Dr Anjani Ganase, coral reef ecologist, heads to Antarctica on an expedition to look at some of the effects of climate change. She is sailing on the ship, Island Sky, in a contingent of about 100 women scientists on a quest called Homeward Bound. It is the journey of a lifetime, over 6,800 miles (10,960 km) from Trinidad to the Antarctic Circle; in search of collaboration and out-of-the-box thinking about adaptation and resilience.
By the time you are reading this, the Island Sky has left Puerto Madryn on the east coast of Patagonia Argentina and is steaming into the southern Atlantic. A sudden storm kept the boat in port for a day. Our course takes us to the Falkland Islands before heading to the Antarctic Peninsula.
It is summer in the southern hemisphere; in the Antarctic Circle, expected daytime temperatures are zero Celsius and nights -2C to -4C.
It’s the other end of the earth; another hemisphere; as far from our tropical home as I might ever be. Summer, when the north is having winter. Landscapes of ice. Animals we’ve only seen in documentaries.
Antarctica is at the leading edge of climate change for the planet. It is remote, and supposedly unimpacted by humans. Yet the icecaps are melting. It is experiencing the spread of viruses like avian flu on South Georgia Island. It is capturing the warming conditions of the whole world. Here, the changing ecology becomes very obvious.
We have the chance to see it before it changes even more, to see the effects of climate change in a stark environment. Antarctica and the Southern Ocean exert significant influence over global climate.
This voyage is the culmination of two years of online seminars, networking, research and preparation. It is the final leg in our journey Homeward Bound.
What is Homeward Bound?
We are going home to where our planet is still wild. We are also going home to ourselves, as humans – just another species on earth – as scientists, as women with the ability to influence and effect beneficial and sustainable change in homes, communities and where we work.
The first Homeward Bound voyage was in 2016. Fabian Dattner developed the idea with three Australian scientists in 2014. Dattner is a leadership consultant and self-development guide based in Melbourne, Australia. The inaugural voyage took 76 participants to Antarctica in 2016.
The stated purpose of Homeward Bound is to support women in sciences (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine) for more clarity of purpose, confidence, leading for themselves in order to lead others. Its aim is to take 10,000 women on this journey, 100 at a time, in order to increase women in leadership especially with regard to climate change and environment; to support women who want to proactively contribute meaningfully and sustainably.
Looking for leadership
I was recommended by an HB alumna and colleague in Australia who thought I could benefit and contribute. I am in the sixth cohort, HB6.
I applied online early in 2020. Applications and selection criteria are available online.
I was accepted in October 2020, at which time we were also notified that the journeys had been deferred because of the pandemic.
Our overarching leadership theme is emergent leadership, which is defined as the art of letting the team take the lead.
There is a one-year online programme of seminars, interviews, mentorship in preparation for the voyage. Sessions are organised under the headings, Leadership, Science, Visibility.
The online programme provides insight and commentary, mental, physical, environmental; discussions on health and well-being; advice on warm clothes, appropriate gear; and what to expect.
Visibility is about communicating science; how you are perceived and how to present in the workplace; how you may be regarded within your team and profession; how to use your influence; and how to turn situations to advantage.
At the end of the virtual programme, you develop greater self-awareness; you are expected to be able to articulate leadership goals and intentions. You can build a community and safe spaces. It is a highly personal programme with far-reaching goals; you lead by leadership of self.
This kind of leadership is not seen in many companies or countries or governments. We need to change how we lead and what we expect to see in leaders.
Why women only?
Studies have shown that women are under-represented in leadership levels across all sectors. They make up 60 per cent of university graduates; but only ten-20 per cent of senior leaders. Female CEOs lead just 4.8 per cent of Global 500 companies. Globally, women make up 20 per cent of the composition of boards; and top universities just got to 20 per cent women-led in a 2021 survey.
The HB handbook says: “The journey to this remote and extreme landscape is a valuable part of women’s leadership journeys. Antarctica is a dynamic environment where the leadership, peer coaching, problem-solving and collaborative skills of the Homeward Bound program are put to the test. Being in Antarctica presents real challenges of isolation and teamwork for the collective to navigate, which is something that cannot be workshopped or simulated in a conference environment.”
The faculty leads part of the voyage. Then, the Homeward Bound cohort takes the lead with ideas in science.
What is there to do in Antarctica?
We will see the landscapes and marine world of the south pole: penguins, whales, seals, sea lions, birds. I’ve heard that climate change is shockingly apparent in a place that’s completely natural; with no cities or human development.
We may also visit sites where other explorers have passed. We will learn about Antarctica, its history, geography and governance.
The cohort includes women from around the world: astrophysicists, doctors, engineers, marine biologists, ecologists.
Living on the ship will be an immersive experience. We will make friends and interact on many levels. We can focus on developing leadership capabilities away from the distractions of our usual everyday life. The daily schedules define a purposeful leadership journey. We expect to work on strategy, visibility and communicating leadership.
We will share our stories with women from distant parts of the world: the power of storytelling deepens our connection and sense of belonging, sparks creativity and learning, and ignites yearning for collective impact and decisive action.
What do you think you will contribute?
A perspective from the Caribbean, a small island state. My experiences in working in multicultural community; adaptability; resilience, chocolate. I expect to discover how different – or the same – we might be.
Was it costly?
In total, it was about US$20,000. We are encouraged to develop initiative and to advocate for ourselves, for causes that we believe in, to be able to raise funds.
I would say that I raised half from company donations and selling T-shirts. The other half came from my family and friends. I am grateful to all who contributed or bought T-shirts.
Is it dangerous?
The most dangerous part of the voyage is the Drake Passage, between the tip of South America and the Antarctic peninsula, very rough, a day’s voyage. We are going south and east into the Atlantic. We return via the Drake Passage, which is always rough, subject to sudden gales and towering waves.
Of course, our ship will weather the passage more comfortably than early adventurer Ernest Shackleton’s little lifeboat in 1916.
At the end of Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica, the explorers crossed the Drake Passage, where the southern sea is deflected by South Georgia Island. With waves threatening to swamp the frail lifeboat Caird, the explorers reported, “The atmosphere was a saturated substance, composed less of air than of rain and snow, and mostly wind-driven mist, torn from the surface of the water. Visibility was reduced to a hazy sphere surrounding the boat. Beyond that was only a blinding sameness that screamed by without interruption.”