Argentina's Antarctic bases are staffed by isolated and often young scientists confined in close quarters.
MARAMBIO BASE — The Hercules plane expected to arrive at this Argentine-run base in the Antarctic will bring clothes, food, medicines, vehicle parts and ... condoms.
Sex in the Antarctic is like the wind: nobody sees it but everyone talks about it.
The volunteers who apply to spend a year at any Antarctic base (except for the Esperanza base, which allows married couples and children) are perfectly aware that the privations they can expect will probably include sexual abstinence for that time. Probably — not certainly, and likely not for the entire time.
The first time this became known to the outside world was in 2006, when the crew coordinator sent back to the mainland a young, female non-commissioned officer said to be "too noisy" in her relations with a young companion spending the long winter months with her. The then defense minister, Nilda Garré, deemed that this was a case of gender discrimination and also reassigned the crew coordinator. The woman returned to the Antarctic, to another base, and her boss returned to Argentina.
Currently sex is not forbidden between military personnel, though Argentine bases also have many scientists under the age of 35. Conditions however are not exactly propitious to intimacy. Sleeping quarters are gender-segregated and rooms are shared. Gay or straight, it will be difficult to find that intimate corner, and needless to say, there is no going outside. And still, many find the treasured spot to make it happen.
Argentina's Antarctic base Almirante Brown at Paradise Bay — Photo: Adriana Tamayo/VW Pics/ZUMA
Two of the six women who were in Marambio last year returned to the continent pregnant, and in another base, a cook was removed from the crew because he was harassing a young male NCO. "The separation wasn't over the homosexuality," the individual telling me the story said, but "because of aggressive attitudes that were becoming threatening to everyone living there."
What happens in the Antarctic doesn't always stay there.
In Marambio, there was a girl in charge of the control tower (and I should point out it is not the female NCO currently there), and an assistant who paid her lengthy visits in the afternoons. The tower is at a distance from the main base building, and its 90-meter height is an inviting venue for intimacy: far from the gaze of others and strategically placed to spot anyone approaching on the long gangway to the tower.
Their relation was known to all, and finally reached the ears of their respective partners on the mainland. The pair ended up getting married, and are still together.
What happens in the Antarctic doesn't always stay there. The Marambio crew's young female doctor, Maitén Hernández, says the infirmary has enough condoms for all those who might need them. They also offer pregnancy tests. If a woman becomes pregnant, she returns to the continent, as the base has no facilities for safely monitoring a developing fetus.
Marambio's Crew 50 will be historic for setting another precedent. Toilets are to be equipped with condom machines, so people don't have to ask the health officer. There are reasons for this decision. Antarctic veterans will tell you "in the military family" men of a certain age are still embarrassed to ask for condoms from a younger girl (the doctor is 29 years old). It also "gives you away" in this closed environment, for evidently, "you're up to something."
Within three months, all men become Brad Pitt and all women Angelina Jolie.
For women, using condoms is a basic precaution as they will not be sent "into the cold" with an IUD (Intrauterine device), since any complication due to its placement could become a health problem.
A young NCO from Córdoba adds, "you can hold out a couple of months. Then it becomes difficult and you have to strengthen your resolve. There are as many temptations here as in Buenos Aires, Córdoba or elsewhere. Those of us coming here get the Antarctic Hollywood tick. What is it? Well if you like men, within three months you'll see them all as Brad Pitt, and if you like women, they all become Angelina Jolie ..."
Keeping temptation at bay is not easy. "The empathy generated between two people finding themselves in this hostile climate, and the solidarity of listening to each other means sex becomes a much bigger need than in ordinary situations," says an Air Force NCO with experience in the Antarctic.
Another veteran crew member explains it more clearly: "This is like Big Brother but without the television. With disagreements, you take tolerance as far as you possibly can and make an effort every day to overcome your bad temper when it arises. It's normal. We're humans in somewhat extreme conditions, and the same goes for the space for sex and pleasure. These are normal human needs, which intensify in these conditions. Still, most people stay faithful to their partners on the continent, no matter what the temptations may be."