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PERSPECTIVE: Foo Tun Shien is a recent Bachelor of Environmental Studies graduate from the National University of Singapore.
Someone with a self-professed love for adventure and nature, Foo was selected to be one of 170 participants from 35 countries to embark on an expedition to the southernmost part of the world, Antarctica.
After witnessing Antarctica’s wildlife, exploring glaciers, and experiencing its fragile ecosystem, Foo reflects on how even the most remote of places on Earth cannot remain untouched by the effects of mankind and climate change.
By Foo Tun Shien
I first learnt about Antarctica in primary school, when I was introduced to the seven continents.
One, in particular, was described to me as vast, cold and extremely far, making it very difficult to get to.
After the lesson, I vaguely remember looking at pictures and snippets of Antarctica in documentaries.
This memory, however, might have also been influenced by watching the 2006 animated movie ‘Happy Feet’, which featured singing and dancing penguins.
Here’s the movie poster to help jog your memory.
It was then that I made an innocent childhood promise to make a trip down south to see Antarctica in all its beauty.
A chance presents itself
I was exposed to the natural environment at a young age and learnt to appreciate both the beauty and vulnerability of our planet.
When I was younger, Botanic Gardens and East Coast Park were two areas my family would frequent over the weekend.
However, it was my first intertidal walk during my secondary school days that got me exploring other intertidal areas and nature spaces in Singapore, as well as take up scuba diving.
My interest grew in wanting to better understand the science and complexities around climate change and also the risk of losing some of the key ecosystems on our planet, such as Antarctica.
2018 was when I first learnt about the 2041 ClimateForce Antarctic Expedition. I was inspired by its mission to protect Antarctica by forming a network of support through those who had witnessed the beauty of Antarctica and impact of climate change on this uninhabited land of ice.
I applied for the 13-day expedition, led by Polar Explorer Robert Swan O.B.E., and Barney Swan, his son and the founder of ClimateForce, which would take place in March 2022.
And I got selected in November 2021 as one of their 170 participants.
I was elated and couldn’t believe that there was a possibility of heading down south so soon! Up to the point right before the trip, I still could not process the thought of heading to Antarctica.
The implications of travelling to Antarctica
Despite my excitement, I was initially conflicted on how to justify travelling to such a remote region on our planet, which involved me flying halfway around the world.
Learning more about climate change over the years has made me more aware of the carbon emissions generated from the aviation and maritime sectors.
It is an incredible privilege to be able to travel to Antarctica, and with that, comes the responsibility to advocate for its conservation alongside other environmental ecosystems around the world.
To account for our impact on the environment simply by travelling to such a pristine place, various steps were taken to reduce the carbon footprint of the expedition.
One method was to increase the energy efficiency of the ship. The expedition organiser, The Explorer’s Passage, also purchased carbon offsets equivalent to twice the amount of carbon emissions generated from the expedition. This was part of the Polar Carbon Negative Initiative (PCNI) set up by the 2041 Foundation.
The expedition also eschewed single-use plastic — disposable plastic bottles, cups and stirrers are eliminated, and the cabins use wall-mounted dispensers instead of single-use soap and shampoo bottles.
I, myself, have also purchased carbon offsets separately to offset the emissions generated from my return flights to and from Singapore.
Getting to the “end of the world”
Now, for the actual journey.
To get to Antarctica, I flew from Singapore to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. It is the closest departure point to Antarctica, and has been nicknamed the “end of the world”.
From Singapore to Ushuaia, it was an airborne journey of over 30 hours.
At Ushuaia, I was especially fidgety on the day we boarded the Ocean Victory, our vessel and home for the majority of the expedition as we set sail towards Antarctica.
It was finally happening.
All the excitement built up to this very day when over 170 expedition participants from over 35 nations set sail for Antarctica.
After a day onboard the Ocean Victory, we crossed the notorious Drake Passage, a roughly 1,000km-wide channel between Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Drake Passage is infamous for having some of the choppiest waters in the world. This is because there are no land masses nearby to provide resistance for the currents. I felt the effects of the waves on my stomach, but thankfully, had come prepared with sea sickness pills.
It took slightly more than a day to cross the Drake and all of a sudden, the rocking became less intense.
That was when we knew we were in Antarctic waters.
Letting the continent take you over
I can’t exactly put into words what I felt when I saw the first glimpse of the Antarctic.
It was a moment of both awe and wonder which left me completely speechless. There was a light fog in the distance but we could clearly make out the outline of the continent.
Antarctica. We are finally here.
Our days in Antarctica were filled with various activities, from Zodiac cruises (a type of smaller inflatable dinghy) to explore the Antarctic waters, shore landings on glaciers, to lectures on Antarctic history and wildlife.
One notable phenomenon was the Antarctic ‘silence’, something which will stay with me forever.
On one of the Zodiac cruises, the expedition team members on the boat requested for the motor to be turned off for us to experience the silence of the continent.
Cutting off the motors would be to remove the last man-made sound in the vicinity. It was after the sounds of the motor finally died down that the magic happened.
Sea ice cracking, the cold wind howling, the waves rocking the zodiac, and calls from Gentoo penguins in the distance.
The experience was one of a kind. Never have I felt so at peace in nature.
There wasn’t the chatter of people talking, vehicles on the road, or the audio from social media reels — sounds that typically engulf me in the urbanised cities I was used to. At that moment, I embraced the sounds of the Antarctic with so much joy, allowing it to completely take over me.
To properly immerse myself in the moment, I stowed away my phone. But here’s a video captured by another explorer which might help you get a sense of what the experience was like.
Penguins, seals and whales galore
Being able to see some of the Antarctic wildlife was something everyone was looking forward to, including myself.
Whales were the group of animals I loved reading about when I was younger, before I ever knew what the environment or sustainability was. They were also the animals which shaped my appreciation of the environment we live in.
Never would I have thought that I would be in such close proximity to them, together with penguins and seals, on this expedition.
Being able to observe some of these animals in their natural habitat showed the amount of respect Antarctic tour operators have for the wildlife.
They are guided by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), an international entity that governs the operation and behaviour of visitors to the Antarctic.
We were told to keep a safe distance from all Antarctic wildlife and to not provoke or scare them by providing the space they require. There were also strict paths that we had to follow during shore landings to avoid entering areas inhabited by wildlife.
We were told that we were entering these animals’ homes, and we should respect it as such.
The dark side of Antarctica
Learning about the history and wildlife of Antarctica also meant understanding how humans have negatively impacted the continent in the past as well.
We were introduced to the darker history of the Antarctic region — the commercial whaling season in the 1900s.
Antarctic whales, such as blue whales, fin whales and minke whales, were hunted for their blubber as a source of oil and energy production before electricity was introduced.
Over the span of 70 years, over 1.3 million whales were killed in Antarctic waters alone, with some species being depleted by 99 per cent to the brink of extinction.
Deception Island, a volcanic island in the Antarctic Peninsula, used to be a whaling station.
It is now abandoned, and during our visit, I was completely shocked at the amount and scale of boilers and equipment left on the island from past whaling activities.
Thankfully, whaling efforts in the Antarctic declined from 1946 when international regulations were implemented to protect whales and discourage whaling. This was accompanied by a shift in public perception towards whaling, and several Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around Antarctica were established.
Since then, the whale population in the Antarctic has seen a slow but steady recovery, which I believe emphasises the importance and value of environmental protection.
Antarctica is changing
On one of the days, we also experienced rainfall, which was really rare.
According to a The Washington Post article, temperatures rose 39°C above the norm in mid-March 2022. This “heat wave” led to ice melting and rain falling, causing Antarctica to experience its fourth-wettest day in over a decade.
Typically, Antarctica is too cold to have a significant accumulation of snow, and most of the liquid water from melt or rainfall is absorbed by the snowpack and refrozen, a climate scientist wrote to The Washington Post.
Seeing how drenched some of my friends were after being out on the Zodiacs in the rain made me realise the extent of change that is happening in Antarctica as we speak.
Climate change is rapidly altering the state of the world, and despite being mostly untouched by humans and extremely remote, Antarctica is not spared from its effects.
Impacts and changes felt in the Antarctic can influence environmental processes around the world — the collapse of ice shelves from the continent will result in sea-level rise, impacting low-lying regions and islands globally, including Singapore.
Antarctica and its role in the fight against climate change
Over the expedition, I saw both the beauty and vulnerability of the continent.
Listening to and seeing just some of the changes the continent was experiencing during the expedition reinforced the need for immediate action to tackle the crisis at hand.
We have to do what we can within our capacity, be it at an individual level, or within our community or organisations.
The environment provides and we have to do our part in giving back, be it through living sustainable lifestyles or conserving the environment we live in.
The guidelines that protect Antarctica’s wildlife were something that deeply impacted me, as not too long ago, there were incidents of the mishandling of intertidal animals back home in Singapore.
We too have to treat wild animals with respect, regardless of where they reside, and I hope that these practices can be shared and practised by the wider community back home.
Looking back, the journey to Antarctica was better than I ever imagined.
It started as a pure childhood dream to explore the continent, and evolved into an urgent call for myself to continue championing for its conservation and for climate action, and to share my experiences from the expedition.
Tun Shien’s expedition to Antarctica was supported by Conservation International Singapore, MAC3 Impact Philanthropies, Climate Impact X, Eco-Business and EB Impact.
Top photo courtesy of Foo Tun Shien