This isn’t your typical #GetOutThere guide. But there’s a not a place on Earth that MI OLA ambassador Ellen (@artemis_eleven) would travel to without a MI OLA swimsuit. Earlier this year, MI OLA muse, scientist Ellen had the once in a lifetime chance to travel to Antarctica. Pretty amazing, right?
We caught up with her to find out all the details of her epic trip to Antartica -- check it out below!
In February this year I set sail as part of the largest group of women to ever visit Antarctica. We spent 3 weeks sailing around the Antarctic peninsula – from the South Shetland Islands in the north to Marguerite Bay in the south – and during that time visited many incredible places and saw many beautiful animals.
Why I went to Antarctica: The purpose of my visit wasn’t tourism, nor was it to work at one of the research stations (although we did visit several on our journey). I was one of 80 female scientists from all over the world that had come together to participate in the Homeward Bound program, to develop our leadership, strategy & science communication skills in an intensive three week workshop. Our aim was to go back to our home countries, our workplaces, our governments, and use what we had learnt to influence change around environmental policy, and equity & inclusion.
On the voyage I learned so much, not only about penguins, seals, glaciers and climate change, but also about female leadership and the great ideas that emerge in safe, collaborative spaces.There are many parallels between the women on my voyage and the women of the MI OLA family. Just like I am part of the 20% of science professors that are women, Helena (MI OLA CEO) is part of the 17% of start-up founders who are female.
It requires strength of character and perseverance to work in male dominated industries: there is a discouraging amount of research that demonstrates that women’s accomplishments are valued less than those of men, and that women miss out on much of the informal mentorship & connection building that goes on between senior & junior men in these industries. Women with children have their dedication to their work doubted far more than men with children, and for women of colour, the effect of all of these inequalities is even further compounded.
Factors like these contribute to the fact that despite making up 17% of start-up founders, female founders only got 2% of the venture capital invested in start-ups in 2017. It is statistics like these that initiatives like Homeward Bound are working hard to improve.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned on my voyage to Antarctica was the value of becoming part of a global network of like-minded women. This has already been so important for my scientific work – to have more senior women to ask for advice, and to be able to add new dimensions to my research from the new connections I have.
But I am fortunate that I am a member of another global network of like-minded women – the MI OLA family of active water women. I often think how inspired I am by all of you: Helena in New York, who took the plunge and started a business because she saw a market that wasn’t being catered for (us!); Kristen in Costa Rica who ditched her corporate job and followed her heart to start a photography business; and all the other MI OLA women that #GetOutThere, whether it’s yoga, paddle-boarding, or spending time outdoors with their children. So let’s make the most of this global network we are part of – through the power of social media (@miolasurf on Twitter & Instagram, and MI OLA on Facebook) we can connect with each other and share our stories, and who knows where those connections might lead in future?
What to do:
For those joining a scientific research station, you’re there to work. While you will get some time off each week when you can go out and explore the surroundings (within limits!), it’s no holiday – the hours are long and there is little entertainment outside of movies & station social events.
For the cruise ship passengers, it is important to think about what you want out of your time in Antarctica and choose a ship accordingly. Some ships offer ‘viewing only’ i.e. no landings. Other ships offer daily landings, with some even offering kayaking adventures and glacier hikes. Here’s where the size of the ship matters. So as to preserve the unique Antarctic wildlife and landscapes, tourists are restricted to specific areas. Most ships will visit two sites per day. There are also limits on the number of people that can be on land at one time for a given site. If you’re on a ship that has 500 passengers, and only 100 people can be on the landing site at once, well, you can do the math as to how long you might get there.
Once on land, the wildlife and scenery will not disappoint! Penguins are a feature of most landings, from the inquisitive Gentoo penguins, who’ll walk right up to you and peck at your boots, to the petite, shy Adelie penguins who prefer to keep their distance. You’ll see plenty of Antarctic fur seals on land too, but for those who prefer the safety & comfort of their cruise ship, you’ll still see plenty of wildlife – whales feeding on krill, crab-eater seals lounging on icebergs and my favourite, porpoising penguins!
You may also be surprised to learn that Antarctica is not short of gift shops. Make sure you bring your credit card to stock up on unique mementos from Port Lockroy in particular.
One thing that unites tourists and research station staff alike is the tradition of the polar plunge. This involves immersing yourself in polar water, usually only for a few seconds because it is so cold that that’s all the time your body will tolerate. I was determined to do one (in the end I did two) – after all, I hadn’t taken two MI OLA suits all the way to Antarctica for nothing! You can watch my polar plunge here.
Where to stay:
Unless you are there to conduct science or on a pre-sanctioned expedition, you won’t be staying on land – your ship will be your home. A cool $7,500 will get you a week in Antarctica, staying in a fairly basic berth. At the other end of the spectrum, $50,000 will get you 3 weeks in a luxury cabin.
Where to eat:
Unsurprisingly, food choices are limited. While the food at the research stations is impressive given the limited opportunities to deliver supplies, and the challenges keeping food fresh, it won’t be winning any Michelin stars. On the cruise ships you get what you pay for – the smaller, less fancy ships offer three hearty meals per day but with no choice. The larger ships have a choice of restaurants and room service to boot.
What to wear:
Many people are surprised to hear that in the austral summer (November to March, when the majority of tourists & scientists travel to the white continent) the temperature on the Antarctic peninsula stays around 0°C (32°F) – much warmer than winter in a lot of the US & Canada! So while you need warm clothing (thermals, ski pants, a warm jacket) for landings, it’s not the kind of extreme gear that people imagine. Of course if you are one of the research station staff that ‘over-winters’ (i.e. stays there as part of the skeleton crew over the dark winter months) it’s another story. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica is −89.2 °C (−128.6 °F), and this was recorded at Vostok Station, a Russian research station in the Antarctic interior.
How to get there:
I visited Antarctica as part of the Homeward Bound initiative – a leadership program for female scientists. Until recently, science was your only ticket to Antarctica. From only a handful of scientific stations in the 1940s, there are now 70 research stations, operated by 29 countries. 4,000 scientists, engineers, field guides, operations managers and administrators call the white continent home each summer, with the number dropping to 1,000 each winter. These days, however, the only way most people can visit Antarctica is on one of the fleet of cruise ships based out of southern South America. Antarctic tourism is a growing industry, with more than 50,000 visitors each year arriving on the fleet of cruise ships based out of southern Chile and southern Argentina. It takes two days of sailing to cross the Drake Passage, one of the most notorious pieces of water on Earth. Swells of 10m are not uncommon, so pack those seasickness pills!
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