‘A typical day? Crawling out of a tent to find a fur seal staring at you’

Explorer Sally Poncet is one of the few women to be awarded the Polar medal. She shares the story of her amazing career path

My defining moment was meeting my future husband Jerome on a jetty in Hobart and being invited on board his 32-foot yacht. I’d just turned 18 and was starting a three-year biology degree at the University of Tasmania. For years I’d been dreaming of living and working in the Antarctic. I’d read all the books and watched longingly as Antarctic-bound research vessels sailed in an out of Hobart where I grew up.

In those days (the early 1970s), employment opportunities for women down south were virtually non-existent. So to discover that you could sail there on your own boat was a revelation, and of course I said yes to Jerome’s proposal to join him on a future cruise – subject to the request from my concerned parents that I finish university first.

Three years later, armed with a brand-new degree and youthful insouciance, I embarked on a lifetime of sailing and wildlife surveys. The piece of paper came in handy for the rare occasions when someone asked if I was a qualified scientist, but the skills and resilience required for polar fieldwork had to be learned the hard way: year after year as we cruised South Georgia, the Antarctic Peninsula and the Falkland Islands.

Working in the field down south is anything but routine. The weather dictates all; timetables and plans invariably change as fast as the weather systems that move through, so you have to adaptable and flexible and accept that Plan B might be all you can manage.

A typical day in the field can involve crawling out of a tent first thing in morning to find a fur seal staring you in the face, beautiful wandering albatrosses soaring overhead as the rising sun lights up South Georgia’s peaks, or a sudden blizzard with drifting snow - all you can do is find some shelter and wait for it to pass. After almost 40 years of fieldwork, I’ve learnt that the day usually consists of a series of unexpected and unusual events, each one more memorable than the last.

The biggest perk of this job is the privilege of living in an exceptionally magnificent outdoor environment for several months a year. I also enjoy meeting the interesting characters that are drawn to the south, whether they are passing tourists on cruise ships, scientists on a research project, or the other regulars who return annually to these regions. The only downside is frozen fingers whenever I forget my gloves, and not being allowed fresh vegetables.

These days, most people seem to understand what my job involves, maybe because they’re watching all those BBC TV Antarctic documentaries and following blogs. Thanks to today’s social media, it’s very easy for unusual jobs and lifestyles to be out there in full view of the public – a very different story to the pre-internet era.

I’m one of the few women to be awarded the Polar Medal, but I think this is more a reflection of a heavily male-dominated Polar Medal selection panel than of the number of women who could have qualified. This of course has changed in recent times. The Antarctic has become an equal opportunity workplace for many nations; the old days of “men only” are long gone.

Where I was very fortunate was being able to embark on my Antarctic fieldwork research career as an independent scientist, outside the constraints of a national programme and at a time when women were the exception. I was also able to do this with my young children, who accompanied us from our home base in the Falklands to the Antarctic each year. I see this as the most exceptional aspect of what I have achieved: to have been able to do it with my family and to keep coming back year after year to a job that I love.

Sally Poncet

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'I was one of the first women to qualify as a UK beer sommelier'
Meet the woman on a mission to show the world that beer is so much more than a boy’s club

Annabel Smith

23, Oct, 2015 @6:17 AM

Article image
'I am the first women's-only tailor in the history of Savile Row'
Entrepreneur Phoebe Gormley quit university and invested her tuition fees in her made-to-measure womenswear business

Phoebe Gormley

27, Nov, 2015 @7:20 AM

Article image
'I realised that something was missing in the British confectionery market'
From a crumbling apartment block in Paris to the shelves of Harvey Nichols: how one entrepreneur turned a passion for sweet treats into a thriving busines

Oonagh Simms

06, Nov, 2015 @7:17 AM

Article image
How our theatre workshops are empowering migrant women in China
Arts is a force for good, our workshops show how participation can turn them into tools to develop confidence and leadership skills

Caroline Watson

20, Nov, 2015 @11:56 AM

Article image
'Handouts can be essential, but enabling people to empower themselves is inspiring'
Dreams of building a responsible tourism business took Amy Carter-James on a tough but rewarding journey to Mozambique

Amy Carter-James

08, Jan, 2016 @7:19 AM

Article image
'One of my ambitions is to produce a documentary - radio of course. It’s the best, most intimate medium"
Night shifts, breaking news and an action-packed green room: a day in the life of a broadcast journalist

Julia Pittam

29, Jan, 2016 @10:34 AM

Article image
I launched a social enterprise after becoming a mother, widow and HIV positive
Lizzie Jordan’s own experience inspired her to start a new business, helping young people deal with difficult conversations

Lizzie Jordan

19, Feb, 2016 @7:16 AM

Article image
'I am part of an eight-member assembly, running a small country'
The honourable Jan Cheek MLA is part of the Falkland Islands legislative body, responsible for trade and industry

Jan Cheek

04, Dec, 2015 @7:25 AM

Article image
'I hope we can open more doors for women in Formula One'
The lack of female drivers often grabs headlines, but for women interested in a F1 career there many winning opportunities

Emma Rotherham

30, Oct, 2015 @7:25 AM

Article image
'Every day involves thinking, dreaming, playing and singing'
Being a professional composer requires real mental and physical stamina, says British composer and musician Errollyn Wallen

Errollyn Wallen

04, Mar, 2016 @7:12 AM