An Antarctic Adventure

Thanks to Ohio State and STEP, I had the opportunity to travel to Antarctica via the Antarctica: Human Impacts on the Environment program. From December 15th to December 30th, myself and 28 other college students embarked on the journey of a lifetime to the coldest, harshest, and driest continent on the planet. This study abroad contained a research component as well, so gained valuable skills related to conducting research in a changing environment. The journal began in Ushuaia, Argentina, where I learned about ecotourism and the impact of tourism on a small town. From the Ushuaia port, we sailed on a small research vessel through the Beagle Channel out to the infamous Drake Passage, known for its history of sinking ships and producing waves to make your stomach churn. Upon our arrival to the Antarctic Peninsula, our group and other tourists aboard the vessel stepped ashore on the most ecologically pristine continent to view penguins, pinnipeds, whales, and birds seen nowhere else in the world. Between the glaciers, icebergs, mountains, and wildlife, this trip was truly magical.

Despite being a global traveler, this trip challenged me in ways I could have never expected. Simply traveling to Antarctica requires a physical stamina that shouldn’t be underestimated. The total commute from my hometown of Chicago to Ushuaia took a whopping 33 hours. Airtime alone was 17 hours in one direction – overnight. This required an adaption to flying and the ability to sit still for an extended period of time. Traveling through the Drake Passage takes about two and a half days so tolerance of seasickness was also required. Despite these trying experiences, I also saw the most beautiful sights. The mountains of Patagonia are not to be missed, nor the bow-riding dolphins, whales, wandering albatross, and penguins in the Drake Passage. My understanding of the beauty in times of difficulty developed simply from traveling. I also became more aware of nature and its strength and beauty from the trip. While traveling about the Antarctic Peninsula, I also realized much about myself. As an Earth Science student, I have always had an affinity for ice, rocks, and earth processes. While in Antarctica, I was able to exercise these skills in the field by corresponding with geologists on the research vessel, conducting iceberg census data, and simply marveling at the sights. Most people don’t know that Antarctica has mountains, so seeing these untouched geologic wonders and glaciers that were sitting on their cliffs was truly incredible. This experience helped me develop my sense of place in the world. I definitely learned that my niche lies in the polar regions and that I truly enjoyed sharing my knowledge of glaciology and geology with others. Frequently during the trip I was asked about various geological or glacial formations (as I was the only Earth Sciences student on the ship), so I took great pleasure in sharing my understanding of the physical environment. This solidified my long-term career goal of continuing academia and pursuing a doctorates degree to become a professor at an accredited university. I want to share my passion of the polar regions with others in hopes that they would also appreciate and marvel at them. This was a transformation that took place during the trip!

I also learned a fair bit about ecotourism, so this has also shaped my views of the world and traveling. Ecotourism was a module of research taken on by a few students (not myself) within our group. Essentially, they were in charge of calculating and quantifying the environmental and social impacts of traveling to Antarctica. Some of these impacts were visible to me. For example, Ushuaia does not have the infrastructure for an influx in tourism, so they are falling behind in waste treatment and infrastructure for employees in the tourism. As a result, much of their waste is dumped in the harbor, and some homes are made of spare materials. There are beautiful parts to Ushuaia, however I was bothered by my own ecological impact. In addition to this, I also recognized that Antarctic wildlife was not accustomed to tourists. Despite some sites seeing up to 10,000 tourists daily, some wildlife expressed discomfort when being closely photographed by tourists or when we hiked close by. As an outsider, I recognize that I am not able to do much, but as an employee, I may be able to contribute more towards sustainability and wildlife protection. A shorter-term job goal would be to work in the tourism industry as a wildlife guide. The rewards of this are two-fold; I would be able to teach others about the things I love, such as glaciers and rocks, and I would be able to help others respect and appreciate the wildlife at a safer distance for all parties involved. Therefore, I learned that I may not want to jump into graduate school immediately after graduation. Rather, I am heavily considering contributing to ecotourism in a positive and constructive manner.

This trip was not only fun, but it was also a massive educational experience. First, there is a research component involved with this study abroad, so the students participating in the program were required to read peer-reviewed literature and gather data towards this research. We worked in teams and in shifts to gather data, and again in small groups to analyze said data. Using our data, assigned readings, and addition material taken from the ship’s library, each research group had to create a 15-minute presentation on their subject, a 20-page research paper, and Ohio State students will be presenting at the Denman Undergraduate Research Forum. To be able to gather data, analyze it, write about it, and present it is essential for any research project. These skills are also essential for a future in academia. During this trip, I found that I enjoyed conducting research and in fact, I looked forward to each time I got to gather data from the field. This is promising and helped me develop as a scientist. I hope to further improve these skills by conducting undergraduate research during the academic year and doing a separate research project this summer as an intern.

Another learning opportunity came from the pre-departure online lectures and the lectures held during the travel through the Drake Passage. The college group tuned in every Wednesday evening to hear lectures by several professors. The subjects covered in these lectures varied from history and psychology to ecology and geology. Lectures on the boat also were catered towards our Antarctic adventure. We learned in more detail the role of krill, about pinnipeds, bird, glaciers, and history. These lectured removed any ignorance I had towards Antarctica and replaced it with awe. These lectures deepened my understanding of all processes and history surrounding Antarctica and allowed me to enjoy my trip from an educational perspective. During the trip, I was able to identify birds and better understand the wildlife and glaciers around me. This fueled my love for learning and my love for Antarctica. From this experience, I feel more well-rounded as a student.

This extraordinary one-in-a-lifetime experience helped me solidify my short and long-term career goals, my major, and my love for learning. I gained valuable tools related to conducting research as a student and professional in my field, and I planning to carry those tools well into my career and into my internships. I also learned my place in the world as an environmentalist, a teacher, and a student. I would like to strive to teach others and share my passions with others, while simultaneously helping travelers and students alike develop an appreciation for the environment and the wildlife around them. This trip also re-ignited the craving for adventure. Some personal goals I have now set for myself is to continue traveling, climb the highest summits on all seven continents, run a marathon on Antarctica, and pass the Antarctic Circle. I still have yet to see an orca or a wandering albatross, so I must go back to accomplish these goals. Being disturbed by some aspects of ecotourism has changed the way I live my life. Even though I have traveled to so many places, I plan to continue doing so in a more sustainable matter. I am also trying to live more environmentally-consciously. I found myself in Antarctica and will be going back in the near future, hopefully as an employee, but even more so as an explorer. This trip has been the experience of a lifetime, but it has also positively changed me, and these changes will last a lifetime.