Flash Frontier

Interview: Rebecca Priestley, Science Writer

Interviews and Features


Flash Frontier: You have visited Antarctica many times. When did you first go there, and how have your visits changed over the years? What did you hope to find when you first went, and what do you find each time you visit more recently?

Rebecca Priestley: My first visit was in 2011, on an Antarctica New Zealand invited media programme. I travelled with poet Alice Miller, and blogged from Scott Base [Link: https://rebeccapriestley.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/big-white-cold-awesome/] and gathered material for a series of articles for my Listener science column [link: https://www.noted.co.nz/archive/listener-nz-2012/the-wind-turbines-of-scott-base/]. I cried when I left and immediately started hatching plans to go back … My next visits were in 2014 and January of 2018, both times to film lectures for an online course about Antarctic science and culture I was running at Victoria University of Wellington, where I now work. If you want more of the story, you’ll need to read my book! My Antarctic memoir is going to be published by Victoria University Press next year.

FF: As director of Victoria University’s Centre for Science in Society, what is your main goal? Tell us more about the centre and about your focus there?

RP: My friend and colleague Rhian Salmon and I started the Science in Society programme at Victoria back in 2013. Our goals were to provide students with a broader perspective on science, an understanding of its social and historical context, and new ways of looking science-inflected issues of relevance to society. I had training in geology and history of science, and she had training in atmospheric chemistry – and was a veteran of an 18-month stint with the British Antarctic Survey at Halley Research Station. We also both had experience working in science communication and public engagement with science, so I guess that’s where our interests and experience intersected – Antarctica and science communication. Today, there are eight academics in our team, including scholars with expertise in environmental humanities, medical anthropology, mātauranga Māori, and more. We have a wide research programme as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students.

In one of her Antarctic lectures, Rebecca reads from a copy of Scott’s 1911-1912 journal from inside a Scott Polar tent pitched on the sea ice near Scott Base
Fishing for Trematomus bernacchii through a hole in the sea ice beside Ross Island (2011).
FF: Can you tell us more about the role New Zealand scientists have in Antarctica? How do they figure into the international scene of the Antarctica studies and explorations?

RP: New Zealand has a very strong Antarctic programme. Compared to most countries wanting to do research in Antarctica, it’s relatively easy for us to get there – it’s a 5-hour flight on a US Air Force C-17 from Christchurch – and we have excellent logistics support from Antarctica New Zealand. I’m involved, with colleagues from the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, and other universities and research institutes around the country, in the New Zealand Antarctic Science Platform, which is a multi-year, multi-institutional programme to “conduct excellent science to understand Antarctica’s impact on the global earth system, and how this might change in a +2°C (Paris agreement) world”. I’m chairing an expert group on public engagement and will be working with a range of scientists – geologists, paleoclimatologists, oceanographers, biologists and more – over the coming years on a more coordinated and evidence based approach to engaging the public in Antarctic science.

FF: You have degrees in earth sciences, history of science and creative writing. How has your broad background influenced the way you look at science, history and culture? And how does the creative writing play a role in the way you approach writing?

RP: I guess my broad background means I find it easy to see the connections between these different disciplines and to look at issues from multiple perspectives. I’m also equally comfortable (or uncomfortable?) talking to scientists, or artists, or writers. I’ve been teaching a science writing workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters since Ashleigh Young and I started the course back in 2013, but I studied creative writing for the first time last year. I took a six-month sabbatical and completed an MA in creative writing, in the non-fiction stream at the IIML, and that’s when my Antarctic book emerged. It’s non-fiction, and a bit of a hybrid form I guess, a mix of memoir, science writing and travel writing. It’s about my experiences in Antarctica, and the ongoing work of the scientists I spent time with down there, but it has underlying themes of climate change, anxiety and gender issues. I LOVED doing the MA, and being part of a class that included poets as well as non-fiction writers. I think doing the MA has changed my writing, it’s freed it up and – at the risk of sounding pretentious – helped me to find my own voice, after many years of magazine writing.

FF: Can you tell us about the approach you took with your most recent book — Dispatches from Continent Seven — which includes poetry alongside science writing?

RP: Dispatches followed my anthology of New Zealand science that was published back in 2008 – The Awa Book of New Zealand Science – and I followed a similar formula in this book. It’s chronological and mostly features non-fiction pieces by scientists about Antarctica, from the early explorers, through to the Heroic Age scientists, to IGY scientists and on to today’s scientists. When I was first planning the book, I realized there were many Antarctic anthologies, but none were focused on science, they were all written by explorers, or adventurers, or writers, so it was great to bring these science focused pieces together and give voice to scientists, who, after all, have had way more access to the icy continent than any other group of people. As for the poets, I really like the way that poetry can provide a different perspective on a topic, whether it’s Bill Manhire’s Food Chain, in which “the skuas go on cruising the colony: / dangerous wings / slicing in from the edge” or Helen Heath’s poem George Murray Levick and the Adélie penguins in which “the little hooligans are everywhere / committing their depraved / acts all the long Antarctic / summer.”

FF: Thank you, Rebecca!


from Rebecca Priestley’s forthcoming Antarctic memoir (Victoria University Press), provisionally titled 15 million years in Antarctica

Here’s an excerpt from a longer piece I wrote after my most recent trip to Antarctica, in January this year. It will be part of my upcoming book with VUP. I travelled with Cliff Atkins and Veronika Meduna, and one of the highlights was spending a few days camping and exploring with Antarctica New Zealand fieldie Chris Long. After two nights at Cape Royds, we had a day at Cape Evans – we were dropped off by helicopter in the morning and picked up at the end of the day.

A whale in the polynya

I hear it at the same time that I see it. A long black body with a small fin moves out of the water then back under, in a rolling move that shows this whale is much bigger than the orca we saw at Cape Royds. A minke, says Chris. As the whale surfaces it blows, a puff of air and water blasting into the silence. It sinks into the water then emerges further west to roll and blow again. Then there’s another whale, in a smaller patch of clear water just beyond the main polynya. There’s silence apart from the whale blows and the occasional penguin bark or skua cry. Then they’re gone. The water is flat and glassy and the only breaks in the water are the splashes of a few penguins.

“Do you think he was taking a deep breath ready to go under?” I ask Chris.

“Yeah, get a few good ones on board then go under the ice,” he says then pauses to sniff. All of our noses are dripping in the cold. “If I was a minke whale I think I’d hang out here, ay. Very nice.”

I can’t see them, but Chris says the whales are following a bit of a crack, heading towards where the icebreaker is at the McMurdo sea ice edge. I keep my eyes on the crack and eventually see, and hear, the whales blow in the distance.

We stay standing watching the polynya, mesmerised by the beauty of the ocean, and the ice, glinting in the sunshine. I hear a splash, see ripples circle in the water, then spy something silvery moving fast just beneath the surface. “Fish!” I cry out. But it’s penguins. The water is so clear we can see them streaking through the water, a flash of white tummy like a salmon.

Chris and I take a few photos of each other – smiling Antarctican with iceberg, polynya, blue sky, and mountain ranges in the background.

“This is the sort of day you remember forever,” he says.

Rebecca Priestley is a science writer and academic who has visited Ross Island and the McMurdo Dry Valleys on Antarctica New Zealand’s media and education & outreach programmes – in 2011, 2014 and 2018. She is director of Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Science in Society. Her last book was Dispatches form Continent Seven: an anthology of Antarctic science. More on her Victoria University staff page.
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