What Antarctica taught me

On our way back to South America, when crossing the Drake Passage and being one day away from Ushuaia, we had a special session on how to respond to the question “How was Antarctica?”. We were recommended to come up with a catchy one-liner that would make the audience curious and invite questions. Since I have never been particularly good with one-liners, there will be lengthy posts instead.

This first post is on what Antarctica taught me during these three weeks of exploring the peninsula (see my previous post on why I travelled there).

First of all, Antarctica showed me what our planet has looked like before humans started to exploit it. I remember reading about first European expeditions to California. The early explorers found the coast full of wildlife: seals, pelicans, cormorants were occupying the beaches in such numbers that it was difficult to pass between them. The Californian coast looks very different nowadays.

But Antarctica is still teeming with wildlife. Penguin colonies cover most of the snowless land. Gentoo, chinstraps, adelies and macaronis are busily walking between enormous bodies of elephant and fur seals. Leopard seals can be spotted on the beach, in the water, or resting on drifting ice. Skuas are always ready to steal a penguin egg or a chick. Albatrosses, shags, and petrels cover the sky. Almost every day humpback, minke or fin whales can be seen surfacing in the bays. Family groups of orcas hunt penguins and seals.

Our landings were limited in time and space. No more than two hours per landing and we had to stay on narrow and short designated trails. Initially, these restrictions frustrated me. I’m used to hiking deep into the wilderness on my own and spending weeks dissolving into nature. Here I was surrounded by so many people and almost nowhere to go. Such a pristine breathtaking place and I was not able to connect to it.

But later on I realized that us being restricted gave the necessary time and space to the animals. Penguins and seals felt mostly at ease, going about their business and not minding us humans. For example, penguins are using paths called penguin highways and we were not allowed to walk on them. Once a penguin decided to lye down on a human trail just in front of us. The whole group stopped and was patiently waiting for the penguin to continue walking which took quite a while. This was a valuable lesson. To co-exist in harmony with the nature, we humans have to limit our intrusion into it.

Antarctica taught me how inter-connected everything on our planet is. We were watching the sea ice and ice shelves and learning how important they are for the entire planet. For example, ice shelves serve as barriers holding back glaciers and ice rivers. If ice shelves shrink or disappear, melting of the Antarctic ice is accelerated which results in global sea level rise. Melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, where most warming happens, would raise sea levels by 6 m. The ocean food chain presents another example. Antarctic krill was shown to depend on algae growing under sea ice. No sea ice means no krill and thus no food for fish, marine birds and mammals. Overall, Antarctica is currently losing about 152 cubic km of ice per year.

Photos by Will Rogan

Another lesson I learned is that shared values and appreciation for science and nature can enable fruitful collaborations despite political disagreements. Antarctica is the only place on Earth that is fully international and dedicated to peace and open scientific cooperation as defined by the Antarctic Treaty in 1969. While we were on our voyage we got to celebrate the 60 year anniversary of this international treaty.

Photo by Will Rogan

There are currently 70 permanent research stations in Antarctica, which represent 29 countries from every continent on Earth. Our group has visited two: Carlini (Argentinian) and Great Wall (Chinese). On both stations, we received the warmest welcome and got an opportunity to learn about the everyday life and science of the Antarctic researchers. For example, we learned how to live in a sphere capsule and that the sea leopards pose the main danger for divers.

Political tensions in the default world do not obstruct support and sharing of information, food, resources, and data between the research stations.

Photos by Will Roger

We returned home with a strong desire to maintain Antarctica as untouched, peaceful and open for international cooperation as we found it during our voyage. However, the effects of climate change on the continent are more visible every year. Today Antarctica needs more protection than ever. The Homeward Bound participants committed to work together on supporting the introduction of a new marine protected area in the Antarctic peninsula, the region which sustains most of the Antarctic wildlife, is most visited and at the same time most affected by global warming.

Video by HB4 participant Monika Naranjo-Shepherd

In the next posts, I will write about my experience on the ship, our leadership training, and future plans.

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