look forward to meeting you there.

Dr Andrew Peacock
Medical Director
Expedition & Wilderness Medicine (Australia)
Of Interest
Expedition & Wilderness Medicine , Blue Mountains, NSW
Antarctic Wilderness Medicine Conference with Lindblad Expeditions & National Geographic

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