More and more, it seems like you can’t escape news of the novel coronavirus. Not even in Antarctica, as photographer James Whitlow Delano found out in March. He was scheduled to accompany an Antarctic science expedition. But things didn’t go quite as planned.
Delano, along with scientists, doctoral students and others, was taking part in the Chilean Antarctic Institute’s 56th Chilean Antarctic Expedition just a couple of months ago. According to Delano, the plan for the expedition was to “take advantage of the warm season’s final three-week resupply journey … to island hop, base to base, gathering data … to better understand the Antarctic environment.”
Delano had already spent time documenting the work of several teams of scientists at Escudero, a Chilean research base in Antarctica. Next he would travel farther south aboard a Chilean navy cargo ship called the AP Aquiles. He and everyone else were scheduled to return April 13. Then came the coronavirus.
On March 12, the station chief for Escudero, Elias Barticevic, announced that the base would self-quarantine for safety reasons because of the virus. As scientists started transiting through Escudero hopeful they could make it back to their home countries before borders were closed due to the spread of covid-19, Delano still believed that travel on the AP Aquiles would happen.
At first, it looked like the journey would continue as planned. But Delano also had a sense of foreboding about the trip stronger than any he had had during his many years of reporting. “With the pandemic closing in, and the prospect of no further communications with the outside world for weeks, I felt for the first time in almost three decades of reporting that I’d made the wrong decision continuing with the journey south,” he said.
With those thoughts running through his head, Delano climbed aboard the ship. He and others were given brief physical examinations by the ship’s doctor. Delano was still unnerved, saying, “My blood pressure had spiked higher than it ever had in my life and, judging from the doctor’s reaction, I was not sure if I would be allowed to continue with the ship, if it did not come down,” he said. “My head space was clearly affecting my body.” It wouldn’t matter in the end, though, because the next morning the trip was canceled.
Delano returned home to Japan, where he has been based for many years, and he was greeted by the new reality created by the spread of the virus. After being questioned about his health and travel history and having his body temperature checked with an infrared temperature gun, he finally made it onto an express train heading to his home in Tokyo. He was the only person on the train that let him off at Shinjuku station, one of the busiest in the world. But everything was empty, leading Delano to observe that, “Tokyo felt like Fukushima in the spring of 2011 … except that this invisible menace was a global one and more deadly. I never imagined I would ever have to say such a thing. … The world I’d returned to had changed profoundly.”
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