Location: Chapel Hill, NC | 35.9132° N, 79.0558° W | Temperature: 62°F / 16°C
The first time I ever met Ari Friedlaender, he gave it to me straight:
"You're going to spend all this time reading, and doing research, and looking at photos online, and filling out tons of paperwork. You're going to think you know exactly what to expect," he said. "And it's still going to completely blow your mind."
That was nine months ago. Since then, I've done a lot of research and completed a bunch of paperwork. After five trips to the doctor (and a visit to the dentist), dozens of forms, several books, countless magazine articles and podcasts, and almost daily Google searches for maps and images — I know two things:
1.) I am healthy.
2.) I could spend an entire lifetime studying Antarctica.
Here's a random smattering of things I've learned over the past few months:
The term pagophilic refers to animals and plants that prefer to live in, on, or around ice. It comes from the Greek word pago, meaning cold, frost, freezing; fixed or hardened.
Antarctica is home is 90 percent of the world's ice and includes many different types (sea ice, land ice, ice shelves, fjords, glaciers, bergy bits, and growlers — just to name a few.) At its thickest, the ice is roughly three miles deep.
The amount of sea ice around the Antarctic Peninsula is shrinking. This is bad news for krill (tiny, shrimp-like creatures) that pack themselves under the ice to feed on algae and hide from predators. One of those predators is the minke whale, a type of baleen whale marine biologists want to learn more about — hence the reason for this expedition.
The ship we'll be on is a massive ice breaker contracted by the National Science Foundation. It includes bunks, a mess hall, a gym, and laundry facilities — but you can't wash your clothes if the waves reach over 15 feet high. "Much like the people on board," the USAP website states, "the machines just shut themselves off if the seas get too rough."
The average temperature in the Antarctic Peninsula in February is warmer than you might think, usually right around 32° F. Weather at the bottom of the world is also wildly unpredictable — just like field work.
No matter how much planning and preparation goes into it, there are no guarantees on an expedition. Despite all the reading and research I've done, the only thing that can truly prepare me for Antarctica is Antarctica.
Still, for posterity's sake, I'm going to make a few predictions about what might happen during the next six weeks. If nothing else, it will be fun to read this post at the end of the trip (or years from now.)
Okay here we go.
I, Mary Lide Parker, believe the following will occur during my first expedition to Antarctica:
1.) I will get seasick. Over the course of my life, I have spent many days on the open ocean aboard boats and ships of all sizes. During that time, I have only succumbed to seasickness once (on an island crossing in the Galápagos in 2009). Still, I am packing my ginger chews, crossing my fingers that I won't get sick a lot, and accepting that I am no match for the Drake Passage.
2.) I will get humbled. My friends and family have spent the past six months telling me "it's so amazing that you're going to Antarctica!" and "you're such a badass!" I almost always accept these platitudes with a nervous laugh, and try to block out a horrible mental image of myself accidentally drop some crucial, expensive piece of equipment into the icy water. As an Antarctica virgin, I know I will make some rookie mistakes — but I hope I will learn quickly, and prove myself worthy of being in this place.
3.) I will get yelled at. Just as the weather at the bottom of the world can alternate between extremes, so can human emotions. As Gabrielle Walker writes in her book, Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent:
Everyone here was in the same situation. Nobody had their family with them, or their children, or their real lives. And perhaps that was one of the reasons why the ice exaggerated your emotions. You didn't just have a good day here; you had the best day of your life. You weren't just mildly irritated when someone was being an idiot; you were furious. The environment edged even the relatively well-balanced towards mania.
Dave Johnston echoed that sentiment during one of our many conversations: "there will be moments when someone is screaming at you to do something," he said simply. "You just can't take it personally." Roger that.
4.) I will get some really good photos. Again, just hoping that no expensive camera equipment is sacrificed in the process.
5.) I will get a new appreciation for the forces of the planet. I've photographed volcanoes erupting in Ecuador and glaciers calving in Canada and corals growing in Belize. None of that compares to the other-worldly phenomenon I'll document in Antarctica.
I know that this trip will change my life, but I don't (and can't) know exactly how. It's a strange feeling for sure — deeply exhilarating, deliberately existential — and I'm stoked on it.
Curious about the blog title? A pagophile is any living organism that thrives in ice. Pago is a word of Greek origin, meaning cold, frost, freezing; fixed or hardened.