There’s a rumble in the distance. It’s the giant boom of moving glacial ice as it breaks away from the edge of a cliff and disappears into the deep blue of the ocean. At that moment, a 40-foot-long Mienke whale surfaces next to the small, inflatable Zodiac boat. Gasping in awe, there’s just enough time to snap a picture of the creature as it swims beneath the boat, close enough to touch.
On MSU’s study abroad trip to Antarctica, this dreamlike scene is a reality.
[glacier] For the past two winter breaks, MSU’s College of Natural Resources and College of Natural Science has hosted a study abroad trip to Antarctica, entitled “Studies in Antarctic System Science,” allowing participants a truly unique opportunity to visit and study the world’s uninhabitable and southernmost continent.
The program premiered in December 2003, and began with a 19-hour flight from Detroit to Miami to Buenos Aires and finally to Ushuaia, Argentina. The next few days were spent in the city of Ushuaia listening to lectures, visiting museums and taking quizzes over the 300 pages of reading assigned to them before the trip, explained John Hesse, who works in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and was the lead faculty member of the 2003 trip.
After their orientation in Ushuaia, the students boarded the M/V Lyubov Orlova, the ice-strengthened ship the students would call home. They slept in small, two-person cabins with attached bathrooms and leaky portholes, environmental studies and applications junior Jaclyn VanOverbeke said – and she loved it. “It was certainly not the best-looking cruise ship, but I thought that it was great.” The students also shared the M/V Lyubov Orlova with an international expedition staff and Russian crew, making that 86 passengers total.
Life aboard ship was different from what some students were used to. VanOverbeke said showering on the ship was a unique experience. “[In the bathroom] there was no separate tub to step into to take a shower,” VanOverbeke said. “You just stood on the floor and sort of took your shower and the water would get everywhere.”
[quote] The voyage to Antarctica took two days and included a trip down Drake Passage, some of the “roughest waters in the world,” Hesse said. The rolling waves caused many students to fall victim to seasickness. “I didn’t feel great while in the Drake Passage, but I was never too sick to move like some of the others were,” VanOverbeke said. Motion sickness pills became a saving grace for a lot of people, she added.
After two days nausea subsided and the boat reached its destination. It was summer in Antarctica and the temperature averaged between 30 and 50 degrees, Hesse said. “It was warmer in Antarctica than it was on campus.”
Students were required to pick a topic to study and later present their research on their chosen field. “My individual project was the Antarctic Treaty system, or the type of governing body that they have to manage their resources there,” VanOverbeke said. According to VanOverbeke, the Antarctic Treaty is the only treaty to exclude any military or oil-drilling activities. “The only other international treaty to have these components is the Space Treaty.”
Other students chose topics dealing with science systems or wildlife, Hesse said. The students were also required to keep a journal and make daily entries about their adventures.
Trips from the ship to land were made on inflatable, 11-person Zodiac boats, allowing for some close encounters with whales and other wildlife. Hesse described one of his most memorable days of the trip as the one he shared with thousands of penguins. On this day, they landed the Zodiac in a place that hadn’t been explored in years and the number of penguins in the area was astounding. “There were half a million penguins in one spot,” he remembered. Hesse said humans were supposed to stay at least 15 feet away from wildlife at all times, but with such a multitude of penguins present, it was almost impossible for students to keep their distance.
[ship3] VanOverbeke vividly remembers the smell of penguin guano (excrement) and how it was something she got used to during the trip. “I remember coming back home and unpacking my boots and smelling the guano on them and I wanted to bottle the smell because it is certainly something that I will not be able to smell again, except in zoos, but I don’t think that it will be the same.”
One smell VanOverbeke won’t miss was of 8,000-pound elephant seals. “One of the most vivid memories that I have is of the elephant seals wallowing in mud and molting,” she said. “Not only were they wallowing, but they were burping and farting, too, and it smelled terrible!”
MSU is one of the only schools in the country that has a study abroad trip to Antarctica. At the time, the 2003 winter break trip was one of only two programs sending students there, Hesse said.
Hesse is passionate about understanding the Antarctic ecosystem. Global warming has taken a toll and its effects are noticeable in the area, he said. Everyday, he and the students would slather on sunscreen because the hole in the ozone layer over the continent lets in intense UV rays, making it very easy to get a sunburn.
He said the hole over the continent could have more devastating implications. If the Arctic ice melted, sea level would rise by 200 feet, submerging most of Florida and other areas around the globe.
“It’s a very fragile system,” Hesse said.
Hesse said students on the Antarctica trip were able to learn about these and other systems. “They become ambassadors of saving this continent from ruin.”
VanOverbeke said the trip helped her learn more about her own academic and professional interests. She said the experience of the trip was “totally worth it.” It catered to her interest in cold-weather climates and helped influence her career path.
“I think that having such a unique study abroad opportunity really shows how important it is to the university to have all kinds of diversity in academics,” she said. It helps students realize the opportunity that they have available to them and how diverse the ‘real world’ really is.”
Would VanOverbeke go back to Antarctica? “I would go back in a heartbeat! Just give me the word, and the money, and I would be gone!”

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