Antarctica Visit Offers First-Hand Look at Beauty—and Threats

Part 2 of a Pew expert’s journey to the frozen continent

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Antarctica Visit Offers First-Hand Look at Beauty—and Threats
A rocky beach terrain in Antarctica covered in snow, with a colony of penguins seemingly building nests.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Aboard the survey ship Island Sky in the Southern Ocean—Early in the morning of Nov. 20, 2023, I was awoken by an announcement I had been anticipating for years: “If you look outside, you will see Antarctica.”

Our journey from Argentina had taken us nine days and the last day and night of sailing had been particularly rough. Overnight storms that had whipped up 24-foot swells had given way to calm, glasslike waters, blue sunny skies, and a dramatic backdrop of snowy mountains and icebergs.

I was here in the early austral summer with 97 other women and non-binary people on an expedition that was the capstone of a year-long leadership training program called Homeward Bound. We hailed from 18 countries with a wide range of scientific expertise in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine). In my work at The Pew Charitable Trusts, I’m using my background in international ocean policy to advocate for greater conservation of our ocean. A goal of this trip was to help us build leadership skills tailored toward making a positive difference for a planet in crisis. (Read part one of my experience on this trip.)

The frozen continent is awe-inspiring. In a place renowned for its snow and ice, perhaps the most striking feature is the colors—the pastels cast by sunlight on snow, the silky gray hues of seams of rock, the almost other-worldly blues of the icebergs. And, of course, the sea! Miles of Southern Ocean waters that shapeshift with the hours, the weather, and our moods, one moment a choppy canvas of gleaming steel, the next a shadowy, cantankerous menace, and—every now and then—a glassy mirror reflecting a melting sunset.

Though this is one of the most remote places on earth, it is vulnerable to threats from human activity, namely climate change and poorly managed fishing for krill and toothfish. Pew has worked for years to counter those threats, and found success in helping to secure the Ross Sea marine protected area—at 600,000 square miles, it’s the largest protected area on earth. More protections are needed, which is why Pew continues to advocate for additional Southern Ocean reserves and why I’m focused on securing protections for the high seas, those vast areas of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction.

On our expedition, we minimized our impact by following strict landing protocols to ensure we didn’t introduce bacteria or alien species to the ecosystem. We thoroughly washed our gear when we returned to the ship (to avoid transferring organisms from one place to another) and generally practiced the “leave no trace” ethos of travel. We also shared a sense of wonderment—of the humpback whales breaching off the Island Sky’s bow, of the penguins that rocket through the water next to our Zodiacs, periodically launching themselves, porpoise-like, into the air—and also of the extent of stillness and silence that few of us had ever witnessed.

Our first stop in Antarctica was Aitcho Island (part of the South Shetlands), where we were greeted by colonies of gentoo and chinstrap penguins, waddling busily up and down the gentle incline between the black pebble shore and the mostly snow-covered area where they are building their nests. These chinstraps use pebbles from the shoreline to build their nests and we watched as some of the lazier members stole pebbles from a nearby nest rather than trundling all the way down to the shoreline to gather their own rocks. A few feet from shore, a leopard seal eyed the activity, waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Penguins throughout Antarctica face an even graver threat right now: avian flu, which scientists detected spreading among the nearby South Georgia Islands colonies shortly before our arrival. At this writing, experts say the illness has spread to Antarctica although it’s unclear how extensively or how long the epidemic might last.

A woman wearing a dark blue parka, black pants and shoes, stands on an icy beach with penguins waddling by a rocky terrain behind her.
Nichola Clark of Pew’s ocean governance project on the snowy tundra of Antarctica, where she traveled last November to witness the effects of climate change.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Among our more fascinating stops was Deception Island, an active volcano off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. During an eruption thousands of years ago, the volcano’s crater collapsed, allowing ocean waters to fill the caldera through a breach on the island’s southern shore. The resulting protected bay became a major whaling station in the early 1900s and the rusty remnants of this dark history remain.

We entered the cove through this passage—Neptune’s Bellows—and were greeted by three disinterested Weddell seals, from which we kept a respectable distance. After a two-hour hike to the top of the crate and back, we returned to the shoreline, where black sand peaked through the snow and ice.

Our expedition leader had let us know in advance that this landing would be our chance for a legitimate polar plunge, so before returning to the ship, we stripped to our bathing suits and waded into the Southern Ocean, which registered 0.6 degrees Celsius (just over 33 degrees Fahrenheit). Yes, it’s (very!) cold, but I’d come this far so I did a full head dunk.

Back onboard the Island Sky, we settled into the onboard programming, which over the course of the trip included training on effective leadership styles, strategic planning, and communicating science. We also enjoyed lectures by the expedition crew onboard on topics ranging from the making of the BBC’s “Frozen Planet” series to the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. I also had the opportunity to give a presentation on the landmark United Nations treaty, adopted in June 2023, that opened the door to creating protected areas on the high seas.

Throughout this journey, I have felt honored and humbled to be among such brilliant, ambitious, and thoughtful people—the geologists, biologists, and ecologists I’d expected but also mathematicians, medical doctors, quantum computing physicists, an astrobiologist who launched the Slovakian space program, and many others.

In the end, these human interactions conspired with the breathtaking scenery and abundant wildlife to redouble my commitment to ocean conservation—in the Antarctic and around the world. Our expedition leader left us with these parting words: “Remember that every action we take where we live resonates in the pristine beauty of the white continent. Let’s make today count, for there is no planet B.”

How humankind stewards our natural environment will determine so much about our future. As the shores of Antarctica faded in the wake of the Island Sky, I was filled with optimism that we can do this right, if we’re willing to work together.

Nichola Clark works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean governance project.

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