On the Bottom of the Earth

Go big or stay home! Michigan State University students in the Antarctic Systems Science program proudly wore that on their sleeves. In the study abroad program, students traversed to one of the most geographically extreme points on Earth and exposed themselves to the coldest, highest, driest, windiest and most UV-radiant continent.
[ant1]MSU’s Antarctica program was first developed in 2001 by John Hesse, an adjunct fisheries and wildlife professor. It was opened to students in late 2003, sponsored jointly by the College of Natural Resources and College of Natural Science. Since then, 102 MSU students have been given the chance to study there. According to the Institute of International Education, 62 U.S. students studied abroad in Antarctica in 2007. That number was up 8.8 percent from the previous year. Of those students who went during that particular time period, according to the MSU Study Abroad office, more than half of them were from MSU. Recently MSU scaled back its yearly Antarctic class size to 15, but it still remains one of the most active collegiate participants.
The Institute of International Education recognized only four other U.S. universities that featured programs similar to MSU. Those schools were the University of Georgia, University of Oregon, University of Florida and Butler University.
The last study abroad trip to Antarctica for MSU students was from Dec. 21, 2008 to Jan. 11, 2009, when it was summertime in the southern hemisphere. Dr. Michael Gottfried and Dr. Pamela Rasmussen took the reins as faculty coordinators, overseeing and teaching the course material related to the icy continent.
Before going on the trek, linguistics junior Autumn Mitchell talked with her professors, did some background research and evaluated whether she could secure funding for the trip. “Everything seemed OK, so I sent in the application in early 2008. I figured, ‘Hey, I can get ISP and ISB (i.e. Integrative Studies for the Biological and Physical Sciences requirements) done, and I’m in a really cool place instead of in some lecture hall on campus. Also, when is the next time I’ll get a chance to go to Antarctica?’” Mitchell said.
[ant3]”The students have eight or nine course options,” Dr. Rasmussen said. “There were no restriction on majors in the program. There were some seniors, some freshmen. We had students with many diverse studies, including music.”
The trip provided students access to a world unseen by most of Earth’s inhabitants, probably because taking a journey to the bottom of the Earth is a 36-hour exercise in travel stamina. MSU’s Antarctic excursionists flew out from airports in four different cities; Detroit, Miami, Buenos Aires and, finally, Ushuaia, the southern-most city in the world. Ushuaia is located right on the tip of South America. From there, students spent a week listening to lectures on a variety of topics.
“Some lectures were in preparation for the Antarctica portion of the trip, others had to do with the history of the Tierra del Fuego area and how it tied in with Darwin, and another was a general ‘intro to field identification’ lecture for birds,” zoology senior Jessica Ogden said. “We focused a lot on birds, actually. One of our assignments was to pick 10 Tierra del Fuego birds, sketch them and give complete descriptions of appearance and biology. We also did a lot of bird behavioral observations.”
Onward to the seventh continent, the Spartan voyagers spent the remaining days of their trip tucked away inside the expedition vessel, Ocean Nova. The vessel accommodated 64 passengers. Cabins on the ship held three people each and were described by Mitchell as a “bit smaller than the smallest dorm rooms.” Ogden said her group mingled with the non-student seafarers who came about from multiple international locations such as Ireland, the British Isles and Australia.[Crugnale]
“I really enjoyed interacting with the other students as well as the other crew. The ship had so many amenities, including a gym. We also had really good food. There was dessert at every meal,” Ogden said.
There was also contact with the outside world courtesy of an e-mail kiosk, although there was a hefty fee for its use.
Despite the maritime comforts, some students experienced the gut roller coaster known as seasickness and suffered nauseousness from the constant crashing of the sea. “A few of my classmates had the brilliant idea of making a betting pool on who would get seasick first on the ship,” Mitchell said. “We got on the ship on New Year’s Eve. I left the party early and got sick after one of my cabin mates burst into the room and up-chucked loudly in our bathroom. The ship doctor came and drugged us. I got a really painful injection. The doctor got sick, too. Basically, all the medicine does is knock you out so you can sleep through the motion sickness. It was the worst New Year’s I’ve ever had.”
When the time was right, the group emerged from the mother ship on zodiacs, which are rubber dinghies that hold 10 people each, to dock on land. Gorgeous Antarctic landscapes surrounded the adventurers — a mix of ice, tundra, blue sky and deep blue ocean.
The wildlife at the bottom of the earth was an eclectic mix of whales, penguins, seals and some of the most vast assortments of seabirds the world has to offer.
“We saw some South American sea lions while cruising the Beagle Channel in Ushuaia,” Ogden said. “They were basically just hanging out on rocks, though. I saw one Weddell seal swimming, but all other seals I saw were just lying around.”
Animal conservation rules were strict. “You have to stay 15 feet away from the penguins, unless they voluntarily approach you,” Ogden said.
Besides admiring the fauna, students also visited the world’s southern-most distillery. It was a Ukranian scientist outpost that happened to double as a bar.
[ant2]The group agreed that the most memorable moments were a glacier climb at Neko Harbour and a “polar plunge” at Deception Island. At Neko Harbour, students climbed the glacier and had a quiet moment at the top, listening to the sounds of the ice crackling. Then, they had the option of sliding back down to the shore. “I did it and it was so amazing,” Mitchell said. “It was also really scary. I was going headfirst for a while and I couldn’t see anything. But it definitely beat all the sledding I’ve ever done.”
On the final day, the students said goodbye to Antarctica with a plunge into the ocean. “The tide was really low that day so the water was warm, which is to say, that about the first two or three inches felt like a cold bath. Everything below that was at about freezing,” Mitchell said. The students wore their bathing suits under their gear and at end of the landing, stripped down and ran into the water.
[Gottfried]”I ran in until it was about to my knees and then dove under and ran back out,” Mitchell said. The polar plunge only counted if the students were completely wet. “The water was cold but the air temperature was probably in the mid-upper 30s that day. It felt really warm. Afterward, they rushed us back to the ship, and I took a really hot shower. I felt amazing afterward. It was really therapeutic,” Mitchell said.
When the trip was over, Ogden reflected on the expedition. “It’s an incredible experience, but it’s expensive and part of me is hesitant to recommend it to everyone, but if I’ve had to go back to any of the six continents I’ve traveled, it would definitely be Antarctica,” Ogden said.
“I think it’s a real privilege to go down,” said Dr. Gottfried. “It’s a spectacular place to go; it doesn’t feel like any other place in the world.” Additionally, Gottfried had each student take a moment to go off to a secluded spot and reflect on being in one of the most remote places on Earth. “By and large, you feel like you’re going to some place that’s pristine and untouched, more than any other place on the planet.” Dr. Gottfried said.

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