Reflections from Antarctica

Damon recently accompanied a tour group to Antarctica and the privilege of being there led him to reflect on this precious ice world and the effect humans are having on it.

Written by Damon Gameau
Read time – 5 minutes

Two weeks ago, I slid my hands into a pair of gloves attached to a paddle and took my first strokes in a kayak resting within the icy waters of Antarctica. A splash of water hit my cheek and immediately alerted me to the foreign environment I was in – this was no place for human beings. There I was, sitting below the water line, thousands of kilometres from any man-made terrestrial structure, eyes wide, mouth agape, slowly propelling myself forward with the adrenalin surging through me.

Some distance away from the mothership, I stopped paddling, gently drifted, and closed my eyes.

The first sound I heard was unfamiliar, the oddly shaped chunks of ice floating around me softly clonked together as they jostled for position - frozen croutons in a brisk soup. Waves lapped against a larger iceberg nearby, the water sucking and slurping its way through passageways carved over decades. A whale came up for air a few hundred metres away, and yet it didn’t force my eyes open, as I had witnessed countless whales in the days before, but then another surfaced and exhaled moments later, the depth of its lungs echoing around the surrounding glaciers. And then a sound that did force my eyes open, a distant thunderous crack that I would later learn was an ancient chunk of glacier breaking away to begin its journey back to liquification. If too close, it can generate waves that have tipped many a kayak.


I gently paddle towards the shoreline, gliding through uncorrupted water and icebergs alive with a blue only seen in Disney fairy tales. My arrival was greeted by a colony of fearless penguins, happily co-habiting with leopard seals, fur seals, and an array of oversized birds with giant feathers adapted for the frigid terrain, and beaks that would terrify any school of fish. These animals were oblivious to my presence – their kin told no stories of guns or harpoons. I wasn’t to be feared, I was just another animal passing by – albeit with strange paddle arms and a fluorescent green skin.

I closed my eyes again and beneath the growls of now awakened seals, I heard a faint trickling. The sound became louder and louder as I moved towards the ice wall and as I opened my eyes, I witnessed tributaries of vertical ice rivers racing down the glacier. This is a trickling sound that is growing louder and louder in this majestic kingdom.

Scientist have now discovered that both the East and West Antarctica sheets are melting. They are losing 150 billion tonnes of ice a year – that’s around 400 million tonnes a day. And they are melting not from warmer air but from the warming oceans that slip underneath the ice and melt them from the inside. Our industrial heating is the auto immune disease attacking this colossal white body from within.

This industrial heating is having other deleterious effects. One scientist told me that he has been coming to Antarctica for 20 years and only recently witnessed his first ever rainfall event. He described it as “rain you would see in London for 3 days straight.” Antarctica is so cold and dry that it simply doesn’t rain, but warmer air and seas are changing that. The feathers of the gentoo penguin chicks are adapted for snow, not rain, and the results are devastating.

The warming seas are also causing the sea ice that baby penguins live on to break up earlier than usual, killing them before they have matured enough to survive in the water.


Then there is the research that shows how the chin strap penguin, an animal known to get its rest via 10,000 ‘micro-naps’ during the day, each 4 seconds long (respect to the scientist who counted them), which has seen its population numbers halve since 1971 – in part due to warming water, but also due to the madness of the pet food industry fishing for krill on an Industrial scale to improve joint health and make our pet’s coats shinier.

It is clear that nowhere on the planet is immune to our rapacious consumptive habits.

I felt the enormous privilege of having access to this wonderland and can understand the fervour for the emerging Antarctic tourist industry. But as more ships pass through these frozen cliffs, they will make more noise, they will leak more pollution, and more and more humans will drop phones, gloves, food wrappers and other inevitabilities of modern life. One scientist told me that a regular landing place for small amounts of humans has already deterred certain bird species from the area, birds that picked off the eggs of penguins, and this is already impacting the colonies. Such is the fragility of this last bastion.

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There are big discussions to be had around capped tourism numbers, the allocation of entry permits paid or unpaid, or the complete banning of tourism altogether. All of these discussions offset by the extraordinary sacredness of the experience, that will leave no visitor unmoved. On my mothership were two researchers from the University of Tasmania who were tracking the passenger’s views of nature and environmental stewardship pre and post visit – I eagerly await their findings.

My own experience was one of a deep heart opening, a reverence for the sacredness of this planet, and an affirmed determination to do all that I can in my lifetime to slow or quieten those trickling sounds from within the ice.