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Antarctic and Southern Ocean stories

Polar adventurer home in Hobart

Edition 194_OlivierHawkins

Hobart is gateway to the Antarctic and home to a passionate group of polar experts. Among their ranks is the intrepid Dr Frederique Olivier – adventurer, scientist and documentary film-maker.

“There really is a strong polar community based here in Hobart that continues to get stronger and stronger as the city’s reputation as an Antarctic hub grows” Dr Olivier said.

“We are in a great position to help people open their eyes to what is happening down there in Antarctica.”

Brand Tasmania was introduced to Dr Olivier while filming a story about the Tasmanian Polar Network: a dedicated cast of scientists, logistics experts and local suppliers all committed to the Antarctic cause.

As filming progressed, it became very clear that despite the French accent, Dr Olivier is a proud ‘adopted Tasmanian’.

The 42-year-old marine scientist was drawn here 17 years ago by our reputation for Antarctic excellence, making the move to undertake a PhD with the world-renowned Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) in Hobart.

Dr Olivier now calls a bush block south of the city – home.

It’s a long way from France, where she was born and raised, and where she developed her love for the ocean along the windswept beaches of Normandy.

“Tasmania is very similar to the area of western France that I grew up in along the Atlantic Coast,” she explained.

“The strong winds and wild oceans are so familiar.”

Meantime, trying to categorise Dr Olivier is not easy: she is at various times a scientist, adventurer, documentary film-maker, photographer, expedition guide, or yacht skipper.

An even bigger problem is trying to pin her down.

The morning we met for a chat, Dr Olivier had recently returned from her 27th Antarctic expedition on-board Aurora Australis – where she was also voyage manager – but as soon the boat docked, she was off on a recreational hike: 10 days along The South Coast Track.

She then only had a few days in Hobart, before heading to the stormy North Atlantic Ocean for some ‘high latitude sailing’ with a yacht delivery from Canada to Norway.

After that, it is onto the Red Desert of Utah and a photographic assignment.

“I am not good at being a tourist; I would get bored lying around relaxing,” she said.

That is an understatement!

However, even with all these different adventures, it is Dr Olivier’s passion for the icy continent that reigns supreme.

She has been there 27 times over the past 18 years. Some trips last weeks, others months.

In almost all cases Dr Olivier manages to combine scientific research with cinematography and has filmed documentaries that have been viewed around the world, including on the BBC’s prestigious Planet Earth.

“It is a magical place; the emptiness, the peace, and the light which is really special,” she said.

“Antarctica is very exciting, not only because of its remoteness and its beauty, but especially because it is a very challenging environment to work in.”

When asked about her most memorable Antarctic adventure, Dr Olivier is quick to respond: two year-long ‘overwintering’ expeditions to research and film emperor penguins which she described as, “the most amazing thing I have ever done.”

As part of that research, Dr Olivier spent eight months in 2005 living in a tiny hut – 60km from Mawson Station – with just one other person.

 “Surviving there in sub-zero temperatures takes an amazing level of resilience,” she said.

“There were blizzards, with winds of more than 150km an hour, and temperatures routinely dropping to minus 25 degrees Celsius.

“In our little hut, minus 5 degrees was about as warm as it ever got.”

Then in 2012, Dr Olivier ‘overwintered’ at the French station of Dumont d’Urville, where the penguins were closer but the temperatures and winds far more extreme.

During both expeditions Dr Olivier filmed a fascinating ritual where female penguins headed out to sea for months on end in search of food leaving the males to incubate the just-laid eggs.

On the females' return, the newly hatched chicks are transferred from father to mother. A highly intricate operation where one false move can mean instant frozen death for a young chick.

Capturing these magical moments often required Dr Olivier to remain in one spot – motionless – for hours on end in freezing temperatures: “If you managed to get that special shot, in the end all the suffering was worth it,” she said.

But what of the dangers?

“It is not dangerous if you are properly prepared to deal with the environment you are about to face,” Dr Olivier explained.

“But you do need to be very mindful the whole time, as weather can change dramatically in a very short time.

“Everything down there is big forces, big storms, big winds.

“You need to consider every step very carefully as accidents have to be avoided by all means because of the extreme isolation of the place.”

There is no doubt that the work of Dr Olivier, and the rest of our polar community, is helping to further cement Hobart’s role as ‘Antarctic Gateway’.

It is also helping to increase our understanding of this remote and pristine land through scientific research and stunning imagery.

“I am hopeful that my work is contributing to help broaden people’s horizons and make them much more aware of environmental issues that our planet faces, through exposure to the amazing Antarctic environment,” Dr Olivier said.

Image Courtesy of Catherine Hawkins

View our video on the Tasmanian Polar Network and Dr Frederique Olivier below:

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Watch video on YouTube

8 May 2018, Edition 194

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