Exploring the white continent

  • Nation
  • Wednesday, 15 Jan 2003

Universiti Sains Malaysia ’s Muka Head Marine Research Station director Associate Prof Dr Zulfigar Yasin is currently leading a 10-week expedition to the Antarctic,the coldest,driest and windiest place on earth.In a series of articles starting today,Dr Zulfigar will share his experiences as the four-member Malaysian team journeys to the land of whales,icebergs and the migrating krills. 

IT HAS taken several months of preparations and now the Malaysian scientific team is sailing into the white continent. The expedition itself will take about three months – taking us to the Antarctic continent through the Southern Ocean and back. 

Most of this time will be spent on board the Australian research vessel, the Aurora Australis, a first-class ice breaker attuned to carry out research on the ice. 

I have been asked many times as to the usefulness of starting research in the Antarctica. After all, it is very costly and demanding. Many times I have come up with new and different answers but all seemed to point to the necessity of this exercise – to explore this nemesis of the tropics. 

Darwin had to visit South America and reflect on his findings before confessing to his theory of evolution. Alfred Wallace was in Sarawak and the Indonesian islands trekking through dense tropical rainforests in the 19th century to come up with the same idea.  

Both men from temperate regions had to broaden their horizons to the tropics to understand the greater scheme of things. 

Tropical scientists, including Malaysian scientists, should be allowed to raise their horizons to distant lands to compete in the global market, to postulate new ideas and to contribute to the history of mankind. This I have no doubt they can and they should be given the opportunity. 

My humble salutations to the leader of our wonderful country to have the will and vision to initiate research into the Antarctic continent. 

As a colleague puts it: “Research in Antarctica is done on the world stage – everybody is watching.” And in a stroke we are put on that stage. 

But I would be lying to say that that is all there is to it. Exploring Antarctica has a romance to it.  

The great early explorer, an Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, wrote in a newly-discovered work of his The Silence Calling – the beckoning of the Antarctic continent to explorers. 

And the indomitable Sir Ernest Shakleton, another early explorer, in a letter to his little sister, confided: “You cannot imagine what it is like to walk in places where no man has walked before.”  

“To see that white expanse at the bottom of the world”, my wise father said, ”is God showing you His beauty. If anything at all, do it for Him.” 

Antarctica is a wild place – the remotest on earth apart from the deep oceans. It is, at 14.25 million square kilometres, a continent on its own – bigger than Australia or Europe. 

This vast continent is covered by ice and home to myriads of endemic species of plants and animals – many of the latter are unaccustomed to and therefore unafraid of man. It is earth before the interference of humankind. 

There are four Malaysian scientists on this expedition, Wan Maznah Wan Omar (planktonologist), Mahadi Mohamad (marine taxonomist), Sazlina Md Salleh (marine taxonomist) and myself (a marine ecologist). 

It is not the first time Malaysians have been to Antarctica but certainly this voyage is the longest and covers the greatest geographical area – circum-navigating about a third of the continent. 

We had departed from Hobart in Tasmania on Jan 3, 2003. It was a wonderful and emotional farewell by the wharf.  

Whole families turned up bidding their goodbyes to loved ones. There were parents and wives, small children playing their last minute games with daddy before he embarks on the trip that can be as long as a year. 

There was a lot of fanfare and colourful streamers sprayed the deck. The gangway was raised at 5pm and with a loud horn, the Aurora sailed south.  

That morning, the scientists or expeditioners as they are referred to were given a safety briefing. I was particularly touched by a small reminder by the welfare officer. 

She claimed that “loneliness and homesickness are not related to the length of separation, (so) write home frequently and tell your loved ones that they are not forgotten.”  

With that, she handed us Interflora cards, “just in case you want to send flowers home.” 

As we left port and turned past Battery Point, we met with rough seas and the Aurora began to pitch and roll. 

White caps laced the wave crests and 30 knot winds streamed sprays off the salty water. It is a taste of the Southern Ocean - the roughest waters on the planet.  

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