From human doing to human being by Simon Belsham
The American actor Danny Kaye insightfully once said “To travel is to take a journey in to yourself”. This sums up the recent photo tour for me with ORYX Photography and One Ocean Expeditions. Having recently left my job in London I wanted to take some time to get away. But not just anywhere. Somewhere unique, somewhere that would awaken the senses, stimulate the mind and give me space and inspiration to reflect on life’s journey. Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands certainly achieved that.
It’s a cliche to say that “life is a journey”. But going down to the fin du monde you certainly feel the truth in that. Even in our modern globalised world it takes considerable time to get from Europe to Ushuaia where we embarked upon the trip in our Finnish-built, Russian-owned, Canadian-chartered “home” for 3 weeks. The Akademik Ioffe. She may not be the most beautiful ship, but her lack of aesthetics is more than made up for in being perfectly suited for the extremities of the South.
In hindsight though the trip to Ushuaia was nothing compared to the journeys we would learn about and experience over the days and weeks ahead. The driest desert on the planet, the roughest oceans, the coldest and windiest parts of earth all conspire to make this an inhospitable place for any person or animal that deigns to venture there. And still to this day relatively few people do. Only 35k humans braved the sea sickness of the Drake Passage and landed on the continent in 2016. However, for once its pleasing to say that humans are far outnumbered by the millions of penguins, seals, bird life and whales that call this place home for much of the year.
Being the first boat down in the Antarctic Spring we were breaking new ground – often quite literally as we tried to chart the ice floes whilst the continent slowly transforms in to its Summer shape and pattern. Much of our journey was retracing the steps of great explorers and adventurers such as Shackleton and Scott. Antarctica is still a marvel to much of human science and understanding, we have only been making this journey for 100 years and we see and remember in great admiration at what those early pioneers of science and exploration were able to achieve with their primitive technologies and materials. In stark contrast to how much we struggle in these climates, Antarctica’s natural inhabitants thrive. The journeys that many of the animals take, see them venture thousands of miles north during the Antarctic winter and then over a 3-month period return en masse for the breeding and feeding opportunities that Antarctica provides. These animal migrations have taken place on this continent for literally thousands if not millions of years and as a result a delicate but vital ecosystem has evolved in Antarctica that can defy – and indeed prosper – from everything that nature throws at it. It’s the privilege of seeing this from the tiny krill to the mighty Fin whales that in many ways made this trip so special and unique.
Antarctica is extraordinary in its truest sense, and unusual for so many reasons. Not just its unique polar climate but also the fact that it remains so pristine and relatively untouched by humans. A fact that is sad in the sense that very few places in the world can lay claim to it. Aside from small groups of scientists, tourists and some explorers it has no permanent residents. As the great British explorer Ernest Shackleton discovered 100 years ago, if you get stranded on the Antarctic peninsula you have to travel almost 1000 miles to the islands of South Georgia, the Falklands or the South American Mainland to find anything remotely resembling human inhabitation. Unlike anywhere else on earth, humans have collaborated in recent decades to protect this vital but delicate place. IAATO – the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators – is an organisation that created a treaty initially signed in 1959 and today represents a global partnership of 50 countries, together designating the entire continent as a nature reserve devoted to peace and science. IAATO have set out strict visiting rules and operating standards that are very much adhered to by everyone who travels there. Through agreements like this the world has also done a lot to reverse some of the destruction that the 19th and early 20th centuries of industrialisation and commerce wrought on the continent. Particularly through the whale and seal hunting industries. Seal numbers have responded well and there is hope that 50 years after the last Southern Ocean whaling stations shut, that whale numbers are starting to come back too. Human encroachment and resource exploitation are just some of the environmental challenges that the world has faced and increasingly faces as we look in to the future. Climate change, ocean plastics, overfishing, mineral extraction and poaching are all balanced against the sometimes opposing forces of our economic systems, globalisation, social inequalities and politics. But success in Antarctica gives great hope for our capabilities to make a difference in the world.
Antarctica is a place that cannot fail but give you perspective on life. It’s far more than a bucket-list destination. As a man approaching his 40’s, I’m hoping my bucket is still a way off! For me this was a vital part of helping shape my thoughts as to what I do next and how I do it in a way that makes a difference to our planet. By being there I found space and inspiration to understand myself a bit better. Aided in no small part by the complete lack of modern day communications. No cell phones, cable internet or even social media (!) helped create a separation that I probably haven’t had since I got my first cell phone way too many years ago! The isolation and reflection can on occasions be intimidating (especially when cooped in a giant metal container with 60+ other people on a long sea day). But the sea days are more than made up for when kayaking silently through the ice and crystal blue waters of the Southern Ocean. Or when sat observing the comical behaviours of Gentoo penguins. Or standing in awe at the size and might of the male Elephant seals defending their harem as the females tenderly nurture their new born pups. It’s all part of the journey you need to go on to get a sense of the place and explore truly what Antarctica means. And once it’s in your blood, I suspect it will never leave. In a literal sense it’s a long way from where I live in London, but coming home to the centre of much of human exploration and commerce it feels very close and very relevant to everything I do here.
We live on a beautiful planet. But it’s a changing planet. Our actions and decisions and interactions with this earth shape everything about it. But it also shapes everything about us. I believe in “friluftsliv”, the Norwegian philosophy that represents the symbiosis between man and our environment. We must never forget where we have come from and the nature that is within all of us. But we also need to appreciate and embrace what makes us unique. Our creativity, imagination and our conscious ability to choose what we do. By preserving Antarctica and enabling it as a place to see and inspire, I hope it will enable us as humans to use our creativity for good and to make choices that enable a better and more sustainable world for our children.
We call ourselves human beings. But so much of our time is spent as “human doings”. We’re caught in the trap of routine and daily stresses that stop us reflecting on and appreciating life, people and the world around us. This photo tour for me was an opportunity to take a step back to see the nature in all of us, and us in nature. To understand a bit more about why we do what we do. And in the process to remember how to be.
ORYX Photography and Penny Robartes were exceptional travel companions and through photography created a medium to understand and express much of the feelings and passion I had about this special place and what it meant to me. Penny’s creativity, technical expertise and overall love and appreciation for nature combined to help me think through and make sense of what I was seeing as I hope this small collection of shots starts to show. This is much more than an Antarctica photographic tour and one that ORYX Photography are perfect partners to take you on.
– Simon Belsham
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