A letter from the leaders of the Romero Institute
“We had pierced the veneer of outside things. ‘We had… grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.’
We had seen God in his splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of men.”
ERNEST SHACKLETON, ENDURANCE: SHACKLETON’S INCREDIBLE VOYAGE
Anna Mason here, development manager for the Romero Institute. As the intrepid explorer Ernest Shackleton said of Antarctica, arriving at the seventh continent is like reaching “the naked soul of man.” One is left feeling exposed — with mind and heart broken open — vulnerable against the sheer scale and intensity that is the southernmost continent. When one leans into that vulnerability and recognizes one’s own connection to a place of such grandeur, the frozen landscapes can ignite a blazing fire within to protect the delicate balance and indescribable beauty of our planet. Read on as we journey together to the coldest, driest, windiest — and most remarkable — continent on Mother Earth.
Although tourism is growing quickly there, still just 100,000 of the 8 billion people on the planet will visit Antarctica during its summer season in 2023. You may be wondering, how did I get to be one of the lucky .0000125 percent to experience some of Earth’s most majestic vistas this year? Great question.
You have likely heard the expression, “I would travel to the ends of the earth with you.” Being the partner of an internationally acclaimed fine art, landscape, and wildlife photographer — who also runs a travel company, Earth Expeditions — has literalized that expression in my life. Most of the images you see throughout this blog were all taken by my visionary love, Robert Salisbury Knight, who has made this journey eight times. You can see his images online or in person at the gallery he has run for over 20 years in the artistic coastal community of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, where he and I make our home.
Here are some images of Robert and me in Antarctica:
The Journey Begins
After days of waiting in Puerto Natales, Chile, ready to take off but deterred by the weather (the ultimate decider of the success of any expedition), we were cleared for take-off on the fourth and final day before the trip would have been canceled. As the fog parted, a rainbow appeared, which I took as a promising sign of the great beauty to come. This rainbow would be the last natural display of colors beyond whites, grays, blacks, and blues that I would see for a week.
A group of 24 Americans, our Earth Expeditions crew flew with 46 other adventurers from around the world over the infamously tumultuous Drake Passage (phew!) to Frei Station, a Chilean base near the southwestern tip of King George Island.
An energetic chinstrap penguin greeted us on the water’s edge as we took turns riding zodiacs captained by enthusiastic expedition team members of all ages and nationalities. These motorized, inflatable boats would be our sole mode of reaching Antarctica’s shores for daily excursions. Crisp, chilly winds and occasional sprays of even chillier Antarctic waters splashed up as we sped along the wavy surface of the sea. I felt grateful to have outfitted myself appropriately with a warm, water-resistant coat, beanie, and scarf that I could nuzzle my nose into. After several minutes and one helpful sailor’s grip, we were officially on board our expedition ship, the Magellan Explorer.
In the week that followed, we crossed the Polar Circle, stepped foot onto several South Shetland islands, trekked to the top of a steep peak on the continental mainland, and weaved around the Antarctic peninsula.
The first morning in Antarctica felt like waking up in a different world. Peeling back the curtains revealed ice sculptures of all shapes and sizes that had joined us along our journey in the night. Stepping onto Neko Harbor during our first excursion felt like walking on a strange planet — was this a frozen moon? How could this untouched and endless white be a part of the same world I inhabit, full of highways and cement? Here, the only highways in sight were those of the gentoo penguins.
Arctic comes from the Greek word for “bear.” Antarctica means, “opposite of the bear.” While there are no polar bears, there is no shortage of penguins! I saw several chinstrap and gentoo penguin colonies with hundreds or thousands of penguins in each one. My life indeed is richer having seen penguins at all stages of their development — from mothers on eggs, to baby chicks, to teenage penguins molting their adolescent fluff in exchange for a sleek waterproof set of feathers. A waddling penguin looks equal parts awkward and adorable. But to see a penguin porpoising in the water is to see a master at work!
The majesty and scale of it all is overwhelming. With alluring contrasts at every turn, Antarctica is the intersection of grace and strength.
The light is brilliant. The brightest shades of blues and teals illuminate icebergs from below, putting neon lights to shame.
Mythic mountains covered in snow roll out for miles on end.
Adventures on Sea and Ice
One morning I woke up to the sight of a sleepy seal floating by on a piece of ice — it looked up and seemed to wave at me, casually wishing me a good morning. At other times, I spied rafts of penguins from my cabin window.
Aboard a zodiac, with the engine off, we listened to the sounds of a mother whale and her calf breathing as they slept. It was intimate and intense. What a privileged gift to hear the life energy of such magnificent beings, to share the same air. All stresses of the outside world left me as we inhaled and exhaled together — the mother whale, her calf, and me.
Each outing and passing view from the ship left me feeling fragile and small as an individual, yet immensely powerful in knowing that I am energetically connected to such a behemoth of beauty and raw, seemingly unshakeable might.
Actively getting out in kayaks, on snowshoes, and with trekking poles to explore the shorelines and coastal hills was exhilarating. I even took the opportunity to do a “polar plunge”, baptizing myself as if reborn in the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean. On my first-ever experience kayaking, a minke whale decided to join me — what an honor! And I have never felt so rewarded as when I carefully zigzagged my way up to the top of a steep peak on the mainland at Orne Harbor with 360-degree views of snow, ice, and sea.
Standing on the bow of the ship and taking in the views did not feel like a passive experience. Ice sculptures of all shapes and sizes paraded by us as if we were gliding through a cool, fluid museum, carved by Queen Earth herself.
In addition to the penguins, seals, and whales, we were joined by snow petrels and albatrosses who soared majestically alongside the ship.
The clarity of light on the ocean’s surface is so pristine that it appears the universe is being reflected in each shimmering ripple of water. Nowhere has that line between heaven and earth blurred so brilliantly than it did dancing on the ocean near the polar circle.
The pure sounds reverberated inside of my being, as if I could both hear and feel them. I took audio recordings of ice breaking and chinstrap penguins chatting to one another. The winds can be unrelenting. I tried taking video footage (to share with you) but the winds overpowered my words each time. The dry air in the South Shetland Islands, where most of my adventures took place, hovers around freezing temperatures in the summer months (October through March). With the proper gear, it is tolerable — refreshing even.
A Sobering Reminder
In contrast with the immense highs I experienced at every other location, the excursion to Whaler’s Bay was a somber one. Deception Island is located on an active caldera where steam rises from the sea and eerily drifts along the slate gray coastline. It is as if the island slowly weeps for the carnage that took place upon her shores. Approximately 2.9 million whales were killed in the last century, many here at Whaler’s Bay where remnants of the whaling industry still stand. The fact was not lost on me that the whales were slaughtered in large part out of a desire for their oil — to light lamps and make candles. And today, it is still oil, of a different kind, that we pillage as an energy source to meet our growing demands — gaining “power” for us by robbing power from others. And it is the burning of that oil that contributes so devastatingly to the demise of this incredible place and our home planet as a whole.
The polar regions are the frontlines of climate change for the planet. The most extreme temperature increases have happened over the Arctic and Antarctica, with 2022 seeing record-high temperatures there. On 18 March, the Concordia station in Antarctica recorded a temperature of 10.8 deg F (-11.8 deg C), a full 70 degrees above the seasonal norm. Imagine if California started having 160-degree summers. You’d think that everyone who didn't die of heatstroke might suddenly become quite serious about climate change. Alas, our brains are too good at "out of sight, out of mind."
Unlike the Arctic, Antarctica doesn't have a significant permanent human population, so the direct impacts of climate change in Antarctica are predominantly experienced by local wildlife. Anyone who only views impacts on humans (or particular subgroups of humans, as is often the case) as important may not be moved by this, but Antarctica is home to a few surprisingly diverse and productive ecological communities, particularly marine. During my travels, I had my heart set on seeing what I believe is the cutest penguin of all, the adélie penguin, who Robert had seen just years before in some of the same locations we visited. But sadly, as the weather warms and food supplies dwindle, the adorable adélies have moved farther south in a desperate search for a cooler climate. In addition to the relocation of penguin colonies, there has been a decline in krill (a vital food source for penguins, whales, seals, and more) in the SW Atlantic portion of the Southern Ocean, attributed by scientists to reduced sea ice cover.
However, the indirect impacts of climate change in Antarctica have the potential to impact the life of every human being on the planet for generations to come through sea level rise. Antarctica has two forms of ice: sea ice and land ice. Sea ice is largely seasonal, partially melting in the summer and refreezing in the winter. However, there has been a recent trend of lower and lower sea ice levels. Nearly every year, we see a new record low. This is troubling for several reasons. Antarctica's sea ice provides a buffer between warming ocean temperatures and the land ice. Unlike sea ice, land ice melting causes sea level rise and injects cold fresh water that can disrupt ocean currents (and consequently, global weather patterns). Sea level rise will impact coastal and island communities in a devastating way. Everything is connected.
The scientists aboard the ship often expressed their unabiding, almost obsessive, love of phytoplankton, a tiny organism of extreme importance in the web of life. Not only do phytoplankton provide the foundation of the marine life ecosystem — every sea dwelling being either eats phytoplankton or creatures who eat it — they also absorb co2 and are said to produce up to 80 percent of the oxygen on the planet! There has been a global phytoplankton decrease of about 1 percent every year since 1900. If this trend continues, it could wipe out marine life and accelerate the climate crisis. Records indicate that phytoplankton numbers decrease the most in warming areas of the ocean, which suggests that climate change is a factor in their demise. The oceans absorb roughly 40 percent of the co2 emitted by humans. Phytoplankton either transform that co2 into oxygen, or the phytoplankton die, burying the co2 under the sea. So, in a dreaded catch 22, as phytoplankton numbers dwindle, there will be more co2 in the atmosphere which will further increase temperatures, leading to further decimation of much needed phytoplankton.
The expedition staff gave historic and scientific lectures aboard the ship each day that culminated in a climate talk by expedition leader Bob Gilmore. In this talk with an “everything is connected” theme, Bob, who is a guide and interpreter in Glaciology and Geology, connects the dots on the impact of the world on Antarctica and the impact that the changing climate of Antarctica will have on the rest of the world. It was the hope of the ship’s expedition staff that the voyagers will return to their homelands as Antarctic ambassadors, letting our newfound love of “the Ice” fuel a passion to protect her by changing our personal choices and the policies which directly impact her. I encourage you to listen to this informative talk, which I recorded for you.
Antarctica’s Lasting Lesson
Antarctica is a testament to international peace and cooperation. It belongs to no one country. It belongs to us all. The Antarctic Treaty, first signed in Washington, D.C. by 12 nations on December 1, 1959, established Antarctica as a demilitarized continent, prohibited nuclear tests and radioactive waste, and encouraged collaborative scientific exploration. 52 nations in total have now signed the agreement — a shining example of diplomacy. Hopefully, countries of the world can again work together in this collaborative spirit in order to protect Antarctica and our shared home by creatively and systematically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
I have never experienced so plainly as I did in Antarctica God and Earth existing as one and the same. It is a deep honor to be connected to such a remarkable place. It is a responsibility I will hold close to my heart each day as we work together to turn the tide on the climate crisis. Antarctica appears as a land that could never be tamed by humankind. To realize that our actions, taking place thousands of miles away, are chipping away at her every day feels treasonous. It breaks my heart. Together, let us be Antarctic ambassadors, treating our extraordinary home planet with the reverence and respect she deserves.
In awe and action,
Current events, new perspectives on history, and more
Antarctica 21’s expedition leader Bob Gilmore tells “The Story of a Connected Ecosystem” on board the Antarctic vessel, the Magellan Explorer. This hour-long talk makes a case for the anthropogenic nature of climate change and connects the dots between the changing landscape in Antarctica and its impact on the world at large. We encourage you to watch this insightful and entertaining talk.
The latest news from Romero Institute and its programs
Romero Institute continues to focus on turning the tide on the climate crisis. A policy that would have positive ripple impacts for climate is the new California Senate Bill 823 being proposed by Romero Institute’s own Let’s Green CA! project. Building on our success in 2022 to enact Senate Bill 1230 — which will make electric vehicles (EVs) more affordable for low-income drivers — we've introduced this new legislation in partnership with Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (Los Angeles). SB 823 will provide residents who can't charge their EV at home with a "Discounted Charging Payment Card" ensuring they can use public charging infrastructure at an affordable price — just in time for the 250,000 new chargers coming from federal infrastructure investment. This legislation will shift the paradigm of EV charging so that a future with clean cars benefits all Californians. This policy can be a blueprint for other states and nations to follow. Click here to help “Be the Charge” you wish to see in the world!
Highlighting important writings from around the world
The IPCC’s “Special Report On The Ocean And Cryosphere In A Changing Climate”
This month’s reading recommendation comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC, a body of the United Nations, assesses the science related to anthropogenic climate change in a new report every 6-7 years. We have highlighted for you a section of a recent report that focuses on oceans and the cryosphere (Earth's ice). It contains a lot of publicly-available research on climate impacts in polar regions and can help provide more concrete information related to the trajectory of Antarctica. It is a long and detailed read, perfect for a deep dive — although much can be gained from reading the first two pages. https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/chapter/summary-for-policymakers/