Stories from Antarctica: The arrival

Waiting to go ashore.  - Anjani Ganase
Waiting to go ashore. - Anjani Ganase

Dr Anjani Ganase writes about her travels on the Homeward Bound voyage to Antarctica and shares her photography.

In the morning, the rocking of the ship had slowed to a gentle roll, a stark contrast to the rock and shudders of the previous two nights. We had finally crossed the Drake Passage. The Drake Passage sits between Cape Horn of South America and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. Here, three oceans – Pacific, Atlantic and Southern Ocean – converge making it one of the roughest stretches of water to navigate on the planet. You can pray for the Drake Lake, but most of the time you get the "Drake shake." The Island Sky was hoping to arrive at Elephant Island, the most easterly island of the South Shetlands and the place where Shackleton’s team were marooned but we deviated farther south to avoid a storm brewing in the area. We had regular swells of up to four metres with a few waves peaking over eight metres, but the crew insisted that the conditions were the best they could hope for. Antarctica is not easy to get to. It should not be if it is intended to be kept pristine.

Drifting icebergs is one of the first signs that the ship is nearing Antarctica. - Anjani Ganase

As the morning drew on, people began emerging from their rooms, many of whom were not seen for days! At last, the ship has brought the sixth cohort of Homeward Bound (an organisation that holds leadership programmes for women in science) to the place that we were anticipating and working towards, for over two years.

Why did we come to Antarctica?

One of the many reasons why Antarctica is important to visit is to bear witness to an ecosystem that is remote, wild and relatively untouched by humans. Now, human-induced climate change is drastically warming the globe touching the most remote environments and driving the spread of disease and invasive species. When we set sail from Puerto Madryn along the Patagonian coast of Argentina, the arrival of the avian flu thwarted our journey to The South Georgia Islands. As the home for critical nesting birds and marine life in the Sub-Antarctic, South Georgia closed its border to all visiting vessels in an effort to stem the spread. While this was a disappointment, we did not want to be responsible for carrying the virus to the Antarctic continent.

Colonies of nesting chinstrap penguins on Aitcho Island. - Anjani Ganase

The Antarctic, thought to be the ultimate contrast to the warm Caribbean region, instead revealed many similarities. While the Antarctic continent is roughly one and a half times the size of the United States, much of this landmass sits below thick sheets of ice. Take the ice away and it would reveal a land mass connected to a giant archipelago of islands with deep valleys, channels, low-lying areas and mountain ranges. Our exploration was focused on the western peninsula of Antarctica made up of rocky “offshore islands” free of ice and suitable for landing and exploring. The islands were also preferred by most of the marine life. Here, adelie and gentoo penguins, elephant and weddell seals nest and forage in the summer. Landing on the ice continent is a challenge. Ice shelves project out over the ocean with sheer 100 meters faces that are treacherous to dock on. In fact, most of the research stations are located on tiny islands – adjacent to the mainland – where there is more earth and rock to establish on. As the ice shelves – especially along the western peninsula – continue to recede, more and more islands and bits of continent are revealed.

So why does this matter?

There are no trees in Antarctica. We spent three weeks with not a tree in sight. White ice and black rock overlooking an icy deep blue ocean replaced the vision of green I am used to. This means that, like the Caribbean, a lot of the biodiversity occurs under the ocean surface and under the projecting ice shelves and floating sea ice, which are havens for communities rich in invertebrates – sea stars, marine sponges and sea anemones. The basis of the food chain here is krill, tiny crustaceans that feed on algae, which blooms with the 24 hours of light in the summer. Fish, whales and seals gobble up the krill. The fish supports a large array of marine predators, including penguins, seals, dolphins and orcas. While the receding ice results in dramatic and sudden changes as the ice shelves collapse and crash into the ocean, what we do not see are the impacts on the ocean food web below.

Snowy landscape of the Antarctic Aitcho Island. - Anjani Ganase

On board the ship that is our home in Antarctica, 100 women scientists gather daily in the lounge for the schedule of activities for the day, including the opportunity to get off the boat and explore Antarctica. Our senses are overwhelmed by the brightness of the reflective white landscape, the whipping cold Antarctic air that makes your head spin and the acrid smell of guano as we approach the bay. Snow covers Aitcho (HO – the Hydrographic Office of the UK Admiralty which mapped the area in 1935) Island home to a couple thousand gentoo and chinstrap penguins. Imagine the loud cawing sounds that they make. We have arrived in Antarctica and the start of daily explorations and adventure. Over the next weeks, we will see more of Antarctica and hopefully, learn from this impressive and austere environment.



"Stories from Antarctica: The arrival"

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