Travel Journal: Antarctica
Researchers from ANU joined female scientists from around the world as part of the inaugural Homeward Bound leadership expedition to Antarctica to develop leadership, strategy and innovation skills, and learn about climate change. Here they share their experiences.
Associate Professor Ida Kubiszewski from the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy:
We had brilliant weather during our entire voyage.
We started off from the southern tip of Argentina and passed through the dreaded Drake Passage, known for having some of the roughest seas on Earth. We were lucky, we had one-metre swells; a few days before, the Drake was experiencing 18-metre waves.
Once we got to the Antarctica Peninsula, life on the ship got into a rhythm. Our standard day started with a wake-up call at about 6.45am by our fearless expedition leader Greg Mortimer calling “Good morning possums” through the ship’s PA.
Then the day was mostly divided by meals. A breakfast buffet started at 7am (yes a full buffet every morning!).
On most days, we made a landing on one of the Antarctic islands or the mainland, and spent the rest of the day in the leadership program.
If it was decided we were to go on a landing, we all scrambled back to our rooms to commence the layering process. For most landings, this included two to three layers of bottoms, four to seven layers of tops, two to three layers of socks, a pair of gum boots, hats, gloves and scarves,all interlayered in a complex weave which took at least 15 minutes to construct.
If it was decided we would not land but have a session of the program, we piled into the only space on the ship that would fit us all, the main room. The session included direct leadership training, personal assessments, strategies, visibility, science lectures or Symposiums at Sea (aka participant presentations).
At 12.30pm the bell was rung (literally) for lunch. Lunch consisted of a three-course meal starting with soup or salad, a main course that would make any mum proud and dessert prepared by our own pâtissier. Lunch lasted until 2pm, at which point whatever activity we had not done in the morning (landing or program), was then started, until dinner, which began at 7.30pm.
Because summer in Antarctica has no night, after dinner we often went cruising on the zodiacs (inflatable dinghy) to see the art sculptures floating past the ship, known as icebergs to the rest of the world.
All the days were exhausting but exhilarating. The crew of the ship Ushuaia, the participants, the faculty and the camera crew made it a once in a lifetime trip which could not be repeated no matter how many times we go back to Antarctica.
Dr MERRYN MCKINNON from the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science:
Icebergs appear gradually as you enter Antarctic waters: they start out small, cruising past, just like in the pictures you’ve seen.
I never thought it was possible to be so fascinated by ice. Water and wind have eroded these floating chunks of history into fantastical shapes – what appears to be an overly large inflatable pool toy bobs nearby.
New ice is bright blue, almost as if lit internally by cerulean LED bulbs.
Gradually the iceberg landscape changes and towering monoliths appear, dwarfing our ship. ‘The tip of the iceberg’ takes on a whole new meaning as you look at this enormous slab of ice stretching above you, then realise the majority – up to 90 per cent – lies underneath the surface.
The biggest iceberg we have ever seen comes next to our ship. We crane our necks to see the top of this enormous, almost shark fin-shaped berg. Awe gives way to laughter as we see a waddle (yes, really) of penguins sitting on the lowest, flattest part, almost like commuters on a bus.
Penguins are the true stars of Antarctica.
Penguins are the true stars of Antarctica. Charismatic and curious, these animals are industrious little creatures. As it was the beginning of summer, most of the penguin colonies had eggs in their nests. One penguin would sit on the egg while the other went in search of rocks to reinforce the nest, carrying new rocks back in their beaks as they laboured up and down hills.
Watching these waddling, awkward creatures on land – often stumbling and slipping on the snow and ice as much as we were – was captivating. We sat and watched for hours. In the water, their grace is revealed as they ‘porpoise’, leaping across the surface of the water and zooming along just below at great speeds before popping out onto the beach.
We cruise past seals lolling on icebergs – they appear so fat and content. Weddell seals always look like they are smiling; they blend in and can look like large rocks or chunks of wood on shore – watch your step!
Summer also brings whales to Antarctica to gorge themselves on krill, preparing for the long journey and winter months ahead. On our last day on the ship, we saw about 30 minke and humpback whales, feeding, breaching and diving – poetry in motion.
Antarctica is fragile, beautiful and utterly captivating.
Nina McLean, PhD student, Research School of Biology:
You feel like the luckiest person in the world to be there because it’s only you and your shipmates.
What sort of characteristics or behaviours do you want in a leader?
All 76 female scientists on board the ship in Antarctica answered this question and the striking thing was, everyone wanted the same thing. And it isn’t just us – men and women, as well as people from all cultures, all come up with the same answers.
The behaviours that people don’t want too much of in leaders are ‘passive’ characteristics like a need for approval, avoidance, self-doubting or easily influenced, and ‘aggressive’ characteristics such as not accepting criticism well, dominating, getting angry easily or even being too perfectionistic.
Instead, we want ‘constructive’ characteristics such as a desire for personal growth, optimism, creativity, good teacher and listener, and a cooperative attitude. This was the background to everything we learnt and did while in Antarctica.
Thinking about these sorts of things, the types of characteristics and behaviours that you have and how to be more constructive, while in Antarctica, is a very bizarre situation.
You are so isolated, there is no going home at the end of the day and watching TV. You are cut off from your loved ones.
Needless to say, it was an intense, all-consuming experience. But it was complemented beautifully by the experiences you have off the ship and with the other people on board.
Every time you got off the boat, you just felt reinvigorated! The isolation you felt on the ship is what makes it so special to be in Antarctica – you feel like the luckiest person in the world to be there because it’s only you and your shipmates, no one else around.
There were always special moments, such as when a penguin waddled directly over to me and just checked me out for a minute.
Whales would drift past, scooping up krill, so close to us that you could hear them sing. I watched a leopard seal play in the water, sliding on and off icebergs.
It was the best inspiration to remind you of what Homeward Bound was trying to achieve and why it was so important.
We need more women in science to lead, influence and contribute to decision making at the highest levels so that we can proactively contribute to a more sustainable world.
We need to do this because we need to protect beautiful places like Antarctica, and we just can't afford to have the voice of women missing at the leadership table.
Professor Robyn Lucas, Head of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Heath:
A leader is like a sheep dog … you get behind people and muster them toward the vision.
The leadership initiative for Homeward Bound comprised project work and diagnostics covering emotional intelligence, current leadership style and learning styles in the lead-up to the expedition, and then formal work on the ship.
All great learning experiences, but coupled with that was an inspiring demonstration of leadership-in-action from our expedition leader, Greg Mortimer, and the expedition leader for the ship, Monika Schillat.
And, to top that off, were the learnings about leadership to take away from the place itself, Antarctica.
Each of the participants would have taken something different from the experience, so these are very personal reflections.
We had an awesome project group! It took a bit of treading carefully around each other as we worked out who we were, who was leading and what we were planning to do.
Despite being in different time zones and having a variety of backgrounds we gelled – great fun, bouncing ideas around and getting to know each other.
Our group looked at women as change-makers.
We interviewed women that we saw as transformational leaders or drivers of change in fields like climate change, sustainability and urban planning.
My favourite take-away? A leader is like a sheep dog – you set the vision of where you want to get to, and then you get behind people and muster them toward the vision, rounding up those that stray and setting them on the right path.
The diagnostics were a revelation! I could see why things had come unstuck in the past for me and to learn the techniques to go forward with a constructive leadership style. On the ship I delved deep to uncover my core values and my purpose – wow!
Then I was introduced to the tools to set my goals, develop my strategy to achieve them and stay on track.
All this within the rich environment afforded by 75 other women of diverse ages, backgrounds and skill sets.
We worked hard on the ship. In December the Antarctic day is long, time to fit a lot in – four to six hours of formal work, three to four hours of expeditions (ashore or in zodiacs) and then another couple of hours of informal
work in the evenings.
And all the while in the most amazing scenery imaginable – huge icebergs passing the big lounge windows and shouts of ‘whale’, ‘seal’ or ‘penguins’ to keep us awake and alert.