Balancing A Regular Life with Extreme WANDERLUST

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Glaciers at Deception Island

Iceberg at Andvord Bay

Gentoo Penguin at Deception Island

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Reflections from the Mighty South

The history of human interaction with Antarctica is one of greed and gloom. Whale and seal hunting was the primary reason for the initial exploration of the land mass. Reports of abundant stocks drew the adventurous from the early 1800's onwards. Before long, there were major crashes in the populations of some wildlife. For example, the Antarctic fur seal was almost wiped out at many locations by 1830. Once the most profitable species had been hunted to a point of great scarcity, the next species was hunted until it too was very rare, then the next and so on.

Representing India at the International Antarctic Expedition

Sustainability experts form the industry schooled us on climate change and opened my eyes to unnerving facts about how unsustainable our lifestyles continue to be. The rate at which our planet’s resources are being used is truly unbelievable. We overshot our annual resource consumption for 2015 on 13th August itself. Overshoot means that we are drawing down the planet’s principal rather than living off its annual interest. It is a matter of deep concern and much shame that we consistently borrow from our future without signs of mending our ways. Currently, it takes 1.6 Earths to support humanity’s demand on nature; unfortunately we have all of one.

Sunrise at Neko Harbour

Antarctic Fur Seal

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Antarctica is teeming with some of the most exotic animal species on the planet, all of which have evolved remarkably to thrive in such harsh conditions. While mammals such as whales and seals have a thick layer of fat for insulation, fishes have a naturally occurring anti-freeze in their blood. We had encounters with several species of whales, seals, birds and penguins during the expedition.

Deception Island, located in the South Shetland Islands, off the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most incredible islands on Earth. On one hand, it’s an island of doom where the worst acts of human nature played out and on the other, it stands as a bright beacon of hope that, we as humans can turn around for the better.

Deception Island used to be a whaling station in the past. 'Whale shredders' and massive metallic barrels used to treat whale fat dot the beach and make for a gloomy sight. Also strewn are decaying whale bones. One can almost sense the horrors of our acts in the air at Deception Island. However, as newer technologies such as light bulbs became common place in the early 20th century and whale oil prices fell, the station was abandoned and left to wither a slow and depressing death.

My Team at the International Antarctic Expedition, Brown Bluff

The Antarctic continent also happens to be the most remote, inhospitable environment on Earth by far. Harsh and inaccessible, covered by over 5 million square miles of solid ice, it is the world’s driest & coldest continent. No place on earth provides a more demanding environment for survival.

It is perhaps this that drew me towards the Last Great Wilderness. I was chosen to be a part of the International Antarctic Expedition (IAE) 2016. The IAE was an exhilarating, unpredictable and a life-changing experience; the purpose of which was to engage and inspire the next generation of leaders to take responsibility to build resilient communities and in doing so, preserve Antarctica. Participants from 30 countries immersed themselves in an outdoor program, learnt about Antarctica, joined in debates, were schooled on public speaking and learnt candidly from Robert Swan, O.B.E.

Within each one of us lies a line, an imaginary one between who we are and who we want to be. Our planet has one too and it is called the Antarctic Circle. Beyond this circle lies a realm that embeds itself into your soul with insidious charm. The land spooned by the sea and caressed by snow; the coast speckled with carefree creatures that rises almost abruptly into elevated terrain. It is a mosaic painted finely by nature in all of 3 colors - white, brown and blue; perhaps poets should use this mosaic as a metaphor for peace and hope.

Robert Swan, the first person in history to walk to both the North and South Poles is an environmental leader and public speaker par excellence. Robert has dedicated his life to the preservation of Antarctica by promoting recycling, renewable energy and sustainability to combat the effects of climate change. He has removed 1,500 tons of rubbish from the Antarctic, has reached out to over 35,000 African youth and has taken over 600 young people, teachers and corporate heads on his Antarctic journeys. The organization 2041 was started by Robert and its mission is to build on Swan’s dedication by informing, engaging and inspiring the next generation of leaders to take responsibility, to be sustainable, and to know that now is the time for action in policy development, business generation and future technologies.

Human activities in Antarctica are governed by an international agreement known as the Antarctic Treaty System, established in 1959. The treaty had 12 original signatory nations and as of 2016, there are 52 signatory nations including USA, UK, Japan, Norway, France, Russia, India amongst others.

The key objectives of the Antarctic Treaty are:
* To keep Antarctica demilitarized, to establish it as a nuclear-free zone, and to ensure that it is used for peaceful purposes only.
* To promote international scientific cooperation in Antarctica.
* To set aside disputes over territorial sovereignty.

Currently there is a moratorium in place that bans drilling or mining in Antarctica called the Madrid Protocol, established in 1991. The result is that Antarctica is one of the few places on our planet that has never seen war, where the environment is protected and where the priority is scientific research. The Antarctic Treaty has ensured that this has continued. However, this document can be reviewed after the 50‐year anniversary in 2041.

There are valuable minerals, coal and oil reserves in Antarctica and under the surrounding seas. At the moment, it is not economically viable to attempt to recover them. As more easily available energy sources are used up, corporations are being forced to dart towards newer resource pools. In the future, as global warming leads to deglacierisation and reduced sea-ice thereby exposing more areas and improving access, it will almost certainly become commercially viable to recover at least some of these natural resources. Moreover, these resource pools are becoming easier to reach thanks to ever improving navigation and transportation.

As the year 2041 quickly approaches, Robert’s goal is to ensure that the young people of today make informed and sustainable decisions for tomorrow. 2041 led the first corporate expedition to Antarctica in 2003, in which 42 people from 18 nations joined Robert on his ‘Leadership on the Edge’ program. Since then, over 700 corporate leaders, educators, students and entrepreneurs from around the world have experienced Antarctica with the 2041 team.

Over the course of the 2 week long expedition, I had a chance to explore spectacular sites across the Antarctic Peninsula. Our ship, the 'Ocean Endeavor' meandered across channels and seas, affording us glimpses of the beauty and vastness of the continent. Leon Battista Alberti (1409-72) defined beauty as 'a Harmony of all the parts, in whatsoever Subject it appears, fitted together with such proportion and connection, that nothing could be added, diminished or altered but for the worse'. I stood spellbound as we cruised by icebergs so intricately shaped by nature, one could easily mistake them for sculptures. It is here, at the bottom of the planet that I realized Alberti to be true.

A profound sense of disillusionment made several of us question whether the last century was indeed a period of advancement. While the remarkable progress in technology bore fruit, the ceaseless horrors of the time have also cast an indelible shadow over any perceived accomplishments. This alone should motivate us to turn the current century in to the ‘age of good’, where we pay great respect to Mother Nature and what better way to kick start this cycle than by helping preserve the place where nature is at its most pristine – Antarctica.

What moved me the most is how placing a group of incredibly motivated people in an extremely radical environment brings out the absolute best in them. Individuals from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Brazil, Vietnam, Iran and Belgium (amongst many others) brought immense thought diversity to the table thanks to their varying culture, education, profession and passions.

The "Leadership on the Edge" program was the golden thread that tied all of the activities and presentations together throughout the expedition. This program encompassed leadership, environment, education, and survival. The focus was on personal development, improving communication skills and team building utilizing the experiences of Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and other early explorers. By enhancing leadership skills, participants worked to create strategies for successful individual and team development. We were also required to come up with business plans inculcating pro-environment strategies for simulated elevator pitches.

Over the course of the expedition, I also got chance to reconnect with myself. It was perhaps for the first time since I started using the internet, that I had no access to it. This was tremendously difficult to deal with at first but became second nature as the trip went on. It helped me develop a propensity to stop the clock every once in a while to self-reflect. To ponder deep about the direction my life was taking and more critically how I could change course for the better. The lack of a cellular network helped me build my own network – of people. I have learnt the importance of purposeful listening and solicitation of opinions. I would have been a fool to not do so being in the illustrious company of inventors, artists, students, executives, scientists and entrepreneurs. Not one conversation during the expedition left me any less enlightened.

Whaling Station at Deception Island