“Especially this time of year,” says Andy, an expedition leader who has been travelling to The Great White Continent for nine seasons (he spends the off-season with his husband in Oregon). “If you come to Antarctica during the holidays, then you get a lot of families with kids who can take the time off.”
If there is one clear, recurring theme noticed by all of us who have returned to Antarctica over the past decade: the climate isn’t just changing, it has already changed.
“The Adelie Penguin has shrunk in population by over 65% in the last 20 years,” says a feisty Scottish scientist, helping us disembark onto the rocky shore of Brown Bluff. I had stood at this very penguin colony in 2008, only this time, a decade later, it is so warm, we have to strip down to our t-shirts. “You’ll notice as well that many other species of penguin have shifted their colonies over the years to accommodate for the change in temperature,” she says. I imagine one of the more challenging aspects of expedition tourism is that it relies heavily on the environment. How do you sell a place in advance knowing it might not be there the next year?
“We came to see it before it’s gone,” says Taylor, a Yale graduate who I became friends with whilst kayaking around an old whaling shipwreck. We forget that sound carries across water. “It just kills me to think that if I ever have kids, they’ll never be able to see this.” The Angry Couple was kayaking close by, scowling and shaking their heads at us.
“The climate isn’t changing. It has already changed.”
Floating through the Lemaire Channel, at the bow of the ship, I finally take my patch off. I have yearned after Antarctica for almost ten years, so I am willing to risk a bit of seasickness for wakefulness, not to mention that I am certainly not about to have any more reoccurring Ivanka-mares. The mountains are too breathtaking; the water, a glass mirror, our reflections looking back at us. At that moment, some Crabeater Seals leap from an ice flow.
“See?!” I gesture as the seals swoop along in front of the ship. “Friggin’ Narnia!”
Just then my phone rings. Obviously, there is no cell service in Antarctica, but the ship offers satellite WiFi for those of us who want to obsessively share on social media. My feed has been blowing up. Friends and family are posting articles to my timeline about a massive crack that had appeared along the Larson Ice Shelf, on the other side of the Peninsula. I’m always amused when people don’t understand the sheer scale of the Antarctic continent. It was the equivalent of asking, “Hey, so you’re over there in Dallas, can you see the Hollywood Sign?”
But as we learn in class, which will later be reiterated by my National Geographic magazine subscription, the water around the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed over five degrees in the past few decades, quadrupling the speed of ice melt. Whereas on the Pacific side of Antarctica, a small piece (and by small, I mean the size of Texas) of the Pine Island Ice Shelf threatens to become ‘unmoored’. If the oceans were to absorb that much ice it could raise sea levels by ten feet.
“I’m going to tell everyone it is like that scene in The Day After Tomorrow,” I say to David and Taylor, “where I’m a gay Dennis Quaid who jumps over a crevasse just in time to save my precious ice core samples!” We hear laughter that isn’t ours.
In the glassy water, we see another reflection: the Angry Couple is out on deck watching the ice float by. The Channel was so quiet they could hear us blabbing, and somehow my bad joke broke their scowls. We all went silent and I realise that actually, I was glad the couple was with us and listening in. It didn’t matter that they were stomping out of lectures, or scowling at the groups of enthusiastic college kids. They are here, listening to the ice, first hand. And it is conveying its constant message – the Overview Effect. Ivanka is in my head again and something she says actually resonates.
“People talk about balance. Balance is an awful measure of things because it implies a scale that inevitably tips.”
… head out on a Zodiac or polar kayak. Seeing everything up close and personal is spellbinding.
… take an excursion with the ship’s National Geographic photographer if you’re a happy snapper. These top professionals are at your side and service and will give you all the help you need to improve your skills and ensure you go home with incredible photos.
… push your limits. For most, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, so go all out. We can recommend a cross-country ski or snowshoe across the frozen sea ice.
… miss visiting the bridge. It’s where the calm, but serious business of ice navigation unfolds.
… be a wallflower. The cruise is a very social event, with plenty of opportunities, from classroom to cocktails, where you can share stories with fellow travellers, experts, scientists and perhaps an ‘Angry Couple’ of your own.
… forget to smile, a professional video chronicler is onboard the ship, primed to capture your expedition moments, especially when you’re least expecting it. So whatever you do, don’t look like you’re not enjoying yourself.
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