Young Explorer Series: Rolex Scholar Megan Cook ‘Chills’ in Antarctica
January 28, 2013
A Mission Blue Exclusive by Megan Cook
Antarctica is simply the most incredible place I’ve ever been. Everything about it is beautiful and indivisible from the ocean. Water has created its incredible dynamics: the world’s wildest seas of the Southern Ocean, the sculptural last expression of an iceberg, the radiant turquoise blue of glaciers formed one small snowflake at a time. There is no story here that is not an ocean story. All life on the continent lives, feeds, breeds, and dies by the ocean. This is a continent without lions or tigers or bears, where leopards are sly grinning leopard seals who bask lazily on an ice flow. Here, the smallest fish and mightiest whales all feed on the same krill. From the bottom of the food chain to the top, life here endures in the ocean with perhaps with a brief stint basking on an ice sheet. Home to Mission Blue’s Ross Sea Hope Spot, Antarctica is fragile, and breathtaking.
As the 2012 North American Rolex Scholar representing the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society, I have had the chance to visit extraordinary parts of the underwater world. None have left me so star-struck as this brilliantly white, frozen world. Long famous for its inaccessibility, Antarctica now receives more than 50,000 visitors every year. My passage south was granted by a team of naturalists and ocean lovers aboard Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Explorer. I hadn’t read many guidebooks beforehand, partially because I had ten days notice to prepare, but mostly because I needed to feel this place with fresh eyes and wonder at the expedition in process. Our beautiful ship had no pre-planned port calls. There were no dinner buffets or conversations shirking the real threats of climate change. We were on a true adventure. Crunching our bow through sea ice sheets and tucking into frozen fjords we explored Antarctica as the ice would allow. Some people came for the penguins, some to check the ‘seventh continent’ box on their bucket list. I came to hurl myself into 28 degree water and to seek our last wild sea and the largest wilderness left on our planet.
I flew to Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city, where the world’s southernmost golf course, southern most national park, southern most coffee shop and southern most North Face retailer proudly display a title earned through bitter winters and wicked storms. The port signs read “Fin del mundo- end of the world” but it was only the start of our adventure. From Ushuaia, the NG Explorer turned her bow south for two days crossing the Drake Passage, known to generations of sailors as Earth’s most tempestuous stretch of ocean. Here, deep ripping currents whip around the globe unencumbered by land and, goaded on by the westerly winds tearing around Cape Horn, produce the largest seas in the world. Behind us fell the familiar green trees and habitations of Patagonia and ahead lay a skyline defined by stark glaciers and behemoth tabular icebergs.
I packed enough SmartWool to rebuild a sheep and an industrial sized dose of Meclizine, but little could prepare me for a passage which would take us more so back in time than distance – to the world living in an ice age just as it was twelve to fifteen thousand years before. We sailed into diamond-studded waters made gemlike by icebergs and brash ice. Weddell seals dozed on the ice flows with only a passing glance at the new neighbors driving by. Small clusters of penguin-torpedoes banked under the surface, brilliantly formed for an undersea life but coordinated like drunken babies on the snow above. Quiet mornings bobbing amid towering bergs were shattered by squabbling chatter of penguin colonies and the gunshot-blows of whales surfacing nearby.
Normal people probably don’t leap out of comfortable beds when a wakeup call coos high clouds, outside temperature hovering at -5 degrees C with a mild southern breeze delivering -11 wind-chill. Yet every morning without fail, eager explorers rushed to the decks, kayaks, and zodiacs to see what new ocean sculptures surrounded us. With sunlight 20+ hours a day, sherbet sunsets flowed straight into pastel sunrises; the deck remained sprinkled with parka-ed passengers around the clock.
There were a million images to make at every turn and I sat clutching my camera when I got the chance to capture Antarctica from under the surface. Perched on the edge of a Zodiac and dressed like a moon man in a Ziploc bag, I was layered in fleece undergarments and polka dotted with hand warmers. All that remained was to lift my heels and plunge head first into 28 degree Cierva Cove. No more hype or heavy breathing would prepare me any better and I slipped backwards into the slushy brash ice for an afternoon snorkel.
Instantly my face was consumed by the most vicious ice-cream headache of my life. As a child I always begged for a cup of water with crushed ice before settling into bed. Suddenly I was swimming in my crushed ice! My forehead was a mini ice-breaker as I finned my way among the bergy bits and growlers. Never in my life had I seen water more crystal clear or been so captivated by the light rays diving deep into the cobalt. The bulk of an iceberg sits below the surface (7-9x more than is showing above). Gazing down it was the lack of light not the lack of ice which eventually erased it from view. Laminar (swirling) flow along an ice face scoops its surface into pits carved like an ice cream scoop. Sunbeams illuminate the cuts, jars, and scars of ice’s life adrift. The beautiful ridges radiate with light deepening into a thousand shades of topaz sliding into the darkening water.
Kicking along with my camera the cold was now a burning heat and every inch of exposed skin was screaming at me. With my face in the water filming a swim around a bobbing ice sculpture I started to feel incredibly proud of myself. Surely it had been ages since my face broke the surface; I was becoming a regular polar explorer. When the pins and needles became too much I rocketed upright again into the sunshine. All toughness dissolved when my video camera told me only three minutes had elapsed! Within an hour my fingers and thumbs had given up cooperation. I had completed my ‘polar plastic surgery’ with skin stretched tight on my face and lips poofed ala Angelina as the blood flow returned. The next icy inlet beckoned.
While whalers and sealers used to comb these waters with harpoons, we spent a week hunting with cameras and binoculars. The power and beauty are at once both humbling and exhilarating. Antarctica is a continent 98% covered in ice, over 15,000 feet thick in some places. Almost 1.5 times larger than the United States, the continent is massive. Glaciers ooze out in all directions tumbling downhill, fusing along the coast into ice shelves- one in the Ross Sea is larger than the country of France. In the 1950’s twelve visionary nations signed a treaty designating this special place exempt from military action, territorial claims, mineral extraction and development. Now ratified by fifty nations, the Antarctic Treaty preserves the continent for “science and the benefit of all humanity” creating great hope as a place of benefit to all and claim of none.
The treaty protected all of the Antarctic continent, but what about the life force for this rugged place- the Southern Ocean? Protections ended at the coast line and the abundant Antarctic seas remain vulnerable to exploitation. Echoes of our past poor stewardship are present throughout the landscape.
Rusting, rotting silos of a fishing station are still visible at Deception Island. We should have been stumbling over whales but rather spent many evening searching for them after decades of fishing reduced their populations up to 95%. History has shown nations fight for and carve apart every new continent they discover. Exploration came relatively late to Antarctica. Tremendous feats of human endurance and scientific discovery began as the world dove into WWI and basic surveys didn’t complete until 30 years after landing on the moon. What could we learn from this continent as a model for purporting science? Its majesty and beauty are without comparison. It’s a base to bring people and knowledge together.
The unique beauty and balance of life makes one wonder the outcome if man were to pull away in preserved areas and give nature a chance to rebalance itself. Mission Blue Partner, The Antarctic Ocean Alliance is proposing a network of no-take zones to allow for these unfettered marine communities to live on. AOA recently identified an action plan to protect 19 key marine habitats in the Ross Sea- one of the most intact marine communities on our planet. Wilderness is not something you can get back once it’s gone. Vast ice sheets won’t reform in our lifetimes once they’ve melted. It is not too late to protect this wild place, our ocean’s equivalent of Africa’s Great Plains.
Antarctica represents a marine protected area where nationalism, commercialism, politics, cultural differences and race, religion, gender and social standing should play no part. Influences of man are seen in magnification and therein lies the hope that awareness in this vastly remote system may serve to awaken the world to man’s effects upon the natural balance of things. Perhaps with enough awareness, enough awe and wonder, enough honoring the uniqueness and splendor of Antarctica, others around the world will be inspired to seriously consider our effects due to over fishing, pollution, water contamination, selfish national policy, lack of thought for environmental impact and urban sprawl. Antarctica holds the hope for international cooperation, conservation, environmental sanctuary development and perhaps man’s very existence upon the earth. The silent stalwart expanse of ice and all life’s dependence on healthy water calls out loudly with the message of conservation and balance. You can click here to Join the Watch with the Antarctic Ocean Alliance and Make your voice heard to protect our last wild place.
Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton sailed to the frozen South in 1918 with little more than reindeer boots, sled dogs, and an ambitious plan to ski and sled across the Antarctic continent. Thousands of men applied to join his company. Faced with such monumental choices, the characteristics he sought were optimism, patience, and courage. As we face the choices of protecting the planet’s oceans, and ourselves, how fortunate the planet will be if can muster to emulate these values.
Follow Megan: Facebook.com/MeganCookOceanAmbassador and on twitter @MeganCook33