Rough Guides writer Shafik Meghji ventures where few have gone in the world – the chilly, dramatic landscape of Antarctica. Here he joins a voyage to become a "citizen scientist" for a three-week adventure, helping scientists learn more about this harsh environment under the threat of climate change by collecting data on everything from penguin colonies to microplastics.
Midway across the choppy Scotia Sea, a fierce debate broke out on deck five of the Hebridean Sky. How much of the sky was covered by clouds? Were they cirrus or cirrostratus? Opaque or translucent? Eventually, a consensus was reached and guide Sophie Ballagh entered our observations into an iPad, along with the ship’s coordinates and photos. We were so focused on the task that we barely noticed an iceberg the size of double-decker bus, its erratic peaks seemingly shaped by a surrealist, drift past just metres away.
Elephant Island © Shafik Meghji
Mapping cloud patterns is part of an extensive “citizen science” programme offered to passengers on Polar Latitudes' Antarctic voyages. On a three-week trip to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula, I helped out with bird surveys, ocean salinity, temperature and microplastics checks, whale identification projects, and phytoplankton tests. The data we collected is sent on to NASA, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and other research institutions studying the impact of climate change on the “white continent”.
What is the “citizen science” programme?
“It costs a lot of money for scientists to come down for data collection,” says Bob Gilmore, who previously worked for the US Antarctic Program and now coordinates the “citizen science” programme. “But tourist ships are down here throughout the summer season, so there was a lightbulb moment – why don’t we collect data for the scientists?” The programme also gives passengers a deeper understanding of Antarctica – and the challenges facing the continent. These challenges soon became apparent in the Falkland Islands, which we reached two days after setting sail from the Argentine city of Puerto Madryn on the Atlantic coast of Patagonia.
Strange finds in the Falklands
Almost 500km east of Argentina in the middle of the South Atlantic, the Falklands seem remote, but they can’t escape the world’s rubbish. On Saunders Island, home to king, rockhopper, gentoo and Magellanic penguin rookeries, I joined Hebridean Sky historian Seb Coulthard for a beach clean-up. We quickly filled a bin bag with plastic bottles, torn fishing nets, old washing up gloves, crumbling polystyrene blocks, and shreds of plastic, the detritus of everyday life washed over, in some cases, from the other side of the planet. “We’ve found some strange things over the years: a car bumper; a stuffed penguin toy,” says Seb, as we dragged the rubbish back to the ship, passing a skua nibbling at a strip of blue plastic.
Isolation and wildlife in South Georgia
A two-day sail southeast took us to South Georgia, a starkly beautiful, wind-blasted island, home to a British Antarctic Survey base, a small museum and post office, several abandoned whaling stations, and a remarkable array of wildlife. We spent four days on this British Overseas Territory, with the highlight St Andrews Bay, a sweeping beach enclosed by snow-streaked mountains and populated by short-tempered fur seals, blubbery elephant seals, and a 400,000-strong king penguin colony. If the Falklands were remote, South Georgia was positively isolated. But the outside world takes its toll here too: every glacier on the island is in retreat.
The elephant seals and penguins at St Andrews Bay © Shafik Meghji
Sailing into the Antarctic peninsula
As we travelled southwest across the Scotia Sea towards the Antarctic peninsula, the “citizen science” programme kicked into gear. Alongside cloud surveys, we collected seawater samples and surveyed the albatrosses, petrels and other birds that tailed the ship. During the two-day crossing, the expedition team provided detailed biosecurity briefings, as well as talks on Antarctic history, wildlife and geology.
Eventually we reached Elephant Island, just north of the Antarctic peninsula. It was on this bleakly beautiful mass of rock and ice that Ernest Shackleton’s crew were stranded for four and a half months in 1916 awaiting rescue. Increasing numbers of tabular icebergs appeared as we continued south: the largest was around 555 sq km – roughly the size of the Isle of Man. From 500m away we watched chunks calve into the sea, sending up clouds of icy spray.
At the tip of the peninsula, the Danger Islands emerged out of the fog. The archipelago is home to a “super colony” of 1.5 million Adélie penguins, yet few travellers or scientists have visited them: “More people have climbed Everest than have seen the Danger Islands,” says expedition leader Nate Small, as we clambered into Zodiacs for a closer look. The snowy hills were carpeted with hundreds of thousands of Adélies, some nesting, others tobogganing on their bellies or queuing politely before launching themselves into the surf. A dozen castaways huddled on a car-sized iceberg, slowly drifting out to sea. It was a magical morning, but bitterly cold (–15ºC) and we welcomed the chance to return to the ship, thaw out with ginger tea, and hear about Bob’s microplastics tests.
A colony of Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands © Shafik Meghji
Later in the voyage we cruised around Cierva Cove, a wide bay filled with mini icebergs. Suddenly the radios crackled with excited chatter: humpback whales had been spotted. In the distance a dorsal fin briefly surfaced. Minutes later, as we sat in silent anticipation, cameras poised, a humpback swam under our Zodiac before, little more than 10m away, raising its curved back above the water. Nearby another raised its tubercle-covered head to the sky. Back on the Hebridean Sky we uploaded our photos to crowdsourcing site Happy Whale, which enables scientists to track population sizes and migration patterns.
First steps on Antarctica
My first footsteps on Antarctica came on Brown Bluff, a thin strip of beach beneath a looming rock face. Thousands of Adélie and a handful of gentoo penguins protected their eggs and engaged in elaborate courtship rituals involving mirroring behaviour and the gifting of small pebbles. It was easy to lose yourself in this avian soap opera, but I dragged myself away to help Bob with a penguin survey.
Penguins diving into the ocean at Cierva Cove © Shafik Meghji
Our final stop was Deception Island, an active, doughnut-shaped volcano with a tiny bite taken out of its southeastern edge, which allows ships to enter its flooded caldera. We hiked through thigh-deep snow across an undulating, otherworldly landscape. Apart from our red jackets and exposed gashes of black rock on the crater rim, the only colour visible was white: it felt like we were walking through a charcoal drawing. We finished with a “polar plunge” – the quickest, coldest and most memorable swim of my life.
The future of Antarctica
Spending time in Antarctica is an incredible privilege and when you gaze at the pale blue icebergs, translucent glaciers and raucous penguin colonies, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that it is an untouched landscape. But the “citizen science” programme helped bring home the precariousness of the situation: thanks to climate change, the planet’s last great wilderness is losing 200 billion tonnes of ice a year – and the rate of loss is increasing.
Shortly before disembarking in Ushuaia, the capital of Argentine Tierra del Fuego, ornithologist Marty Garwood expressed the hope that passengers would return home as “polar ambassadors”. The continent has no human population to stand up for it, he said, so we all need to do it.
Shafik Meghji travelled as a guest of Polar Latitudes, which offers 11- to 22-day voyages to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. Prices start at US$8,995 per person.