No Ordinary Place, No Ordinary Assignment - this is my extraordinary journey to Antarctica!

Marli’s Story

Almost two weeks after the No Ordinary Place, No Ordinary Assignment I grapple with the realisation that I have travelled to the bottom of the Earth. As an enthusiastic wildlife documentary filmmaker, Antarctica is the icing on the cake. It is a continent that is so intrinsically connected to the rest of the world that its story must be told. The harshest place on Earth stands up to its reputation of being remote, extreme and of grand scientific significance. It is a place I was determined to reach within my lifetime.

One minute it was 40 degrees Celsius and the next it had dropped to 10. I was attempting to sleep on the 1950’s Hercules aircraft when two cheeky looking faces appeared in front of me. Having to wear earplugs and our extreme cold weather clothing (ECW’s) whilst on board, Jason and Mike played a game of charades to coax me to the small round window on the side of the aircraft. It was the moment I caught sight of the edge of the frozen Antarctic sea ice for the first time. It looks more beautiful than any photo of Antarctica I have ever seen and its sheer scale is larger than I can possibly describe.

Humbly perched on the edge of Ross Island with a beachfront view of the frozen Ross Sea, is Antarctica New Zealand’s research base, Scott Base. Three wind turbines spin silently on top of the hill while recycled water systems provide a sustainable alternative for daily water use. Mint-green buildings make up the housing for New Zealand scientists and provide an escape from freezing Antarctic temperatures. With 24 hours of daylight, and a whole continent to explore it is hard to close the eyelids at night. Scott Base was our home for two weeks, and what a home it was!

The Science

I experienced so many incredible moments whilst down on the ice but what keeps organisations like Air New Zealand and National Geographic supporting a place like Antarctica, is the immense amount of scientific research being produced. Many days were spent flying in a helicopter to a penguin-breeding colony, meeting scientists conducting ice core drilling and laser scanning on the Ross Ice Shelf and chatting with scientific leaders about their findings. This research impacts not only those living in New Zealand or at Scott Base, but you and me, people from all across the globe.

The need to respect science is more important than ever when the world is faced with an uncertain future due to the current rapid rate of climate change. It is the humble, unbiased scientists who dedicate their lives to understanding more about Antarctica and its connection to the rest of the world, who deserve recognition. So here is a little introduction to some 5-star science being produced in Antarctica!

From Little Things, Big Things Grow

Meet Andrew Martin and Marius Muller- two scientists who are studying some of the smallest living organisms in the world. Being at the bottom end of the food chain and calling the bottom layers of sea ice, home, the health of extremophiles (algae) can influence the entire Antarctic ecosystem. Andrew and Marius’ biggest question they face is to quantify the link between extremophiles to krill and whales. These little organisms have incredible adaptive skills to cope with the harsh UV rays of the sun and are a bellwether for climate change. Looking out from the kitchen window at Scott Base, at the sheer scale of the continent, I had not a clue as to how the scientists find a creature invisible to the naked eye. Ice core drilling in Antarctica is used for a myriad of reasons and one is to find extremophiles.

Jason, Mike, 6 cameras and I spent the day with Andrew and Marius out on the sea ice. Mike and I were standing on frozen sea ice with close to frozen hands, holding a 2-metre ice core drill. It was one of the coldest days in Antarctica that I experienced and yet Andrew was able to place his bare hands inside a drilled hole to heave out an ice core sample. May I remind you this is no balmy thoroughfare. Placing one’s hand in -1.8 degree Celsius Antarctic water is beyond crazy, but Andrew refused to use the clumsy gloves. Once back inside a makeshift lab at Scott Base, Andrew showed us a machine that sends light impulses toward the extremophiles to determine the health and state of the microorganisms- the healthier the algae, the healthier the ecosystem.

Craig Stewart and The Ross Ice Shelf Project

Scientists know a lot about the surface of Antarctica, but far less is known about the landscape under the ice. Working in the most isolated mobile laboratory on Earth is a team of frontier scientists- oceanographers and glaciologists- Craig Stewart and his two-man team, Ricky and Tom. The team of dedicated scientists are conducting a two-year study on the level of Antarctic ice-shelf melt on the Ross Ice Shelf. This is the largest chunk of floating ice on the planet – about the size of France and between 100m to about 800m thick! An invasive warm ocean current below the ice shelf could be transforming the current state of Antarctica like never previously predicted. Using ice core drilling and scanning technology to determine the thickness of the ice shelf can help give us a better picture of the dynamic nature of Antarctica underneath our feet. It was one of the most beautiful days I had spent in the field with Mt Erebus looming in the background but some poor decision-making for footwear tampered with my concentration levels.

Carrying all of their gear on sleds pulled by skidoos, this team are a force to be reckoned with. After spending weeks out in the field in harrowing conditions of 60-knot winds, the team were five days behind schedule. As Craig showed us his mobile study station he explained if the Ross Ice Shelf did in fact melt, it would not necessarily change the sea level but it would enable a large mass of inland ice (where most of the world’s fresh water is held) to fall into the ocean. If all of this ice melted it could cause a 60m sea level rise! In other words, almost all of my city of Melbourne, Australia, would be underwater and my town of birth, Byron Bay, would not exist anymore. We shall sit tight and wait to see what Craig’s data can tell us in the years ahead!

The Longest Running, 50 year Antarctic Project

It is acknowledged that the more a scientist knows, the more questions they are likely to ask. One of the most exhilarating experiences I had whilst in Antarctica was sitting amongst dead penguin carcasses, predatory Skuas and 60,000 smelly breeding pairs of Adelie penguins and chicks. Cape Bird is a microcosm for the cycle of life. If spending 2 months with one other person, squatting in an outhouse bucket-toilet, with no Internet or phones and enduring long hours counting animals every day, sounds like an awesome life, then Hamish and Amy have the greatest job in the world. The pair of Landcare scientists taught Mike and I all that is known about the life of the Adelie penguin and posed some interesting questions to us whilst in the field. The more Amy and Hamish learn about the dynamics of penguin population, the more we understand about the complex nature of global climate change and bird species control.

It is a mystery as to where the Adelie penguin lives when the sea ice refreezes and the temperature plunges to -45 degrees Celsius in winter. It is hypothesised that the penguins find drifting icebergs to rest on and dive off into open water to catch silver fish and krill, but the answer is still a mystery. To help answer these questions Amy and Hamish have the cutest job in the field- penguin chick wrangling! Armed with a long bamboo stick and hook at the end, Hamish stands amongst thousands of penguins, reaching out ever so gently to coax a chick into his arms. Whilst Mike and I helped to de-tag and record the individual grey fuzz-ball I couldn’t help but feel my maternal instincts kicking in.

It isn’t all cute and cuddly at Cape Bird and one of the most horrific scenes I witnessed, other than dissecting a Crab Eater Seal that had died of natural causes, was filming a Skua attack on an Adelie penguin chick. The Skua’s have chicks of their own to feed and are ruthless hunters. I liken them to the Hyenas of Africa. I was filming while Jason and Mike snapped the stills. It was a solid 15-minute battle with an Adelie penguin chick putting up an incredible fight. What happened next was something I will never forget. It is always difficult when filming life and death at its most gruesome and this was a bloody battle being fought. I was so engrossed in filming I didn’t realise the injured chick was suddenly standing feebly at my feet. Jason yelled at me to get back and out of the scene. I felt horrible I had unintentionally involved myself in the event. It taught me a lot about keeping on my toes when filming and detaching myself from my human emotions to focus on the task at hand. Out of all odds, the chick managed to escape and survive.

The Memories

It wasn’t all serious scientific study down at Scott Base and everybody needs to enjoy Antarctica for what it is- a glorious, white, wonder world. Who knows, it may be the only time in my life that I will experience this magical continent. Jason, Mike and I enjoyed an incredible climb up Castle Rock with our safety guide, Matt, and I developed an interesting “climbing” position on a boulder that I was struggling to get myself over. I’m praying Jason’s cheeky side doesn’t get the better of him to have it included in the mini doco!

We visited the huts of heroic explorers including Sir Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s huts. Maintained by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, I felt like an intruder into someone else’s home. Preservation of the Heroic Period, when those including Sir Edmund Hillary took to the South Pole is an incredible process to observe. There were 100-year-old jars of pickles, strawberry jam and a half eaten biscuit that sat inside the huts, preserved by the cold, like no time had past. Seal blubber permeated the air on the inside while wooden cargo boxes inscribed with “British Antarctic Expedition 1907” sat outside. We even had a sneaky read of the cover of The Illustrated London News with “Granola” the Finest of All Digestive Biscuits advertised as its latest “super food” (it seems some trends never change).

I learned very early on that there is no time to sleep when there is a whole world to photograph and Jason is a walking legacy of this. If you have ever heard of Jason Edwards before, you will know that he doesn’t sleep. Quite literally, this National Geographic photographer eats, drinks, talks, takes photos and laughs. I found out I have an incredible ability to sleep wherever I can, including sleeping standing up whilst waiting for a helicopter at Cape Bird!

When we did manage to keep our eyes open, we spent it outside at 3 am in total daylight watching the incredible magnitude of life in Antarctica take our breath away. A pod of 50+ Minke whales swam right to our doorstep to feed in freshly melted sea ice. It was a sight I will never forget and one I hope to witness again. Even the Weddell seals basking on the ice seemed to get distracted by their company, awaking from their lazy slumber to watch an orchestra of waterspouts and dorsal fins darting around them.

The people at Scott Base form a community like I have never experienced before. To have each and every person you walk past at any hour of the day greet you by your name and send a genuine smile your way is a real heart warmer. We spent nights at the local bar listening to the Scott Base No Expectations instrumental band and laughing until the wee hours of the morning with New Zealand scientists, engineers, chefs, cleaners, fire fighters, technicians and media teams.

Other than the wildlife and science in Antarctica, if I could bring back anything from my stay in the most arduous continent on the planet, it would be the sense of community and deep founding respect for science that everyone has adopted at the New Zealand base. The consideration of the environment and the need to respect life in Antarctica is a deep-seated culture at Scott Base. Every scientist is given the respect and acknowledgement they deserve. I believe this is what keeps people coming back to Antarctica year after year. I have walked away from this experience with a greater level of understanding about Antarctic science and the need to continue supporting relevant and essential scientific research here and around the world. Without knowledge and understanding of the natural world how can we possibly work toward protecting what we have now and in the future? Antarctica holds a very special place in my heart and I will never forget this extraordinary assignment!

This is Marli Lopez-Hope, signing off on the Air New Zealand and National Geographic, No Ordinary Place, No Ordinary Assignment.

Goodbye…for now!