Before we’d even thought about packing for South Georgia Island, the Antarctic Heritage Trust warned us that coming back from a trip like this and reintegrating into society was going to be hard. That it was going to be both disheartening and difficult to try and accurately describe what you saw and how you felt on this expedition.
I didn’t understand or believe them at the time. It wasn’t until the fifth day of landings, as I was sitting alone out the back of the ship basking in the glory of the day we’d just had – seeing leopard seals curiously gliding around our Zodiac in the morning, and the most overwhelming beauty of entering Drygalski Fjord through a sea of icebergs bigger than our cruise ship in the afternoon. As the sunset cast the island and its icebergs in the most incredible light, I had this sudden realisation that they were right.
How was I ever going to be able to portray how this wild place made me feel on a molecular level?
I purposely didn’t do a lot of research into South Georgia Island. Up until February 2023, when my dad sent me the link to an application form to apply to become an Inspiring Explorer™, I had no idea the place even existed. I wanted to go in with no preconceived ideas or expectations. A blank slate, ready to absorb everything the South Atlantic Ocean could throw at me.
Iceberg at sunset after leaving Drygalski Fjord © AHT/Kelsey Waghorn
Male Southern Elephant Seal resting at Sailsbury Plains © AHT/Kelsey Waghorn
Kelsey Waghorn – windy landing at Fortuna Bay. © AHT/Kelsey Waghorn
The sea has always held a special place in my heart. I chose Marine Science as one of my high school optional subjects and followed it through to university where I tapped out once I obtained my Diploma in Marine Science and Bachelor of Science. I thought about going on to do my Masters, but the final year was rough, so I decided to find a job in the field. This led me to White Island Tours, where I had planned on spending a summer cruising the Pacific Ocean between Whakatāne and White Island, getting work experience out on boats before finding a ‘real job’. Because surely this couldn’t classify as a real job – being on the ocean every day, seeing dolphins and whales, meeting people from all over the world on their holiday, and generally just having a swell time out in the open air.
I ended up there for five years and one day – it would turn out, one day too long. On December 9 2019, the island erupted while we were touring the inner crater. This landed me in hospital with full thickness burns to 45 percent of my body, effectively ending any future plans of working on boats or on the sea again. Skin grafts are a lot less tolerant to life and the sun than normal skin and combined with the power of my already sun-intolerant pale skin, I essentially became Howie off The Benchwarmers – minus peeing in bottles in a cupboard.
But after an especially hard 2022, I was determined to come out swinging into 2023 and stop letting my fears and excuses rule my life. And swing I did! I signed up to travel the South Island with 20 Americans I had never met, I finally started speaking publicly about my life after White Island, I made new friends, I started boxing, yoga, barre and teaching reformer pilates, I ticked off surgery number 17(?), got the tattoo I’d been thinking about for three years, and then I gave in to Dad’s week-long pestering to apply (and later accept) becoming one of Antarctic Heritage Trust’s Inspiring Explorers™ – a choice that has realigned the trajectory of my life. Thanks Dad.
While the fact remains that my skin grafts will never be as tough as normal skin, this trip made me realise that not only are they not as fragile as I think they are, I am also not as fragile as I think I am.
Not to mention – South Georgia and Antarctica are cold. I was wrapped in so many layers it may as well have been insulated bubble wrap, and the sun can’t get me! Win-win.
So, my goal going forward now is to get myself back on a ship in the cold in the middle of the ocean. I definitely left a piece of my heart and soul out there, so I need to go back and at least visit it.
I ignored the pull to get back on the sea for four years, and I came up with any excuse I could as to why it wouldn’t work. But at the end of the day, when your heart, mind, body, and soul are all telling you the same thing, you kind of have to listen. Entertain the idea, at a minimum, and push on those excuses. It’s amazing how many of them fall down with just a little bit of pressure.
In those moments where you catch yourself smiling to yourself at how happy you are in that feeling of pure peace, follow that feeling. It will rarely lead you wrong. For me, that place is in the middle of the ocean where the temperature rarely comes above 10°C and the swell easily reaches 10-metres.
You will never be able to escape your heart.
So it is better to listen to what it has to say.
– The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
Kelsey Waghorn on board the Magellan Explorer at St. Andrews Bay. ©AHT/Kelsey Waghorn
Kelsey Waghorn at King Penguin Colony, St. Andrews Bay. © AHT/Kaitlyn Martin