Gemma Wyllie, St Andrews Bay. © AHT/Gemma Wyllie
Gemma Wyllie was one of 22 young New Zealanders who travelled with the Trust to South Georgia in October 2023 for our ninth Inspiring Explorers Expedition™ to honour the centenary year of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s final expedition, the ‘Quest’.
Whenever someone asks me, “How was your day?” I don’t always know how to respond. It should be a simple question. It is a simple question. But working as a paediatric nurse every day looks different and the emotions aren’t simple. I could tell you about the child who successfully trialed leaving the hospital for the first time, months after their birth. Relief. I could tell you about the child who was terrified to have their blood pressure taken so we did it on the stuffed animals first to help her feel safe. Compassion. I could tell you about the child I took to the ICU, fighting for their life. Fear. I could tell you about the boy I waved to as he went home healthy. Joy. I could tell you about the child who was able to breathe for an hour off their machine for the first time. Hope. These children are the bravest people I know. Their courage and resilience inspired me to apply for the South Georgia Expedition.
When I first heard about the trip to South Georgia my first thought was, ‘This sounds incredible, how do I apply for this?’ But my second thought was one of self-doubt – ‘Why would I be chosen?’ And my third thought – ‘This is a bad idea, you get terrible motion sickness’. And then I went to work and witnessed these children laugh despite their diagnosis and fight with all their strength. I thought if they can deal with illness I can deal with seasickness. If they could show up, I could apply. The children became my why and so I pitched the idea of a book to bring my adventure back to them. When I got the news I had been selected, I was at the hospital. I ran and told my boss I was going to need some time off, and you couldn’t keep the grin off my face.
St Andrews Bay. © Antarctica21/Rodrigo Moraga
Gemma seeing icebergs up close for the first time. © AHT/Gemma Wyllie
I have always loved the ocean. It is a vast expanse of contradictions. It can rock you to sleep with the soothing rhythm of lapping waves or unleash its unrelenting power, tossing you around without mercy. While I knew my biggest battle would be sea sickness, I didn’t anticipate how rough those first couple of days at sea onboard the Magellan Explorer would be. I camped in the bathroom. This is how it goes:
Everything is too bright, you’re sweating but freezing simultaneously, and you’re exhausted even though it feels like you’ve been sleeping for days. You haven’t kept anything down except for that half a cracker two days ago. You have no idea what time or day it is, so your roommate’s return to sleep becomes a crucial anchor point. As the symptoms intensify, you question the reliability of your perceptions, and you start to think maybe you’re delusional. There is an undefined sort of pain that makes you wish it was something defined like a broken arm. So, when the swell finally dampens nearing South Georgia there is overwhelming relief. It made me think of how the kids must feel, sometimes helpless but always hopeful.
The contrast between the challenging journey and the nearing arrival at our destination created a unique emotional landscape. I had an excitement rooted in hope, resilience, anticipation, desperation, and wonder. As we sailed, hours stretched into an endless fog, obscuring the horizon. With our eyes fixed on the ocean, we eagerly awaited a glimpse of South Georgia. And then “LAND HO!” As South Georgia peeked through the clouds, you could hear a symphony of twenty-two gasps, followed by shouts of excitement. Gazing upon South Georgia felt peaceful, like exhaling for the first time.
First sighting of South Georgia. © Antarctica21/Rodrigo Moraga
There is an unexplained rawness here – South Georgia doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. Here, nature is stark, unflinching, and brutal. Beauty is embodied in the regal king penguins, donned in crisp tuxedos and vibrant yellow bow ties marching in their royal procession. They stop every few metres, gracefully tucking their beaks into their necks revealing a quiet vulnerability. They have microsleeps lasting only seconds, allowing them to recover but also stay alert for potential predators. It’s the northern giant petrel, its speckled grey feathers stained with the blood of a recent meal from a penguin carcass. It’s the skua tugging on the umbilical cord of a baby elephant seal, with the mother arching and grumbling in protest. It’s not being able to land at Gold Harbour because the elephant seals have staked their claim on the land. You quickly learn you are a visitor here. This is their place, their home.
King penguins marching in royal procession. ©Antarctica21/Rodrigo Moraga
Gemma and Te Aroha Devon laughing together as they walk to Shackleton’s waterfall. ©AHT/Rose Lasham
Aside from nature, I also found the beauty of South Georgia in the small, personal moments with the Inspiring Explorers™ team. It was in a South Georgia pintail captivating Charlie Thomas or watching Rose Lasham capturing her vision with a paintbrush. It was the delighted gasps as an Antarctic fur seal followed our Zodiac with cheeky curiosity. It was cheering each other on at the sheer absurdity of doing the polar plunge. It was singing Happy Birthday to Lawrence Rothwell. It was the friendships that we forged.
Leaving South Georgia stirred a mix of emotions, excitement transformed into a reflective sadness with departure. Somehow the formidable sea sickness now felt like an admission fee, a badge of honour, a price willingly paid for the privilege of experiencing South Georgia. The island, with its raw beauty and untamed wilderness, left an indelible mark that has lingered long after our journey concluded. I can’t wait to share the story of South Georgia with the brave children I see daily.
Inspiring Explorers Expedition Team at St Andrews Bay. © Antarctica21/Rodrigo Moraga