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One does not usually consider Antarctica as a holiday destination, especially in the throes of winter in the northern hemisphere. Despite the relatively more temperate climate of the Austral summer, the weather is unpredictable at best and can change instantaneously.

antarctica_1However, predispositions to avoid inclement weather aside, I could not resist the invitation to be the medical officer on the Norwegian icebreaker MN Polar Star on an Antarctic expedition in December 2004 conducted by Students On Ice (SOI), an award-winning Canadian-based educational organization.

SOI was founded and is directed by Geoff Green, a veteran expedition leader of over 25 Arctic and 65 Antarctic expeditions. Geoff has been selected as one of the Top 40 Under 40 Canadians and deserves every accolade for his educational programs. This expedition was to take 100 high school students, 28 adult assistants, and 9 scientists to the Antarctic peninsula to perform scientific experiments. In addition to assisting the accomplished scientific staff, the students would receive extensive education about the environment, the controversy of global warming, and the unique ecosystem that surrounds the South Pole. All that was lacking was a physician due to a late cancellation. I was contacted by Geoff, a fellow member of The Explorers Club, who had heard of my expedition medicine experience. Though not undertaken lightly, it was an easy decision to join Geoff and SOI once one understood the experience and degree of preparation by this organization. Equally exciting was the opportunity to share this experience with my high school-aged daughter, Susanna.

Preparation for the medical component of any expedition is quite different than preparation for personal travel. Access to medical services varies considerably and much thought must be given to issues often taken for granted on routine travel. Furthermore, the medical officer is responsible for the health of the entire expedition and preventative measures become imperative. antarctica_2Issues common to all expeditions for the medical officer include pre-screening of participants for medical conditions, enrollment in an adequate insurance program for medical evacuation, determination of most likely encountered problems and potential solutions, assessment of available medical resources and supplies, evaluation of evacuation options, and both transportation and communication capabilities. Because of often remote location and lack of access to medical facilities and personnel, expedition medicine has been likened to military medicine for the civilian.

Each expedition also has a unique set of variables depending on location, duration of deployment, size of the expedition, and method of travel. A polar expedition would present a very different scenario for me than the African jungles and the Titanic salvage expedition of my previous road trips. We would have to address the issues of a large group in enclosed quarters, travel through some of the notoriously roughest seas in the world, and deal with a population mostly unseasoned in polar travel. In a group of this size, one could expect to encounter common disorders such as diabetes and asthma as well as some trauma due to unstable footing and adolescent exuberance.

The travel commenced with a Miami rendezvous before a two day layover in Buenos Aires while we made sure all equipment and members arrived. The students and staff hailed from 11 countries, about 20 US states, and nearly every Canadian province; many students had been chosen through a competitive local process. As everyone became acquainted, I was delighted to be paired with Bill Lischman, a pioneer in ultralight flight and best noted for his seminal work with imprinting trumpeter swans to restore their migratory patterns characterized in the movie Fly Away Home.

Our next stop was Ushuaia, Argentina, a picturesque locale reminiscent of British Columbia billed as the southernmost city in the world. Most of the nearly 20,000 tourists who visit Antarctica depart from Ushuaia or its Chilean counterpart, Punta Arenas. Here we boarded the MN Polar Star, an 87 meter, 5000 ton icebreaker converted for expedition cruising outfitted with 10 Zodiac inflatable rafts for shore excursions. The captain and crew were highly experienced, and the infirmary was relatively well stocked for most basic medical problems. A spacious observation deck and open bridge policy insured easy access for sighting the myriad wildlife and spectacular ice formations.

Nearly all tourists visit the Antarctic peninsula where several small scientific stations of various nations are located. To reach the actual South Pole is much more rigorous; less than 200 people per year actually visit that location, most on expeditions. In either event, Antarctic tourism is antarctica_3highly regulated by a 12-nation international treaty to preserve this unique ecosystem. Military activities are prohibited and scientific information is freely exchanged.

The crossing to the Antarctic Peninsula takes nearly 36 hours and includes the traverse of the Drake Passage, some of the most turbulent waters on earth, caused by collision of warmer maritime air with the great masses of cold air from Antarctica. SOI had an excellent schedule of educational events with lectures, projects, and seminars for the travelers during the crossing and for every evening in Antarctica.We were delighted to learn that the Drake Passage was calm, a very relative term when one considers that two-thirds of the passengers became seasick. The high rolling seas made for quite an adventure for the lecturers, myself included, who had to brace themselves between the podium and wall and change slides while listing 45 degrees.

Arrival in the South Shetland Islands signaled the end of the worst turbulence and we noted aerial escorts of numerous seabirds. The Southern Ocean contains about 70 percent of the world’s marine biomass and we were amazed to see large streaks of algae in the ice. A multitude of seabird species feed on the millions of tons of krill, the bioluminescent crustacean zooplankton, and the masses of fish attracted by them. The fish and krill also are the sustenance for the 35 million seals in the vicinity, which in turn attract larger predatory seals and orcas, the top of the food chain. Several types of krill-feeding whales migrate through this area as well.

Our days were spent on land excursions to various points of interest with colorful names such as Deception Island (a beautiful caldera) and Elephant Island, where Ernest Shackleton left his men and returned to rescue them in one of the greatest expeditions recorded. Paradise Bay was true to its moniker with spectacular mountains, glaciers, and nesting birds. The melange of colors produced by light reflected from the ice is breathtaking, something we did not expect in a land of white and blue.

By far the most endearing creatures we encountered were the penguins. The three species of highly inquisitive, social, marine birds clustered in large rookeries, some as large as 250,000 individuals. These penguin tenements were in constant motion between food procurement, nesting behavior, and general interest in their visitors.antarctica_4If one stood still, a line of penguins would approach and individually inspect you as if shopping. Their anthropomorphic behavior was quite amusing, to say the least.

Two events made this expedition very special for all. After a surprise visit by Santa Claus on Christmas Day, we were treated to an amazing display of orcas teaching their adolescents how to hunt seals. This very rarely witnessed activity occurred when an orca pod surrounded an ice floe with an unwitting seal basking on its surface. After successful demonstration by the huge male of rushing the floe to create a wave to force it into the sea, the seal clambered up and was even pushed back on the floe so that the adolescent orcas could attempt the same maneuver. After several practices, the seal did not reappear, much to the dismay of the students; they were somewhat placated when they were reminded of the large overabundance of seals.

The second special event occurred the next day after a dramatic change in weather blew the pack ice together and trapped a tourist vessel. We received a rescue call as the only icebreaker in Antarctica and spent the next 16 hours crashing through meter-thick ice to reach the stranded vessel. antarctica_5The inclement weather prohibited any land excursion that day and we were thrilled to participate in an actual sea rescue. The tourist vessel was in true danger of rupturing her hull; and its crew and passengers were very appreciative of the assistance as they followed us out to open water.

All too soon, it was time to return to the real world. The recrossing of the Drake Passage was uneventful, again in relative terms because a majority onboard became seasick. Our dispersal in Miami to our varied hometowns occurred with the contrast of joy for return and sorrow at parting, the signature of a great adventure and a very well-run expedition.

Please visit the SOI website at www.studentsonice.com for a better appreciation of their excellent organization and the spectacular sights we encountered.