RITES OF PASSAGE
Having sailed on the Aurora Australis four times as a deputy voyage leader, Hunter Valley resident Sarah Laverick has spent 260 days at sea over five voyages in Antarctic waters. Sarah appears in the TVNZ documentary Hunting the Ice Whale, which focused on satellite tagging humpback whales in Antarctica. She has published 14 scientific papers on the ecology of penguins, seals and whales. Her book Through Fire & Ice – the adventures, science and people behind Australia's famous icebreaker Aurora Australis (Pan Macmillan, $34.99) is out now. See panmacmillan.com.au
My first voyage to Antarctica taught me to never go by my first impressions. I was initially pretty wary of the ship's crew: to me they seemed like hardy, gruff-looking old salts and I assumed they couldn't care less about a bunch of scientists and their work. How wrong I was. I soon learned that the crew were some of the most patient, knowledgeable and kind people I'd ever meet. They genuinely love Antarctica and their ship, and are proud to put their own expertise to any task.
Antarctica has blessed me with many defining moments that have cumulatively taught to me to embrace child-like wonder. I've experienced it while feeling the sheer physical power of a heaving Southern Ocean; while trying to comprehend the scale of the monumental Antarctic landscape in front of me and when watching colourful auroras dance and flicker across the sky. The wonder of experiencing nature at its most elemental reminds me of what a unique place Antarctica is – and paradoxically, it gives me both a feeling of utter insignificance at a personal level, and an overwhelming desire to do what I can to protect it.
While I was doing my honours research at Phillip Island's Penguin Parade, there was a significant oil spill offshore. It was the middle of the breeding season and hundreds of little penguins soon began scampering up the beaches covered in oil. But within hours of news of the spill breaking in the media, the nature park was inundated with volunteers. While working elbow to elbow in the organised chaos of the wildlife clinic, I was struck by the instant solidarity between everyone; the unwavering commitment of complete strangers to form a cohesive team happy to help out wherever we could. United by a common goal, we managed to save more than 400 penguins. While their names have long since escaped me (a failing of mine), I will never forget that experience. Humans can be such a powerful force for good when we want to be.
While on a whale-tracking project off the NSW north coast, our team of four researchers had just endured several days of working on a small boat in sleeting rain and on lumpy seas with scant return for all our efforts. At the end of one such day I was once again tired, cold and wet; I felt pretty deflated and all I wanted to do was go home. But just a day or so later, the sun came out and the whales showed up. Not only did our tracking project end up being a great success, we witnessed whales leap out of the water in exuberant, playful breeching, we heard the gentle melodies of singing whales through the hull of our boat, and were even honoured to encounter the famous white whale, Migaloo. It was hard to believe I just wanted to chuck it all in days earlier. Lesson learned. Never give up.