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Snow, Ice, Boats and ... Penguins!

Dr Fraser Gould
British Antarctic Survey Medical Unit

Dr Fraser Gould, a former trainee at Torbay, spent 18 months with the British Antarctic Survey, working at the island base on South Georgia and on the Royal Research Ship Ernest Shackleton.
On November 22nd, Fraser joined the Society to give us a taste of life in one of the world's most inhospitable environments.

Dr Fraser Gould

Images on page Copyright © Fraser Gould

The Journey to South Georgia

Located in the sub-antarctic, South Georgia Island, lies a 5 day boat ride from the Falklands.
With the ship rolling 30 degrees each way, the journey itself is not for the faint-hearted. Fraser was one of only a few who made it out of their cabins on that frosty trip.
His destination - the King Edward Point Research Station, a British base and home of the British Antarctic Survey.

A Harsh but Beautiful Environment

The official population of the island is zero, but up to 35 people are chartered to work there each summer. Fewer remain over the harsh winter months.
The team is tasked with protecting and maintaining the wildlife and habitat of the island. Fraser’s excellent photographs, of the superb scenery, with its steep slopes and glaciers, captured the island's vastness and isolation.
Government figures for the island confirm that it is not a thriving metropolis, with 4% of revenue being derived from stamp sales and the biggest revenue draws being krill and toothfish!

Medical Work

Those of us working in the NHS were envious to hear that Fraser treated just 2-3 patients per week during his year at the research station.
Cases ranged from dental work, to fractured patella to seal bites.
The medics in the room were very impressed to hear how he cleaned seal guts from the scientist’s microscope and commandeered it to diagnose post-strep glomerulonephritis!
With the nearest CT scanner being in Chile, Fraser was reliant on his training, his new-found skill as radiographer, email or phone advice from Derriford Hospital and a huge dose of ingenuity. This extended to him designing and making a dust sheet for the new digital xray machine from a surplus plastic body bag.
In his free time, Fraser turned his hand to many additional roles.
Providing search and resuce training and advanced first aid training was something he considered essential for his own self-preservation - being the only doctor on the island!
At various times, he became post-office staff, boat crew, cook, petrel rescuer and official rationer of chocolate bars - kept in the locked controlled drugs cupboard, with team members allowed one bar a week.

Penguin Census, South Georgia


We were relieved that Fraser’s slides didn’t address all the senses, as he recalled the pungent smell from a group of 60,000 penguins in one shot and the seals in another.
When the whaling boats introduced rats to the island years ago, many small bird populations survived mainly because of the protective nature of the islands glaciers, which the rats couldn’t cross.
We learnt that a successful rat eradication program has been completed by the South Georgia Heritage Trust (, with the British Antarctic Survey providing logistical support.
Happily, many ground-nesting species are now returning to the lower slopes.
For the grey-headed albatross, the greatest risks is from the nighttime lights of nearby boats. The attraction of the lights is a leading cause of death.
The survey team monitor this and will reduce the fishing quota if albatross numbers drop due to boat activity in the area.
Similarly, fishing quotas will be reduced if over-fishing of krill affects the island seals.
One lucky scientist has the privilege of sifting through seal dung to sample the volume of krill in their diet!
Grey Albatross chick - South Georgia
"Camping too close to a glacier can end with soggy bedding!"
Dr Fraser Gould
Seal pup South Georgia

Lessons to be learnt

Always a doctor, Fraser viewed the seal pups with envy, wondering how their metabolism can actively turn blubber to muscle, while simply lying in the sun.
If we could capture this, we would solve many problems within the NHS…
Fraser took us on a beautifully illustrated journey of life on South Georgia- the working hours, the excursions in down-time, the weather and the wildlife. We admired his fortitude and envied his views.
For those who may be tempted to follow in his footsteps, I will share some of Fraser’s key lessons:
  • Don’t get too close to an elephant seal
  • Don’t camp too near a glacier
  • Never take your hospital radiology department for granted
  • The only way to make a perfect G&T is with glacial ice!

Review by Helen Waters