Trust Magazine

A Journey to Earth's Last Great Wilderness

Traveling across the high seas to Antarctica, a Pew expert sees for herself how climate change is altering our world

In this Issue:

  • Spring 2024
  • A Change to Federal Methadone Regulations
  • A Journey to Earth’s Last Great Wilderness
  • Art With a View on History
  • Expanded Protections for a Biological Hot Spot
  • Honduras’ Coastal Wetlands
  • Insights on What Communities Need to Thrive
  • Majorities Say Social Media Is Good for Democracy
  • Americans Say Officials Should Avoid Heated or Aggressive Speech
  • Return on Investment
  • The Digital Divide
  • The High Cost of Putting a Roof Over Your Head
  • The Pantanal in South America
  • Tribal Nations First Ocean and Coastal Protections in U.S.
  • What Does Being Spiritual Mean?
  • View All Other Issues
A Journey to Earth's Last Great Wilderness
King cormorants perch on a rock outcropping on New Island, in the Falkland Islands, one of the first stops on the author’s journey to Antarctica.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

In the early hours of Nov. 20 last year, I was awakened aboard the 297-foot expedition vessel Island Sky by an announcement I had been looking forward to hearing 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 through 24-foot swells had given way to calm, glass-like waters, sunny blue skies, and a dramatic backdrop of snowy mountains and icebergs.

I went to Antarctica with 97 other women and nonbinary people bound on a voyage that was the capstone of a year-long leadership training program called Homeward Bound, which I signed up for to improve my effectiveness as an ocean policy expert at Pew. We came from 18 countries with a wide range of expertise in the fields of STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine).

Our main objective was to build leadership skills tailored toward making a positive difference for our planet. Homeward Bound chose Antarctica because it’s one of the places most affected by climate change, and the shifts there are already rippling across the planet—for example, melting ice sheets driving sea-level rise and the warming Southern Ocean altering currents worldwide.

We had departed Nov. 11, from Puerto Madryn, Argentina, stopping first in the Falkland Islands, also known as the Malvinas Islands, where I found myself overwhelmed by the size of the penguin and albatross colonies there with hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of mating pairs. I especially enjoyed watching a gentoo penguin trudging to collect grass for its partner’s nest—and dodging others hoping to pilfer that grass—and king penguins enduring harassment from their hungry teenage chicks.

On Nov. 18, as we lurched across open ocean between the Falklands and the Antarctic Peninsula, I realized I was, for the first time, in the high seas—which Pew and our partners in the High Seas Alliance have been working for years to protect. Conserving the high seas, which make up two-thirds of the ocean, is no small feat: They lie 200 nautical miles from any shore and tend to be as far from people’s minds as they are from land.

An iceberg looms in the Antarctic Sound. Climate change is causing rapid shifts in the annual formation and melting of sea ice in the Southern Ocean, which is affecting numerous species of penguins and other wildlife in the region.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

But protecting these areas is critical. Worldwide, the high seas contain immense biodiversity—from whales, sharks, and dolphins, to rare, unique ecosystems that form around seamounts, hydrothermal vents, and more. Currently, there are few safeguards to protect these waters but that could change soon: A new treaty, adopted by the United Nations in June 2023, presents an opportunity to protect the high seas. The treaty will enter into force only after 60 countries formally agree to be legally bound by it. Once it is operational, it can be used to establish marine protected areas and to require environmental impact assessments for new activities that could cause significant harm.

The next day, as we powered through gale-forced winds, our captain announced that we were 60 miles from Antarctica—progress confirmed by the increasing numbers of cape petrel gliding above the waves.

By the morning of the 20th, we were anchored in calm waters a few hundred yards from shore. We boarded our Zodiacs to shuttle to the beach and took our first ceremonious steps on the frozen continent.

It might seem odd to say about a place renowned for its snow and ice, but the most striking feature of Antarctica is the colors—the pastels cast by sunlight on snow, the silky gray hues of seams of rock, the almost musical blues of the icebergs. And, of course, the sea. Acres 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 menace, and—every now and then—a glassy mirror reflecting a melting sunset.

For brief moments of wonder I could forget that this most remote place is under threat from human activity. Fortunately, Pew has worked for years to counter those threats, helping to secure the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area—at 600,000 square miles the largest protected area on Earth—and is continuing to advocate for additional Southern Ocean reserves. 

On this expedition we were trying to minimize our impact on each of our stops by following strict protocols: ensuring we didn’t introduce alien species to the ecosystem, thoroughly washing our gear when we returned to the ship (to avoid transferring organisms from one place to another), and generally practicing the “leave no trace” ethos of travel. We were also sharing awe—hearing the breath of humpback whales breaching off the Island Sky’s bow, penguins pacing our Zodiacs and periodically launching themselves, porpoise-like, into the air, a stillness and silence that few of us have ever witnessed.

At our first stop, Aitcho Island in the South Shetlands, we were greeted by colonies of gentoo and chinstrap penguins, waddling busily around the ice and snow. Amid this activity a leopard seal lurked a few feet from shore, hoping to snare an oblivious penguin.

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

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. The resulting protected bay became a major whaling station in the early 1900s and the rusty remnants of this dark history remain.

Elephant seal pups loll on a beach in Walker Bay on Livingston Island, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. The author was humbled by the purity of nature and breadth of wildlife she saw in the region, and even more so by the accomplishments and kindness of the other scientists on her expedition.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

We entered the cove and were greeted by three Weddell seals, from which we kept a respectable distance. True to our leader’s briefing, we found the sand summertime warm due to radiating heat from the magma below. She had also advised us that the water would be cold and, as a true scientist, had invited us to verify that with a legitimate polar plunge.

So after a two-hour hike to the top of the crater and back, I and dozens of others stripped to our bathing suits—we’d been told in advance of this opportunity—and waded into the Southern Ocean. At 0.6 degrees Celsius (just over 33 degrees Fahrenheit) it was indeed (very!) cold, but we’d come this far: I took a deep breath and submerged for a full head dunk before hurrying back to shore.

Back onboard the Island Sky, we settled into the latest of the expedition’s lectures, which over the course of the trip included talks by a science adviser to the BBC Frozen Planet series, an expert on the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, and me, speaking on the U.N. high seas treaty.

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

It was these human interactions as much as my awe at the natural surroundings that redoubled my commitment to marine conservation—in the Southern Ocean and around the world. How humankind stewards our natural environment will determine so much about our future. As we began our voyage home, the shores of Antarctica faded in the wake of the Island Sky and I felt confident that our global community can get this right, if we’re willing to trust the science and work together.

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

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