After a short break and some time to process her experience in Antarctica, we caught up with Inspiring Explorer Leah Stewart to get her perspective on the expedition, and find out about the highlights of her trip, and the big challenges she faced.
Diary entry: Friday 8 March, 2019
Today we woke up to a view of icebergs, mountains and beautiful orange light to the starboard side of the ship. We’re at Yankee Harbour. We got all our kayak gear on and headed down the gangway onto the Zodiacs—and away from the ship we went! It was amazing to see how small our ship looked compared to the massive landscape. We got into our kayaks in the middle of the ocean, which is easier than it sounds. It was so hard to take in the surroundings. The beauty was incredible, and we’re not even on the Antarctic mainland yet. We paddled through brash ice—so much adrenaline and it sounds like a giant bowl of rice pops! It’s so funny to just push the ice away with your paddle. We paddled towards a huge glacier face in Yankee Harbour. You have to stay a good few hundred metres away because of the calving ice—but honestly it’s so huge it’s impossible to tell how close you are. It looked just like a painting.
What was your favourite part of the trip?
Alex, Mike and I were the only ones who decided to go for a kayak one afternoon when the ship was at Cuverville Island. We were with our guide Jordan and had started to circumnavigate the island when we saw a whale a little way off. We decided to sit and wait and watch it. Suddenly eight humpback whales surrounded us. The whales we had seen before always seemed to be going somewhere with purpose. But these ones were just swimming around us. For about an hour and half we sat as they came right up beside us. They are so big, and when they are so close you see their eyes, and their teeth and hear them breathing. I was so surprised by the sound they make—we heard them blowing. When I look back at the video and how the boats were being rocked about I suddenly thought, “Wow, what would have happened if we had fallen out of the kayak,” but at the time we were so amazed at what we were seeing we didn’t have time to be scared. I think they were showing off for us, it looked like a mum and some youngsters of different sizes and they just kept doing loops around us. Our faces must have been a real picture because we just couldn’t believe what we were seeing.
What was the most challenging part of the trip?
There was so much to do every day that it was sometimes overwhelming. I didn’t want to miss out on anything so I just kept pushing myself. By the time four days’ worth of excursions were over, I was exhausted. I was also fighting getting sick but did everything I could to keep my energy levels up and make the most of it. Thank goodness for the breakfast smoothies! Every morning the call would come over the PA system that the smoothies were ready and we all made a dash for the dining room to fill up on our morning goodness.
Diary entry: Monday 11 March, 2019
It wasn’t always smooth sailing and calm paddles. The adrenaline was pumping as we kayaked at Deception Island. With 15 knots of wind it was borderline whether this morning’s paddle would go ahead. Our instructors described it as a ’spicy’ paddle. We confidently went for it, feeling like professionals on our fifth and final day of excursions. Our kayaks bobbed up and down and disappeared momentarily behind the swell. Our instructor Allie told us we would paddle through a small gap between the island and a large sea stack—fitting only two kayaks through at a time. I paddled fast to keep my momentum and for fear of tipping one way or another as the sea sloshed around me off the rocks. I felt so alive, and so very seasick. Allie said whatever I do, don’t spew over the side or I’ll fall out. If I was gonna go, it had to be on my spray skirt … I managed to keep it down.
What went through your mind when you were arrived back in Ushuaia after 10 days aboard the Akademik Ioffe?
I was pretty sad to get off the boat. I loved the morning routine of getting up, having our smoothie and breakfast, getting our kayaking gear on and then heading off on an adventure. I hadn’t mentally prepared myself for getting off the boat so when the time came, I felt completely not ready. I could have happily stayed on there for a long time.
Diary entry: Tuesday 12 March, 2019
It has been a dream. It’s impossible to put into words what I have experienced over the last week. It’s overwhelming to feel so much wonder, adrenaline, amazement and excitement all at the same time. To begin to describe the scale of the surroundings of the Antarctic Peninsula is very difficult. I have never felt so small, yet so alive. It is truly amazing to breathe the crisp, cold, fresh air while sitting on blue, mirrored waters, surrounded by glaciers and mountains, with the company of their reflections right beside you. I could sit in that yellow number VII kayak for eternity and be content. I will never forget the satisfaction of slicing my paddle through the untouched water and gliding closer into the scene around me.
What did you learn or discover about yourself?
I discovered that I want to live an adventurous life. I want to go to places that I have never been before. No one can describe how amazing what you see is. It was what I felt when I was sitting in a kayak looking at a glacier face and it was higher than you can see, and wider than you can see. People warned me that you can’t describe the scale of Antarctica and it’s true. It hits you in the heart. And I don’t want this to be the only time I feel that; I want to keep chasing that feeling.
What was something you experienced that was different to your expectations?
I had no idea how close we could get to the wildlife. I knew we would get close but I didn’t think a whale would come up next to my kayak. We spent the morning exploring at Port Lockroy. While I was sitting there watching the penguins, two of them waddled up to me and sat with me for about half an hour. They were super curious about my camera, and pecked at the lens and then pulled at my trousers. There are strict rules in Antarctica about approaching wildlife, but the penguins at Port Lockroy are relaxed and they sometimes come to you. I learnt that if I was patient and still, and just took a moment to appreciate everything I could see, I was rewarded with amazing close encounters.
When you go out and share your story, what will be the thing you want to share most?
While I want people to be amazed by what we’ve done and what we’ve seen, I want people to watch it and think how they can have those sorts of experiences as well. I want people to dream about what their next adventure could be and how they can connect with, and get to, places in the world that they have never been to. I’m really hoping that, through the virtual reality footage I captured, I will be able to show those deeply personal experiences we all had and how we reacted when we saw things for the first time.
What other messages will you be giving to audiences about the trip?
The most powerful moments for me were when I was sitting in a kayak in front of a glacier face. I’ve never felt so small in my life. When you’re sitting there beneath such massive surroundings you feel this overwhelming sense that you are so tiny and unimportant, and I think it’s good to notice that sometimes, but to be aware of the mighty impact we have, and that our actions are really, really important.
What skills did you bring to the team, and how were you able to use those skills on this trip?
Definitely being able to capture video content in a way that is memorable and inspiring. I think the virtual reality will make what people see more real for them. I loved the opportunity being on the ship gave me to be an ambassador for Antarctic Heritage Trust and New Zealand. Most days I would sit and talk to the other guests on the ship about the Inspiring Explorers programme and what we intend to achieve.
Any comments about the team itself?
Our team worked so well together. Right from the first night we became this little family. It was so seamless, there was no drama. We really had an identity on the ship, and we felt like we were part of something; something bigger than just us. It was fun watching Mele in the snow for the first time. And we managed to convince Lana that she would be fine in a single kayak. I was paddling along and I could hear someone going “Woop, woop,” and I looked over at Lana and said, “Lana, did you make that noise?” and she had the biggest grin on her face.
Would you recommend others apply for future expeditions and why?
Absolutely, I would recommend it. I want other people to feel the things we did, and experience what we saw—to have new experiences that they never thought possible. Just doing one thing like this makes you realise that you can do more. You don’t have to settle for what society thinks you should be doing.
Do you have any advice for future expedition members?
My advice is to never think you are not good enough. I think when you see expeditions like this advertised, it’s easy to think you won’t make it but there are opportunities everywhere that will take you to amazing places. So take them. Believe in yourself. I didn’t get to go to Antarctica because I’m a member of some secret club. I’m a normal person. I just work hard and care about people, and I guess that’s what got me on the trip. But there is no stopping anyone from doing that. I absolutely urge everyone to apply. It is so life changing, so memorable.
Now that you have settled back in at home, what’s next?
How do you top Antarctica! Alicia (Leah’s friend with cerebral palsy) and I are going on a road trip around New Zealand. I’d love to take her to Antarctica. Every day I was looking around wondering, “how I could make this work?” I looked and thought this is totally doable but everyone would think we were crazy. Alicia is my inspiration so I really want to find a way to make an Antarctic trip happen for her.
You were travelling more than a century after the early Polar explorers who first visited the continent. How would you compare your experience with theirs, what would the similarities and differences be?
It was extremely humbling to travel with the luxuries and comfort of the Akademik Ioff,e and reflect on the intensity of the experiences had by early polar explorers who ventured into the great unknown. You could almost imagine them laughing at us with our beautiful buffet meals three times a day (thanks One Ocean chefs)!
But how amazing to think that the foundations laid by the early explorers have eventually led to further travel and exploration such as our expedition in 2019.
The highlight for me was the friendship and comradery of our amazing team of inspiring explorers and accompanying leaders and supporters. I imagine this would no doubt have been the same with the likes of Shackleton and his men on their treacherous journey. Though our feats were incomparable to theirs, without the support of each other, we wouldn’t have achieved our own little milestones; for example Lana braving a single kayak for the first time ever on the final excursion day, and those of us who dared to do the Polar Plunge into the freezing Antarctic sea. There is no doubt we needed each and every one of us to make those things happen for each other. It made the experience that much more special, to not be doing this for myself, but for the team, for the Trust, and for my friends, families and communities back home.