For years, Saylor Bane longed to study abroad in Antarctica, only to have numerous trips canceled as an undergrad. Her dream finally materialized as a first-year graduate student in Mason’s Industrial Organizational Psychology program. Here, she writes about her long-anticipated trip to Antarctica.
After my interest in Antarctica was piqued from reading a book, I found the only undergraduate Antarctic study abroad program when I was in eleventh grade. I knew I had to participate in it. Each of the three years of my undergraduate career, I applied and committed to this program; however, each year, it ultimately was canceled due to the pandemic. Fortunately, I was finally able to participate as a first-year graduate student after five years of waiting and three unsuccessful attempts!
As soon as the fall semester finals ended, I left for South America. My first stop was supposed to be a week-long stay in Bolivia to visit my host family, who I lived with for several months on prior study abroad programs. While I was en route, their governor was kidnapped, resulting in the closure of the country’s airspace. I ended up in Colombia for the night, where I scrambled to rebook all my remaining flights and create a new plan for the week.
During the next seven days, I visited five countries, including taking a boat to Uruguay, hiking in Patagonia from Argentina into Chile, and renting a car to drive on a section of the Pan-American highway. After completing a virtual fall semester course, the field-component portion of the Antarctic study abroad program began in Ushuaia, Argentina, where I met the faculty members along with the other students. In Ushuaia, we boarded a small ship. For the next several days, we crossed the Drake passage, the roughest and most dangerous part of the ocean in the world.
While we counted down the days until we would see land, waves reached the ship’s fifth deck as hurricane-strength winds howled. The porthole in my cabin on the third deck was underwater the entire crossing, serving as an aquarium. Despite having to stop taking my seasickness medication after an allergic reaction, I lived up to my name and was one of two in the group who did not get seasick.
As we sailed farther south, an increasing number of seabirds, including albatross, circled the ship, and a growing amount of icebergs loomed in the ocean. Unfortunately, a dangerous weather system awaited once we reached Antarctica, causing us to divert from our planned path. In search of calmer weather, we passed through uncharted waters to reach a portion of the continent less than 100 people had previously seen.
At last, we reached waters calm enough to board Zodiacs to take ashore, and I set foot on my sixth continent! Despite the harsh conditions, Antarctica teamed with life. I saw countless whales, including a pod of over 20 orcas that swam beneath my Zodiac, and visited a penguin colony with over 4,000 penguins. Since our visit was during the Antarctic summer, I encountered penguin chicks, whale calves, and seal pups.
Given that it was summer, the sun never set, posing significant challenges to my sleep schedule. After sacrificing a night’s sleep to see for myself, I can confirm that the sun was up the entire night. On the continent, the only way to communicate was via radio. Not receiving any emails, texts, or other notifications for weeks added to the otherworldliness of Antarctica.
After being warned I would die of hypothermia if I stayed in the water for three minutes, I dove into the subzero ocean from a Zodiac wearing only a regular swimsuit and a harness—just in case I lost consciousness. Hours later, my body temperature hardly hovered above 94 degrees.
As a part of the program, each student completed research projects related to environmental impacts and Antarctica. My project focused on how rapidly increasing Antarctic tourism is straining Ushuaia’s limited infrastructure. For example, I collected and analyzed several water samples from a local river and interviewed local citizens. On board the ship, I gave a presentation on applying industrial organizational psychology to Antarctic research stations.
While in Antarctica, I helped with others’ projects, including gathering phytoplankton samples for a student’s dissertation and examining them with a microscope. We also had the opportunity to visit Chilean and Argentine Antarctic research stations and abandoned whaling stations.
After spending several more days without land in sight while crossing the ruthless Drake’s passage, we returned to Ushuaia and gave our final research project presentations. Four flights later, I landed in Virginia. All the hours I spent over the past several years on applications and paperwork for this experience were well worth it!
This trip was part of an inter-collegiate study abroad program with VA Tech.
May 25, 2023