Post Expedition Reflections
By: Robert Adragna
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Wow. That is the only word I can use to describe my return from the Great White Continent. What a startling transition. One day we’re sitting among the ramparts of nature, listening with reverence to the sounds of silence and penguins. The next, it’s the lethargic airplane fight – reluctantly carrying us away from the place which carried our spirits to unbelievable heights. The next, it’s the daily grind: school, homework, books, job, test, ISU, exams… Returning from the trip, regular life was an illusionary dream incompatible with the realities of Antarctic life. I don’t need my zodiac to get to school? I don’t have Geoff’s voice serenading me out of sleep through a P.A system? I don’t need to wear seven layers of clothing every time I go outside?
However, as time passed, I began to feel as though the majestic Antarctic wonderland existed merely as a figment of my imagination. Its transformative and mystical aura was still present in my mind. But I could not believe that it actually existed, that I had actually been there. The memory of Antarctica has become surrounded by metaphorical clouds. In one regard, these clouds hoist the continent onto a pedestal of otherworldly heavenliness. But at the same time, these clouds are distorting. Obstructing. Obscuring. They prevent me from stepping back into the Great Wonderland and distinctly remember all of its nuances and details. But this is okay. Sometimes, reality is best remembered as a dream. The dream maintains its integrity as an appendage of reality, but retains an aura of shrouded mystery and awe that cannot be contemplated by the mere human mind. It is very important that the spirit of Antarctica – its mystery, its grandeur, its complexity, its beauty – remains seared into the fabric of our minds.
I believe that above all else, Antarctica’s paradoxical nature will continue to resonate with me for the remainder of my life. In the realm below 60 degrees south, as I have thoroughly noted throughout the course of the expedition, nothing ever has just one meaning, or just one interpretation. Penguin guano can be considered unhygienic and disgusting. But at the same time, it is the most beautiful shade of pink ever to don the face of this planet. The elephant seal is massive, dominating warrior – able to crush its prey with only the slightest movement. But at the same time, it is one of the most timid and anxious creatures on the continent. The glacier is a mighty and tremendous sheet of ice – able to effectively decimate surface features and dominate an entire landscape. Yet, they are susceptible to imminent destruction from a mere 1.5’C warming of the planet. The albatross is one of the most venturesome birds alive, travelling thousands of kilometres per day in their quest for food. But it is also one of the laziest, refusing to move its wings throughout the course of its journey by one smidgen. In every case, two contradicting and opposing truths manage to reconcile themselves into a single entity. In this regard, again, the continent is very much like a dream. We deludedly acknowledge the contradicting impossibilities presented to us in dreams as being coherently sensible. We do the same while trying to contemplate the complex realities of Antarctica.
Ever true to its nature, the continent of Antarctica is in itself a paradox. In one regard it is a barren, desolate wasteland of ice and snow. However, Antarctica is also a place of bountiful resources. Some of the world’s largest coal seams exist on the continent’s periphery, and its abundant marine life is suitable for human consumption. These two contrasting identities have hitherto remained in balance. However, this is liable to change, and to change quickly. Several countries have begun fishing for krill in Antarctic waters. Since krill is the base of the food chain for all of the larger charismatic Antarctic animals, like whales, seals and penguins, destroying its populations could have a dramatic effect on the continent’s ecology. Less directly, the impacts of climate change are further hastening the movement and melting of glaciers along the Antarctic coastline. Both these factors in tandem pose a serious threat to Antarctic ecology and geography. While the beauty of Antarctica may be a dream, we are teetering near the edge of a rude awakening into a rude reality.
So is it worth humanity’s collective effort to protect this Antarctic dream? I believe so. Planet Earth has been blessed, blessed with the ability to sustain life. We have clean water, moderate temperatures and extremely varied biodiversity. No other planet in the universe, at least that we know of, can provide our planet’s nurturing environment. Outer space is a cold and desolate reality of our universe. Since the ability to sustain life is such a precious gift, it is our duty as citizens of the universe to maintain our dream-like circumstances. It would be shameful to destroy our remarkable fortune because of our own personal indulgences and gluttony. Moreover, environmental stewardship breeds long-term prosperity for all of humankind. Alternative energy is cheaper than fossil fuels. Ecological conservation will provide us with sustainable food sources. Removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere will reduce instances of extreme weather, which cost millions of dollars to mitigate and cause millions more people to suffer. Through preserving our planet’s natural gifts, we are able to economically benefit by fulfilling our moral obligations.
But most importantly, the aforementioned spirit of Antarctica is immeasurably valuable as a symbol of human identity. Civilization, the accomplishment of our species over the last 6000 years has prided itself on disciplines such as science, art and literature. All these fields are driven by one central idea – the idea that there are bigger things in the world than ourselves. These things are the real-life “dreams” of the universe: fantastical ideas that are so complex that they can only be truly understood through the human imagination. Our own individual survival is not the be all and end all of existence. Instead, it is our pursuit to understand and artistically express these dreams of the universe that gives meaning to our lives. Antarctica is the most profound example of such a dream on planet Earth. I distinctly remember my first time setting eyes on the continent, while zodiac cruising through Elephant Island. I simply sat in the vessel and mouthed the term “wow” to myself over and over again. Wow, wow, wow. The admiration and utter awe I experienced were expressions of my true revelation: that some aspects of our world that are too complex in their grandeur for our minds to comprehend. Through this understanding I became truly human. I became one with our fundamental need to acknowledge, appreciate and strive to understand elements of the world that exist beyond ourselves.This, above all else, is the reason why Antarctica must be preserved as the collective heritage of humankind. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet once said, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than dreamt of in our philosophy”. The pursuit of acknowledging and understanding these things are what drive us to confront the perils of everyday life. Without symbols like Antarctica to admire, we are nothing more than sleeping, eating collections of atoms.
With the threats against the great White Continent mounting and its importance to human existence established, we must all band together in order to save the ultimate embodiment of the human spirit. Educational programs such as Students on Ice, I salute you. Thank you for giving me and students from around the world an opportunity to understand the importance of Antarctica and planet Earth in our daily lives. Visionary governments of the world who have taken measures to protect the Antarctic environment – I salute you as well. You have beaten a path for rest of the world to follow. But at the end of the day, the choice is up to us. Every single one of us. As we are all the stewards of our planet, we ultimately determine the nature of its fate . So ask yourselves, do you want to be rudely awoken into a world of cold destruction? Or do you wish to remain immersed in the profound beauty of the Antarctic – the ultimate dream? Our individual voices collectively become a mighty roar. And together, though at first we may be a minority, though at first our victories may be small, we can make a positive change in this world. As the great Canadian band Rush once sung, “And the men who hold high places. Must be the ones to start. To mould a new reality. Closer to the heart.”
By: Eva Wu
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
One of the most difficult challenges after coming home was answering the question “What was it like?” without standing there for 3 hours relaying the sheer amazingness of our journey. The difficulty of the situation has truly allowed me to appreciate all that we had on that ship.
So basically what I want to do is say thanks.
- Thanks for the stories: I found that everyone on board, from Scobie to Olle to my dinner buddies, everyone had a story that was inspiring, motivational, or just plain cool. I’ve been able to learn so much, experience so much, and laugh so much. Your stories have just made our journey so much better and bring us together like a family. These stories will stay with me forever. Thanks.
- Thanks for the Zodiacs: These guys are amazing. They were able to take us everywhere, whether it was from the ship to the shore or among the crisp, blue glaciers, I for one could not have half as eye-opening an experience as I did without these trusty little boats and their trusty drivers who maneuvered them through the waters. Without them we could never have sat on the beach with the Adelies or built a snowfort on one of the hopefully-soon-to-be-named Wauwerman Island. Our trip would be 100% incomplete without them. So thanks bouncy Zodiacs, thanks.
- Thanks Minke: Oh Minke, you were probably the most beautiful whale I have ever and will ever seen. You were really an eye opener towards just how amazing Antarctica can be. You showed us that yes, humans and other animals do not have to coexist with fear in the natural environment, and yes, we can reverse the damages our previous and current generations are making, and yes, we NEED to protect our poles. Nothing would be the same without animals like Minke swimming around and contributing to the ecosystem, and nothing will ever be the same again should the glaciers recede and the ice shelves collapse. It’s our mission too now to protect what we saw so that Minke, the seals, and all the millions of penguins can still peacefully exist in those crystal clear waters.
Thanks Minke, and I really extremely desperately hope that I can see you again someday.
- Last, but certainly not least, I would to say thanks to the Leacross Foundation and Roslyn Bern: you have not only been able to give me, but four other young women the opportunity of a lifetime. Trust me, you have changed our lives, but also of those in the communities around us. Without you and you amazing support we would never have been able to get the experiences we have already and become leaders in our neighbourhood. So because you have such an impact and a change, thank you.
It hasn’t even been a month now and already I miss everything and everyone. I want to go back and learn more and make new friends, but in the meantime, I’ll do whatever I can to make an impact at home. See you soon!
By: Will Sanderson
Sydenham, Ontario, Canada
It’s been a couple weeks now since the expedition ended and we all returned to our normal lives and Antarctica is still with me everywhere I go. The littlest things in everyday life from certain words to specific sounds transport me back to our expedition. It has been a crazy few weeks since getting back home and now getting a chance to reflect upon our expedition I can see how truly inspiring it was. As soon as I got home, all I wanted to do was share. My main focus over the last few weeks has been to tell everyone who will listen all about my experience in Antarctica and hopefully inspire them to care about Antarctica the way all 66 of the SOI 2014-2015 Antarctic Alumni now do. I have been trying to share my experience with as many young people as I can as well.
When I first learned about Students on Ice and Antarctica I was 10 years old and I feel that when you are at a young age like that, the smallest things can fill your heart with hope and inspiration. So over the last few weeks I have talked to over 500 elementary school kids, going class to class to try to get kids interested in Antarctica. I have been educating them about Antarctica and also telling them how it will be our generation that will have the power help save this last pristine wilderness.
Travelling to Antarctica was an amazing experience, especially with the such an incredible program like Students on Ice, but it has been just as amazing and fulfilling to see kids light up as I show them my pictures of penguins, and to see how inspired the kids I present to leave the presentation. One of my favourite moments throughout this process was coming home very tired after a full day of presentations, and finding out that one of the kids in grade 4 that I presented to that day had told his mom and dad at dinner that he was going to save Antarctica. Hearing this made me realize how important it was for people to learn about Antarctica and how important it is for programs like Students on Ice to continue to educate youth.