A member of the Chilean Antarctic Institute’s logistics team guides a helicopter as it lands at Chile’s Carvajal Villaroel research base on the Antarctic Peninsula. (James Whitlow Delano)
A member of the Chilean Antarctic Institute’s logistics team guides a helicopter as it lands at Chile’s Carvajal Villaroel research base on the Antarctic Peninsula. (James Whitlow Delano)

This photographer accompanied researchers examining climate change in Antarctica

Earlier this year, photojournalist James Whitlow Delano joined several groups of scientists, from various universities in Chile as part of the Chilean Antarctic Institute’s (INACH) 58th Antarctic Scientific Expedition. He spent time with the scientists as they gathered data, often tramping out into the field alongside them.

What follows is a collection of personal musings as Delano worked alongside these scientists:

“I thought I was going to die,” muttered a diver after being pulled back into a motorboat from the frigid waters of Bourgeois Fjord off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

I remember wondering if it was a good idea to leave the M.V. Betanzos, or the “mothership,” with a team of divers on the motorboat as intensifying gale-force winds funneled down through glaciated valleys, which were already peeling spray from the water’s icy surface and throwing it into our faces.

The plan was to gather samples of marine invertebrates, as well as brown and red algae from shallow waters, as part of the Genomic Antarctic Biodiversity Project (GAB) along the shoreline of one of the rare ice-free islands — where the perpetual scouring Antarctic winds made it impossible for ice to accumulate — to complement samples obtained from the front of glaciers.

The goal of the study was to understand the effect of deglaciation and recession of the ice cap on marine biodiversity and find out which species might suffer or benefit and why.

The divers — there were three — plunged backward off the boat under the watchful eye of two logistics experts from the M.V. Betanzos, disappearing below the surface. Unbeknown to one of the divers, both her primary and backup scuba regulators were about to freeze at a depth of about 26 feet.

She surfaced, buddy breathing with another diver, gasping for air, as he stabilized her upper body above the water while the wind washed spray over them. “It felt like I was breathing through a straw,” she recalled later.

The logistics crew and I struggled to get her out of the water. It took three of us to get her into the boat because of the weight of her scuba gear. For what seemed like minutes, she sat with her head in her hands, drawing in deep breaths as wind gusts continued to intensify.

The logistics crew radioed for the mothership to draw closer, instead of risking navigating through a crosswind back to the ship several hundred yards away.

Logistics had chosen to use a hardened-plastic motorboat on this outing because in almost the same location days before, teams of scientists went in zodiac inflatable boats to Lagotellerie Island to gather plant and water samples, and they did not fare so well in gusty conditions.

That’s how the divers came to be sheltering from the fury of nature, powerless to do anything but wait for the mothership to come and get us.

That is the nature of scientific research in these parts, where Antarctica sets the rules and humans must work around them.

More often than not, generously funded projects steal the media spotlight. Antarctic firsts make good press — so do boreholes reaching ice hundreds of thousands of years old or studies on charismatic animals like whales or penguins.

Antarctica jealously hides its secrets, and often those secrets are written on a microbial level or in the migrations of marine invertebrates.

Chile sits closer to Antarctica than any other country — just 404 miles separate Chile’s Cape Horn from Antarctica.

I joined several teams of scientists, from various universities in Chile, as part of the Chilean Antarctic Institute’s (INACH) 58th Antarctic Scientific Expedition.

While the U.S. Antarctic Program works on an annual budget (2021) of $292 million, and the British Antarctic Survey benefits from about $68 million in annual funding, Chile has carved out a significant presence in the Antarctic on an annual budget in 2020 of $1.8 million. INACH-funded scientists are quietly fleshing out, using DNA analysis, how indigenous organisms are adapting to the climate crisis.

While INACH punches well above its weight in Antarctic science, making outsize contributions on a diminutive budget, it often means that scientists must thread the proverbial needle on a continent where fair-weather windows can close in minutes and remain shut for days or even weeks.

Where scientists, with huge budgets, can wait out bad weather for weeks on end, these scientists often wait years for the opportunity to spend days or even hours in the field to gather specimens.

One plant geneticist on the M.V. Betanzos spent two weeks on the ship for the single opportunity to collect Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis), one of just two angiosperms (seed-producing plants) that can survive in Antarctica, from one location.

In the twilight of midnight, a helicopter lifted off from the M.V. Betanzos on the third and final attempt to ferry a team of glaciologists to the Müller Ice Shelf on the Arrowhead Peninsula.

The team of glaciologists, led by Francisco Fernandoy of the University Andrés Bello and Edgardo Casanova Pino of the University of Magallanes, was planning to retrieve its data on ice-shelf retreat in March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic intervened.

Like me, the team had been aboard the Chilean naval supply ship, the Aquiles, when the Chilean government declared a state of emergency at the beginning of the pandemic. One day after boarding, all civilians were ordered off the ship, putting an end to their plans.

Now, two years later, the team was on the verge of completing its mission. The easiest access to the ice shelf would have been from the north, but the Lallemand Fjord and Grandidier Channel were both ice bound, and the M.V. Betanzos is not an icebreaker.

That meant the only access had to be from the south. The helicopter flew up to where the Bigourdan Fjord met the Helm Glacier, ascended it over a divide and then descended the north side along the Antevs Glacier and touched down on the Müller Ice Shelf, which is long enough for two team members to disembark, before the helicopter flew back to the ship for the other half of the team and its gear.

On two previous attempts, wind-driven snow mixed with low clouds created an impenetrable barrier above the glaciers through which the helicopter could not pass. With each delay, the planned five-day expedition was eventually whittled down to an overnight stay, just long enough to retrieve the data and instruments laid out in 2019.

Around midnight, calm settled over the ship, and the skies over the glaciers opened enough for one last try. The sun set, but it never got dark.

The helicopter turned a corner behind a ridge and up the Helm Glacier, into radio silence. For a half-hour, until the helicopter could deposit the glaciologist and return around that corner, they had essentially passed over to the dark side of the moon. There was nothing to do but wait.

When the helicopter emerged again, pilot Jose Luis Pincheira Gutierrez reported that the two glaciologists and their gear had been successfully deposited on the ice.

Hopes were running high when the helicopter lifted off for the second round trip of three, even though clouds seemed to be building again over the Helm Glacier. By the time they arrived at the ice shelf the second time, an overcast sky made landing too dangerous because spatial disorientation made it impossible for the pilot to judge distance. Many lives have been lost in aviation accidents in polar regions in just such conditions. The weather window had, once again, closed.

Now there were two glaciologists on the ice without adequate survival gear, but none of this was known on the bridge of the M.V. Betanzos. All they knew was that the helicopter, due back, was nowhere to be seen and out of radio contact.

If the aircraft had gone down, the only viable rescue would have to come from the nearest airstrip at Britain’s Rothera Research Station, which was further away from the Müller Ice shelf than the M.V. Betanzos.

After 45 tense minutes, the helicopter emerged from radio silence, glaciologists and gear still on board.

After being denied by the pandemic in 2020, and waiting two more years for another chance to return, this time weather would deny the glaciologists from completing their project. But first, there were two glaciologists, without adequate survival gear, to be rescued.

“This is an environment where people shouldn’t be,” marine mammal researcher Ari Friedlaender once said of the Antarctic.

Working in the Antarctic builds deep bonds between travelers. It is not hyperbole to say that researchers depend upon each other for their very survival. There is a heightened sense of being alive while immersed in a world that humans are simply not adapted to survive. The only other place I’ve felt this immediate, enduring bond has been in conflict zones.

Sitting in a little plastic boat, buffeted by icy gusts, inches from seawater that would surely bring on hypothermia in minutes, one senses their own insignificance and mortality.

Researchers risk everything for science and often come back empty-handed. And yet they willingly, eagerly, come back again because Antarctica grabs you, lodges its hook deep.

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