Just the Tip of the Iceberg...
by zcaron, Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 01:58:20 PM EST
I feel helpless when asked to describe Antarctica. It is the command centre of our world's ecosystems, yet the slightest mention of the word 'Antarctica' renders your mind to a place seemingly farther and more foreign to humankind than the moon. Only through poetry could anyone even begin to do it justice. A summary of the experience is just the tip of the ice berg, but I have a feeling might be worth it.
Getting there was half the journey. I made an effort to fly as little as possible in order to lower my impact on climate change. Amidst those over-land travels I spent time visiting fast disappearing glaciers of the Andes mountain range and indigenous farming communities, speaking to locals about changing seasons, admiring solar panels and wind turbines in the most peculiar and unexpected places, reading the daily energy bulletin in Spanish, thinking about links between poverty, societal structure, and abilities to adapt to climate change, and wondering how 20 people manage to fit into a small Volkswagen van for the daily commute to work.
Joining the expedition team in Buenos Aires was like having a bucket of ice cold water dumped over my head, waking me from a dream and pulling me back into a familiar world. Most students were from the US or Canada, giving me an unexpected dose of culture shock, although still in Argentina. Not knowing what to expect, our new family of 100 (from over a dozen countries) set out to sea across the Drake Passage. Two days later we saw land again: Antarctica.
If you weren't grinning it was because you were too busy picking your jaw up off the floor. And if you weren't learning, well, you probably weren't there. Landscapes were heart-wrenching. Wildlife was abundant. Thought-provoking lectures spanned the history, politics and science of Antarctica, yet speaking to the polar experts one-on-one while peering over the edge of the ship or sitting on a glacier was where the most integrated learning happened. The icing on the cake was the personal stories from researchers and explorers who have been having a love affair with the continent for over 50 years.
From hiking to wildlife research, or from scuba diving to safaris, there is nothing as intimate as the natural world you are let into upon setting foot in Antarctica. It is the one place on earth where humans are truly guests in another's home. And no one can deny the intensity of that unique feeling. The albatross accompanied us across the sea, riding the wind at the stern. Humpback whales graced our first evening with their silhouetted playfulness in the sunset. Adelie penguins would stare back at us from the top of icebergs mimicking the size of our ship.
Once we crossed 60 degrees south, we took the Zodiacs (small inflatable motor boats) to land on the mainland of the Western Peninsula and surrounding islands. The central regions of Antarctica are white and flat, whereas the Western Peninsula is a gem of glaciers, jagged mountain peaks, curving ice caps, and dramatic ice bergs. One landing was on a rocky beach with ice cubes the size of your body washing up on shore. Another was onto a slab of sea ice in a bay as calm as glass with the surrounding sounds of avalanches every 4 minutes from mountain peaks high above us. Another was onto the beach of an active volcano crater where we went for a slightly brisk swim followed by digging into the gritty sand to find the hot thermal waters to de-numb our bodies.
When on shore it was like being transported into another world - every single time. Even for polar experts who had been making these landings for 50 years were repeatedly stunned - "Every time is like the first time," they would say. We would find ourselves staring out over thousands upon thousands of penguins as their eggs hatched beneath them and mothers and fathers returned to feed their young. The smell of guano was distinct and hawk-like Skuas would circle above diving in at eggs or chicks in unguarded nests. Sitting on rocks at the water's edge we would watch penguins swimming as if they were dolphins, rapidly and in the style of renowned synchronized swimmers. The event doubled its audience when a leopard seal appeared and began chasing its dinner - the back up troops of penguins dove in from the shore to help distract the seal. Every moment was irrevocably enthralling.
Perhaps the most important part of this story is why Antarctica is the way it is. The Antarctic Treaty has been active since 1959. The Treaty outlines that only peaceful activities are permitted, the environment must be respected, and no land claims may be made. This means no weapon development, no oil exploration, no fishing or whaling, no garbage, and restricted number of visitors at a time. Is there any other continent on earth that has not seen a war? Is there any other continent with as stringent environmental protection? Is there any other continent with as strong international cooperation?
I could only describe it as the "Perfect World" we are taught about as children - "peace on earth" and "reduce, reuse, recycle" were the mantras of my generation. The idealism is always there, but falls to the sidelines as you learn there are still wars and that people are still altering the environment. You might call it jaded, or you might call it reality, but that state of mind changes over time - or at least it did for me.
But by the time we had returned to the Beagle Channel, any touch of jaded feelings I might have had before were erased. As I stepped off the ship with wobbly sea legs, the 6-year-old idealist in me breathed a little sigh of relief - I was filled to the brim with hope, optimism, and a whole deeper level of calmness and sureness that I never before thought possible. Feeding this renewed mindset into my daily life and work will not be through one or two specific actions, but through a sustained effort to share and build those same feelings in others, so that we may all be one step closer to understanding our modest place on this earth.
And that, is how I would begin to describe Antarctica.
What is Students On Ice?
This unique expedition, lead by Geoff Green, is one of few expeditions in the world that is a) directed entirely towards youth (ages 13 to 21), and b) is focused around an education program of sustainability. It goes once a year to both the Arctic and Antarctic. The idea is to educate and inspire students in the best classroom in the world: the outdoors. The end goal is for these young leaders to leave with a sense of respect, awareness, and ideas for positive change upon return to their home country. Photos, videos, maps and journals from the expedition can be found here http://www.studentsonice.com/antarctic20 07/
Written for Alumni News, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia