In from the cold

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 April, 2006, 12:00am


IT'S A GOOD thing Ciara Shannon is a keen sailor. The Hong Kong resident has recently returned from a voyage to Antarctica, during which she navigated the notorious Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica, considered by some mariners to be the roughest stretch of water in the world.

'Lots of people got sea sick, so we kept an eye on each other,' says Shannon, 35, referring to the team of 60 teachers, executives and students from around the world who boarded a 500-tonne vessel in Ushuaia, Argentina, bound for Antarctica's King George Island.

Departing in late February, Shannon and her fellow sailors were heading to the world's least inhabited continent for a week-long educational expedition led by British explorer, environmentalist and motivational speaker Robert Swan. The project tested the team's resolve, as they contended with storms, boating mishaps, lost equipment and a stalled project launch.

Conditions were so bad during the voyage that even walking around proved difficult, but Shannon says people kept their strength up, thanks to the ship's Argentinian cook. 'How he managed to cook our meals when our boat was almost upside down I have no idea,' she says.

When the group got to King George Island, they hit their first obstacle: the tents they were supposed to camp in had been blown away by 160km/h winds. The equipment had been left by a previous expedition, but Shannon's group was able to find and erect only two of the tents. Due to the appalling weather, 48 people had to sleep aboard the ship and the rest were forced to spend the night at a nearby station in Bellingshausen, the Russian Antarctic Station on the northwest coast of the island.

Worse, the storm had wrecked the group's chances of sending a live internet feed from the base's education centre, one of the main goals of the trip. The structure hadn't even been built because the recycled building materials from Vermont had arrived in Argentina too late for a previous voyage.

Shannon's team brought them south and planned to build the centre themselves. Unfortunately, they were unable to complete the task in time to set up the camera and internet feed. The promise of providing schools around the world with a live internet content wasn't going to be met on this journey.

'It was a good lesson that nature makes the decisions in Antarctica,' says Shannon. 'Things don't always go as planned.' There are hopes that an internet connection will be established next year.

Much of the team's time was spent on board the ship, the MV Ushuaia, 'adapted for the ice, but not an ice breaker', and sailing around Antarctica's northern islands on smaller boats. Shannon's first activity as one of 10 team leaders was a five-hour session dividing the group into cabin mates. 'It's a pretty important decision,' she says. 'You've got 60 strangers from around the world coming together for the first time. You've got to try to pair up the right people.'

The visitors spent much of their time dressing and undressing as the weather conditions proved erratic. 'Every day the temperature was different, so it was all about layers,' she says. 'Some days it was necessary to wear at least 27 different garments of clothing.'

For most of the trip Shannon was kept busy organising the group's activities. These included guided trips around the Antarctic Peninsula, where the crew learnt about the environment and animal life. One of her favourite sites was Neko Harbour, where they saw a penguin colony with young chicks. 'This was the first time that I'd ever been to a place filled with such a profusion of bird life,' she says. 'I felt like the outsider or the guest in their home.'

Lemaire Channel was also a favourite with Shannon, who was taken by the 'thousands on thousands of floating icebergs' in white and blue, forming many different shapes. 'You really feel like you've entered a different world.'

Something else that made it seem like an alien landscape was the scarcity of humans. At one point, Shannon came across a group of Chinese scientists and meteorologists, a reminder not only of Asia but also that such personnel are usually the only human inhabitants in Antarctica, providing it with an estimated population of 4,000 in the summer and 1,000 in the winter.

Conditions are often inhospitable, something Shannon's group learnt at the beginning of the journey with the storm and at the end of the trip, when fierce winds drove their boat aground. There were some tense moments, she says, but eventually the boat was freed. 'We were very lucky because the same high winds and currents that grounded us basically shifted our boat off the rocks.'

Shannon's involvement in the remarkable journey began two years ago. A marketer for a private English language school, and a keen environmentalist, Shannon heard about Swan's plans for the trip - the Inspire Antarctic Expedition 4 - during a talk he gave at a Royal Geographic Society function in Hong Kong. She sent him her resume and was told that if she could raise $220,000 for the trip, she could come aboard. Shannon failed to secure the funding (she managed only $20,000, which paid for her flight to Argentina), but Swan was impressed enough to invite her to join his team of organisers when one member dropped out.

The group, partly funded by Coca-Cola (which sent several employees on the trip), had three goals. One was to launch the education centre to help children learn about Antarctica through the internet. The second was to figure out how to power King George Island completely by renewable energy such as wind power. The third was for members to learn about Antarctica and bring its story back to their respective home countries.

All of these endeavours are part of Swan's vision to keep Antarctica development-free. The continent is protected by two key treaties: the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which was designed to defuse any territorial claims, prevent nuclear testing and to only allow activities or research projects that were for peaceful purposes; and the 1991 Madrid Protocol, which bans any form of mining until 2041.

Swan has had a long association with the icy continent, originally becoming involved with the region as an explorer and being the first person to walk to both poles. He has experienced environmental degradation at first-hand. Because of the hole in the south pole's ozone layer, which increases the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the Earth, his skin and eyes have been permanently damaged - giving him an arresting blue stare.

He's now planning his fourth such expedition, taking groups of people from around the world to see Antarctica, to learn about its fragile environment and to expand their knowledge about sustainable living. In 2002, after numerous trips, Swan and his team removed 1,000 tonnes of trash from Bellingshausen.

His message resonated for Shannon in Hong Kong, where she says recycling is becoming crucial in the cramped city. Now that she's back, she's doing her best to share what she learnt about Antarctica. The continent is important because it's one of the last untouched places on the planet, she says.

But global emissions from power plants, cars and factories have resulted in rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, which traps heat. That has helped drive up the Antarctic's temperature by about three degrees Celsius during the past 50 years, causing ice to melt and water levels to rise. A large chunk of the Larsen-B ice shelf broke off four years ago, revealing parts of the Antarctic peninsula that had been covered in ice for 10,000 years. This could be 'the front of the train' for the rest of the world, Shannon says.

Many scientists say that if this trend continues, major ecological imbalances could occur around the globe, including extreme swings in weather and the submersion of coastal cities and even entire countries. 'Antarctica has a message for us about climate change,' Shannon says. 'And I don't think we can afford to ignore it.'

Shannon worked on a documentary when she was in Antarctica and parts of it will be aired on TVB's evening news on April 18. That will coincide with another visit by Swan to Hong Kong, when he will speak at the Chinese International School in an effort to muster support for next year's expedition. He wants to include a local Hong Kong student in the trip.

Shannon wouldn't mind going along as well. She only hopes that next time she might have more time to enjoy the view.

'I would have loved a few more quiet moments,' she says. 'There's an extraordinary silence there. It's a wonderful place.'