Inspiring Explorer Charlie Thomas during the South Georgia expedition. ©AHT/Te Aroha Devon
After three long days at sea, South Georgia finally peeked over the thick and never-ending sea fog. We had made it. From that moment it was a flurry of excitement. I had barely blinked before we were boarding Zodiacs, our nose pointed in the direction of an all-encompassing wall of mixed sounds. We could hear and smell this wild place before we even saw it.
Our first stop, Right Whale Bay. None of us can believe we are finally here.
Once the shock of feeling my feet on the island’s black sand withered, a wash of relief flowed over me, like it does when I stand on the shores of Aotea or embrace my family. It feels as though I am home again. The overwhelming warmth of tūrangawaewae in this cold and unruly place leaves me speechless, it kisses me gently on both cheeks.
I take a second to breathe in the misty rain, the permeating smell of penguins and cough of elephant seal breath. People pat me on the shoulder, eyes wide with wonder. We are all so present in something none of us can describe. I look wordlessly at the people who ask how I’m feeling, and maybe mumble some noises. They get it. There aren’t words to describe the hum of emotions in my head.
This is not coming home like to the house you grew up in, where you kick your shoes off and throw your bag on the couch without so much as a second thought. You must earn your place here. You have to embrace how deeply uncomfortable it feels to be so intrusive in the space of a wild animal and sit with it. You may never, ever, feel comfortable again, but you will melt into the landscape, breathe with every penguin holler and sigh with the crash of the waves on the shore. The sand becomes a part of you, and soon, nothing so much as glances in your direction. It is the greatest privilege in the world, one I wish for again every day.
King penguins returning from fishing at sea. ©AHT/Charlie Thomas
Female elephant seal and her newborn pup in Right Whale Bay. ©AHT/Charlie Thomas
Inspiring Explorer Charlie Thomas (left) and Trust Board Member, Georgie Archibald share their delight at their first ever sighting of a snow petrel. ©AHT/Perry Hyde
I stand on the bow of our ship, the freezing wind whipping my face and dragging tears from the corner of my eyes. I scan the horizon for a little flash of white, while glaciers and dark cliff faces sidle by us. My friend Georgie Archibald, an Antarctic Heritage Trust Board Member, is looking just as intently as I am. Then our hum of excitement is soon interrupted by my incoherent screaming and pointing. Towards us flies a speck of white. It flutters gently above the surface of the turquoise glacial water. It hesitates only momentarily over lumps of ice, before getting closer and closer. This is the bird we have both been searching for over the last seven days we have been at sea, the snow petrel. This is the first time either of us have ever seen this incredible bird, so we jump and scream and laugh and cry a little. It is a moment I will treasure forever. It gets closer and closer, soon the sweet handful of pure white petrel floats past us on the wind, it’s bill and eye both black and shining in the sea spray. An immense surge of joy shakes me – the kind that makes you grin not just with your face, with your entire body.
This is a bird I have dreamt of for years, seeing it first in a book about Antarctica as it shone brightly against the deep blue pack ice. As I grew up and fell in love with adventures, expeditions, and wild remote places, I began to fear that my identity as a queer/trans person would limit my ability to experience the places and wildlife that I had grown to love so much. Seeing this snow petrel soaring alongside the turquoise glaciers and awash with the colours of the rainbow, I knew that my passion would take me anywhere I wanted to go, including to Drygalski Fjord at the bottom of South Georgia Island with some of the most incredible people I have ever met.
Snow petrel. ©AHT/Charlie Thomas
This expedition, for me, was a shake-up. A gentle shove into the uncomfortable and the unknown. South Georgia surprised me by challenging my view on my own life. It pushed me to do things and think in ways I hadn’t before. That is what felt like true exploration to me.
King penguins inspecting the flags marking our path, St Andrew’s Bay. ©AHT/Charlie Thomas
Every time I share my stories, our adventures, I am giving thanks to a place that has nurtured me in ways I never could have expected. I am grateful every day for the wonderful team at Antarctic Heritage Trust for believing in us and caring for us with the utmost respect and love from the moment we all met for our team building weekend. I would like to give thanks to MetService, the Royal Society Te Apārangi and all the other incredible supporters for making it possible, and for being a part of our big adventure too. Thank you to Antarctica21 for having the most kind, diligent and welcoming staff that could turn a ship at the bottom of the world into pure luxury. Finally, my love forever goes out to the rest of the Inspiring Explorers whānau. You guys were the warmth I needed in that bitter cold.
I cannot wait to find my next adventure. I hope that this has inspired you to find one, too.