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Jan. 23, 2003, Gazette


Photos by Peter Knauss

Icebergs rise hundreds of metres above the Antarctic Ocean.
Icebergs rise hundreds of metres above the Antarctic Ocean.

Icebergs which tower hundreds of metres high, colonies with up to 200,000 penguins and endless daylight were just some of the appeal of a recent three-week trip to Antarctica for Dr. Tia Renouf, Family Medicine, as ship’s doctor aboard the Akademik Ioffe. It was also her honeymoon with Peter Knauss who happily helped carry her doctor’s bag and enjoy the scenery.

The trip began with a long flight to Santiago, Chile, then across the Andes into Buenos Aires and on to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in South America. There they met up with the Russian research vessel which was to be home for the next three weeks.

Dr. Tia Renouf, camping out in the light of the Antarctic summer on Christmas night about midnight at Neko Harbour.
Dr. Tia Renouf, camping out in the light of the Antarctic summer on Christmas night about midnight at Neko Harbour.

The first challenge was getting across the Drake Passage, the body of water from Cape Horn to the Antarctic Peninsula, reputed to be the roughest ocean in the world. “I expected to be very busy with seasickness and people falling down, but actually all our crossings were quite calm,” said Dr. Renouf.

The excitement began when the ship reached what is known as the Antarctic convergence, a body of water where the northern flowing currents coming around Antarctica meet the southern flowing currents from the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans. “It gets very foggy – at the convergence both the water and air temperatures drop quite suddenly and you start to see penguins and icebergs, It’s like stepping on the outside of a looking glass.”

Penguins at Bailey’s Head on Deception Island.
Penguins at Bailey’s Head on Deception Island.

During Dr. Renouf’s stint as ship’s doctor, the Akademik Ioffe made two journeys between Argentina and Antarctica. Although it sometimes serves as a research vessel, both these trips were for tourists, with Americans and Europeans aboard the first trip and a large contingent of Swedes on the second.

At Palmer Station, one of the many research stations in Antarctica, Dr. Renouf had the chance to talk to an American doctor stationed there. Dr. Kirstin van Konynenburg had arrived about six months earlier, at the tail end of winter, and said she found after six months of darkness people were very edgy. “I asked her what she thought would be the most important characteristics of a doctor to work in a place like that and she said that generalists like family physicians and emergency doctors are best. Physicians who deal with people all the time can be good trouble shooters: people living on these research stations need some to confide in, and generalists with an independent spirit and an interest in nature are best suited to the job.

Crab eater seal.
Crab eater seal.

Dr. Renouf added that a doctor in such a remote area must also be competent enough in their clinical assessments to make hard decisions. “It’s a matter of knowing when you’ve done what you can and resisting the temptation to send people off for more tests. These are the skills of remote and rural medicine, the same kind of skills you’d need in coastal Labrador.”

Working in such a remote location, Dr. van Konynenburg uses the same kind of telemedicine techniques that Memorial University pioneered, including digitized X-Rays.

Group of elephant seals.
Group of elephant seals.

Although skilled in emergency medicine, Dr. Renouf found the trips uneventful. “Twice a day we’d lower zodiacs to go on explorations and I’d carry my big, waterproof doctor’s bag which weighed about 50 pounds. I never had to use it, but if someone did get sick you’d really be put to the test.”

In addition to the unique scenery and wildlife, Dr. Renouf enjoyed the politically unique situation of Antarctica. “A number of countries have scientific stations there and conventions have been drawn up and treaties signed to say no one owns it. It’s a place dedicated to science and peaceful purposes.” Since 1988, two international conventions have been signed to protect the Antarctic from commercial mineral exploitation.

Lemaire Channel.
Lemaire Channel.