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Adventure of a lifetime among the penguins of Antartica

Features | Published:

David Edbrooke meets a Jerseywoman and scientist whose life was changed after she undertook vocational training in a spectacular wilderness

Most vocational training courses comprise a short flight and eight hours in an office, but for Jerseywoman and scientist Dr Ellen Moon, hers involved an adventure of a lifetime in the spectacular wilderness of the Antarctic.

Dr Ellen, who was born and raised in St Helier, embarked on a month-long voyage to the southern polar region earlier this year after she was one of 80 high-achieving women to be selected for the Homeward Bound 2018 project, from hundreds of applications worldwide.

The project aims to increase the reach and impact of women with a science background, so they can better influence the policy and decision-making that shapes the planet.

And the former Jersey College for Girls pupil, who moved to Australia in 2011 and works at Deakin University near Melbourne – specialising in research on cleaning up land and water contaminated by heavy metals – raised $7,500 to undertake the expedition.

It was, she says, worth every penny.

‘I don’t really have the words to explain just how much I enjoyed myself and just how amazing the experience was,’ says Ellen (33), who received help from many Islanders – including pupils from d’Auvergne School – in helping her fund the adventure.

‘It probably sounds a bit clichéd, but both the Homeward Bound programme and being in Antarctica has given me a new outlook on life, so I’d like to say a huge thank-you to the people of Jersey for supporting my journey to Antarctica.

‘Many Jersey people donated to my crowd-funding campaign – and my special thanks go to Year 5 at d’Auvergne School, who raised £200 towards my journey by organising a non-uniform day.

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‘I’m eternally grateful to Islanders for getting me to the “white continent”.’

That journey began with Ellen flying from Australia to the port city of Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina. After three days spent meeting the other 79 women who would be her travel companions for the trip, they took to the high – and sometimes rough – seas aboard the MV Ushuaia, a specialist ‘ice-strengthened’ polar vessel.

‘The ship was our home and classroom for several weeks,’ explains Ellen, whose parents, Peter and Joan, still live in Jersey.

‘Once we got to Antarctica, we were able to get off the ship most days to explore our surroundings, and we made 16 landings in total, including at five scientific research stations.’

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Asked if seasickness was ever an issue on the famously tempestuous Southern Ocean, she said: ‘The Drake Passage [which separates Cape Horn from the Antarctic peninsula] is notorious for its violent winds and huge swells. Mother Nature was kind to us, however – on the way to Antarctica we only experienced moderate swells and on the way back the ocean was actually eerily calm.

‘There were a couple of points on our voyage around the peninsula when the swell picked up and a few people had to take to their beds, but the ship’s doctor was always on hand with an array of seasickness medications.’

Ellen, who embarked on the Homeward Bound programme to help her reach leadership positions within her field of work and to inspire the next generation of female scientists, says she was thrilled to set down in some of the same places that heroic explorers such as Shackleton and Scott did.

‘And I feel extremely lucky to have visited five Antarctic research stations during our voyage. Our visits to [the United States Antarctic base] Palmer Station and [UK base] Rothera were particularly special, as the staff went above and beyond to show us everything – from the labs to the workshops – and to answer all our questions about life in Antarctica and polar science with enthusiasm and candour.’

Ellen encountered all manner of wildlife during the trip, from penguins to a pod of orcas.

‘Seeing penguins on an almost daily basis was also a real highlight for me. They’re such funny birds – so graceful in the water but so clumsy on land. You can’t help but smile when you’re around them.

‘We were lucky enough to see penguins and seals on almost every one of our landings. These animals are much bigger in real life than I thought they would be.

‘The pinnacle of our wildlife encounters has to be the orcas, though. We’d seen a lot of humpback whales during our journey, which were impressive enough, but one day we went out to explore the icebergs and came across a pod of orcas – including a baby – which was just magical.’

She admits the scale of the Antarctic is impossible to comprehend when you are right in the middle of the icy – and isolated – wilderness.

‘It’s hard to grasp from photos just how dramatic the scenery is. Enormous mountains rise up out of the ocean and the glacier fronts are the size of cliffs. Every day icebergs the size of office blocks drifted by, completely dwarfing our 80-metre-long ship.

‘And I was surprised to see that when you get up close, icebergs are actually many shades of blue, not white.’

Being up against the elements in the Antarctic brought home to Ellen just how fierce and fragile this polar region is – and the importance of increasing efforts to combat climate change.

‘We saw its ferocity in the way the weather can change in an instant, in how unforgiving the conditions are, and how life seems to cling on rather than flourish. But we also witnessed Antarctica’s fragility.

‘We didn’t conduct any research while we were there, as it was all about leadership development, but we did speak at length with the scientists at the Antarctic research stations about the type of research they do and the impact of climate change.

‘Climate change is having a huge impact on the peninsula. We heard time and again from Greg, our expedition leader, as well as the scientists at the research stations, how shocked and saddened they were to see how far glaciers had retreated since they had been in Antarctica the season before.’

Ellen found the programme to be an extreme learning experience.

‘The hardest aspect for me was the intensity of the programme. We were working long hours, seven days a week, on content that was often pretty mentally draining. By the end of the voyage I was exhausted.

‘The landings [at Antarctic bases] did provide some welcome respite, but there was such excitement to be on land amongst the wildlife that it was easy to forget to relax and slow down.’

Despite the intense nature of the trip, Ellen – who has a PhD in geochemistry from the University of Southampton – was able to focus her erudite mind to gain several useful insights into workplace best practice.

‘I definitely learned some important lessons about collaboration and teamwork. I saw what happens when a safe and open working environment is mindfully established and carefully cultivated – people are happier and better decisions are made.

‘So it gave me a lot of food for thought in terms of my workplace and the teams I work with.’

She fully intends to apply the new knowledge she has gained in her day-to-day work.

‘Being a lecturer, the science communication aspect of the programme was particularly valuable. Through a number of hands-on workshops, we learnt how to simplify our message and tailor it to our audience. We also learnt how to communicate complicated concepts while meeting the needs of different types of learners, and I’ve no doubt these lessons will have a direct impact on my teaching.’

For the best part of a month on board ship, Ellen says she and her fellow scientists were ‘pretty spoiled’ when it came to what food to eat.

‘The kitchen and dining room staff on the ship were fabulous and every day we were amazed by their creativity, given that fresh food was a finite resource on a voyage that long.’

She was also able to nourish her mind, thanks to the cosmopolitan environment on board ship.

‘As scientists we tend to spend most of our time with people who do very similar work to us.

‘But because Homeward Bound is open to women from any “STEMM” discipline – science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine – there were vets, teachers, museum curators and even a science TV show host. This was one of the highlights for me.

‘That variety, plus the geographical diversity of the participants, meant we learned a lot from each other’s experiences, talked about interdisciplinary approaches to tackling big issues, and found unexpected common ground that has already resulted in some exciting collaborations.’

As mentally stimulating as the expedition was, when the ship returned to Argentina, Ellen only had two things on her mind – sourcing a cup of ‘proper’ coffee and finding a swimming pool.

‘The coffee on the ship didn’t quite cut it for me, so I was very relieved to find a lovely little coffee shop a short walk from the port.

‘Secondly, when I got back to the hotel in Ushuaia, I hit the swimming pool. It had been torture for me to be sailing on crystal-clear waters and not be able to swim – although I did manage to complete two polar plunges during landings at Horseshoe Island and Deception Island.’

Ellen admits it has taken her considerable time to get used to being permanently back on terra firma in Australia.

‘The first thing I did when I walked through my front door in Australia was to give my dog Ollie a big hug, as I’d missed him so much.

‘But it definitely took a while to readjust.

‘Sometimes it felt like I’d dreamed it all because one minute I was in the most remote place on Earth with penguins for company, and the next I was back at work doing “normal” things.

‘I’ve met up with some of the other Homeward Bound ladies in Melbourne recently, which really helped. We talked and laughed about our experiences, and I found out I wasn’t alone in finding normal life difficult.’

Overall, Ellen says she could not have hoped for a more fulfilling experience on her Antarctic adventure – and believes schemes like the Homeward Bound Project are the perfect way to empower women in the workplace.

‘Schemes like these are so important. Women occupy less than 20 per cent of the top science and engineering roles at UK – and Australian – universities and research organisations.

‘Even at the lower levels it can feel very lonely – I’m often the only woman on a team or in a meeting.

‘Homeward Bound has given me a network of 80 women, some of whom are world leaders in their field, who I can turn to for career advice and mentorship. More importantly, the programme has given me the skills and the self-belief to know I am capable of making it to the top.’

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