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Message in a bottle: Dr Jenny Visser

As the doctor aboard NIWA research vessel Tangaroa people love to tell me the story of the Russian doctor who removed his own appendix with the aid of a mirror on an Antarctic expedition. I never know how to respond to this – do they want me to remove my own appendix?

The reality is that most of what I see as a doctor on board are the same things I would see in my clinic on terra firma. Just with a much, much better view.

This is now my eighth voyage in 20 years to Antarctica on Tangaroa.  While my medical skills have been called on many occasions, my daily consultation rate at sea is low. So, I fill my time with other activities including getting involved in the science if needed.

Just the other morning I was helping with the oxygen and salinity sampling from the conductivity, temperature and depth profiler. In previous years I have helped sort benthic samples (which always include a lot of mud) and label fish in the fish factory.

But back to things medical. If something major goes wrong when we are deep in the Ross Sea, it would be days before evacuation was possible, if at all.

The hospital has all the usual gear and medication to deal with the expected injuries, aches and pains and infections. But we also have some specialty gear for the cold. Need a Bair Hug?  We have a Bair Hugger to help with treating hypothermia – it’s a blanket placed over the patient which has baffles filled with warmed air.

Another great bit of kit is the ‘CORPULS,’ a machine which continuously monitors vitals including the electric signal from the heart and blood pressure. The measurements can also be accessed in real time by a shore-based doctor. That capability is useful for a second opinion on the Antarctic voyages and even more useful for the voyages with no doctor aboard.

This year we have also had to think about COVID-19. In addition to pre-voyage swabbing of all participants, Tangaroa has the capability of analysing swabs on board at sea. Luckily, we haven’t had to use it so far.

The voyage doctor is also  the dentist, nurse, counsellor and now laboratory technician so you can’t complain about a lack of variety. Besides,  having the opportunity to see this amazing part of the world makes it very worthwhile.

Here’s hoping my appendix stays in.

Dr Jenny Visser

Voyage doctor


Check out more updates from the 2021 Antarctic voyage

NIWA Marine Biology Technician Peter Marriott enjoys the Bair Hugger as Dr Jenny Visser watches on. Thankfully, this was just a test run. [Photo: Stuart Mackay, NIWA]