Open bridge policies on ships are the best.
In December 2016 I was in the Antarctic on the MV Ushuaia, a former oceanographic research vessel operated by US agency National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with 75 other female scientists. We were the largest-all female Antarctic expedition ever, part of the inaugural Homeward Bound initiative, a 10-year project to elevate the impact of women in science and leadership to address pressing contemporary issues. Antarctica was our backdrop, as well as our climate change classroom. Filmed Faculty on Homeward Bound included Her Deepness aquanaut and marine biologist Sylvia Earle, Jane Goodall, British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace, Christina Figures leader on global climate change and former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 2010-2016.
At any given time, especially since it was the austral summer and the sun barely set, there would be a few of us on the bridge alongside the mainly Argentinean crew. There we witnessed the sailors’ skilled navigation of seasonal sea ice, heard the beeping meteorological data coming in and soaked in magical views of minke whale pods and iceberg parades.
The music on the bridge was invariably rock or pop, or some stunning classical piece that seemed to fit the mood of the weather – sunny, foggy or wind of Beauford Scale 10. Another sound on the bridge was a super loud beeping sound. At first I worried we’d hit an iceberg, but the Captain assured us it was the “Krill alarm”, signaling that we were near krill swarms, the major link in the food chain. The Southern Ocean, or Antarctic Ocean is crucial body of water for our planet as it stores anthropogenic heat and carbon dioxide and helps regulates global atmospheric temperatures.
On this trip I was keen to learn more about the state of the earth and science and leadership from my fellow scientists from a dozen countries and the program’s faculty- including marine biologists, an astronomer, a mathematician, a glaciologist, a neuroscientist and social scientists like me. We had onboard faculty with leadership and terrestrial ecology backgrounds for example, and amazing “filmed” faculty with messages for us from primatologist Jane Goodall, aquanaut and oceanographer Sylvia Earle and diplomat Christina Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. We also had the fortune to visit scientists and staff the Argentinian research station Carlini, and US Palmer Station as well as Port Lockroy, the historic 1944 UK base. We explored the fact that many women are already leading scientists and changemakers but that there are also unconscious and conscious biases preventing or deterring women in STEM leadership. UNESCO reports that only 28% of researchers globally are women. Evidence tells us too that gender-balanced teams are renowned for better performance and decision making.
On this 20-day program at sea I was keen also was keeping an eye out for marine debris. I’d collected garbage in the Antarctic twenty years earlier. I saw living on a Russian Research station decades ago, and on this trip in visits to three research stations, that individuals and groups in the Antarctic, be it governments, scientists or tourists, must act responsibly. We must think about what we goods we bring and dispose of there (and everywhere), including the risk of bringing invasive species to Antarctica on ships, planes and on shoes, materials and equipment.
I also helped clean up garbage in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, where its Governor initiated clean ups of this northernmost inhabited place on earth where garbage collects on extremely remote fjords and shores. I collected a survey of the marine debris we found on Svalbard’s shores and documented in an exhibit Aqua Mess with portraits of the trash and landscapes where we found it.
In the Antarctic I didn’t see a lot of marine debris compared to the Arctic, but when we did it stood out as a shock of colour against mostly muted earth tones in the moss and rocks, on top of endless blue-white glacier vistas.
I collected ten pieces of trash on our shore landings, from small bits of multi-colour plastic rope to a big green pop bottle. Again, this may be the tip of the iceberg of Antarctica’s human-created pollution, even traces in its deep ocean floors. Study results from August 2016 on human contaminants in ocean trenches are eerie. In shrimp-like crustaceans called amphipods, scientists found human-made organic pollutants at some 10,000 metres deep. We’re still learning about the volume, location and impact of marine debris from the Antarctic to the Arctic and in between. But we do know it’s prolific and harmful to wildlife and to organisms and us too when it breaks down and enters the food chain. It’s choking the oceans. Some estimates suggest plastics may make up 50-80% of ocean litter.
In Antarctica studies on marine trash began in 2007/8 by The British Antarctic Survey and Greenpeace. While big pieces of plastic were not found, plastic was discovered in remote places and seas. In 2012 scientists on the French schooner the Tara found a disturbingly high amount of trash in Antarctica. While we were in Antarctica another ship was doing a formal survey again said one of our faculty, terrestrial ecologist Dr. Justine Shaw told us.
We live in uncertain yet also hopeful times. Antarctic history gives us fantastic examples wisdom on the value of international cooperation, science and innovation, which were also values we discussed on our recent expedition and ones we commit to live and disseminate following the voyage.
The Antarctic Treaty of 1959, created remarkably during the cold war, and its Environmental Protocol of 1991, dedicates the continent to peace and science, celebrates its aesthetic beauty and outlines our responsibility to conserve Antarctic biodiversity and ecology. In our pursuit to protect limited resources, reduce and clean up our human footprint on land and oceans, and work towards better equity for fellow humans around the globe, the poles are bellwethers, mirrors and also inspirations.