Crossing the Drake, first impressions of Antarctica

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The MV Ushuaia, docked at the port of Ushuaia, waiting for us to board

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Walking up the gangway of the MV Ushuaia, our floating home, I was filled with excitement for what lay ahead!

Walking up the gangway of the MV Ushuaia, our floating home for the next 20 days, I couldn’t even imagine what adventures lay ahead. It’s hard to describe how I felt, standing on the stern of the ship, watching the port of Ushuaia disappear into the distance. Excitement? Absolutely! A kind of excitement I have never felt before. Trepidation? None whatsoever. I think my feeling was more of a sense of mystery and anticipation of the complete unknown. I’d never been to Antarctica before and even though I’d been to the Arctic a few times, I couldn’t seem to imagine what Antarctica was going to be like. Of course I’d seen photos and watched documentaries. But the fact the fact that I was going to Antarctica… I was still in disbelief.

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Me on the stern of the MV Ushuaia, with the port of Ushuaia disappearing into the distance

 

 

As we slowly left Ushuaia behind, I wondered what it would be like when we crossed the Drake Passage. The Drake, after all, is one of the roughest seas in the world. I’d never been sea sick or motion sick before, ever. But there’s a first for everything. I wasn’t worried about it though. I had Gravol (anti-nausea meds) and my Relief Band, an electronic gizmo that combats nausea through neuromodulation. Using electrical impulses, it stimulates a nerve in the wrist which sends electrical impulses to the brain, which then sends a signal to the stomach to restore normal gastric rhythm. Yes, probably too much information, but I am a scientist and scientists wanna know. The most important part about the Relief Band is that YES, it does work and yes, the Drake Passage put it to the test.

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There is no way to take a photo to show what the Drake Passage was like. This is very, very clam and just before hitting the Antarctic Convergence

I say the Drake Passage put the Relief Band to the test. I’m not sure how many Relief Bands were on board our ship, but most of us had one. So there was lots of ‘testing’ going on.  Having said that, we were told by Greg Mortimer, our very experienced expedition leader, who has been to Antarctica by ship, many, many times, that our crossing was one of the smoothest he has ever experienced. It’s crossings like this where they call the Drake Passage, the Drake Lake. Don’t get me wrong. The ship pitched from side to side. And people were sick. Me? Just one hint of queasiness that the Relief Band took care of quickly. For those who do suffer from significant sea sickness, the crossing wasn’t fun. But it was FAR better than it was for the folks on the MV Ushuaia on the previous expedition who had 20 foot swells.

So why is the Drake Passage so notoriously rough? Blame the Antarctic Convergence. The what, you say? The Antarctic Convergence. It’s the name given to the region where the ocean currents that continuously encircle Antarctica – old, northward-flowing antarctic waters, meet the relatively warmer waters of the subantarctic. It’s where these two currents converge that things get rough. But we were really lucky. Relatively speaking, it was smooth sailing…

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A map showing the Antarctic Convergence, where the warmer waters of the north meet the colder waters of the south

Once we passed the Antarctic Convergence and made our way toward the Antarctic Peninsula, the magic began to happen. It started with icebergs. Massive icebergs! I learned that there is an entire vocabulary to describe ice – whether it’s sea ice, fast ice, tabular ice bergs, growlers…. Our introduction to ice was seeing absolutely huge slabs of ice, many taller than our ship. My reaction to seeing these massive bergs for the first time was far from eloquent. I think I must have won a prize for the number of times I said the word, “Wow”. It’s all I could come up with. And for someone who is almost never at a loss for words, this was significant. I came to experience many, many time over the course of our expedition, that this was the one word I could articulate. It was a symptom of the most wonderful sense of overwhelm that I have ever experienced.

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It’s impossible to not be in awe of landscapes like this

As we moved closer to the the South Shetland Islands, a group of islands north of the Antarctic Peninsula (the mainland, or antarctic continent), the icebergs became more numerous. I don’t care how many of those giant tabular icebergs one sees; they never lose their impact. They are so imposing. And to think that we are only seeing the 10% that is above water….

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Massive tabular icebergs. Without anything for scale, it’s impossible to convey the immense size of these. Many were far taller than our ship. And remember that 90% of an iceberg is hidden below water

The ultimate in iceberg excitement was our first sighting of penguins on an ice floe. It felt like something out of a Disney movie, but is was real. It was our new reality. I can’t even come up with the words to describe the feeling of seeing penguins on an ice floe. Wow. Yes, that’s all I could muster. But the epitome of the magic happened when we passed by a massive iceberg, taller than our ship. It was boot-shaped. And on the ‘instep’ was a group of penguins. Wow again! Needless to say, my camera was working overtime at this point. I was craving capturing the moment to share with others. Since I couldn’t find the words to describe what I was seeing and feeling, maybe I could capture it with my camera. As I came to learn, the lighting in Antarctica is magical. It is varied, often due to cloud cover, but even on bright sunny days, the light seemed different from anything I’d ever seen before. The way the subdued, gentle light was bathing this giant penguin-covered iceberg was  beyond description. A case of a picture really and truly being worth a thousand words.

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A massive iceberg with penguins hitching a ride

It’s hard to believe that seeing massive icebergs was a common thing and yet it never felt common. It always elicited the same excitement as the first time we saw them. And while we were busy doing our ‘classroom learning’, all learning came to an immediate halt and the meeting room emptied out when someone shouted, “iceberg!” or “whale!”.

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A great way to travel!

Seeing land for the first time in Antarctica was equally spectacular. Our first encounter with land was at the Aitcho Islands, a cluster of small islands on the west side of the north entrance to the English Straight, which separates Greenwich Island and Robert Island, in the South Shetland Islands, and north of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Aitcho Islands, as they are officially known, were originally named the H.O. Islands – the H.O. standing for Hydrographic Office, a name of military original given to the islands when they were mapped in 1935.

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Our first sights of Antarctica were these massive chunks of rock near the Aitcho Islands in the South Shetland Islands

Our first shore landing happened in there Aitcho Islands, on Barientos Island. And it was our up close and personal introduction to…..PENGUINS!!!

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Sparring Chinstrap penguins

 

Our Homeward Bound journey

img_1513Last night I returned home to Canada, after the most extraordinary adventure of my entire life – the Homeward Bound Women In Science Leadership Expedition to Antarctica.

I was one of 76 women on the expedition. Homeward Bound was created by Australian business woman, leadership expert, and visionary, Fabian Dattner. Fabian had a dream. A dream of what could be accomplished if women had an equal voice at the leadership table, especially tables where decisions are made about creating a more sustainable future for our planet and its people. She shared her dream with Jess Melbourne-Thomas of the Australian Antarctic Division and with that, a dream became reality. Homeward Bound was born. A leadership development program for women in science, with the goal of having 1,000 women participate over 10 years.

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Fabian Dattner, contemplating the Antarctic landscape

After 2 years of immense work, planning and dedication by the Homeward Bound Team as well as a year of very busy pre-expedition preparation by the 76 women participants – juggling family life, work, and preparing for leaving it all behind for a month – Homeward Bound launched in Ushuaia, Argentina – known as the ‘end of the world’ and the gateway to Antarctica – on December 2, 2016.

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Our Homeward Bound adventure kits – our expedition jackets, a notebook/diary, touque, water bottle, pendant, and backpack – from our incredible sponsors

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Trying on our Homeward Bound expedition jackets. Thank you Kathmandu for your sponsorship.

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Boarding the MV Ushuaia, headed for the Antarctic Peninsula

We boarded our ship, the MV Ushuaia, our floating home for the next 20 days. The Ushuaia would take us across the Drake Passage – some of the roughest seas in the world – and then up and down the Antarctic Peninsula, going ashore daily to explore the magical landscapes of the frozen continent. While exploring Antarctica and learning about its polar ecosystems, the species that live there, the Antarctic climate and the history of humans on the continent, we were also learning about how to become strong leaders, influencers and change makers. Each day, the Homeward Bound faculty (consisting of leadership, strategy and visibility coaches and Antarctic science experts) led us through a program to bolster our leadership abilities. To receive this world-class instruction from experts in the field and with Antarctica as our backdrop, was an incredible experience in so many ways.

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Our first sighting of land in Antarctica

We ‘worked’ on ourselves, through analyzing diagnostic test such as the Lifestyles Inventory, 4MAT and MSCEIT. These tests helped us understand ourselves, how we operate – the good and the bad – and how we can take these qualities to bolster or change them to enhance our leadership abilities. We built personal strategy maps to pave the way for the lives we want to live, to carve out the path forward. After all, it’s hard to know how to get there when you don’t know where you are going. Kit Jackson’s strategy mapping really helped us figure out our priorities and how to achieve the things that are important to us. We learned, from Julia May, how to increase our visibility – a critical component of getting people’s ear on the issues we are so passionate about and affecting the change we want to see in the world. We watched short interviews full of inspiration and wisdom, filmed specifically for Homeward Bound, by notable women leaders such as Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, and Christiana Figueres, and others. We had small group discussions and one on one conversations about what leadership means to us. We formed triads as a way to help each other through the process of personal change, often sharing stories and experiences as encouragement.

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Receiving instruction in the LSI (Lifestyles Inventory) from Fabian

All of this happened on a ship in Antarctica. Our days were filled with a combination of leadership development work, excursions to the Antarctic landscape, and in the evenings, a bit of time to work on other things we were busy with, such as the Adopt A Scientist Program I am part of, which is a piece of my involvement in the Homeward Bound Education Project. But there was also time for drinks and conversation and a lot of fun.

While we were busy doing and exploring, we had our own film crew on board, filming for a documentary that will be made about Homeward Bound. Although we were supposed to ‘pretend they weren’t there’ so that the footage was authentic, like the crew of the ship, the film crew became just as important to us all as each of the 76 women participants. It really did become one big family for 20 days.

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Dale and Gary, two of the wonderful members of the 5 person film team

Spending 20 days on a small ship with about 90 people in close quarters. Sometimes that can lead to friction, especially when battling tiredness, sea sickness or the cold and flu that swept through our ship like wildfire. But considering our close quarters for many days, the difficulties were few. And where they did happen, open and respectful conversations were used to try to resolve differences.  I was so impressed by how everyone not only got along, but in many cases, took on the role as each other’s caregivers during times of stress, difficult news coming from home via our limited internet connection, colds, flu, sea sickness and other challenges. I witnessed some of the most incredible examples of caring, compassion and support amongst people who mostly began our journey as strangers, united by a common purpose and passion. If we could only see communities and nations come together in the way we all did on that ship, our world would be a far, far gentler, more compassionate place.

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The stunning landscape of Antarctica

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Duelling Chinstrap penguins

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Penguins hitching a ride on an iceberg

Our Homeward Bound Antarctic Expedition is over. But our Homeward Bound journey together has only just begun. Most of us are back home and some, such as me, are beginning to struggle with reintegration into day to day life. I have always been adverse to habit and normalcy. I need change. I get bored. I need to be challenged. I have a restless soul. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life in so many ways! I have the most incredible friends and family who constantly support me and cheer me on. I live in a beautiful little house in the woods in a place I dreamed of living. But to go from spending days zooming in zodiac boats to  visit penguin colonies, explore volcanic islands, and soak in the dramatic Antarctic landscape, well, for me this will be a challenge. There is a part of me that is still in Antarctica. And I think it always will be. I left a part of my heart there. I don’t know when or how, but I will get back to Antarctica. I have to. I feel it tugging at my heart. In the meantime, I will find ways to leverage my Homeward Bound experience to enhance my work in environmental education and conservation. My passion in life is connecting people to nature and inspiring them to care enough to protect it. After Homeward Bound, I’m more determined than ever to execute my life’s mission. It does mean things will need to change – how I earn my living and pay my bills, and possibly even where I live. But I’m more determined than ever to realize my dreams and fulfill my life’s mission, to feed my passion. A big part of that dream, passion and mission is taking people, especially youth, around the world on environmental learning expeditions. I will find a way to make this a reality. And I know I have 76 incredible women and the entire Homeward Bound Team, cheering me on.

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Here I am soaking up Antarctica. Photo by Sarah Connelly

Great connections

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Night falling over Ushuaia on my last night here. Somehow I know in my heart that I will be back.

I sat gazing out the hotel window tonight, at Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel below. The sun was getting lower in the sky and yet still peeking out from behind those dramatic dark clouds that seem so characteristic of this area. Those ones that create a drama so appropriate for the rugged mountains below them. This view is awe-inspiring and in the 5 days I’ve been staying here at Hotel Arakur, on a hill overlooking the town, I’ve spent considerable time peering out the huge hotel windows in the lounge or in my room, enjoying the scenery and reflecting on everything that has happened during the past month. Reflecting on all of the magic.

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Stunning icebergs like this one were a common sight in Antarctica.

Our expedition to Antarctica is something that I still struggle to find the words to describe adequately. I’m not sure that I ever will find the words. For me, the photographs are part of my voice and so I hope that between my images and the words that I do manage to find, I hope you will get even just a glimpse into the magic that has been happening for the past month. I look forward to writing my blog posts to chronicle our expedition. For now, I just want to remember the past 5 days, the days after the expedition that were needed to catch my breath after such a busy 3 weeks on the ship.

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Today I took a penguin tour with Pira Tours, to see Magellanic penguins (as well as one King penguin straggler)

There is no doubt that our voyage to Antarctica was pure magic. But I’m also surprised by how much magic happened here in Ushuaia, after the expedition. It wasn’t anything big, like the incredible things we saw and experienced in Antarctica. Instead, it was the culmination of many small things – the people I connected with and the stories they had to tell. I’m blow away by how friendly the people of Ushuaia are, including the ones living here who’s homes are far away. They are friendly, warm, and welcoming, always eager to help. In fact, I feel like I’m leaving Ushuaia with several new friends – a young gentleman, Javier, who works at the front desk of the hotel. I bumped into him in the park this afternoon, waiting for my penguin tour bus to arrive. We sat on the rock wall edge of a garden and simply chatted about our life paths. The connection was wonderful. And there is Maia, our guide for the penguin tour today. She was a fabulous tour guide in every way, but what really struck me was the warmth of the conversation we had during the 1.5 hour long bus ride back to Ushuaia. We shared our interests and dreams and realized we have a lot of common, including our love to connecting people to nature. In fact, I’ve asked her to send me her resume to keep on file so that when I get to the point where I can hire people to help with  Biosphere, my environmental education organization, I would really like to have Maia help us run our expeditions to this part of Argentina.

On the tour of the Beagle Channel, I also became friends with our tour guide, Christian. He too is into photography, loves nature, especially birds. There were also a few German families I got to know from my Beagle Channel tours.What struck me about all of these great connections was the ease with which they happened. I’ve travelled quite a lot and have met people from all over the world. I enjoy meeting new people along my journeys. But I have never experienced a level of connection as I have with people here in Ushuaia. Clearly, the magic didn’t end when we stepped off the ship from Antarctica.

Tomorrow I leaver Ushuaia. I’ll head to Buenos Aires for a few days before heading back home to Canada. I miss our snowy,  cold weather, especially at Christmas. And I dearly look forward to seeing Maggie, my elderly cat, who has been sick and in the animal hospital for the past few weeks. It’s time to head home. But I do it with a bit of a heavy heart because I really will miss Ushuaia and the people here.

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The smile on my face, while touring the penguin colony, is pretty much the same as it’s been for the past month. Pure joy at the things I have been experiencing.