Thursday, June 12, 2008

A whole lot of nothing going on

I recently received a copy of this Reuters news article from Rediron, an Antarctic veteran from the glory days of Operation Deep Freeze station construction in the 1950s:

Antarctic base gets condom haul before winter
16,500 prophylactics arrive for 125 scientists, staff before darkness sets in

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - One of the last shipments to a U.S. research base in Antarctica before the onset of winter darkness was a year's supply of condoms, a New Zealand newspaper reported Monday.

Bill Henriksen, the manager of the McMurdo base station, said nearly 16,500 condoms were delivered last month and would be made available, free of charge, to staff throughout the year to avoid the potential embarrassment of having to buy them. The base only has a skeleton staff through the long winter.

"Since everybody knows everyone, it becomes a little bit uncomfortable," Henriksen told the Southland Times newspaper. About 125 scientists and staff are stationed at McMurdo base, the largest community in Antarctica, during the winter months when there is constant darkness.

The first sunrise will occur on Aug. 20 and McMurdo's population will start to increase again in September when supply flights resume, peaking at more than 1,000 during the summer period.

News from Antarctica always seems to be popular but making non-news into even more sensationalistic headlines is just too irresistable for the media. Knowing Bill, who was the South Pole Winter Site Manager for my winters in 2003 and 2005, he probably included some bad jokes and sarcastic remarks about the fact that the reporter was trying to turn this into a news story, but it seems that the only pieces of information that caught on were "16,500 condoms" and "125 scientists and staff". The reader's own imagination serves to fill in the titillating details from juxtaposition.

They're almost making it sound like it was a desperate last minute emergency supply flight for a pallet of condoms for the 125 crew members who must have nothing else to do for the winter except screw around. Why didn't they report that there was a supply of Southern Hemisphere flu vaccine on that last flight that will be used to innoculate the winter crew just before the first flight of the summer season which is like a plague ship to the New World? What about reporting about the precious fresh food flown in that will be the last fresh stuff that the crew will see for months? Surely there were some interesting scientific instruments or construction supplies that just made it onto the continent in time for the winter? No, no one will care about that but 16,500 condoms...that's news!

The article also caught the attention of the government agency overseeing the stations and apparently it wasn't aware that our official Standard Operating Procedure for each station states that Medical will provide some OTC items to the community such as ibuprofen, cough drops and condoms. I was told an alarm was raised that we are wasting our precious budget (which is being cut by 10% this year) by providing FREE condoms to everyone and if you do the math suggested by the headline, that's 132 condoms per person. By the way, our supply at South Pole is 2592 condoms which comes out to only 43.2 condoms per person for the winter. We're getting gypped here.

Of course, it should be emphasized that these large numbers of supplies are meant to last a population that fluctuates to more than 1000 at McMurdo for more than a year and it's probably expected to last well into the next season.

In case anyone thinks we're just having orgies down's just not the case. We have 48 men and 12 women here for the winter and there's a whole lot less shacking up than you probably think. I stocked the bathrooms with condoms in February and they haven't needed any resupply as far as I can tell.

Now because of this ridiculous article, the idea of charging people for the condoms has been raised because the government agency certainly don't want to be subsidizing the wanton free-for-all sex that must be going on at these hedonistic stations. It's been a part of the Medical budget for years and it makes sense from a public health standpoint that condoms are easily available to the community because some things are just inevitable. This important part of our standard Medical supplies was never an issue before this article came out.

The price for a supply of condoms for an isolated community: a couple of thousand dollars. The price for several unwanted pregnancies because people were too embarassed to buy condoms at Polemart in front of their colleagues and supervisors: priceless.


At 2:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw that note in the news the other day and thought it seemed a bit odd too.

Of course in this day and age sex sells, even responsible sex.

Stay warm :)

(Oh, stay warm in general.. that wasn't in relation to the above comment)

At 7:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geez Heidi, I didn’t mean to yank your chain so hard. If the story wasn’t so ridiculous I’d think it was funny and I certainly agree with your candid assessment of the article. I just hope you don’t have repercussions for copyright infringements from Reuters for reprinting it. It seems mainstream media hasn’t changed very much. They couldn’t get the important stories straight when I was there either.

Before the all male Seabee Battalion went to the Ice in late1955, we were told there was a woman behind every tree in Antarctica. During our approximately fourteen months there we began construction and wintered at McMurdo before going to the Pole to begin construction there. Alas, we never found the need for condoms because we never found the forest. It appears things have really changed and I hope most of those changes, including the supply of free condoms, are for the better.
Happy Mid Winter to everyone.

At 7:37 PM, Anonymous rediron said...

The 2nd comment is from Redion, I clicked the wrong button

At 2:50 AM, Blogger Neal said...

Yeah Heidi, I have to agree with you. I never read anything positive about the science being done in Antarctica, but "human interest" stories pop up all of the time. I hope that rumor about charging for condoms is just a rumor. What's next? Paying for dessert?

At 7:11 PM, Blogger Michael said...

I heard that neal couldn't return to the South Pole or they would have to start charging for dessert.

At 10:22 PM, Anonymous Bill H. said...

Hi Heidi,

Haven't done a good job of keeping up with you. Belated congratulations on your marriage.

Again, 2 years late, but just saw this posting. Must stay I was taken back with the fact that a reporter would be asking about condoms. You know me to well. A little to much disbelief and not enough keep my mouth shut. I'd like to say I've gotten smarter.

To bad your posting didn't make it into the news, but it was just not sensational enough.




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