Visiting Antarctica is not the same as visiting a new city or even a new country. Seeing Antarctica is like discovering a whole new world. A world of pebble stealing penguins, sun-baked seals, and ice. Oh, the ice! Graceful sculptures each of them, floating silently on the water; centuries-old glaciers towering high above us, trapping within them stories untold. So beautiful and composed in their silence—yet, when a thunderous rumble signals a glacier calving off into the ocean, you need only hear it to know how quickly beauty can turn deadly.
I used the word “discover” earlier because when we stepped foot on the continent, we were Shackleton. We were Amundson, Scott, and all the great explorers rolled up in one. Some likened the experience to visiting Mars or the Moon. There was a time when we knew more about the Moon than we did Antarctica. And, while humans may have stood where we stood just a summer ago, Antarctica’s unforgiving winter reclaimed it’s land, wiping all traces of human presence.
Despite receiving visitors annually, the number of people who set foot on Antarctica is so few in the grand scheme of things. The continent is protected by the Antarctic Treaty which dissuades any commercial exploitation of the region until 2041 when it could potentially be modified or amended. Here, peace and scientific pursuit prevail. We were reminded of the impact of minimal human footprint on the continent through our encounters with the local inhabitants – the Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. In Antarctica, the penguins ruled. They had the right of way every time. We couldn’t use their penguin highways but they could march down the human paths any time. Theirs was the only voice heard all through the day and night. And unlike us, they unselfishly shared their homes, allowing us to get within five meters of them—often much closer—as they built their pebbly nests, laid their eggs, and raised their chicks.
But from our human homes thousands of miles away, we’ve had a major impact on theirs. Adelie penguins, once plentiful above the Antarctic circle, are being pushed back as their icy homes continue to recede due to global warming. To us, the ice seems cold and dead but to the penguins, seals, whales, and the tiny phytoplankton and krill, the ice is life. And that life is in peril.
For much of the world, Antarctica does not fit into our reality to fully comprehend the impact we have on it, until that friend in your network happens to share their journey with you. A couple weeks upon our return, my friend shared an article on the imminent calving off of an enormous glacier dubbed Larsen C. The story could have been just a headline to her but it was one she felt compelled to share because the story fit into her reality, if only by association. Just as tiny snowflakes come together to form enormous glaciers, so too can the small conversations morph into action and change on a bigger scale.
Visiting the last conflict-free land mass on earth is a privilege. Not just because it requires the financial capability to travel to the end of the earth, but also because we now carry a responsibility, as ambassadors of Antarctica, to speak on its behalf. I hope my story inspires those who can to make the journey and become ambassadors themselves, and those who can’t to feel aware enough to care. And that, in the smallest of ways, is how we can start to make a difference.
Antarctica doesn’t belong to any one country; it belongs to each and every one of us. If we are to continue maintaining the continent as a beacon of peace and preservation, then I hope you hear my story and know that the future of Antarctica is in all our hands.
Our future—the ice and our own—are intrinsically tied to each other, and as Antarctica goes so do our lives as we know it.
More on our excursions in Antarctica and how to plan your own trip will follow in hopes to entice you to visit one day. And yes, I will be using adorable penguins against you 🙂