In November of 2008 I was awarded one of 10 scholarships to travel to the bottom of the world with a Canadian organization called Students On Ice. Unfortunately, the expedition vessel M/V Ushuaia ran aground in Antarctica 24 days before we were scheduled to set sail. Much to everyone’s disappointment, the trip of a lifetime was postponed until December 2009-January 2010. However, as the group learned throughout this expedition, flexibility is the key, and as it turned out, we could not have been luckier to go than when we did.
Our expedition group comprised of 65 students from around the world. In addition, there were 24 expedition team members, educators, musicians, journalists, authors, artists, scientists, and polar experts. We all met in Miami and traveled together to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southern most city in the world. On December 30, the 2009-10 Students On Ice Antarctic Expedition sailed down the Beagle Channel and into the Drake Passage, the roughest waters in the world. However, in his 76 expeditions to Antarctica, Geoff Green, founder of SOI, had never experienced the Drake as calm as it was on this crossing. In fact, he had never seen such good weather throughout our days at the bottom of the world, something the group attributed to ‘good karma’.
Despite the relatively calm conditions, quite a few members of our group became seasick and confined themselves to their cabins, while the rest of us who had grown our ’sea legs’ rejoiced on deck, watching petrels and albatrosses or leaning into the forty-knot winds. Every day we attended lectures about Antarctica’s wildlife; expeditions, including Shackelton’s legendary expedition aboard the Endurance; the biology and physics of ice, the politics of Antarctica; climate change; and much more. Workshops were conducted in the areas of photography, art, music, journalism, knot tying, the art of the microscope, map reading and navigation, etymology, and sharing our stories to inspire others upon our return.
The morning of January 1, 2010 we spotted our first iceberg, and a few hours later we had our first glimpse of Antarctica in the form of Elephant Island, where 22 of Shackleton’s men survived for four months. We went on a zodiac cruise and saw Chinstrap Penguins, a seal, Skuas, Petrels, and tasted icebergs. As we continued further south, we ventured into a world of tabular icebergs, some of which were the size of Belgium. Throughout the next few days, we landed on Heroina Island, the largest Adelie Penguin rookery, home to 1,000,000 penguins and their chicks. We landed on several more islands, as well as the continent of Antarctica itself. We climbed and slid down glaciers, collected ice core samples, sat with penguins and seals, visited Port Lockroy, the old British Research Base, and Vernadsky, the Ukrainian Research Base, watched and listened to Fin, Minke, and Humpback Whales play, swim, and feed around our ship. We swam in the waters of Deception Island, an active volcano and old whaling station. On the evening of January 6, we began our journey north, and watched as the land we had come to love, respect, and admire disappeared into the sunset.
This expedition was not a luxury cruise. It was a powerful, transformational, humbling experience with nature. We felt the land and saw how the actions of humans directly affect the poles and their inhabitants. Never have I felt so small and out of place amidst the millions of penguins or navigating through ‘gardens’ of icebergs. Yet, our every action negatively impacts these animals’ habitat in the form of climate change. At the conclusion of this journey, our team not only became a family, but became a part of the minute number of people who have had the privilege to step onto the Great White Continent. Each and every person returned to society as an inspired member of Generation G: Green, Global, Generous, and Grateful. “Protect the Poles. Protect the Planet.”
Story and Photos by Laura Kriete-Bain