FOR A place that seemingly has nothing — no cities, no hotels, no restaurants — Antarctica sure is full of sights unlike anywhere else in the world.
The story of that event and the eventual evacuation of the passengers onboard by Chinese helicopter to the Australian icebreaking ship Aurora Australis became worldwide news at the time.
I was the doctor and photographer on that Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) and found myself at the center of what became a media storm. Unfortunately, that drama rather overshadowed the reasons behind our expedition journey south to the white continent.
The AAE was a science-based expedition from the University of New South Wales, Australia that relied on private funding from paying passengers and university grants.
The aim was to travel to the area of Commonwealth Bay in East Antarctica to repeat and compare scientific observations with those made by an Australian geologist and explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, who first landed there 100 years earlier with the ‘original’ AAE.
On what must have been the Edwardian equivalent of today’s space travel, Mawson and his team had established a base hut there at Cape Denison — a location that has now been proven to be one of the windiest places on Earth. Over the following two years, the team made important oceanographic, geological, and meteorological measurements. An example of such measurements is illustrated in the image below (right) where a member of the expedition is firing a dart into the skin of a seal to collect full thickness skin and fat samples that can then be analyzed to assess nutrition and chemical exposure status.
Clearly, we had more creature comforts than Mawson and his men, yet visiting the coast of East Antarctica is still a difficult proposition, and it felt very remote, geographically speaking. The desolate landscape with its multi-hued, blue ice features and the intense, 24-hour light of such a southern latitude made for a wonderful, yet challenging environment in which to photograph.
Antarctica is undoubtedly a beautiful place, but one that changes remarkably in mood with the weather. Delightfully inquisitive penguins are a constant presence at the edge of the ice, and their charismatic personality means I never tire of photographing them.
Much is still unknown about the frozen continent, partly because of its incredibly harsh conditions, and along with the expedition’s findings, my photographs were intended to help focus attention on the scientific investigation into climate change in Antarctica.
I’m a believer in sustainable tourism to Antarctica. By controlling access and overseeing rules designed to minimize the environmental impact of visitors there is the opportunity to allow people from all corners of the globe to safely experience the beauty of these landscapes and wildlife in this special continent.
The International Association of Antarctic Tourism Operators (IAATO) provides regulatory oversight of the mostly ship-based tourism to this important continent, and all ships must provide educational content as part of their tourist charter.
This exposure to teaching from experts while out in the field and the first-hand, raw experience of this remarkable continent serves to imprint upon visitors the importance of Antarctica to the Earth as a whole, especially when it comes to the continent’s vulnerability to the impacts of a changing climate directly linked to man’s activities.
On returning home, I felt better prepared and inspired to speak up on behalf of the white continent and to help spread the message to others that Antarctica is a place we must protect at all costs.
Spectacle surrounds me. The majesty of the land, sea and skyscapes almost overwhelms. It is hard to process the sensory assault of sights, sounds and smells, the frigid touch of the air, the taste of salt on my lips. The vistas that addle the eye, the moist hollow exhalation of a humpbacks breath, the fishy farmyard tang of penguin guano. But this is not just data. It is raw, visceral and emotive. The most incredible thing about Antarctica is how it makes you feel.
Insignificant. Miniscule. Perhaps shrunk from our egotism we feel our real size, vulnerable hair-less apes don’t seem so big and clever in a blizzard. Antarctica is so immense, both in terms of its expansive geography and riotously rugged topography, you can’t help but feel small. Our cruise has barely brushed the tip of the proverbial ice-berg, the slender finger of the Peninsula that reaches out to tickle Tierra del Fuego. The mountainous Trans-Antarctic massif is massive, but almost entirely buried beneath a smooth all consuming cloak of ice often thousands of metres thick. Whisk it away and Antarctica is not a single land mass but a vast archipelago of mountains and basins. I feel infinitesimally tiny.
Transitory. The ice is hundreds of thousands if not millions of years old in places. Air trapped in cores drilled out from the sheet shows us the mix of gases in our ancestral atmosphere. Up to six hundred thousand years ago. At that time our hominid heritage was still grubbing about with rather rudimentary intelligence somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. I am but a blink in the eye of this ancient world. I feel stupidly young.
I am touched by beauty. The creativity wrought by the elemental pairing of hydrogen and oxygen is astonishing. I see the bonds between them that make up the majority of me, us, unleashed to a world-shaping potential. It is exhilarating as monstrous glaciers grunt and grind over the rock before calving to build castles in the sea. And what castles.
Nature is a restless sculptress. Her tools are primary forces; the wind, waves and sunshine. Even the bubbles trapped in the ice carve grooves as they’re released. The ocean bristles orgiastically with flamboyant but ephemeral creations. Bergs like enormous cuboid edifices of blocky brutalism. Pinnacled cathedrals. Frozen ramparts and battlements of fortified ice, or the sinuous, sensuous curves of sleek-surfaced transports of delight.
With nine tenths of their mass underwater in shallow bays the bergs ground, littering the horizon like a compromised armada. They list, heel, roll, right themselves again, crack, split and fragment. Shattered faces scatter light. Compressed ice shines deep bottle blue from within. Textures range from gritty composites to scalloped delicacy. I am inspired by the timeless artist’s imagination.
Of course I feel cold. This is obvious but important. Unlike the Stygian sub-zero savagery of winter the summer is mild. Temperatures hover around freezing. However the chill contains a thinly veiled threat, knowing that a sharp-toothed wind can bite deep into your bones in minutes.
Fear occasionally surfaces. This is forbidding and foreboding territory. Perhaps it is but a healthy respect for our interloper status? I feel alien. An imposter. Ill-equipped. This is not home. There is no warm embrace of earth. No green reassurance. Ice scours the land of almost all life. The only terrestrial growth to speak of is the incredible engine of icy locomotion that flows from the shores. In contrast the sea teems.
The water is olive-tinged with the explosive growth of planktonic diatoms. Crab-eater seal fur and Orca skin glistens verdantly due to the attached algae. Krill graze this harvest, and they power a bounteous marine food chain of gargantuan productivity. I am astonished by the rich fecundity.
Above all else I feel unbridled joy. Hope. Not all planets can be as beautiful as this one. Antarctica is like stepping into another world. I sense that same shift in consciousness that explorers or even astronauts feel. The overview effect of interconnection, interdependence and indivisibility writ large. My heart expands, fills with elation. I stand outside myself and know that in this moment there is only exquisite splendour. It feels amazing.
Ed Gillespie is Co-Founder of www.wearefuterra.com, author of ‘Only Planet – a flight-free adventure around the world’ and in the Antarctic…
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