Reflections on Antarctica

I have been busy with getting myself together here in Australia, but it is important to me to do a post on my reflections of my trip to Antarctica. The trip, with all its ups and downs, was without a doubt the trip of a lifetime. Who knows how/if I will ever find my way back to the last continent on Earth…but having visited, lived and studied there (albeit shortly), I have become deeply drawn to it, and therefore it will remain in my heart for the rest of my life.

Neither words nor pictures can adequately describe the unique beauty of Antarctica. This, although uttered by so many people so many times, is an understatement. You can have your coffee table books with enlarged, glossy photographs of icebergs, glaciers, and penguins…but nothing is as impressive upon the mind (and the soul) as being there, and feeling so small as a human being merely visiting such a raw place. You grow understanding and admiration for the animals that do have to eke out a living on the harshest of continents.

The vast majority of the continent is unconquerable, endless snow and ice fields. The mountains have such an imposing presence, and the sterility of the environment is hard to comprehend. I want to touch upon this, something that I spent a lot of time thinking about – Antarctica’s desolation. It was a place so different from any other that I was used to in one big sense – how limited the life is on that continent.

endless desolation - pic by Dr. Smykla

When we visited Marble Point, where there was no current penguin colony, we (and some skuas) were the only animals around. It was so incredibly silent – a silence so pure and absolute that after several hours, my mind started hearing sounds that couldn’t possibly be there (like the hum of a distant highway). The only sounds that were present was the wind and the ice moving with the water. Antarctica, in many places, presents sensory deprivation – the lack of sound, color, smell, or feeling was nearly disorienting. I couldn’t imagine how much more severe such deprivation would be in places on the inner continent – like at the Pole, where the white land merges with the clear sky, there are no landmarks, and any sense of distance is warped and twisted within the mind. Many of our sites were active penguin colonies where the air was filled with the noises and smell of penguins, but from a distance (or over a ridge like at Cape Crozier) these senses quickly attenuated to nothing. The land was volcanic rock, mostly shades of brown ranging into black. Where there was no basalt, there was ice and snow, which was the purest white. The Southern Ocean was a cobalt blue, with the bergs floating on it ranging in different shades of blue – real ice blue (which to me, before, was just a gum or drink flavor). Once we were dropped at a site, watching the helicopter leave was like watching our only lifeline back to humanity escape. If McMurdo were to disappear, there would be no way we could have survived. It reinforced the idea that we, as humans, are simple and helpless visitors to the most extreme continent.

leaving us on our own - picture by Dr. Smykla

Another theme in my mind surrounding Antarctica was its pristine-ness…the fact that it was unknown of and undiscovered, and remained so until 1895 (first confirmed landing). This and its extreme, harsh environment ensured that it has remained relatively untouched (compared to the other land masses, and even to the Arctic, which has a long history of human occupation). Even with the introduction of the first Antarctic exploration programs, it was an untameable place, claiming most of the lives of the early explorers. Once permanent bases were established, so began the Antarctic Treaty (1959) whose purpose was to ensure “in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” Also meaning that no country can claim Antarctic territories, and that scientific research of Antarctica is to be promoted. It set up the protection of the land and its animals, and set up basic rules for countries to behave – no nuclear testing, no waste disposal, and no military activity. This has ensured that, unlike the rest of the planet, the Antarctic is pretty much unimpacted by human activity there (except around the bases, inevitably). So going out to the wild of the Antarctic is like viewing it as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago – and how it will go on existing long after we are gone.

I also marveled at the simplicity (or sterility, depending on how you look at it) – the lack of colors, smells, or sounds. When we would fly a helicopter to a site, we would be flying over a seemingly endless stretch of white and blue…absolute and pure, untainted beauty.

As a scientist-to-be, I started contemplating my future in zoological/ecological research, and I came to the conclusion that Antarctica would be an ideal place to study – while we have discovered much in the past few decades, there is still a lot that is yet to be understood, particulary concerning climate change (the hot topic of the century). So who knows…maybe I will end up studying Antarctic science in the future. I am not ruling it out as a possibility. In fact, I would favor looking into grad schools that have Antarctic researchers doing work down there….

My time at McMurdo Station was so special too – the place is very interesting in its own right, to say the least…full of eclectic characters and the different stories of how they came to be in Antarctica. Some of them “old dogs”, well-seasoned and experienced, others just as new and wide-eyed as me. Some (the majority, ~2,000) who come just for the summer season, and the crazier ones (the minority, ~300) that stay through the 7-month long winter, cut off from the rest of the world. I will miss the atmosphere, where everyone is part of a close-knit community of oddballs and hardcore scientists. Ever single day I stepped out in complete fascination and wonder at the place around me, hardly believing where I was.

And as I wrote this, I have been looking through my pictures (the hundreds of them) and it makes me realize all over again how extremely special this trip was, how amazing my time was down there, how very lucky I was to even be considered for such a trip, and how much I miss it already…all feelings which will grow the more time passes.

BONUS: Rare white Adelies from Cape Bird (pics by Isaac Sutherland)

leucistic Adelie

one in a million

fat white chick

and yet to come….my last Antarctic post, covering the intricacies of McMurdo Station…

edit: My time here was filled with new and exciting experiences. It was a land of the purest, untainted excitement – no tourists here! I flew in helicopters, spent a day aboard an icebreaking ship, met unusual characters, saw (and heard, and smelled…) hundreds of thousands of penguins stretching off into desolate distances, I got to hold penguin chicks. I was chased and flipper-bashed by angry Adelies (and you can’t help but laughing), and dive-bombed by defensive skua parents. I got to see orca and minke whales and Weddell seals in the wild. I felt an incrediblely scary, humbling, and yet thrilling sense of loneliness when I got (semi)lost at Cape Bird. I experienced complete loss of a sense of time in the land of the eternal sun. I spent a night in a snow survival trench. I got to meet Dave Attenborough. The amount of experience this trip has given me extends far beyond my ability to adequately describe it. It will always remain a wonderful, treasured part of my personal memories…the trip of a lifetime realized before age 23.

One response to “Reflections on Antarctica

  1. I certainly enjoyed this entry. Your observations about Antarctica’s desolation remind me of Oman, which adjoins Arabia’s Empty Quarter, maybe Earth’s second-most desolate place. The closest I have ever come to believing in any sort of god was in the Omani desert at night during a full moon. Looking out over an empty unchanging waste of rock and sand that stretched on forever in utter silence, I felt like I was connected to something impossibly old and grand, a taproot into humanity’s origins perhaps. In look forward to hearing more of your relections on Antarctica and I think your future holds a return for you. Thanks for posting and sharing with us!

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