by Tessa Owens, Grade 11
This winter, I was lucky enough to participate in a two-week international scientific expedition to Antarctica called Students on Ice. For some, this may sound like an absurd thing to have undertaken over the winter holidays — or at least, this is what I have gathered from all of the shocked, “Weren’t you freezing?!” comments I’ve received. I wish I could say I experienced the coldest environment in the world and survived unscathed, but this would be an exaggeration. In fact, while I was in Antarctica, the central part of North America was frozen in conditions that were more than 40 degrees Celsius colder than what I was experiencing. Yes, I journeyed to Antarctica at its balmiest; temperatures hovered around the 0 degree mark and rarely dipped below. Yet, when reassured of my intact fingers and toes — no, frostbite was not an issue — people are still aghast. “Whatever would you go there for?” they wonder.
What is little understood is that Antarctica, famous for its reputation as the world’s driest, windiest, coldest and most barren of places, is a hotspot of activity in the summertime. The Southern Ocean is one of the richest in the world in terms of wildlife, and is home to creatures ranging from popular megafauna such as seals, dolphins, whales, and penguins, to smaller but equally significant life: fish, krill, and plankton. As I journeyed there on a small icebreaker, I was constantly surrounded by wildlife. I needed only to peer outside the window to glimpse the storied wandering albatross flying alongside our ship, or see the fluke of a humpback whale’s tail as it gleamed in the sunlight above the surface of nearby waters. Life was prolific, and our expedition team found many opportunities to study the abundant biology.
I travelled there with 72 students from around the world, many of whom were in the process of completing their master’s degrees at university. Also on board our ship were 17 world-renowned polar educators, scientists, activists, and professors. These included people such as Geoff Green, a member of the Order of Canada, and David Fletcher, who has been head of the British Antarctic Survey for over 20 years.
Each day, I attended a number of lectures in the conference room on board the ship that were delivered by this amazing team of educators. I learned about climate change as it specifically projected to affect Antarctica, and how warmer conditions are currently affecting the Antarctic Peninsula. I learned about the significance of krill as a keystone species in the Antarctic ecosystem, and how krill fishing in the Southern Ocean, if unchecked, threatens to disrupt the balance of this majestic web of life. I also participated in a workshop where students collaborated to create a statement regarding the proposed Marine Protected Areas of Ross Bay, the Antarctic Peninsula, and Eastern Antarctica.
Aside from lectures, we rode on the rims of zodiac boats to visit monstrous floating icebergs, busy penguin rookeries, and moody islands documented in the stories of previous Antarctic explorers such as Ernest Shackleton. Every day passed in a flurry of activity, laughter, and, of course, seasickness.
By the end of my time spent in Antarctica, I felt like a new person. The stunning landscape that surrounded me had a profoundly positive and reinforcing effect on my connection to nature. In addition to this, I developed a strong appreciation for the pristine polar region of Antarctica. Whereas I, too, had once regarded Antarctica as simply an unforgiving desert of ice and snow, I now understand more of its beauty, and its key roles as a regulator of global climate and as a nursery for marine life. I have come to regard it as a frontier of science and peace. I am extremely grateful to Students On Ice for making such a wonderful opportunity available for students like me.