Antarctica: Harsh, Wild, and Humbling

Name:  James Gaitan

Type of Project:  Study Abroad

For my STEP project, I participated in a study abroad program in Antarctica.  With the program being offered from the school of Environmental and Natural Resources, we examined the human impact on the natural environment.  We spent 10 days on a ship travelling to different islands with an additional 3 days total before and after in Argentina.12494382_563897943767117_2144950847_o

For the projects, we were in three teams:  sustainability of ecotourism, bird watching, and reflections on western civilizations. Within each of these, there were 4-5 sub-modules with 2-3 people in each.  My group investigated the human impact on wildlife within the sustainability of ecotourism module.  Through my sub-module I learned significantly about various anthropogenic threats to Antarctic wildlife and current research on this topic.  Through the ecotourism module, I learned about many factors that impact sustainability of Antarctic travel and each of their repercussions.  In the pre-departure course, I learned about many aspects of the Antarctic ecosystem and its history, which enabled me to have a more rewarding experience in Antarctica.  The field course visually showed me how fragile and pristine Antarctica is and how important it is to prevent further degradation

Visiting Antarctica allows for much personal reflection due to the isolation and unbelievable marvels everywhere.  As such, even though I have always enjoyed travelling and plan to do much more in the future, this program has encouraged me to travel in any free time I have possible.  Examining the sustainability of humans in Antarctica has led me to want to incorporate sustainability more into my major.


There were several specific instances that led to personal transformations throughout my study abroad program.  The first main instance occurred when we first saw land at around 1:30 am.  Nearly the entire ship was asleep due to breakfast beginning at 7:00 am the next morning; however, my roommate was awake due to sleeping earlier that day.  He woke me and my other roommate up due to his amazement of its sight.  I was hesitant in interrupting my lessened sleep to see Antarctica initially; however, he said it was worth it.  As I ascended the stairs to the observation lounge I began to see land through the windows.  Immediately I was awestruck and rushed towards the windows to see closer and in more detail.  The magnitude of the land, the icebergs, and everything in sight was humbling and I cannot describe the contrast and beauty of it all.  Eventually we went outside to observe the changing landscape as the ship slowly proceeding along the coast.  With few colors and no man-made objects to scale the landmasses it was interesting to see icebergs and the mountains to evolve as we saw them from different angles.  Perhaps, the most amazing experience of this night was the sunset, which never actually set.  I had never seen a sunset like it before and there were so many colors and so many unusual shapes that I could not imagine would come from a sunset.  I spent so much time looking at the colors and shapes evolve that I lost track of time and we ended up spending about an hour and a half outside in the freezing weather.  The amount of beauty that these sights showed me made me realize how beautiful the natural environment can be and caused me to want to appreciate more of it.


On a similar note, another significant moment was on one of the islands we went to.  We hiked up this hill with snow so deep and light that we fell a couple feet through it every other step.  Once we got to the top, we sat down to observe our other-worldly surroundings.  Eventually, one of our tour guides suggested for us to be quiet for a couple of minutes.  This was amazing, since there were practically no other sounds.  I had a similar experience on the ship one night.  We were circling around a bay while the engine was only humming.  I decided to spend some time outside after working on an assignment for the program.  Once I stepped outside I stopped in my footsteps because I heard no sounds besides for the quiet humming of the engine.  After absorbing my surroundings for a few moments I quickly gathered some students to share my experience with them. Standing outside observing the amazing landscape with extremely still waters was transformative.  I enjoy being busy and having a tight schedule to get more accomplished but moments like sitting on top of the island and on the ship in silence encouraged me to relax and take in these amazing sights and examine the intricacies rather than look at the landscape and move on.


In relation to my project on human impacts on wildlife, I felt ambivalent about our impact.  While our research suggested that humans, particularly visitors, have a minor impact on wildlife.  Nevertheless, it was unfortunate to see the potential that future impacts may have on wildlife.  This encouraged me to ensure that I try to prevent harm to the natural environment and try to live more sustainably.


Getting to experience the silence in Antarctica and observe the mostly undisturbed natural environment in Antarctica has led me to enjoy seeing and learning more about the natural environment.   Previously, I was mainly interested in visiting cities and learning about various structures, particularly as a structural engineer.  Antarctica has led me to see the beauty in nature and want to experience more authenticity.  Additionally, the lectures and other coursework has reinforced my view that learning about and researching places before visiting yields a far more rewarding experience that travelling without any background.