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Amongst the enduring white landscape of Antarctica sits the surprising snow-free oasis of the Vestfold Hills. On the edge is Davis Station, the Australian Antarctic Division research base that specialises in studying climate and environmental change, and for now it is also home for Tasmanian plumber Ben Harrison.
Growing up surrounded by the rolling green mountains of Tasmania, Ben was exposed to the possibility of working in Antarctica more so than most mainland Australians would have been.
‘It’s always seemed like an amazing, extreme place to venture to,’ he says. ‘Because of [the extremity], it’s been in the back of my mind as a possibility since I started down the path in plumbing.’
So in late 2019, Ben and around 70 other expeditioners decided to put the ‘ice’ in isolation and depart Hobart for the cold desert of Antarctica.
When Ben arrived, he began his new role as a plumber/gasfitter with the Australian Antarctic Division for the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. But given the hostile nature of his new workplace, he was also tasked with a few extra duties.
‘As we are all also Antarctic Expeditioners down here, I have the opportunity to assist in some of the ongoing scientific projects such as sea ice drilling and measurement, penguin camera maintenance or seal surveys,’ Ben explains. ‘We also have other community roles, so for example, I am additionally one of the deputy fire chiefs and lay surgical assistant.’
While life can be busy on this desolate continent for a plumber/gasfitter/expeditioner/amateur penguin photographer, there are times, even weeks, where the workers can indulge in some down time.
However, for Ben that turned into professional development with HIA. Interested in completing his Certificate IV in Building and Construction (Building), Ben was pleased to discover the course was available to take online through HIA – meaning he could make a start while miles away from home.
‘I’ve had friends who have done training through HIA and recommended it,’ he says. ‘I’ve also found while working in the building industry that HIA has a very good reputation.’
The COVID-19 pandemic threw major curve balls to contend with to just about every industry in 2020, sending businesses scrambling for ways to continue offering their services in a safe manner for customers and employees. Video calls replaced office meetings, events went virtual and online training became the norm for face-to-face classes.
HIA provides a range of online courses for industry, but many more programs were adapted for virtual learning throughout the year. Social distancing restrictions and isolation created a surge of interest in HIA’s online training offerings, though Marina Tyrell, HIA’s Customer Service Co-ordinator in Tasmania, says Ben’s enquiry was more than a little unexpected.
‘Ben originally contacted our office directly [from Antarctica],’ she says. ‘Our receptionist was extremely excited to tell me where he was phoning from!’
Despite the remoteness of his location, it was an easy set up for Ben to enrol in HIA’s online Certificate IV in Building and Construction course, and he says he has found the experience to be extremely worthwhile.
As they say: ‘work hard, play hard’, and that is exactly what the Antarctic expeditioners do. Check out the division’s YouTube channel and social media for an array of comedic content, including top tips on COVID-19 isolation and social distancing, and their ice water swim in the Davis Pool.
‘Virtual or online training is basically my only option while I’m down here and thankfully I’ve found it has exceeded expectations. It has allowed me to more easily balance work and study while being four hours behind the rest of Australia.’
Marina says HIA has kept varied lines of communication open for students like Ben by providing an online training option delivered via Zoom, email and WhatsApp. Although Tasmania continued to run live webinars, in Ben’s case, the HIA Training team were able to send through the recorded link to make sure he didn’t miss a thing.
‘We have been working hard to ensure everyone completing training with HIA are supported, and that of course includes the ways in which we communicate with them,’ Marina says.
When away from his studies, Ben has made an effort to make the most of exploring his new habitat, applying his trade skills in a very different environment to residential building, and capturing the beauty of his surroundings. This season he says there have been a number of highlights, but one in particular stands out in his mind.
‘We went on a trip to repair and test gas services for some of our distant buildings,’ Ben reveals. ‘Flying for the first time over the Vestfold Hills by chopper to our summer aircraft ski landing [gave an amazing] view from above.
‘Looking down at the rock formations and lakes before crossing the plateau will be something that stays in my memory. The scale, immensity and beauty of the continent is like nothing else I’ve yet to see.’
While for the time being it’s work, study and explore, all good things come to an end and Ben is looking forward to returning home to some normality and beginning work on his own block of land with his new-found training under his belt.
‘I miss the important people in my life and being out and about exploring in the Tasmanian wilderness,’ he says. ‘I’m not looking forward to coming back to the flies and mosquitos though! I definitely don’t miss those.’
But we think he will be sure to miss capturing images of the wild, extreme beauty of the Antarctic landscape and the antics of the research base’s well-dressed penguin neighbours.
Visit HIA Training for new flexible training options now available.
Ben is just one of many in our industry who have had the amazing experience of working in Antarctica. There are an array of job opportunities for building industry professionals in particular, not just researchers and scientists.
Ben’s advice to other trades potentially interested in swapping the dirt for ice: ‘When the jobs are advertised on the Australian Antarctic Division website, just have a go at putting in an application. It’s entirely possible you’ll surprise yourself’.