We made it out of Hong Kong with all the equipment and Qatar was very strict on weight--we had 3 bags over 23kg and they wanted to charge $2k each...luckily Alex-ander smooth-talked the girls at the counter and they waived our excess charges. I think it will be more difficult to do this on the way back and when I am in Ushuaia I will look into possibly shipping some things back that are not immediately required back in HK to save the money.
We absolutely filled the entire berth of the bus from SCM...packed it. It's clear that we won't be able to take public transportation on our return, we simply have too much gear and there are no routes that go near school. Can you investigate whether we can be picked up from the airport on our return?
The first 9 hours of the flight are over, in 2 hours we begin the next jump and then the mystery of Argentina customs.
We are now in Buenos Aires and have finished the 30 hours of flying. We made it through Argentina customs with no problems and are now resting in a nice little family hotel, very clean and good security. The students are in good spirits but then I have to wake them at 4:15 for breakfast so that may change. Tomorrow we head onwards to Ushuaia. All is going well, on schedule, and all safe.
We are now in Ushuaia and safe and sound. The temperature drop (0 degrees) and high winds made for quite a shock but we're adjusting and the setting is amaz-ing. The students are exhausted but positive and doing well. Their hostel is clean, filled with international backpackers and a friendly safe environment.
Moving this mountain of scientific and media gear has been very difficult and next time I'd like to propose Extreme Environments: Poets and Philosophers. The stu-dents are building arduino circuits as I write this and they are certainly learning a great deal very fast. The science students are really taking to some of the specialty cameras and the GoPros have earned their keep very quickly. Cheong holds the IR Camera ($500k) in his hands at all times and we joke that he is like James Bond with a secret briefcase handcuffed to his wrist.
I met with the tour operator to review his safety procedures and gear and tomorrow we canoe and hike through the National Park. The weather today was fantastic which is very rare--Ushuaia gets 8 days of clear sky per year. We hike tomorrow rain or shine. Tuesday the students will do a field test of their experiments and Wednesday we get on the boat for Antarctica.
All is going well and the students are posting fantastic amounts on their Facebook pages, so we have a lot of followers joining us virtually.
We had an amazing and very long day in the National Park today and I am just re-turning. Of course, it is light outside until midnight. We trekked for hours along the Beagle Channel with the backdrop of the snow-covered Andes all around us. It was a very rugged hike, muddy and difficult, but the students were so thrilled with the setting that the difficulty did not seem to matter--glad we did that training hike in Sai Kung! The hike was followed by a canoe trip down the river that was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. The students were absolutely in awe and our guides were terrific--answering hundreds of questions regarding history, culture and the nature around us. Honestly, the day was one of the finest student experi-ences I have ever been part of. Try to picture our students bundled in winter gear, drifting through magnificent forests, singing Cantonese pop songs.
I think a thousand facebook posts and photos are going online as I write this. The student hostel has a better internet connection so they have been very good about keeping their friends and families updated. I know that Gary is writing his blog right now as well and hopes to post some photos to the uni as well. I think you will be amazed.
We're all well and safe. Tomorrow the students must test all their experiments here in town, we pack the gear tomorrow night, and on Wednesday we set sail. Very ex-citing although every one here keeps telling us how difficult the Drake passage will be.
The weather today is bi-polar--we have gone from sunny and warm to freezing rain and back and forth all day long. The students are all practicing their experiments in these conditions and Vladimir is even kite-surfing today in the freezing water. I've been busy today solving some logistic issues but the reports coming back are that most are having good success. Tonight we repack all the gear and our clothes, the vessel's crew picks it all up at 10am and then we have a few hours before we board the boat. It's definitely becoming real now.
The students are still buzzing about yesterday...it really was a life-changing experi-ence for many of them. I met with the tour operator and have booked the expedi-tion to the alpine lakes for our return...they were a great company and our guides yesterday were outstanding. I'm also negotiating with them to also stop at some of the remote ranches as one of the teams is doing a project on people living in isola-tion and the estancias are without phone, internet and often electricity...perfect to be interviewed by our team.
Ushuaia is bigger, rougher and more difficult than we expected but we are nearly out of here and I will be glad to be on the vessel and crossing the channel. Yesterday the waves were 20 meters high according the locals and Gary was telling me that crossing the Drake was a marker of manhood in the Australian Navy...this should be quite a couple days.
As we lose our hotels at 10am tomorrow, I doubt I will be able to write again for a day or two. We are together, safe, solving each obstacle as we go.
Disconnected from Communication
We can now only send 1 text-only email per day. You are getting this email from a student in Hong Kong who is collecting the group email sent from the ship and dis-tributing them to our families. We’ve left the Beagle Channel and are now in the middle of the Drake Passage sailing directly south towards Antarctica. We’re about halfway and hope to make landfall tomorrow. We’ve had great luck with the weath-er, this stretch of water often has waves as high as 20 meters, so the ‘calm’ of 4-7 meter waves is great. The ship lists back and forth and you bounce off the walls as you walk through the corridors but I’m getting used to it. I’m a bit seasick but not too bad, a couple students are really suffering, but when we reach Antarctica the wa-ters become calm and we should all feel better.
The boat is an older Russian science vessel and the crew is mostly Russian. We are traveling with a variety of scientists and they have totally taken to our students. All the people on the boat are enjoying watching the students work and even helping with tasks.
The boat is perfect for our needs—the right size, scientific equipment and space for us to work. The food’s surprisingly good and healthy and I’m sharing a berth with my assistant and it’s actually not that cramped. Albatrosses follow the boat and right now the sun is even out, kind of.
It’s actually all working…a miracle. I run all day between student groups, boat crew, and other scientists…it’s like trying to herd cats. I sleep OK at night now that the jet lag of a 30+hour flight is going away. Right now, mid-ocean, it’s feeling like I just may pull this off. The kids are healthy, happy, working and safe; the equipment is running and testing mostly OK for the difficulty conditions. I’m holding my breath but feeling more confident each day.
Miss you all, it really does feel farther away from anything else in the world already and we keep going deeper and deeper into the unknown. Soon I will see one of the most untouched and remote places on the planet, quite amazing for a boy from Grand Rapids. Thanks for your prayers and thoughts sent my way.
(close to the South Shetland Islands)
“Deb, where is Deb?”
Tasting the Seawater of Antarctica
We are continuing through the Drake Passage and still very lucky to have calm seas. Everyone has their ‘sea legs’ now and the nausea has stopped. We’ve passed through the Antarctic Convergence and the drop in temperature is quite dramatic—it’s now 10-20 degrees colder than yesterday. As I write this, the snow-covered South Shetland Islands are out my window, penguins are swimming around us, and groups of humpback whales have been near the ship all day. The nature of Antarcti-ca is starting to come into our frame.
The students are practicing their experiments and with the crew we are mapping the best sites for each of the projects. Again, One Ocean has proven to be an out-standing choice as they are very supportive of the idea and practice behind this pro-gramme and dedicated to helping us realize each one. We’ve done our first micro-organism test (we have a small lab now set up on a lower deck), we’re using lasers to test the purity of glacial ice, the criminology/comm team are conducting inter-views regarding isolation, the scm/business team are bartering with passengers swapping Hong Kong items for others. The student projects have captivated this entire vessel and it’s quite amazing to watch.
In addition, I really appreciate One Ocean’s insistence on zero-impact. Besides the safety and nature demonstrations, today we vacuumed all our clothing to make sure that not one seed accidentally reaches the continent. I think these steps are really making our students consider environmental impact from several perspectives.
Tonight late we reach Antarctica and tomorrow begin our data collection, a different morning and an afternoon site each day. Several of the projects require complex lo-gistics and we are scheduling and mapping out the process for each. As before, the students are happy, healthy and all is going well.
Afternoon: Port Charcot
Hearing the breath of whales
We’re in Antarctica now and we’ve had our first excursions to glaciers and penguin colonies. The sun sets around midnight and rises about 2am, so ‘last night’ is a very short time. All around us are jagged icebergs drifting silently in the icy water with towering mountains of black rock and snow rising behind them. The scenery is stunning, surreal, dramatic, haunting, intimidating, pristine, unbelievable. Every-where you turn is a vista that seems impossible to exist in the 21st century it’s so completely remote and untouched. The weather is a miracle, even the crew is shocked by the sunshine and calm seas. The students are literally in awe; the animals here walk right up to you unaware of any danger from humans. Really, it’s the most amazing place I’ve ever seen.
The science is working with mixed results and we are adjusting as we go. There’s no wind, which is great for us but bad for that team…but that could change in minutes. The Penguin team had a terrific morning set up in the middle of a major colony with baby chicks just peeping out from their mothers. The laser measurements of air quality are working great but the team is now also shooting lasers through different types of glacial ice and measuring the purity of 50,000 year old water. The Aurora team is getting good spectrum readings, the Lichens teams is adapting due to an un-expected abundance, and this morning our Architecture student circled icebergs in a small boat doing parametric readings both above and below the water. Discovery-enriched is an understatement at this point.
The gear continues to be our biggest difficulty…it’s like moving an army. I’ve been reading onboard books about previous and historic scientific expeditions and they all complain about our same problem….so I guess we’re part of a great Antarctic tradition of struggling with equipment.
The waters are as still as a country pond now, no waves at all. The ice is blue and sparkling, the wind is crisp and fresh, the air is clean, the world here is more beauti-ful than you can imagine. I’m exhausted but starting to see the value of these expeditions in the context of education. Everyone on board this boat is now part of the project and several of the other scientists and travellers are now planning to come to Hong Kong for the exhibition of the artworks in May. We’ve formed this odd family of artists and scientists working is this rare place.
Again, we’re all safe and healthy. Exhausted, cold, sunburned but happy.
Morning: Almirante Brown (or Paradise Bay)
Evening: Danco Island
Another amazing day on the continent for the students. We hiked to a mountain peak this morning, explored an abandoned field station, and boated around on Zo-diaks (a rubber raft) through iceberg fields. Tonight the students will be camping in the snow, digging out holes to block themselves from the wind and sleeping under the stars…well, the ones that will show up in the few hours of darkness here.
It was a big day for several of the projects. We had enough wind for Vladimir to launch the kite and the entire ship was cheering as he lifted up out of the freezing water. Quite a spectacular and rare achievement here in Antarctica but I had my eye on his partner Angson who set up a five-camera film shoot of it on both land and Zo-diaks in high winds, freezing temperatures, and across five languages. That boy learned more today than any semester of uni could teach him. The entire boat is cheering Vladimir, but I think a director was born today. Angie circled and scanned icebergs, Cheong/HotDog/Jackie continued to study Penguin behavior, Twinnie and Mannie documented Lichen, and Anantika is getting amazing spectrum readings. We found some ‘black ice’ today and Jess and Sonny can hardly wait to shoot lasers through it. Our two cultural study teams—bartering and isolation—took a small boat to a very remote Chilean science station and Christy and Kathy interviewed while Ada and Heidi traded with the sailors living there. Deb is getting great datasets from the crew and the rest are all having good success with their projects. Quite a day. I doubt they will get much sleep tonight so I suspect tomorrow may be less productive but that’s OK, they’ve earned it.
Once again, we are all safe, healthy and having the once-in-a-lifetime experience we promised.
Morning: Orne Harbour
Camping on Ronge Island
We are moored right now in Wilhelmina Bay, surrounded on all sides by bright blue glaciers dropping into the black water and all watched over by black jagged snow covered mountains.
The students camped outside last night and woke up covered with freshly fallen snow, quite a magical moment for them. Today they did more experiments but also a bit more fun—most of the teams have pretty complete datasets by now and I am loosening the restrictions a bit. Instead of working, we just got back from sliding down a glacier on our backs.
It is a massive amount of work. We do a morning excursion and an afternoon one, each about 4 hours and come back to the ship for meals. But stepping outside means putting on long underwear, layers of socks/sweaters/pants, waterproof pants, waterproof coat, gloves, hats, goggles, and giant boots…it takes a half hour just to get dressed. The temperature is only about 0 degrees but the wind chill and the coldness coming off the glaciers makes it much, much colder.
The numbers team of Navi/Deb/Charmaine is doing a great job of finding really off-grid datasets and we now have the Russian sounding data for our entire journey, the Chilean transport data, the weather data from yet another science station. It’s a challenge for them since the science is consistent but each is in a completely differ-ent language. Right now Jess and Charmaine are painting a Merry Christmas sign using Russian boat paint. Everyone is improvising, regrouping, rethinking and experimenting in nearly every situation that comes their way.
The students are working hard and I am starting to loosen the rules a bit to make sure they have time for fun too. We climbed and slid down a glacier on our backs this morning and on the way back to the boat were surrounded by a family of hunchback whales. It was one of those images you see in National Geographic, the massive tailfin rising from the water, but only a few feet from our eyes. Really a moment when the beauty of nature makes your heart pause for a moment. I also know every Penguin type now, dozens of rare birds, and the range of seals here. The animals are abundant and fearless—the penguins walk right up to you, stop and look up like they want to ask you something. They are very, very cute and comi-cal…and everywhere we go.
Otherwise, except that I have aged 10 years, all is going well. The students are safe and healthy…although chapped, windburnt and exhausted.
Morning: Neko Harbour
Evening: Cuverville Island
Barbeque in a snowstorm
“I feel so cold”
We are in Neko Harbour and just returned from the land back to the boat for lunch. The morning was very successful for Mani and Twinnie—a stunning Lichen field on the edge of a glacier and Anantika who got some great spectrum readings. Sonny got clean laser datasets and Ada and Heidi are preparing to barter Christmas messages in Chinese with the other passengers. Christy and Kathy continue to find amazing isolation stories and this morning interviewed a POW and a submarine operator. We did more sledding without sleds and had a mild enough day to actually launch the drones. I can’t wait to see that footage, aerial sweeps across a glacial field and harbor. As we were hiking back one of the glaciers calved, a massive ice sheet dropped off the edge and into the water sending a huge wave across the entire bay. It was so enormous that it almost seemed to happen in slow motion, an entire blue cliff collapsing into the icy black water and forming new icebergs now all around us. It was one of those moments you have seen in movies but to be near it enough to feel the gust created and the sounds echoing through the harbor was really incredible.
The 23 students have now taken over 20,000 photos…yes, 20,000, not including those shot by Gary. Deb will write an algorithm that scans all of them for color, time, location, etc. and I suspect that could be a really interesting dataset. We copy them to a hard drive every night and I am terrified about losing those drives they are too big to backup anymore and now are our most valuable asset (well, to me). The Microorganism team of Shun/Navi/Sau Man now has a macro lens set up on the microscope and the images coming out of our ‘lab’ are equally stunning.
Another day passes, it’s Christmas eve in Antarctica, and we are all well and sending our thoughts back to our friends and family. The students mailed dozens of postcards from the southernmost post office in the world…those should arrive in Hong Kong sometime around July.
Morning: Telefon Bay
Evening: Yankee Harbour
Swimming in Antarctica
Merry Christmas from Antarctica! The weather has turned fierce and we’re moored at Deception Island, a small volcanic bump of land just north of the Antarctic Peninsula…which means we are now working our way slowly North. It’s a blizzard outside, -20 windchill, and the wind is hitting us so hard it knocks us to the ground. We could have had this weather every day so maybe one day of the ‘real’ weather here is a good lesson. It certainly makes you appreciate the scientists and explorers who came before us and did this journey in wooden boats with no shelter. I think our return through the Drake Passage will be much more rough and this morning a few of the students are having their seasickness return. I sure enjoyed the calm waters of Antarctica and now that we’re in the open sea we’re back to bouncing off the walls as we walk through the narrow ship corridors.
Despite the blizzard, Vladimir went kitesurfing this morning again. I have to give that student a lot of credit, that was some violent weather this morning and he still did it. Angson once again orchestrated a complex data capture/film shoot with stu-dents filming from the volcanic beach and on two Zodiaks at sea. To see that kite sailing across Deception Bay coming in and out of our view due to the flurries was a very strange and beautiful site. Yesterday I also worked with the wind team and six of us were dropped off on our own little island to do the wind tests. Alone on a rock in the middle of an iceberg field, surrounded by penguins and seals, freezing and still doing school work…this must be the craziest job in the world.
The eye of the today’s storm gave us 4 hours on one last island in the Antarctic Peninsula and we moored at Yankee Harbour which turned out to be one of our most beautiful sites. A lively penguin colony, dozens on seals, icebergs, sweeping snow-capped mountains and completely calm winds made our last excursion a highlight. I was worried that the blizzard would cut us 1 excursion short but luck continued to be on our side and gave us the site for an epic CityU snowball fight on our last day in Antarctica.
The captain keeps telling me that I should force the students to go ashore one day with no technologies-no cameras, recorders, anything. I like the idea of that but think I would need to have a crowbar and a shotgun to pry the cameras out of their hands. Besides, the images coming out of this are really breathtaking.
It’s Wednesday and on Saturday morning we port back in Ushuaia…the most ex-treme danger is now behind us and besides an upcoming miserable crossing of the Drake, it looks like we have all survived quite well.
Joining Charity Auction
“Time to have a rest”
The winds rose and as we entered the open sea the waves started to reach 15-20 feet. Yesterday everyone was violently sick with seasickness and spent most of the day in their rooms vomiting. I needed to organize all the equipment before we reached Ushuaia and it was very hard to do in a steel room that is rocking back and forth very wildly throwing me around. I’d stand up, get thrown against the wall, fall down. My shoulders are bruised from being so banged around, it was like being in a pinball machine.
We are at high seas right now heading back north towards Cape Horn. The Drake Passage swells are causing the ship to rock quite dramatically and it’s nearly impossible to walk around but it could be much worse…although weather predictions say that another storm front is coming. I think it will be a long, difficult journey back. Nearly all the students are suffering from seasickness. I doubt they will get out of bed most of the day but that’s OK, they have worked hard, played energetically, and some rest is probably good for their health even if it is nausea—induced.
Ironically the most dangerous and the most difficult parts of this expedition are not the same. The physical danger to the students is mostly behind us and we had no incidents while working in Antarctica. No one slipped, no one became over-exposed, no one became sick (surprising since several started the journey with colds or flu back in Hong Kong). We are windburned and chapped but everyone is still fit and healthy. I’m quite proud of the Hong Kong city girls who had never even hiked before yet powered forward and were quite the dynamic force. The CityU girls were fearless.
I plan to acknowledge the amazing assistance we received from One Ocean with a sponsorship credit at exhibition in lieu of a gratuity. They researched and supported every single project and at times devoted their entire staff and equipment for full days to work directly with just our students. They gave us our own boats, specialized gear, professional staff as well as cooked special meals for the students and organized specific lectures and events. We received extra special attention, much more than any other passengers on this vessel. Many of their team are so personally invested in the student projects that they are planning to come to HK for the exhibition in May. They are a conscientious, respected organization and our association with them and their ancillary environmental efforts benefits the visibility of our uni and extends the global network of scientists that the Extreme Environments programme is gradually establishing. They were much, much more than a tour company and are our sponsors in the truest sense of the word.
The students will be happy to be back on Facebook without having this shared email. One of my favorite side-stories about these group emails is that one of our programming students wanted to write personal messages to his girlfriend in EE at CityU and wrote an encryption program that only she can decipher on her end. Nerds in love.
We’re all a bit green, dizzy, and vomiting, but sending our best to you on Boxing Day.
“Time to speak Spanish again”
Well, Antarctica is behind us. People who have been there just call it “The Ice” but I can’t get myself to saying that.
We have just passed Cape Horn and are moving up the Atlantic coast towards Ushuaia. The seas have calmed and most of the students are recovered from yesterday’s crushing seasickness. We’re all packing, inventorying, and organizing for the days in Ushuaia. Again, none of us are really thrilled with Ushuaia but I’m working to organize activities for these few days. One Ocean has agreed to store our equipment and that’s a huge relief. I’m also near to a solution on getting us to the airport and looking for the all-you-can-eat restaurants in Ushuaia as you would be amazed what these students can eat. The Russian crew still jokes about the massive amount of rice we’ve gone through…I guess the familiar foods from home always taste the best.
It’s calmer this morning and I think everyone is less sick and I am certainly be glad to be through the Drake Passage. Most Navies give badges to sailors for braving that passage. We just sighted land an hour ago, Cape Horn the tip of South America and the green hills, blue skies and calmer seas are a huge relief. I would make a terrible sailor, that’s for sure. Being thrown around in a small space is not for me.
Not too much to report really, it’s a lot of card-playing, studying, crunching datasets and students tinkling away on the astoundingly out-of-tune piano in the lounge. Today we get a tour of the ship itself and I’m looking forward to seeing the behind the scenes of the Ioffe. It really is an amazing vessel.
As before, we’re all safe and healthy. We’ll be online again soon.
We have arrived back in Ushuaia and disembarked from the Akademik Ioffe. It was a very touching farewell as the crew, staff and students hugged and photographed each other for nearly an hour--there were some very strong bonds formed through this experience. Our school has made some very good new friends, that is certain.
The students toured the historic prison here in Tierra Del Fuego where South Amer-ica sent its most hardened criminals for centuries. It was grim and brutal and hard to imagine concrete rooms with no bedding or heat in this climate. It’s mid-summer here and still below freezing, I can’t see how one could even survive in the winters. I then took them to an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant and they went crazy for the foods that they have missed the most. The restaurant must have liked having 26 Chinese kids happily eating next to their windows…great advertising!
We got the students into their hostel (and a private bathroom for the girls this time--a big welcome to them) and us into our hotels. The gear is locked at One Oceans office and I am relieved to have it in a secure spot for our visit here. I learned a lot from our first pass through this town and I hope that this time will be a big im-provement. I'm exhausted--I was up all night planning our return to here--but now that everyone is safe and settled I am feeling more confident about our time here.
All is still going well in Ushuaia. As I wrote earlier, I'm putting together more organized activities to keep us together and safe. I'm doing a group dinner and a half-day activity each day while we are here. We had hoped they could cook meals in the hostel but that kitchen is packed with backpackers and to cook a meal for 25 is im-possible there...the best they can do is snack. I'm sourcing all-you-can-eat restaurants so that we stuff them once a day at least.
I chartered a small boat today and we all took an excursion out into the Beagle Channel. It was great fun since we had the entire boat to ourselves and the students charmed our guide and captain. We circled the lighthouse from Wong Kar Wai’s “Happy Together”(a favorite film for many of the students), visited seal and bird colonies, and stopped at an amazing little island that was an archeological site as well as being covered in scrubby flowers...I think our biology student Sau Man documented every plant on that island! A very nice day, still freezing despite being mid-summer here, but the students really enjoyed it and learned quite a bit. The captain even let each of them steer the boat.
We are still in Ushuaia and things are definitely going better this time around since I now know the layout and the dangers.
Today was quite rough, honestly. It was raining all morning and we took four-wheel-drive jeeps into the mountain lakes district. When we got up into the mountains it was tough going and very, very muddy. It was great to see the Andean eco-system and the lakes are really amazing but the students were wet, muddy, and I think most are ready to get back home.
When we arrived at the mountain cabin for dinner, there was an open barbeque, candle light in the forest, and a long, winding ride back to Ushuaia from the mountains.
All the students have now finished their data collection—the Microorganism team completed their water studies in Ushuaia yesterday. Thank you for your email of congratulations, very nice. I am back to conversing with students as they look down at their phones non-stop…already feels like we’re home.
Today the students scattered around Ushuaia but about of dozen of us hiked along the Beagle Channel shoreline to an abandoned ranch on the shores. The weather was stunning, the hills covered with yellow flowers, and the ‘flag trees’—trees grown sideways due to the high winds—were iconic. The ranch was rusted, picturesque and we explored the site and hiked back.
Our dinner was at a little café that I’ve reserved just for us, shaped like an old rail-road car for transporting prisoners (Ushuaia takes pride in it’s brutal prison history). The family is making us a New Year’s Eve traditional Argentine dinner that was fantastic. Happy New Year from Del Fin Del Mundo (the end of the world). We are tired and ready to come home and begin the new year with the memory of our most incredible experience.