Journey to Antarctica

Where to begin? I have so many thoughts and emotions swirling around my head right now. It has been an incredible and humbling journey to Antarctica and it’s hard to believe my long term dream of visiting ‘the white continent’ has been fulfilled. It’s Wednesday the 17th of March and our last full day aboard our trusty Russian vessel, the Akademik Ioffe, as we traverse the wild Drake Passage.

I feel absolutely and completely exhausted. The expedition schedule has been relentless. Every day has been spent making numerous excursions on the land and waters of Antarctica. With the exceptionally good weather we’ve had (excluding the current crossing of the Drake Passage) there have been countless opportunities to experience the natural wonders of this beautiful place.

Inspiration on ice

I’ve had the privilege of sharing this experience with some very talented and interesting people from countries like China, India, Quatar, United Arab Emirates, England, Ireland, USA, and the Netherlands, not to mention the effervescent Aussie contingent. We all came on this expedition not just to enjoy the scenery and wildlife of Antarctica, but also to learn more about leadership, sustainability and the major environmental threats to Antarctica, the biggest of which is now climate change. Guiding us on this journey has been Robert Swan, the first man   crazy enough to walk to both the South Pole and North Pole. Rob and his organisation, ‘2041’, have led over 500 people on expeditions to Antarctica since 2003, many of whom have become powerful advocates for action on climate change and the protection of Antarctica.

It’s not very often you get to meet someone who has achieved such incredible feats of physical and mental endurance as Robert Swan. Piece by piece Rob has helped us understand what it takes to be an inspirational leader and how it’s possible to achieve anything if you are truly committed and prepared to put in the hard yards. Case in point, in the 1990’s Rob spent 7 years rallying support and raising funds to remove 1500 tonnes of waste from Bellingshausen Station on King George Island in Antarctica. Not long after the rubbish was removed from the beach at Bellingshausen Station the penguins reclaimed it as their own.

Bring out the young guns

But inspiration comes from many sources and on this trip I’ve been very heartened by the enthusiasm and ingenuity of the young people on the expedition. There’s a number of university students, young corporate professionals, youth workers, budding professional athletes and even a pop star, Hayley Warner, who was the Australian Idol runner up in 2009. All of them are eager and willing to take on the challenge of creating a more sustainable world and intuitively understand that it’s a necessity for human survival.

Sick of ‘The Drake’

As I contemplate the environmental challenges of the world, my immediate environment shakes me back to reality. I think I can hear someone in the cabin next to me heaving up their breakfast. And I think I’m not far off doing the same. The ship is still rocking about a great deal but it is considerably more docile than last night. We had force 10 winds and waves up to about 7 metres. It made it really hard to sleep as the ship violently rocked back and forth, shuddering and creaking from the impact of the waves. We thought we had “Drake proofed” our cabin, but every so often during the night some other object would be dislodged and flung across the cabin. Books, chairs, ipods, shoes and so on. Yesterday I felt sick from the continuous rolling of the ship so I went to bed early and skipped dinner – something I’d never do on dry land. The Drake Passage has been referred to by many sailors as the roughest and most unpredictable seas in the world. After last night I can see why.

Back to the start

As we sail back towards the tip of South America, my mind floats back to the start of the journey where it all began. My first stand-out memory of Antarctica was waking up to see the Lemaire Channel shrouded in cloud and mist outside my cabin window, as the ship slowly cruised down this spectacular waterway. It looked magical and I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning receiving the biggest gift of all. I chucked on my beanie, gloves and jacket, grabbed my camera gear and bolted for the top deck. I was one of the first to arrive. Waiting for me was Robert Swan. He gave me a firm hand shake and proudly welcomed me to his Antarctica. I stood and stared in awe at the spectacular mountains and snow laden craggy peaks either side of the channel. It was a surreal moment.

Enter the iceberg graveyard

Later that day we had our first Antarctic landing on Petermann Island where we were greeted by a multitude of penguins squawking around the shoreline. We were treated to some spectacular scenery as storm clouds clustered around the nearby mountain range and I thought I was in photography heaven.

In the afternoon we jumped into the Zodiacs (small boats) and cruised around an area known as the Iceberg Graveyard and got our first introduction to these floating icy wonders. The shapes, textures and shades of blue were utterly amazing. As you look at the icebergs it’s almost impossible to comprehend that they have been created by natural, random forces. It was a captivating first day and from the first moment I fell in love with Antarctica.

The days that followed almost became a blur as each new experience trumped the last. Our guides kept telling us, “it usually isn’t this good”, referring to the fantastic weather and the great luck we were having with wildlife spotting. As our journey unfolded we slowly sailed our way from the Lemaire Channel northwards up the Antarctic Peninsula.

On terra firma

Throughout the expedition we undertook a number of hikes on the islands and mainland of Antarctica. It was great to get out and stretch the legs and stand on firm ground after all the time spent on the ship. At Orne Harbour we clambered our way up a steep icy slope towards a gnarly looking mountain ridge. At the top waiting for us was a colony of Chinstrap penguins who were squawking about, socialising and waddling around the rocky terrain. The fact they were up there is a mark of their tenacity and dexterity despite their seeming awkwardness. On the other side of the ridge was a huge icy slope running down to the sea with surreal shades of light green and pink from the algae living in the snow. The algae lie dormant in the winter, then in the warmer months they awaken and feed off the flow of nutrients from the thawing rocks and soil.

Negotiating the ridge

The view was sublime, but negotiating my way along the ridge was a bit nerve wracking knowing that if I tripped or lost my footing I would rapidly slide down the icy slope to the rocky bottom and my certain demise. I had a walking pole to aid me, which is a bit like having a third leg for extra stability. Running along the top of the ridge were a series of large jagged rocks, much like the fangs of some mythic beast. Way off in the distance, floating quietly in the foggy harbour was our trusty ship the Akademik Ioffe. It looked a bit like a toy boat floating in a giant bathtub. Orne Harbour summed up Antarctica for me. A place that is rugged, harsh, serene and beautiful all at once. I felt so lucky to be there and wondered whether this is what Earth felt like before human civilisation started reshaping the face of the planet and generally stuffing things up.

Close encounters with a whale

In Wilhemina Bay we were treated to a morning of Humpback Whale sightings and close encounters as the gargantuan beasts wallowed in the calm waters around our Zodiacs shooting out great breaths of misty air through their blowholes. It was also very exciting to see the whales ‘spy hopping’ – a behaviour where they poke their heads out of the water so they can see what’s going on above the surface. I have always wanted to see a whale doing this but didn’t really understand what it was all about. Now I get it. They are very curious and seem to enjoy interacting with the gawking humans. In Antarctica tour operators are required to maintain a distance of 5 metres from wildlife, but this doesn’t stop the wildlife from breaking the rule!

I can honestly say that seeing whales up close and personal in their natural environment is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I think it would be difficult to find anyone that isn’t moved by an encounter like this. Then again there are many who are happy for these graceful creatures to be violently slaughtered in the name of commerce, science, culture, or plain old culinary indulgence.

Whales back from the brink, well almost

Seven species of whale inhabit Antarctica and the Southern Ocean;  the Blue, Humpback, Sei, Orca, Minke, Southern Right and Sperm. Most of these species exist in relatively small populations compared to their pre-whaling numbers. Intensive whaling from the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s pushed many species to the brink of extinction, but they are now recovering due to greater protection from whaling. The big concern is that they now face a new threat.

Many whales primarily live off a small shrimp like creature called Krill, however, Krill populations have decreased by as much as 80% in the last 30 years. Research is indicating that global warming is making the oceans more acidic and reducing the amount of sea ice cover, both of which have a detrimental effect on Krill populations. Krill are regarded as a ‘keystone’ species which means they are integral to the ongoing stability and health of the ecosystem. Without them we can say good bye to whales and many other species.

Hello world, this is climate change

Towards the north end of the Antarctic Peninsula we became witnesses to the very real and tangible impacts of climate change. The Akademik Ioffe floated amongst gigantic tabular icebergs – offspring of the now defunct Larsen B ice shelf.  An ice shelf  is a thick floating platform of ice that occurs when a glacier or ice sheet flows across the land and into the ocean. Antarctica has about 1,183, 590 square kilometres of ice shelf spread around various coastal regions of the continent. For about 12,000 years the Larsen B ice shelf had been a stable mass. However in the late 1990′s it started to decline in size due to increasing atmospheric and ocean temperatures from global warming.

In 2002 Larsen B rapidly broke apart without warning. It was a massive chunk of ice approximately 220 metres thick, spread out over 3250 square kilometres and weighing 500 billion tonnes before it splintered into huge pieces. At the time, scientists were shocked by the size of the ice shelf that had broken off from Antarctica and the speed at which it fell apart – just 3 weeks. After analysing the data and information available, scientists concluded climate change was happening much more rapidly than previously predicted. But Larsen B was not the first or the last ice shelf to break apart. In fact, in the past 30 years, 10 ice shelves in the Antarctic peninsula alone have lost 26,000 square kilometres of ice and the trend is accelerating.

Larsen B left overs and lunch time for Killer Whales

So there we were, many years later looking at the massive icy left overs of the Larsen B ice shelf that had floated out to sea north of the Antarctic mainland, only to be pulled back down the west coast of the peninsula by ocean currents. The tabular icebergs were one of the most impressive things I observed in Antarctica. Whilst they lacked the intricacy, curvature and subtle beauty of some of the smaller icebergs we saw, ‘the tabulars’ were brutish, rectangular and slab-like. Their sheer size and bulk made us feel like ants playing in their shadow.

While cruising around the tabular icebergs we were treated to a remarkable wildlife show as numerous Killer Whales (Orcas) hunted seals and penguins. The drama unfolded around our Zodiac as two Orcas doggedly chased a penguin. Some people were cheering for the Orca’s and some for the penguin which kept propelling itself momentarily out of the water, perhaps in the naive hope that it might fly away from it’s frightening pursuers. Some say the penguin survived the chase, some say it didn’t. It was an amazing display of the fight for survival that goes on day in day out in Antarctica.

Let’s get sustainable

Our final day in Antarctica was both inspirational and sobering. We visited Bellingshausen Station on King George Island, the site of 2041’s E-Base (Education Base) run entirely by renewable energy in the form of wind turbines and solar thermal panels. The message was clear, if the E-Base in Antarctica can

run off clean renewable energy in the harshest environment in the world, then why can’t we do it back home? Meanwhile, off in the distance, we could hear the diesel electricity generators humming away at the Russian and Chilean bases at the bottom of the hill. It was a stark example of the challenge of our times; clean renewable energy using cutting edge technology versus outdated technology powered by polluting fossil fuels.

The life of diesel

Just think about this. To get diesel to Antarctica is not simple or cheap. The fuel has to be extracted from the ground in the form of crude oil, transported to a refinery, transformed (refined) from crude oil into diesel fuel, packaged into barrels and then transported by plane or ship (which use fossil fuels) to the continent. Every step of the way energy is expended in one form or another to get diesel to the end user. The net result is that fossil fuels are consumed in order to produce and deliver more fossil fuels to Antarctica.

It’s a vicious cycle with a huge carbon footprint. Meanwhile the technology exists to produce energy sustainably and at minimal ongoing cost. Antarctica has wind by the bucket load and the latest solar technology can produce energy even on overcast days. 2041′s E-Base was like a candle in the dark, a glimmer of hope that the future could be different – sustainable perhaps.

Antarctica forever

As this amazing journey nears it’s end, my thoughts now turn to the future and what I can personally do to help protect Antarctica and make our world more sustainable. Tomorrow morning the Akademik Ioffe will dock in Ushuaia and we’ll all return to our everyday lives. In many ways I’m not looking forward to returning to the madness of the so-called civilised world. However, I am looking forward to having a good rest after two weeks of non-stop activity. I’ve taken thousands of photos and feeling confident that I’ve got some great shots that capture the heart and soul of Antarctica.

The trip has surpassed my expectations in every way imaginable, and I feel that visiting Antarctica has deepened my love of the natural world and my commitment to it’s preservation. Over the coming months I’m planning to create a travelling Antarctica photography exhibition titled ‘Antarctica Forever‘. My hope is that through my photos of Antarctica, everyday people will see how unique and beautiful this place is and that it’s worth fighting for.

Visit the Portfolio section to see my photography from Antarctica

I would like to thank Cool Australia and 2041 for making this once in a lifetime experience possible.

2 Responses to “Journey to Antarctica”

  1. Philip Counsel says:

    WOW: Michael that is simply stunning. I’m so very happy for you. Your story of your incredible experiences in Antartica certainly brought so much joy and happiness to my day. I eagerly look forward to catching up and hearing first hand of your trip on the next Reach camp we support.
    Thank you for sharing. Regards Philip

  2. Shane Ambry says:

    Hey Michael, Loving the new website, – its a great look and compliments your work.


    Have a good one

    Shane Ambry

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