Robert's out in the cold - and loving it!

MOST of us will never get closer to Antarctica than watching spectacular images of the world's last great wilderness on TV wildlife documentaries.

A lucky few might get the chance to view the amazing scenery and wildlife from the decks of a cruise liner. But Rothesay man Robert Paterson is luckier than most - because for four months at a time, he has the chance to live and work in what remains, quite simply, one of the most amazing environments on the planet.

Robert has spent eleven years working for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on board their research ship, the RRS James Clark Ross, first as a mate and now as her chief officer - and he's served with such distinction that earlier this month he was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive a Polar Medal, with the Arctic and Antarctic Clasp, from Her Majesty the Queen, recognising his outstanding service to the BAS and to British polar research.

Serving in the Antarctic is the realisation of a lifelong dream for Robert, who was born and brought up on Bute and who went to Rothesay Academy, and who we have arranged to meet at Bute Museum while he 'minds the desk' during his latest period of shore leave - though as far as the Polar Medal is concerned, he remCapains resolutely modest.

"It was a surprise," he admitted. "Somewhere there is a committee that decides on these things, but no-one seems to know how they decide who gets a medal and who doesn't.

"There are a lot of important people who have not been recognised in this way for the work they've done in the Antarctic."

The Polar Medal has a history, as the Arctic Medal, going all the way back to 1857, and the expeditions which tried to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin and his attempt to find the North West Passage.

Before 1968, the Polar Medal was awarded to everyone who took part in any polar expedition endorsed by the government of any of the Commonwealth realms.

Today, however, the medal is only awarded to selected British individuals for extreme human endeavour against the appalling weather and conditions that exist in both the northern and southern polar regions.

Its modern incarnation dates back to Robert Falcon Scott, better known to most as Captain Scott, or even as Scott of the Antarctic, whose Discovery Expedition of 1901-04 captured the imagination of the public - and who perished, with his four companions, when returning from the South Pole on the Terra Nova expedition on January 18, 1912.

Robert is one of many whose love affair with Antarctica started with Captain Scott - specifically, in Robert's case, when he was presented as a schoolboy with a copy of 'South With Scott', by Baron Mountevans, who captained the Terra Nova on that famously ill-fated second Antarctic voyage.

"I was in the Boys' Brigade at the time, and they gave us the book as a prize," Robert told us. "That kicked off my interest; then I read about Shackleton, and I've wanted to go there ever since."

After leaving the Academy, though, Robert studied science at university, and then embarked on a career in the Merchant Navy which, eventually, would lead to the realising of his dream.

"The sea was always in the back of my mind, and I was split between going to sea and studying science; then I went to a talk at Edinburgh University at which they were trying to recruit geologists to study in Antarctica.

"Now I'm not a geologist by any means - to be honest, I gatecrashed it just so I could see the pictures - but after that talk I thought 'I've got to get there somehow'.

"All through my time in the Merchant Navy I kept seeing adverts for Antarctic voyages, and basically I just kept knocking at the door until they let me in.

"When I finally did get the chance to go to the Antarctic, it was only meant to be for one voyage, covering for one of the mates while he was on study leave.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I thought I just couldn't let it go by - then the mate resigned, and I got his job, and I've been going back there ever since."

Robert's stints in the Antarctic are shorter than they once were, lasting now for four or five months at a time, making for a two-year cycle which at least allows him to spend each alternate Christmas and summer at home.

But it's not just Bute that Robert misses while he's away. "My partner is a teacher in Birmingham," he told us. "In this type of job your partner really has to be pretty keen, though perhaps we do take it to extremes a wee bit.

"You do get used to it after a while, though - there are lots of things you miss while you're away, but you know you can't have everything."

The James Clark Ross, one of two Royal Research Ships operated by the BAS, itself part of the Natural Environment Research Council, has a crew of 27 and can accommodate up to 55 scientists.

The ship sets sail south from Britain towards the end of each summer: she's jammed with as much as she can carry at Immingham, near Grimsby, before departing in September for Stanley in the Falkland Islands.

At Stanley the ship's stores are subjected to another thorough sorting-out, before departure on the 'island run' to re-supply bases at South Georgia, Bird Island and Signy Island; then it's back to Stanley to re-load everything needed for the rest of the winter.

The next stop is Rothera, location of the BAS's main Antarctic base, to re-stock supplies there, round about Christmas, before the season's main research work begins.

"There are eight major research programmes in the Survey at the moment," Robert revealed, "many of them requiring work at sea.

"For example, last season the ship was deep in the Bellingshausen Sea, working through thick ice to study the nature of the oceanography, the surrounding ice sheets and the geology of the sea bed.

"We also take every opportunity to continue basic sea bed surveys, as there are still huge gaps in our detailed knowledge of the ocean bed."

That research work lasts until May or June, when the ship returns to the UK for refit and a summer spent on further research, this time in the Arctic, on behalf of organisations other than the BAS, among them the Scottish Association for Marine Science, based at Dunstaffnage near Oban, and the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

It's clear from our conversation that Robert is as thrilled today to be able to get 'up close and personal' with the Antarctic, its scenery and wildlife, as he was when he took that mate's job eleven years ago.

But there are more and more people getting up close and personal with Antarctica today than ever before, thanks to the increasing popularity of cruises in the region - and while Robert doesn't believe that in itself is a bad thing, he is worried about what might one day happen in the increasingly congested Antarctic seas.

"It's a good thing people are being made aware of the Antarctic, and of the threat to wildlife and the ice caps, through increased tourism, but people sometimes forget that it is still quite a dangerous place.

"The ships coming here are bigger and bigger - P&O's Star Princess, for example, visits the Antarctic and can carry two and a half thousand people.

"That is causing some concern - many of the ships visiting the area are not ice strengthened, and if one gets into trouble there is no rescue organisation or facility that would be able to cope with the numbers of people who might be involved."

There have been several near misses in the last couple of years - the Norwegian cruise ship MS Nordkapp ran aground on a remote Antarctic island in January 2007, and her fleetmate, the MS Fram, lost power and drifted into an iceberg in December, damaging her lifeboats.

But the most serious recent incident, and the one which captured the headlines around the world, concerned the MS Explorer, the first cruise ship specifically designed to sail in the frozen waters of the Antarctic, which sank in November last year after she struck an unidentified submerged object.

"The passengers on the Explorer were very lucky," Robert told us. "She was relatively small, and went down in relatively calm waters, but there are no regulations to stop ships visiting what are largely uncharted waters, and we are quite worried that sooner or later there is going to be a big disaster.

"If a small ship gets into trouble you can always do something - there is a mutual assistance philosophy among all the ships that operate down there - but there is nothing in place to cope if a larger ship encounters problems.

"Of course, accidents at sea can happen anywhere, but the consequences in the Antarctic are so much more serious because there is no coastguard and no RNLI to give assistance, and as shipping traffic increases it's an inevitable fact that incidents are also going to increase."

Robert, of course, is not the first person to establish a link between Bute and Antarctica. That honour goes to Lieutenant Henry Robertson 'Birdie' Bowers, one of Scott's companions on that Terra Nova trip, who spent much of his early life living with his mother in Ardmory Road in Ardbeg.

'Birdie' was known to enjoy bracing early morning swims, even on the coldest winter days, from Ardbeg Point to Craigmore Pier and back, and his fame is remembered on a memorial plaque inside the former St Ninian's Church in Port Bannatyne.

And while Robert doesn't go in for quite such extreme behaviour when he's back home on Bute, his own love affair with Antarctica shows no sign of coming to an end.

"I just love the Antarctic - it's a very hard place to leave," he confessed. "The scenery and the wildlife grab hold of you straight away.

"A lot of the attraction is also the history of the place - there is a lot of tradition down there, and there is an unbroken line of a British Antarctic presence going right back to the days of Scott and Shackleton.

"The salary helps as well, of course, but when they first interviewed me I would happily have gone as an unpaid deck boy."