Earlier this year, I was privileged enough to go on the trip of a lifetime – I went to Antarctica. In all ways, both devastating and euphoric, it was overwhelming. However, in that I think we can find, if not answers to current circumstances, at least a guide for how we might best behave, both individually and as a community.
I have always been an enormous fan of travelling; my late wife and I travelled all over the world together, sharing the belief that through travel we gain perspective and understanding in all areas of our work and life. I had always wanted to go to Antarctica, the seventh continent, and given the circumstance that has unfolded since, its vast extremes could not have come at a more pertinent time.
I do believe that taking the time to observe the world around us, and in particular nature, is a great educator. It is a reminder of what has been, what is and what could be; bearing as it does the scars and the resilience to challenges and opportunities past, present and future.
From Margaret Thatcher Drive to King Penguins
With that in mind, my trip to Antarctica began at Ushuaia in Argentina, from which we took a boat to the Falkland Islands. Arriving there is an extraordinary experience – the quintessential Britishness (red letter boxes, garden gnomes, afternoon tea, Margaret Thatcher Drive) alongside extraordinary wildlife (Albatrosses overhead, penguins on the beach). However, alongside it all, you get your first glance of the devastation – the various memorials like those in Ushuaia, the names of ships involved in the second Battle of the Falklands displayed in white pebbles on the hillside as your boat arrives, all show the human cost of war. It leaves you with a lot to reflect upon as well as much to admire and inspire.
Another three days at sea and we arrived in South Georgia, which is like the Serengeti of the Southern Oceans. Its wild and unforgiving weather; its thousands Fur and Elephant Seals and millions of King Penguins and their chicks; the icebergs, the glaciers and the snow-capped mountains. You feel gloriously irrelevant, and entirely at the mercy of this extraordinary environment that has the power to let you visit or swallow you whole on a whim.
Alongside this vast wilderness however, you also see the whaling stations. They sit in ruins as a reminder of an industry that much of our world depended upon for a time, but that also devastated the natural world while we lived oblivious to the impact of our actions. The Right Whale was particularly vulnerable to this industry – a victim of its own docile, curious nature and the advantage that humans took in harpooning them as they bobbed up to see what was going on. When whaling was finally banned by most nations, there were rumoured to be only 30 breeding females left alive.
Beauty and fragility
Today we have learned that although this environment appears unyielding and strong, it is also extremely fragile, and much is done to try to protect it. The South Georgia government have gone to great lengths to preserve it,. Extreme bio preservation means everything you wear on the island has to be completely cleansed before you set foot on land, and before you board the ship again – right down to the tweezers used to remove any seeds caught in your boots.
Back on board the boat we continued our cruise towards Antarctica itself. As we went towards the South Shetland Isles we were continuously treated to the most magnificent sites and sights. On one day in particular we saw one of the biggest whale sightings in a decade. More than an estimated 150 Humpback whales surrounded the ship for more than an hour as on-board scientists took a physical and radar count. We were dazzled as the whales had the confidence and space to just to not swim around but dive under the ship, play, breach and use their fins as sails – fully visible to the enchanted crew and passengers. It was a ‘beyond wow experience’ a fellow traveller remarked, the likes of which the crew, many of more than 25 years of experience, had not encountered before.
When we finally reached Antarctica, we spent several days in this immaculate landscape variously populated with huge icebergs, seals, a semi-extinct volcano with steam rising from the central caldera, whales and massive penguin colonies. Then the highlight. We drew proverbial straws to see who would actually sleep on the Peninsular. Here you are not allowed to take any food or drink. You stay from 6pm one night until 6am in the morning. The ship sails out of sight. Your team are alone. You would well think at night it would be silent, but the sound of the Arctic Terns, the ice cracking and moving and the wind means it’s anything but. In the 12 hours we were there we had rain, snow, hail and perfect sunshine as well as the most magnificent sunset I have ever seen. The original explorers and the journeys they went on were very much front of mind.
Learning and doing things differently
Our return journey took us via the Drake Passage, famously one of the roughest parts of the ocean but at a relative calm for us, with waves of a mere nine metres high. We were treated to lectures based on the history of the original explorers as well as the science behind climate change, environmental impact and research into the possibility of harvesting the vast krill resources that are the foundation on which all wildlife in this region exist.
This trip provided food for thought on so many levels. Perhaps first and foremost, the extraordinary wildlife that still exists in the world and the fragility with which it hangs in the balance. We all know it, but in seeing it, it reminds us that while we may consider ourselves the dominant species, we are merely sharing this world with others, and if we are dominant, then we are also that much more responsible for everyone’s welfare.
What is also so very apparent, is the impact of our past actions, and a reminder to take a step back and look at those. From the Falklands War to the whaling industry, I am reluctant to be too harsh a judge of what has gone before, because while the consequences may be devastating, and we can see that now, the actions were of a time. We, all of us, can only ever do what we think is right at the time, but where we are different today to a hundred or even 50 years ago, is that we have more technology, more information, more resources and greater hindsight with which to guide our behaviours.
We have a duty of care to one another, as well as the natural world, in whatever we do; to think, to be considerate, and to remember that whether it’s within The City, the country or the world, we are part of an interconnected community. Whether it’s harvesting krill, planning our business strategies or staying at home to do our bit against coronavirus, we owe it to one another to really think about our actions and look beyond the now.