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Antarctica - An Icy and Unforgettable Journey

February, 2010
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It can be desolate, hostile, dangerous and unpredictable. It is the coldest, driest and windiest place in the world. Dozens of men, drawn by its beauty and mysteriousness, have died trying to conquer it. There is only one place in the world like it…
 
Antarctica. The very word conjures a sense of awe and uncertainty in most people. The “White continent” seems the most alien, isolated and sadly insignificant place in our daily lives. Yet ironically, in actual fact it is by far the most important. If the Western Antarctic ice sheet (only a small fraction of the ice on the Continent) should melt, sea levels would rise by a mind-blowing 70 meters! This ice-covered continent and the vastly interconnected ecosystem it supports is truly too precious to lose due to our greed and materialism.
 
Only a handful of people on this planet have had the incredible opportunity to explore and experience this place, and I have been fortunate to be one of them. This winter break, I joined 65 students from 9 countries along with 24 other scientists, explorers and chaperones to discover Antarctica for myself.
 
The organization that offered me this amazing opportunity is called Students on Ice (SOI), which has brought over 1000 students to both the Arctic and Antarctic regions in the last 10 years. The founder of this program, Geoff Green, was our expedition leader and a veteran Antarctic explorer. He created this program with the vision of bringing high school students from around the world to Antarctica so that they may be inspired and thus advocate sustainability and environmental issues when they return home.
 
My unforgettable journey began in L.A, where I had spent Christmas with my family and friends. On December 26th, a friend and I departed L.A for Santiago, the capital of Chile, where we were to meet most of the group that would be journeying South with us. The plane ride was one of anticipation and excitement. What were the other students going to be like? What would seeing Antarctica for the first time feel like? I jotted down notes to post-expedition questions SOI had provided for us to reflect on. What connection was there between our community and Antarctica? Why are we participating on this trip?
 
Upon landing in Santiago, I was met by an enthusiastic chaperone; a young student from Dalhousie who ushered us to the nearby hotel where a few of the international students were already waiting. There, I ate breakfast with two Portuguese students who won a national competition to be sponsored for the trip as well as an Israeli and Palestinian student who were there on a peace initiative. After only having met four students, I already felt extremely intimidated by how accomplished they were. Soon after, we joined the large group of Canadian and American students that flew via Miami and after two hours of delays and gate changes, we finally boarded the plane to Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world at the tip of the Tierra del Fuego province in Argentina.
 
The next three days were spent in small and quaint Ushuaia, a town bordered by the dominating peaks of the Andes on one side and the azure waters of the Beagle Channel on the other. There were introductions, get-to-know-you games, photography workshops and presentations on everything from Antarctic wildlife to the importance of journal keeping. We were placed into “pod-groups” of about seven to eight students and were told that these groups would meet frequently to share perspectives and reflections of our journey. On the day before we were due to board the ship, the entire group set out on a 10 kilometer hike through bogs, forests, fields and glaciers up to the turquoise waters of Laguna Esmeralda, where a few brave and unbelievably energetic students jumped into its icy waters. The purpose of our stopover in South America was to bond with the rest of the group before our “actual” journey began, but by the time the hike was over, we only had one thought in our minds: “Let’s go to Antarctica”! The next morning, we had the chance to buy last minute “necessities” in the town, which for me meant loading up on snacks, before we boarded onto our ship ‘The Ushuaia’!
 
I had never been on any form of cruise prior to this trip, so I had no idea what to expect. Our first few hours were spent settling into our rooms, looking for the rooms of our friends and generally exploring the rest of the ship. As we finally cleared customs later in the afternoon, we waved goodbye to Ushuaia and headed out onto the Beagle Channel and had a mandatory “Abandon Ship” drill that had us all scrambling for our bulky orange life jackets. After that point it was onward to the infamous Drake Passage. The Drake Passage is the narrow body of water between the tip of South America and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. It is well known for having the roughest seas in the world with waves up to 70 feet high. Even though the following morning the Drake was defined as “Drake Lake” not “Drake Quake” by our seasoned scientists that have crossed it many times, there were still many students lying on the couches of the ship lounge looking a bit green. By the evening of the 31st, New Years Eve was ushered in with a bang on the Drake, complete with performances by pod groups and plenty of singing, dancing and laughing.
 
I continued to be astounded by the people I was meeting on the ship. There were a boy that spoke at the U.N Climate Conference in New York City, a girl that was going to sing in Carnegie Hall and the youngest of our group, a 13 year old boy, is a UNICEF ambassador, published author and founder of his own organization. Fred Roots, a scientist that accompanied us on the trip, has the record for dog sleighing the length of Antarctica, was one of the first people to warn the world about global warming and has had a range of mountains in Antarctica named after him.
 
In the morning we found out that at 23.45PM the night before, we had passed the 60 degree latitude line, officially entering Antarctic waters! I could not think of a better way to bring in the new decade, full of energy and excitement for my first look at Antarctica. Our first iceberg sighting came in mid-morning and not long after came the news we had all been waiting for. “If you look up ahead on the starboard side of the ship, we have Elephant Island in sight”. It is not hard to imagine how difficult it was for all of us to obey the “No running on deck” rule after that announcement. Out on the deck, I simply stared in amazement at the sight in the distance. Elephant Island laid there glittering in snow while low clouds hovered over it. Changing into our rather unfashionable yet extremely functional waterproof pants and rubber boots, a real challenge I might add, we boarded onto the gangway and onto Zodiacs (black rubber boats) for our first ever Antarctic Zodiac Cruise. I was completely stunned by everything. The bright candy-like colors of the ice and water, the adorable Chinstrap penguins perched onto the rocky cliffs and the lone seal dozing on the beach. We drove past Point Wilde, where Ernest Shackleton’s epic story of bravery and loyalty unfolded as he returned to save his 14 men that lived there for four months.My Zodiac driver, a published author and scientist Olle Carlsson who has visited Antarctica over 150 times, absorbed his surroundings with so much amazement that I had to ask “So you never get tired of this place”? He thought for a second and replied “Let’s just say I’ve been to Elephant Island more than a few times and it is well known for being bitterly cold and windy, yet the sun is shining brightly today. It is as if I am here for the first time”. It was almost as if Antarctica had a special welcome for us.
 
By the next day, the initial awkwardness of meeting everyone and reiterating the standard introductory phrases and questions had passed. The strange thing was that the transition between being strangers to becoming friends was hardly noticed at all. It seemed that we had suddenly bonded. It can be hard for people to understand this, but sharing something as powerful as visiting Antarctica with people I ate, lived and laughed with for two weeks made these people friends for a lifetime.
 
We were told that our destination for that day was Heroina Island, the largest Adelie penguin rookery in the Antarctic Peninsula. Before we left the ship, we were given a presentation on penguins by our resident ornithologist (bird specialist).Throughout the rest of this trip, the idea of Antarctica being “the greatest classroom in the world” became apparent to me. This form of interactive learning actually made learning fun. I had a picture in mind to prepare myself for what Heroina Island was going to be like, but it still completely blew my mind. Hundreds of thousands of penguins were dotted on the rocks protectively nesting, jumping off of cliffs to feed or simply waddling around. As our Zodiacs approached the island, I had to admit the smell of guano (penguin excrement) was quite overwhelming but not enough to deter us from stepping onto the island. It had been made clear to us that touching a penguin was strictly forbidden by law, but most of us were hopeful that a penguin would come up to peck our boots. However, for the most part they ignored us completely. This really gave me a sense of how insignificant we are to them and that this planet is not simply “our world”.
 
It definitely paid off for me to invest in a Canon EOS camera, as my pictures were turning out with amazing definition and color; probably a little too amazing because my friends kept running off with my camera to take pictures! Despite the urge to continuously snap pictures, one of the most important pieces of advice I took to heart was from one of the scientists on board named Dave Fletcher, who warned that viewing Antarctica through a lens 24/7 will take away the true experience of being there
 
There were rumors of the possibility of seeing some of the majestic Emperor Penguins the day after but sea and ice conditions limited that. Despite my dashed hopes of meeting a penguin as tall as I am, our revised agenda brought us to Brown Bluff and our first step onto the actual Antarctic continent. Along the shore of Brown Bluff were adorable Gentoo penguins as well as an Elephant Seal lazily rolling around on the beach. I have to admit I was quite jealous after some of my friends reported witnessing a skua snatch a penguin chick. This may sound horrible at first, but it is just the cycle of nature. The remaining part of that day consisted of relaxing on board and on deck as well as participating in an array of workshops from art to music to navigation.antarctica-6
 
The 5.30AM wakeup call the following morning was followed by a hike up a steep and snow-covered mountain on Danco Island. To say this was a challenge is an understatement. We were hungry, sleepy and for some of us it was the first time hiking whereby our boots sank a foot into the snow every step we took. If it were anywhere else but Antarctica it would have been easy to give up. With encouragement and willpower, every person pulled through. The breathtaking view at the summit quickly erased our complaints over the hike, though the American students did grumble over the fact that nobody brought a large American flag when the Canadians did and proudly took a group photo! At the summit, we dispersed and had a silent moment of reflection. I lied there in the snow just absorbing the sights and sounds surrounding me. It is quite impossible in Shanghai to ever have the chance to relax from my busy life and form a connection with nature. But up on top of a mountain in Danco Island in Antarctica, essentially in the middle of nowhere, the feeling is immensely powerful.
 
Our day did not stop there as we wolfed down eggs and toast for breakfast before heading out to Neko Harbor. There, we rotated in groups around three stations: collecting plankton samples, a short hike up a mountain to do ice core drilling (the way down was a long and steep slide!) and reflecting on our journey thus far on the beach. Though I was separated from my group of friends, my good karma had in store for me something I will never forget. As I sat on the beach at my final station, closing my eyes and reflecting, the rumbling sound of the ice that had continuously grown louder in that past hour resounded once again, clearer than ever before. I opened my eyes and sat upright, camera ready in hand, as if I knew exactly what was coming. About a minute later a gigantic block of ice carved away from the ice shelf directly in front of us and crashed into the water. As sleepy students scrambled off of the beach to escape the waves that followed, I ran backwards snapping pictures on my camera!
 
Our busiest day yet in Antarctica concluded with a trip to the British base Port Lockeroy. There we had a chance to purchase Antarctic souvenirs, send back postcards to our families and friends and speak to the four British women about life in an Antarctic base.
 
Nobody complained about the early curfew that night. And though the next morning I was refreshed by the extra sleep, my punctuality was still a weakness as I arrived late at the gangway. But yet again, karma was good to me. Because I was so late, I got to share a Zodiac with only two other students, and that meant our Zodiac driver, Alex, could give us an adrenaline pumping ride that most of the other students never got to experience.
Our destination that day was Vernadsky Station, a Ukrainian base. The men on the base were generous enough to show us around their living quarters, research stations and the southernmost bar in the world as our passports were stamped with the official stamp of the station.antarctica-2
 
Every place we had visited in Antarctica up to that point was unique in its own way, but the Koerner Pillow Ice Cap which we visited later on that night greeted us with the most ethereal view of Antarctica yet. It was up on this ice cap that we finally found the perfect spot for our group photo to be taken.
 
The following day was our final day in Antarctica, and I tried not to think about the reality of leaving. We sailed into Deception Island, an active volcanic area, where we explored the old whaling stations and whale bones amid the heavy smell of sulfur. We knew we were about to leave Antarctica, but we were not about the leave without doing something insane. What crazier thing could one possibly do in Antarctica than swim in the frigid waters? And that is exactly what we did. Though we did get a chance to jump into a 27m make-shift “hot spring” pool heated by the volcanic vents of the island after jumping into the ocean, having half our bodies in 42 degree Celsius water while our other half was exposed to a near freezing temperature was intense.
 
Our battle against sea sickness back across the merciless Drake was filled with inspiring workshops and presentations on publicizing our trips, funding for expeditions, tracing our carbon footprints (the trip was carbon neutral) and youth empowerment. The alumni of SOI have gone on to represent their countries for COP15, petitioned their governments and started their own organizations. Sun Ye, an alumnus from Beijing, wrote an environmental book that was published by the Chinese Science Press.antarctica-4
 
In our pod groups we reflected on the highs, lows and learning experiences of our trip as we rounded off our stay on the ship with a photography and limerick competition, thanked the fantastic crew of the ship who had to put up with a group of rowdy teenagers and our final pod group performance where students reflected on Antarctica through everything from tableaus to a remix of Tik Tok. We also wrote letters to ourselves that SOI would mail to us in exactly one year.
 
Our last two days in Ushuaia were bittersweet. On one hand we were all trying to have our final moments of fun together, yet the thought of returning home was always at the back of our minds. As we said goodbye to our “floating home”, we had a few hours to explore Ushuaia and enjoy a traditional South American meal before we got ready for the dinner and dance. That night, we danced away to hip hop and techno music supplied by a DJ up until midnight. On the way back to the hotel, we sang Happy Birthday to one of my best friends on the ship who turned 18.
 
The following day we woke up with a heavy heart as we packed our bags and prepared to leave Ushuaia for Santiago. We made a stopover at the Tierra del Fuego national park where we took countless pictures before heading to the airport. Tearful goodbyes had to be quickly exchanged in Santiago as the large contingent of students and staff rushed to board the plane to Miami that was being held for them. Even though I did miss my flight to L.A, had my new L.A flight randomly stopover in Peru, survived a seven hour layover in L.A, returned to Shanghai completely jetlagged at 10P.M and went to school the next day, none of these things could take away the look on my face that reflected how amazing the trip was to me. The schoolwork I had after missing a total of 10 days of school was a harsh wake up call. And though I had to catch up and suffered from post-expedition blues, I would do it all over again if I could.
 
On my journal entry dated 7/1/2010, the final line I wrote was “I want this to last forever”. Yes, this may be unrealistic but I will always have my pictures, memories and a million stories to tell.
 
 
By Natasha Weaser

 

 

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