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Dr Niamh Shaw in Antarctica: “The purest experience of my life.”

Tuesday, 13 February, 2024

Pictured: Niamh Shaw in Antarctica

Though freezing cold on deck as the ship made its way towards Antarctica, Dr Niamh Shaw was too transfixed to notice. For there, in the deep blue Southern Ocean, right before her eyes, a whale surfaced with a loud spurt of air. Then another and another: a whole whale family.

“You find yourself crying because there are no words,” says the Irish space reporter and climate activist. “You feel a very strong connection to the planet that almost feels parental. You realise that our survival as a species is not at the expense of other creatures and the planet itself. It really isn’t.”

Dr Shaw made the remarkable 19-day voyage alongside a group of others from all over the world with Homeward Bound, an Australian nonprofit which aims to increase the influence and impact of women in leading climate change solutions.

“They want to do this for about 10,000 women and we were the sixth ship to go. I was with 94 other scientists and about 15 or 20 other women in STEM. It was almost an entirely female crew.”

Along with attending seminars and networking events on board, Dr Shaw, an award winning science communicator, shared highlights from the voyage with her large online audience. She posted videos and photographs on her social media of Gentoo, Rockhopper and Chinstrap penguins against a pristine backdrop of icebergs and white capped hills. 

“We went to this place called Cuverville Island, which has the largest colony of Gentoo penguins in the world. There were lines of penguins hopping into the clear water like something out of a Christmas movie. That was a joyous day.”

When she speaks to us on Zoom from her home in Cork, where she is “still processing” the whole experience, Dr Shaw is even wearing a souvenir jumper festooned with penguins. She becomes emotional again, recalling the trip.

"It's moving because it's an absolute privilege to get to see this feast of nature and wildlife that is completely untouched and natural."

“It’s moving because it’s an absolute privilege to get to see this feast of nature and wildlife that is completely untouched and natural,” she says, wiping her eyes. “They are the purest moments I’ve ever experienced.”

In order to get to our southernmost continent - and site of the South Pole - Dr Shaw had to raise some €20,000 to cover travel, board and other expenses. 

“I wouldn’t have been able to raise the funds without Dr Elva O’Sullivan and UCD Discovery,” she says, of the Institute’s engagement manager. “She gave me really amazing business advice and kept gently pushing me along and giving me confidence. She helped me to package and tell my story. I was very lucky to get funding from Gas Networks Ireland and Laois County Council because of the work I did with Elva. There were several women in my cohort who never made the trip in the end because they hadn’t been able to raise the funds. That could have been me.”

Before visiting all the places on their itinerary, which also included the Falkland, Deception, Aitcho and King George islands, Dr Shaw and her fellow passengers had to take strict biosecurity measures.

“You wear the same rubber boots throughout which get cleaned before and after. Every time you leave the ship you have to put all your equipment into a dry bag. Nothing can touch the ground except your feet. You can't sit, you can't squat, and that's to prevent you contaminating the ecosystem, because it's so preserved.”

The many penguins and whales they encountered are “absolutely oblivious” to humankind and our infrastructure, she says. But sadly, the influence of human activities elsewhere on the planet directly affects their habitat. 

“It really hits you in the heart because in the evenings we'd have lectures from glaciologists and people who have studied penguins and they take you through how much of the ice is melting, how much the glaciers are retreating and how it's impacting the whole ecosystem. There's one species of penguins called the Adélie penguins and there are regions where they used to breed and they haven't come back anymore because the ice is gone. We didn't even get to go to South Georgia because of their first ever outbreak of avian flu.”

"I wouldn't have been able to raise the funds without Dr Elva O'Sullivan and UCD Discovery," Dr Shaw says, of the Institute's engagement manager. 

The reason for her Antarctic adventure, Dr Shaw says, was to learn about the region, process that information and explain it so that others, who will likely never visit, might understand its importance and care about the bigger picture of what damage to such an untouched region represents. 

More importantly, she says, Dr Shaw wants to push our governments and decision makers to ensure more sustainable policies around, for instance, energy provision and housing. 

Though one of the Earth’s few virtually uninhabited places, Antarctica is showing the fastest responses to some of our global sustainability problems.

As the world heats up due to human-created carbon emissions, a recent study published in Nature Climate Change says Antarctica is warming twice as fast as the global average. 

“The Antarctic was the first place where we started to see changes in our planet. As temperatures are changing, they're affecting the whole ecosystem, and the Antarctic was the first place to measure that and monitor that,” explains Dr Shaw. “I could never explain before how what's happening in the Antarctic affects people in Ireland, but now I fully understand. It's like a kind of future predictor. Whatever happens there has huge ripples around the rest of the world. So you really feel a responsibility to share that message and to get it out there as quickly as possible. Can I help people feel even some of what I felt about the awe of the place? That’s the magic sauce.”