Aarti Rao went on an expedition to the chilliest continent and found herself awestruck by the dazzling landscapes and sparkling crystal-like icebergs. From watching the whales and penguins up close, to hiking at Brown Bluff and exploring Deception Island, her voyage was a remarkable adventure. You & I brings you her escapades in the Antarctic wilderness.
I can surely say that I was lucky enough to be chosen to go to Antarctica as part of the International Antarctica Expedition 2016 to attend the ‘Leadership on the Edge’ programme along with a team of 140 individuals from 30 different countries. With a custom itinerary that entailed finding our “Authentic Leadership” through team-building activities that involved enduring a blizzard and crossing the deep crevasses by using our newly learnt knowledge on how to tie knots with ropes; it was quite literally ‘Leadership on the Edge’.
It was a 15-day expedition and it took us about a week for commuting. To get to Antarctica, one must cross the infamous Drake Passage, known to be one of the roughest seas in the world. Once in Antarctica, you can camp on the Antarctic land for a night as part of a survival training camp, but that depends completely on the unpredictable weather. During our stay, we explored different locations on the mainland, and various islands surrounding the western Antarctic Peninsula. One of them was Deception Island, which is an active volcanic candela whose surface is covered with volcanic ice, beneath which lies a humongous rock of ice. Whalers Bay in this island used to be a whaling station in the early 1900s. The station no longer exists because certain species of whales and seals were driven nearly to extinction for their oil. Rusty old barrels and hooks still hang there, and the entire place still reeks of melancholy. Due to an onslaught of technology and the discovery of petroleum as a substitute, whaling is no longer a threat. This story has become a symbol of hope to look to solar and alternate forms of energy to replace fossil fuels.
Antarctica has a rich history, and we got to retrace the steps of some of the most famous polar explorers during our trip. The visit to Peterman Island, which has an Argentine refugee outpost, our self-reflection sessions at Portal Point (looking at floating icebergs!), and the challenging hike at Brown Bluff were among the most magnificent moments of the trip. We were trying to diagnose an unpredictable place that was a juxtaposition of wild and tranquil. At one instance, we were striding uphill and the weather seemed perfect. But when we reached the midway point, the Katabatic winds of 45 knots (a tropical hurricane is at 50 knots) forced us to abandon the hike and seek cover on the ship.
Each day was more special than the previous one, as we enjoyed the most unique experiences. Our daily activities included seeing humpback whales take a swim 20 feet away from us, penguins and seals in their natural habitat, and making a visit to the Iceberg Graveyard, where one can view the exquisite icebergs in myriad shapes and shades. Personally, the most impactful moment was when I watched a huge chunk of ice calve off a glacier; climate change is real, the ice is melting!
When it comes to the human inhabitants in Antarctica, there are none, although there is a transient population of 2,000-5,000 scientists and explorers every year. But one is mesmerised to see the penguin colonies in just about every shore landing, and you cannot stop chuckling at their goofiness, which makes them the cutest creatures alive!
My journey went a notch higher when I faced my biggest challenge – the Polar Plunge. We all jumped into the icy cold water of the Antarctic with a safety harness around our waists. Having completed this task, the sense of achievement that came with it was unparalleled, and is enough to make one fearless.
Even as a tourist, you can visit Antarctica to experience the coldest, driest, and windiest continent on Earth. You can either choose to be a part of the National Geographic expedition team, or go via Cox and Kings, India. Our organiser, 2041 Foundation, offset our carbon emissions for our expedition through activities such as planting trees. I urge everyone to visit Antarctica at least once in their lifetime; it’s the most inaccessible of all seven continents, and is absolutely full of nature. It’s the last known wilderness on earth, and must be preserved for the sake of humanity. - Aarti