This expedition is a dream come true!
It all started 3 years ago, when I got a message from Dr Verena Meraldi from Hurtigruten. She contacted the British Antarctic Survey to have scientists onboard their vessels and my friend, Dr Jennifer Jackson, suggested she contacted me directly. Jennifer told Verena about the work I've been doing on Humpback whales in Colombia over the years.
Verena .was very keen to have scientists on board of Hurtigruten vessels to support their research and also to provide a hands-on experience for the tourists.
I spoke to Verena, she mentioned the journey would be for two people so I carefully thought who I should bring with me and thought of Gaby. I spoke to her and she immediately accepted! We worked on a proposal and summited to the Hurtigruten Foundation to cover all our expenses.
This was three years ago, before Covid-19 broke havoc around the world. We didn't know if we were going to be able to do the journey at all. There has been so much preparation for this journey. I attended the pre Antarctic workshop in Cartagena where I learnt survival techniques in polar regions (among other things), got 7 vaccines and when I was almost ready to go... I got a positive Covid-19 test! I didn't have any symptoms, so I was so surprised. I was worried I was not going to be able to travel. I was over the moon when my second test came negative and I was allowed to travel, finally the journey to Antarctica seemed possible!
Prof. Susana Caballero-Gaitan
I got a call from Susi, we spoke as usual and then she asked me if I wanted to go to Antarctica with her. She still needed to send a proposal and get funding but of course, I said yes! This was back in 2019. We sent a proposal and waited. The Covid-19 broke havoc around the world and I figured the journey was not going to go ahead. Time passed by and I went on my life as usual. Then later in October 2021 I got an email from Susi...the journey was going ahead! I was over the moon!
It has been a rollercoaster, a mix of emotions. New Zealand borders have been closed for so long and while people can go out of the country, their entry back is not guaranteed. You need to get a place on the managed isolation system (aka MIQ) run by the government which is a lottery. If you don't have a place, you are not allowed back in the country, simple as that. I was so worried! I started applying for a space at MIQ in November. I applied 4 times without any success. On the fifth time, at the last minute, I got a spot! I couldn't believe it!! Finally, Antarctica seemed closer.
The next problem I had was to find an insurance company who will cover Covid-19. Yes, you can get full Covid-19 cover if you live in most countries, except New Zealand! I spoke to all insurance companies from New Zealand to no avail. I was desperate. I tried companies based in South America but they didn't want to cover me (I have a New Zealand passport). Finally, I found a French Insurance company who was happy to cover me for Covid-19, Voila!
I tried to get a booster shot before leaving, mission impossible. My last vaccine was done in October, meaning that I needed to wait 4 months for the booster shot, So to get the booster I had to wait until the 7 of February. My plane was scheduled for the 31 January. Can I have the vaccine one week earlier? No can do. So, I travelled without the booster.
I wondered if I was insane to travel during a pandemic. The airport in New Zealand was empty and it felt as a ghost airport, with only 2 flights leaving that day, it was quiet, empty and gave me an eerie feeling. This changed on arrival in Los Angeles, where life goes as usual and some people don't even wear masks.
We used to have the luxury of a direct flight from Air New Zealand Auckland - Buenos Aires and from Latam Auckland-Santiago. Easy, you just board the plane, eat, watch a couple of movies and you got there. Now is an odyssey, my journey included: Auckland -Los Angeles, a 22 hour wait in Los Angeles. Then Los Angeles- Huston, with a 5 hour wait in Huston. Finally, Huston-Santiago de Chile.
I was lucky. I got a full row of seats for myself and slept like a log. On arrival in Santiago, we had to line up to get a paper, then line up to give the paper back and present all the paperwork (the Covid test result, affidavit, a "mobility pass", certificate of insurance, some letters, etc), got a card and lined up again to get a Covid test, after this we had to line up again to pass Customs. The entire process of lining up, testing and customs took 3 hours. Needless to say that nobody respected social distance and there were so many people from all flights cramped in lines. I kept thinking... if I didn't catch Covid in the plane, chances are I get it here, cross fingers I don't. And lucky me, I didn't!
The next day my computer died after installing an update from Microsoft. I couldn't believe this was happening... how was I going to be 48
days in Antarctica without my laptop? I have so much work to do! I spoke to my husband, Danny who sometimes is great at calming me down and told me the issue seemed fixable. Thanks to Google I found a guy in Santiago city who could get my data and restore my computer the same day. I paid him almost the cost of a new computer, but he got my data and restored my laptop. Problem solved.
That night Susi arrived in Santiago. I was so happy to see her after almost 7 years without seeing each other, It was a happy and emotional moment. We couldn't believe this journey was happening..... and we were together in it!
Dr Gaby Tezanos-Pinto