I just got back from an expedition to the seventh continent - Antarctica. Not only was it the farthest I have been from home but probably the
most amazing journey I have ever made in 57 years.
Diverse and mystifying in the extreme, this continent, which is bigger in size than Europe or Asia or America, thrills with pristine
glaciers, glistening icebergs, arresting inlets and wildlife to die for. A visit with the seals, the penguins, the albatrosses and the
amazing whales in their natural habitat could be the very definition of adventure.
I was always afraid of big waves in the ocean. I remember the last time I was on a sailboat in the
Caribbean, my friends had to drop me off on an island before they could continue in the rough Pacific
Ocean and pick me up a day later when it was calm. I had also heard of the Drake Passage and the 6- to
7-metre high waves with strong winds and some of the roughest seas in the world. I always knew that
if I had to overcome this fear the only way I could do it was to face it head-on. So when I got this
opportunity to join the expedition to Antarctica in support of extending the Antarctic Treaty, I jumped
at it. Little did I realise what an amazing journey I was signing up for.
For the first time I was in 6- to 7-metre waves and everyone took medication against sea sickness, but
I and one other expedition member decided to do without and see would happen. The ships nowadays
have stabilizers so the tossing and pitching of the ship is reduced. But these waves were just the
prelude as we were being chased by a storm and the captain was going as fast as he could to outrun
it. Finally, it hit us from behind with its full force and fury combined with very strong winds from
the side. A big roller wave almost knocked me out of bed at 2.30 am.
The next morning the storm had passed and we got to the South Shetland Islands. It had been rough
but little did I know that we had been in waves of 11.5 metres. I had felt neither scared, nor seasick.
I still have no idea how this happened but something inside me had clicked and the fear disappeared.
What I saw around me was sheer pristine beauty as I had never seen before. The sunrise was one of the
most amazing I had ever seen as we were escorted into harbour by a school of dolphins. It was like a
dream, like being constantly in a meditative trance. As the weather cleared up after the storm, we got
lucky and saw bright clear skies and sunshine for the next four days.
We took the Zodiac cruise to Danco Island and a short hike up a glacial ridge to a large penguin
rookery. We went from the storm to the calm waters and clear skies and then from the quiet solitude of
the channel to the cacophony of the penguins – Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap - they were all going
about their business as if we were not even there.
The second day we were barely awake when the expedition leader announced the spotting of minke
whales on the starboard side of the ship. Floating amongst the serene beauty of glacial ice
scultures, we saw a leopard seal hunt a fur seal and devour it. The next day a leopard seal nudged one
of the canoes and popped its head out of the water next to the canoeist. Later, I even got to have my
single malt with glacial ice in it - which I picked out of the ocean, but it was not salty at all.
The next day was the day of my polar plunge - a leap into the ocean in my swimsuit, with the water
temperature at -1°C. It was definitely 20 – 30 secs of a unique refreshing experience where as little
as 60 sec could lead to a brain freeze.
The following day a humpback whale turned up less than 12 meters from a kayaker and we were able
to see and photograph it from the Zodiac at about the same distance. It was a family of 3 and they
seemed to enjoy playing around and doing tricks for about 15 minutes before diving deep for their
krill and plankton.
The next day was my turn to paddleboard for the first time in my life and my debut in icy ocean
waters. As the waves started to rise a bit, I went on my kness, not wanting to land in the water like
four of our group of seven did. The purpose of the expedition was to raise awareness
of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which expires in 2048, and to help build public opinion to extend it
by 50 to 100 years and leave this pristine continent as untouched as it is today.
This treaty, which was signed by 52 nations, bars countries from owning or exploiting the land
except for research and science. It is not only the world's most important natural laboratory but
also our last great wilderness. It is also fragile and vulnerable.
This continent in it's untouched natural state and the research on it are key to understanding of how
our world naturally works and our impact on our ocean systems, marine life and climate.
If anyone ever gets a chance to make this trip, my very strong recommendation would be to grab it.
I do not have the memory of an experience that surpasses it. And if there is any way in which you
may be able to help in building the consensus to extend the present Antarctic Treaty, it would
probably be a great service to many generations yet unborn.