March 13, 2020

Post by Chloe Lee Rowlands

It snowed in Antarctica this morning.

The day, unfortunately, began with the news that Quest was to close their doors and go online for the rest of the academic year, following the lead of countless other universities around the world in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is hard to classify this news within the “good news, bad news” binary. Quest is making the only decision it can in order to keep its students, staff, and faculty safe. However, it comes as quite a sad announcement to those of us on board, as I’m sure it does to our peers back in Canada. For all of us, this news means that we will not get to say goodbye to our friends, mentors, tutors, or community. For eight of us, those who plan to graduate in April, this news means no graduation, no real keystone– at least not the way we imagined it would be, and no chance to say goodbye to the peers we have spent four years learning, living, and playing alongside.
While we know that this decision was not only the right one for Quest to make, but also the only one Quest could possibly make in these circumstances, it feels like a loss. We are sad, confused, and shocked. Our responses oscillate between expressions of sadness, frustration, and attempts to cope with the news through humor– sometimes misplaced, but always with the intention of keeping our spirits up and making the most of our time here… we are in Antarctica after all.

Back to the boat by 11am, the next activity was quickly upon us. The days in Antarctica feel long— between the early mornings and countless activities, it is consistently surprising to remember that we have only been in Antarctica for a few days, and only on board this ship for less than a week.

Luke: Excited about the unknown! Is it whale snot or a worm? 

Our last activity before lunch was one that we have been looking forward to since before we boarded the ship– the Polar Plunge. As we made our way to the long line of slightly shivering passengers in matching white bathrobes, our feelings ranged from dread to excitement to doubt. And yet we all knew that we were absolutely going to take the plunge. As I said, we are in Antarctica after all.

Even so, it would be misleading to say we were all without doubts. But even the most of dubious of our group had their worries vanquished by the inspiring sight of our dear friend and fellow shipmate Cheryl, who had beaten us to line up for the plunge, and came back past us with her hair dripping with the cold, Antarctic waters and the biggest, beaming smile on her face. Cheryl is an inspiration in more ways than one, and has become an unofficial, and treasured, member of our class. Not only does she have a consistently incredible positive attitude and an eagerness to learn and explore that pushes us to do the same, but she holds a perspective on climate change, and her part in it, that has made me feel that I too have agency.

In this class we have discussed both the benefits and the costs that are wrapped up in our decision, and in anyone’s decision, to come on a voyage like this. The carbon debt we are incurring is substantial. Colin estimates that the carbon debt we are responsible for is as much as that of an Australian family over the course of an entire year. Cheryl is also aware of this debt, and has already taken it upon herself to offset this debt by planting over 300 trees by hand. She plans to continue this effort upon returning to Australia. Her awareness and her action are inspiring.
Also inspiring, was the sight of Cheryl fresh out of the Antarctic waters. And so, one by one, we all followed in her lead. But not before turning our time in line into a Mudroom dance party, even compelling a few fellow passengers to join in. Once it was our turn, and after being wrapped in a harness, we made our way down the same cold staircase that we use to board the zodiacs, but instead of climbing into a boat, we smiled for the camera and jumped into the frigid waters. And, in what seems like a testament to the community we have formed, as each of us climbed out of the water and passed whichever of us was waiting for the next plunge, we shared a shivering hug.

Rocks: The stunning geology at Portal Point…. I’ll have to ask Anna, our resident geologist, about it!

We warmed up, had lunch, and then we were off on yet another excursion– a zodiac cruise around Charlotte Bay and a landing at Portal Point, our last landing on the Antarctic Peninsula. We began with the landing, which brought us to a stunning landscape: cracked rocks leading up from the water, slowly met by ice, and then continuing up to glacial hills looking out over the bay in all directions. Upon disembarking, we jumped into Luke’s field talk on the formation of ice ages, and how we have come to learn what we know about them. What a unique experience it is to attend a lecture on ice ages, while standing on ice, surrounded by glaciers. I feel lucky to attend a university which prioritizes place based learning like this, and it is a nice reminder, amidst the chaos, that I am only here because of the values Quest holds, values which align with my own and for which I am immensely grateful.

Luke’s presentation: Upon landing at Portal Point, the class gathered on ice to learn about ice ages from Luke.

Following Luke’s talk was a time for exploration, observation, and reflection. While the first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula was one of buzzing excitement, loud penguin calls, and photo opportunities for passengers who were arriving at their 7th continent, at this landing there seems to be a communal feeling of silent reverence for the place we are at and the experience we are having. For the most part, everyone splits off in different directions, but most of our group sits together silently atop the glacial hill for a while, either looking out over the water or lying on our backs and watching the snow fall around us. It is our first Antarctic snow, and after having sunny weather and windy weather, it somehow feels fitting to end our time here with the snow, getting to watch the icy world around us replenish, if only a little bit.

To end our day’s adventure, we hopped back aboard a zodiac. The snow is still falling around us, and as we cruise around the bay and watch the humpback whales which yet again grace us with their presence, we can see a slight skin of ice begin to form on the surface of the water. It is impressive how quickly things happen in such an extreme climate. Especially when compared with the snow we experience in Squamish, which often falls in the morning and is gone by the early afternoon. We admire the ice, in all its varying forms, and the whales, still unbelievably close to our Zodiac, and then head back to the ship in appreciative silence.

The day ends as it began: with some news. At the evening briefing, we are told that the situation in Argentina pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic is developing. Argentina has cancelled flights to the United States, as well as a few other countries, starting on the 18th of March. Therefore, our itinerary has changed and instead of docking on the 17th as planned, we will be arriving in Ushuaia a day early to give passengers time to travel home before these restrictions are implemented.

Landscape view: As put by our Zodiac guide, “Look around, this is as Antarctic as it gets.”

While it is slightly sad that our trip will be cut short, and that we will miss the expedition in the Shetlands that had been planned for the following day, we are not too broken up about this. Between our smooth conditions, luck with the weather, and incredible expedition staff we have already packed more into the few days we have been in Antarctica then we could have possibly hoped for. I am grateful, awe-inspired, and blown away by the experiences I have had, the sights I have seen, and the opportunities I have had here. I am sure that my classmates would share a similar sentiment. We are very, very lucky to be here.