Sustaining the Antarctic Spell

The ship creaks and rolls from side to side. As I lie in bed, incredibly seasick, I begin to wonder why I have signed up to sail across one of the most dangerous oceans in the world. The Drake Passage, an ocean crossing feared by many a hardened sailor for its strong winds, big waves and boat- destroying storms, does not let up all night. I try to pass the time by imagining what it will be like to finally see our destination, the Antarctic.

Four months prior I had been chosen as one of 30 young people from around the world to travel to Antarctica as part of Robert Swan’s Antarctic Youth Ambassador Programme (AYAP). After a whirlwind of sponsorship proposals and fundraising, here I am in the middle of the Drake on the way to the last great wilderness on Earth for a two-week expedition.

The first night in the Drake is spent in bed, but the next day at lunchtime we hear the exciting news: we have just passed the Antarctic convergence zone and are now officially in Antarctic waters. The temperature has dropped 3C in the hour since reaching the zone and you can almost sense Antarctica in the salty ocean wind. As the first glimpses of the Antarctic Peninsula start to become visible through the cloud cover on the horizon, a buzz creeps through the ship. We know we will soon be in Antarctica.

We land on the Antarctic Peninsula for the first time. The cold is not as bad as I had thought it would be, having come from almost 40C in Perth, although I am wearing four layers to stay comfortable. Strewn among the black rocks, ice and enormous whalebones from whaling times long past are gentoo penguins, the locals of this continent. It is feeding time and the penguin chicks cry for their mothers and chase them for food. As it is moulting season, they are all sporting quite interesting hairstyles.

The breathtaking scenery of this first shore landing is just a taster for what is yet to come on the expedition; each day the scenery seems to get more and more beautiful. We pass through the Lemaire Channel, a stretch of the peninsula where a ship can sail past with land on either side. I feel like I can’t move my head fast enough to take it all in. The mountains are sharp and white, with black showing through, and the sun glints on them, creating a wonderful contrast.

This is the first time it really hits me that we are in such an untouched and wild place which so many people will never get to experience, and that I am so lucky to be here. We are also joined by some wonderful animal life, including orcas swimming next to the bow of the ship. Whales surface off the starboard side, then penguins and seals. It feels as though you could reach down and join them, they are so close.

Neko Harbour is my favourite of the places we visit. This stunning location, we are told, is a place of reflection with glaciers, penguins, and white and blue ice. Arriving there by Zodiac, we coast past icebergs bigger than my house and each one with such a different cut, colour and dimension. I am surprised floating blocks of ice can be so interesting. I sit and watch as glaciers rumble and start calving, breaking off into the water.

Listening to the deafening silence created by the lack of artificial sounds in the Antarctic, I reflect on my role as an Antarctic Youth Ambassador and the responsibility I now have to protect this very place I am sitting. It is overwhelming to know that an entire continent is your responsibility, but I know I am not alone in facing the challenge, as I have 29 other dedicated young people alongside me.

The Australian Antarctic Youth Ambassador Programme members and team leaders at Neko Harbourwith Robert Swan, left / Picture: John Luck

Environmental campaigner Robert Swan, the first man to walk to both the North and South poles, founded his organisation 2041 to create awareness about Antarctica. His vision for the AYAP expedition is to educate, inspire and create a worldwide coalition of young people working to raise awareness about Antarctica. By working on sustainability and awareness-raising projects in our communities, we will help to protect Antarctica. The environment is really important to me and being in the Antarctic really reaffirms the importance of its protection.

One of the main stops on the expedition is the E-Base which Swan has at Bellingshausen Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. A private individual cannot have a private base in Antarctica but, after helping to clear the beach of more than 1000 tonnes of rubbish left behind by an old Soviet station, he was allowed to place the base on a hill in Russian territory.

The base serves as an educational tool, recording the weather in Antarctica, and runs solely on renewable energy to show that if clean energy can work in one of the harshest environments on Earth, it can work anywhere. Visiting the base is a high point of the expedition – the pride that Swan exudes while showing us around is a reminder that we can do anything we put our minds to and that Antarctica is worth protecting.

Departing Antarctica, we stand on the bow of the ship as the bell is rung to honour Antarctica, to honour the Drake Passage for a safe crossing and to thank the ship’s captain and crew. After the ceremony everyone else rushes inside, out of the cold, for dinner but, as the anchor is pulled up and we sail out, I stand on deck and watch the sun set. I do not want to leave this place and I do not know if I will ever come back, but if I do, I know it will never look the same, as it is changing due to climate change.

The expedition has been inspiring and sobering: I feel so lucky to have travelled to one of the most remote and untouched places on Earth.

FACT FILE

Morgan Pettersson is one of 30 young people chosen from around the world to attend the annual Antarctic Youth Ambassador Programme expedition to Antarctica. The expedition aims to educate and equip its attendees to be future sustainability leaders.

Run by the 2041 Foundation, AYAP expeditions form part of a global campaign to ensure the continued protection of Antarctica from mining and drilling under the Antarctic Treaty. AYAP expedition participants get the skills, knowledge, confidence and motivation to bring change in their communities, championing renewable energy.

*This article was originally published by The West Australian in the travel lift out both in print and online. You can read the original here*

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