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The Expedition Log: Abundance in the Desert

The Expedition Log is brought to you by those who venture to the most extreme places on our planet; exploring and capturing imagery of some of the last wild frontiers left to us.
In our latest instalment of the series we follow Lucia Griggi from one pole to the other. Fresh from her arctic voyage which saw her traverse the frozen North East Passage, she ventured south to document and photograph the white desert.

 

A lone penguin looks out to sea from the Antarctic ice shelf

“There are quite big differences between the Arctic and Antarctica…”

That might seem an obvious statement, as they are literally on opposite sides of the planet, but the differences between the arctic circle and the continent of Antarctica are vast. A layman may be forgiven for thinking that our polar regions are much the same – frozen, inhospitable landscapes of unending whiteness, with little to no life. But whilst they are equally relevant to our changing climate, the Arctic and Antarctica are indeed ‘poles apart’, both in terms of their landscapes and the biodiversity of their inhabitants.

“Antarctica is a lot more abundant in wildlife,” Lucia explains, sat in our meeting space at Finisterre headquarters, “there are whales, seals, there’s the colonies of penguins... I mean, the penguins just rule it there – there are thousands and thousands of them!”

Despite the abundance of life, Antarctica is a tough place to survive. Often referred to as the white desert, temperatures can reach as low as -89°C, with a yearly average of -57°C in the interior. Temperatures by the coast are more mild with a comparatively toasty average of -10°C over the course of a year. As unfathomable as those numbers might be for most of us, such conditions bring into focus the struggle for survival of the native wildlife.

A leopard seal raises its head from resting on the ice

“You can see the circle of life so clearly, and it really makes you appreciate it,” she explains as we continue to flick through her imagery of penguin colonies and spectacular landscapes of sculpted ice. “Even with the penguins on the mainland, you’re seeing the struggle they have to go through just to survive. Everything in their life is about survival. We take that for granted here because we don’t have those problems or issues, so it really connects you to that natural life-cycle and makes you understand.”

But this life cycle is currently under threat. Rising temperatures on the continent made headlines earlier this year, and on the 9th of February unnaturally high temperatures of over 20°C were measured by scientists on Seymour Island. According to data from the World Meteorological Organisation, the Antarctic peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming areas on the planet, with temperatures rising by nearly 3°C over the last 50 years. If warming continues at the current rate, the consequences for wildlife that has spent thousands of years adapting to the climate here could be devastating, putting their very survival in doubt.

Part of the reason for the abundance of life in Antarctica can be put down to the pure and simple fact that it is extremely difficult to reach. I asked how the journey was in comparison to her recent voyage through the Arctic and was met with a pause as Lucia put her thoughts in order.

“It’s definitely more challenging to get to Antarctica, and the journey is very otherworldly. You can either leave from Patagonia (South America) and go via the Drake Passage, or fly down into the South Shetland Islands.” She explains, but if you do take the crossing, which is what I do, and go by boat, you’ve got 2 days of open water which generally can be quite treacherous.”

Not only treacherous, the journey itself involves a strange transition. Being on a boat is isolating at the best of times, but with such a radical change in surroundings there is an added level of disconnection. “There’s the feeling of leaving something that is familliar – even if it’s somewhere remote like Patagoina, it’s still ‘civilization’ or ‘society’ – to having two days of absolutely nothing. And then you hit these massive mountains and cliff faces which are all white.”

It’s an experience that most of us can only dream about, and if global heating continues at the rapid pace outlined above, dreams may indeed be the last refuge of such Antarctic adventures. As she continues, it strikes me that this is exactly why her stories and images are so important. “It’s a completely different environment and it kind of shocks you the first time,” she continues. “It’s an alien world. Travelling down the peninsula, seeing all the various types of Penguins and the life around them, the countless icebergs… it’s a city made of icebergs. And the people who live there are the wildlife.”

A group of penguins taking the plunge off the ice shelf to begin their fishing journeys

Interestingly, acclimatising to the difficult conditions of Antarctica can sometimes be easier than when you return to society. With first-hand experience comes a fresh perspective and going back to normal life can be harder than you might think. “This is something I’ve found coming back from remote places, like Antarctica, it’s hard to adjust when you come back...” For Lucia though, this also presents an opportunity, “I think that’s when it becomes your duty to help educate other people and share your experience because I think you do have an obligation to do that in whatever manner or whatever voice you can.” It’s an important point to make, and the driving force behind this series, for both Lucia and Finisterre. “You could be the most talented artist or explorer, but unless you have a voice to share it with then no-one’s going to hear you.”

Just as we are packing up to say our goodbyes Lucia jumps back into her chair and opens her laptop again with a broad smile on her face. “Just as a surfing story on this,” she begins, as I quickly hit record again to capture her thoughts, “there is this one place in Antarctica with this glacier where, because of the way the water hits the land, if you get a particularly big calving event, it forms this perfect little wave!”

“It’s pretty cool,” she continues, the memory stoking her enthusiasm at the end of our long conversation. “Once I saw this really big calving and it produced an amazing wrap-around wave onto the rocky island that was adjacent to the glacier. It was this perfectly clean 2-3 foot wave.”

She checks herself, reigning in the enthusiasm, “Actually, when you are on an expedition those things can be very detrimental, so there’s a lot of safety that goes on around it. But from a surfers point of view I was digging it! And the funny thing is, you’re not with surfers,” she laughs at the panic that was caused by the little wave. “They’re all going, ‘aaahhhh, tsunami!’, while I’m just sat wishing I was out there surfing it!”

 

Antarctica: The White Desert

 

The continent of antarctica looking moody in the dawn light

Ice formations in Antarctica sculpted by the heat of the sun

A leopard seal resting its head on an ice shelf just out of the water

Sunlight in Antarctica creating a vivid orange sky above the continent

A penguin parent feeding its two chicks after returning from days at sea

A natural ice arch formed by the power of the sun

A heavy antarctic slab breaks in a frozen ocean 

By Lucia Griggi
Footage by Ross McDonald
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The Expedition Log, will return with stories from the most remote places on our planet, combining the passion of those intrepid individuals who journey there with input from industry experts on these changing landscapes and the wildlife that calls them home.

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