As long as I can remember, I have gazed out at the ocean and wondered, “How could anyone go to sea?” How could anyone be brave enough to travel out of sight of land? Why would they want to? These thoughts caused a visceral reaction, a palpable fear, and the certainty it was neither something I desired nor something I’d ever willingly do.
But… I have always longed to go to Antarctica. So, when I was invited to join a research cruise in Antarctic waters as Science Communicator, I didn’t even need to think about it. I said yes on the spot. And for three years, I eagerly planned, read, studied, dreamed, and anticipated, keeping it all to handful of family and close friends as I waited for the cruise to come to fruition.
Yet I was very anxious about going to sea. The Southern Ocean is notorious for being the roughest ocean on the planet, and for 1000s of miles, we would be beyond sight of land, traversing waters long-known by sailors as the Screaming Sixties, Furious Fifties, and Roaring Forties due to their ferocious storms and raging seas.
Today, I sit in a coffee house in the small harbor town of Lyttelton, New Zealand, at the ragged tail of what has been an extraordinary and life-changing experience. From here, I can see the docked RV/IB Nathaniel B. Palmer—the ship we’ve lived and worked on for the last 42 days as we traveled from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, through the Ross Sea and Southern Ocean.
On our research cruise—which you can learn more about at www.snowbirdstransect.org—our science team studied diatoms, microscopic plants that produce much of the oxygen we breathe, form part of the base of the marine (and aquatic) food chain, and act as a carbon “sink”—taking the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ensuring diatoms have a massive influence on our global climate. It has been an incredible honor to be involved in this project, and I couldn’t be more grateful for all I learned, the chance to communicate the science and share our journey with the public, the lovely, smart, and interesting people I met, and the opportunity to help contribute in my own small way to science, humanity, and our planet.
My days out there were filled with the joy of knowing I was exactly where I needed to be—that I was doing what I was born to do. It is terribly bittersweet to say goodbye to this interlude in my life, but I’m determined it will be only the first of such experiences. (There’s a learning curve associated with any new endeavor, of course, and when I do it again—as I must—I will have an even better sense of how to go about it.) During the journey, numerous people reached out and asked what the most amazing, unexpected, and difficult parts of the journey were. Only now do I feel able to answer those questions fully and honestly.
Most Amazing: That’s not something I’m able or willing to qualify. What wasn’t amazing? I flew in a Hercules cargo plane across Antarctica and lived at McMurdo Station for a few days. I experienced the aching humanity of Scott’s hut and gazed out over the frozen Ross Sea. I enjoyed—with all the senses—breaking ice. I watched Adélie penguins waddle-run and belly-swim across sea ice, humpback whales spouting, orcas hunting, seals, dolphins, and a vast array of Southern Ocean bird species. I sailed through a force ten gale surrounded by massive icebergs, got my hands dirty in 1000s-of-year-old sediment retrieved from the sea floor miles below us, was excited by diatom growth experiments, and observed almost daily my much beloved wandering albatrosses playing on the ship’s breeze. I arose every day looking forward to what it would bring, to the chance to share that with the public, and to spending time with those on our voyage. I even learned to play Mario Kart! And all this is just part of the magic…
Most Unexpected: How much I enjoyed being out of sight of land and sailing heavy seas. I never anticipated joyfully sitting in the ice tower, the highest and therefore rockiest part of the ship, in huge waves post-midnight. Or that being beyond sight of land, with only the uninterrupted line of sky and sea all around, would be so freeing and peaceful. How could I know my greatest anxieties about the voyage would become two of my greatest pleasures? That I would so miss the rocking of the ship? What a relief it is to have such limited Internet? How very little I need to be truly happy? That I’d be utterly changed in ways I have yet to process?
Most Difficult: Saying goodbye to the experience and to people I care for. Knowing that, unless I work very hard and push for it, I may not have such an opportunity again…
But therein lies excitement, too. You just never know what will happen. I have been blessed so far.
In the wee small hours of our final night of science operations, the handful of us who were awake stood outside the bridge, watching the Aurora Australis flicker and shimmer above the clouds on the southern horizon, ripples of energy pulsing rapidly across the sky toward us. That I was awake at the right time, with the right friend, and in the right place to experience this wonder is indicative of the magic of the journey, which has been as internal and spiritual as it is has been physical and scientific.
Finally, I am grateful to you all for your interest and enthusiasm and for sharing this voyage with me. I look forward to taking you out to sea, far from land, in powerful seas again.