Antarctic voyage brings Chinese female scientists on journey of self-discovery

By Shan Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2019/2/21 19:03:41

○ Seven Chinese female scientists took part in an international project and traveled to the Antarctic for three weeks

○ The Homeward Bound aims to boost women's influence and leadership in global decision-making

○ They visited China's research station in the Antarctic, and were awed by the power of nature

○ Through the voyage, the members made new discoveries about themselves and decided to influence other women

The seven Chinese scientists hold up a national flag at China's Great Wall Station in the Antarctic on January 3. Photo: courtesy of Wang Li and Wang Binbin

It was the last afternoon of 2018 in Ushuaia, Argentina, a small city known as the world's end. A total of 90 female scientists aged from 25 to 65 and from 26 countries were boarding the  ice-strengthened vessel, also known as Ushuaia, and heading to the Antarctic for a three-week trip.

At exactly the same time, people in China were counting down to the New Year. 

"This New Year's Eve is quite unreal," Luo Yi, 26, wrote in her "Antarctic diary" entry. She is an entrepreneur in the field of urban and rural sustainable development in China.

Luo was one of the seven Chinese scientists who participated in the Homeward Bound project this year. 

The project, initiated by Australian entrepreneur and leadership coach Fabian Dattner, was launched in 2016 and plans to bring 1,000 female scientists to the Antarctic over the course of 10 years. It aims to "heighten the influence and impact of women in making decisions that shape our planet."

The female scientists got the opportunity to explore the Antarctic and visit research stations in order to better study the ecology of the continent as well as our planet through their professional eyes.

Before the voyage, the scientists were given training and took courses that lasted one year to help them better understand themselves and use the power of positivity during the trip. Similar courses were also part of the daily routine on board.

The ship Ushuaia carrying 90 female scientists traveling into the Antarctic. Photo: courtesy of Wang Li and Wang Binbin

China has sent 12 scientists to the project in the past three years.

In the last trip, which ended on January 19, the entire team visited China's Great Wall Station on King George Island thanks to the Chinese members' contacts. 

On the ship, the Chinese scientists also outlined China's efforts in addressing climate change over the past years, which was highly praised by the teammates from other countries.

"I am proud to represent China," Luo told the Global Times.

China has been an active and constructive participant in global efforts to address climate change. At the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Katowice, Poland in December 2018, Chinese delegations made great contributions to the adoption of the guidelines for implementing the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement.

"During the journey, we saw the negative impacts of climate change on the Antarctic, and reaffirmed that combating climate change should not be delayed!" Wang Binbin, a Beijing-based social scientist and a veteran of climate change issues, said.


Without internet or phone reception, the scientists spent all three weeks with only each other for company. As the trip finally came to an end, they discovered new things about themselves.

"Now I can see my own excellence. I am more confident and respect my country and myself," said Yan Yaxin, green energy expert at BCG.

The Great Wall

After 48 hours at sea battling with seasickness, members on the Ushuaia conquered Drake Passage and arrived at the Antarctic.

Their first stop was the Great Wall Station, China's first research station in Antarctica.

This station had not been a part of the original itinerary. Due to the increase in the number of Chinese tourists to the Antarctic, who all want to visit the station, it is now only open to the public on weekends to ensure it can operate normally. According to data from the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Antarctica annually grew from about 100 in 2007 to over 8,000 in 2018.

All Chinese tourists have to apply for permission to visit the station half a year in advance, but as Homeward Bound is a project for scientists, they received confirmation of permission to visit the Great Wall Station just days before the trip.

"We were all excited because we witnessed China's reform and opening-up. Our foreign teammates came to us, practicing saying 'ni hao' and 'xie xie' before we went to the station," Wang Binbin told the Global Times.

On Thursday, January 3, the female scientists landed at the station. 

The station has been in operation since 1985. At the beginning, it was only a one-floor building, the "No.1 Building," which covered most functions including dining, living and research. 

After 34 years of development, the Great Wall Station is now a complex of more than 20 buildings. The "No.1 Building" has become a museum that showcases the history of China's exploration in the Antarctic.

"The most impressive part is the greenhouse in the station," Wang Binbin said. "Chinese scientists can plant vegetables in it, so that they can enjoy fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. This design shows the care and respect for the scientists."

However, the visitors were not allowed to enter the greenhouse because of the complex cleaning procedures that have to be carried out in order to avoid polluting the Antarctic. "It was a pity, but I was touched by people showing so much respect to the continent of all mankind."

Awe of nature

"I had been used to seeing the world through statistics, but in the Antarctic, I felt figures could not describe the impact of what I saw there," Wang Chunguang, CEO of EQuota Energy, a Shanghai-based company that aims for a low-carbon future, told the Global Times.

On January 4, the team visited Paulet Island to observe penguins. The island is home to Adelie Penguins, seals and Snow Petrels.

At first, members were excited to see several penguins, but were astonished to find themselves suddenly surrounded by thousands of them.

"The picture was stunning. They were all around us. Watching and listening to them even made me nervous," Wang Chunguang said.

A Gentoo Penguin stands in the snow. Photo: courtesy of Wang Li and Wang Binbin

However, the next scene was something she had never expected to see.

Lacking food, the female penguins have to travel long distances to hunt for fish. When they are away, the starving male penguins, who are responsible for taking care of the newborns, sometimes search for food in the coastal waters.

That day, a penguin father had just begun moving toward the sea to look for fish. One second later, its baby was attacked and killed by a seabird.

"We were asked to read the Antarctic Treaty and to obey it. We had to respect the food chain and could not disturb the penguins," Wang Chunguang said, "But I was very sad that day, and felt helpless."

As one of their tasks, the members were asked to conduct a silent exercise, during which they were told not to speak.

"During two or three hours of hiking, we heard at least 10 avalanches," Wang Chunguang said.

"Combating climate change is not only for the future, but also related to everyone from our generation. If humans continue to mess up the environment, we are doomed," she said.

Final test

After two weeks of travel, the team landed on Deception Island, their last destination, on January 16. 

"The C-shaped island made me think 'climate change' as soon as I saw it," Wang Binbin wrote in her last "Antarctic diary" entry.

From the island, which is home to a living volcano, the scientists took a leap into the cold Antarctic Ocean. 

Looking back at the life-changing trip, Wang Binbin hugged her teammate Tayaaba, an astronomer from Pakistan, and they both burst into tears.

On the way back to Ushuaia, the ship met a 12-meter wave passing the Drake Passage, the largest it could withstand.

"We woke up at midnight and 4 am, calling the captain to make sure if we were okay. He told us to stay in our cabins and wait," Wang Binbin said.

But the next day, when the ship left the Drake Passage, she saw the most tranquil sea she had ever seen.

Back to real life

As they approached the harbor of Ushuaia, cell phone signals were resumed, and thousands of texts appeared on the scientists' phones, bringing them harshly back to their normal life.

"When we were boarding, many members were still busy with their work until the last second the cell signal and internet were cut," Luo said, "But in the end, they did not want to land and be reconnected with the world."

"I had worked very hard and devoted all my time to my family and work. There was a moment that I wanted to escape. The Antarctic seemed to attract me," Lin Wuying, a researcher on natural conservation and a new mother, told the Global Times.

Lin said that women face many choices in their lives, which brings a great deal of pressure. "The project gave us many chances to rethink things and know ourselves."

A seal shows its cute face. Photo: courtesy of Wang Li and Wang Binbin

"I am lucky to meet women with different personalities from different cultural backgrounds, in different periods of life and positions in Homeward Bound at such a young age," Lu Zhiyao, program manager at the SEE Foundation, told the Global Times. "I saw their unique beauty, the diversity and possibilities of women's lives, which encourage me to be braver and more real."

"Also, we are changing the world from different aspects. We are stronger together," Lu said.

"After the trip, I decided to focus on the things that I'm good at and interested in, as well as my health and my family," Wang Chunguang said. "It's a happy memory for me, a very good break in my middle age."

Before the voyage, the Chinese members held six sharing sessions. Now, they are thinking about holding more workshops, in the hope that more women can make their voices heard in solving social problems.

"We are also planning to develop a course on leadership, and write a book," Lin said. "The world is big, and your dreams could be a little bit bigger," she said.


Newspaper headline: Women at the ‘End of the World’


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