The first time I visited Antarctica I was in the company of a poet (and essayist and novelist), Alice Miller. We were there at the Invitation of Antarctica New Zealand, on their media and artists’ programme, and were hosted and generally looked after by their then communications manager Matt Vance, who was our designated “on-ice escort”, a title that always made Alice and me giggle.
We did a fair bit of giggling those 12 days in Antarctica. And talking. And walking. Even a bit of crying one time. We bonded over the weirdness of Antarctica and the fact that we were even there. As a science writer, I spent much of each day in science mode – joining marine biologists or glaciologists in their daily field excursions, interviewing scientists about their work, visiting the Crary Lab at McMurdo Station, writing pages of notes about science and the frozen world I could see around me. But I also spent a lot of time with Alice, just being a writer.
As a writer it was easy to sit apart, to observe, to reflect. I wasn’t on holiday, but it didn’t feel like work either. No one was paying me to be in Antarctica. It was an experience, an incredible experience that I couldn’t help but write about. The sun shone every day – and all day – until the day we were due to fly home. It clouded over, meaning the plane scheduled to fly us home could not land, and we gained an unexpected four-day extension to our visit.
At the end of my visit I wrote that I loved this place, that I wanted to come back.
“I’m already thinking of ways to get back there. I could continue with my earth sciences study and turn my honours degree into a Masters! If that didn’t cut it I could do another PhD! I could offer my services as embedded journalist cum field assistant on a major science project!”.
I came to my senses (somewhat) once I got home and got on with my life in New Zealand, which included getting an academic position at Victoria University. Late last year I visited Antarctica to film some lectures for a new online course about Antarctica. I’m running a module on Antarctica science history, and my colleague Cliff Atkins is running a module on geology and paleoclimate. We were linked to event K001-B, a geology project in the Friis Hills led by Tim Naish from Victoria University’s Antarctica Research Centre and Richard Levy from GNS Science.
A friend told me recently that I often exhibit signs of FOMO: fear of missing out. I do. I sometimes get so scared of missing out on stuff that I do too much, or try to do too much, and get over-stimulated and flustered. In Antarctica, without my poet friend to empathise with every moment of weirdness I experienced, I had to remind myself to take time out: after the first two days of rushing around I found I could replenish myself by stealing away to my room, for some introvert time to think and reflect and remember why I’m here.
I felt quite discombobulated for the first couple of days: I’d left family in Wellington, including a seven year old son who begged me not to go to Antarctica, then I’d spent the day before my flight south caring for my dying father in Christchurch. So to get on a Hercules and fly seven and a half hours to Antarctica felt surreal in quite an uncomfortable way. Things got better when I threw myself into my work.
I have different things to say about this trip, things that require a bit more thinking than my first wide-eyed visit to Antarctica. I’ve already written a few pieces for The Listener, which I’ve posted here, here and here, but while I’m working on a longer more personal story, here are some pictures of Antarctica.