Wise ’15 researches in Antarctica

by Erin Lee | 1/13/15 9:04pm

While many Dartmouth students were relaxing with long-lost high school friends or watching Netflix on the family couch, Diana Wise ’15 was taking photographs of penguins from atop an Antarctic mountain. During the winter interim period, Wise traveled over 7,500 miles to Antarctica to get a firsthand look at the effects of ecotourism on the environment.

Wise’s investigation was part of a two-week trip run by American Universities International Programs in conjunction with a consortium of universities including Dartmouth, State University of New York at Brockport, Virginia Polytech Institute and State University and Oregon State University.

This program is one of relatively few academic opportunities for students to reach Antarctica, director of the Institute of Arctic Studies and environmental studies professor Ross Virginia said. As part of the program, Wise conducted an independent study project about the environmental impacts of ecotourism. Virginia, with support from the Dickey Center for International Understanding and the Institute of Arctic Studies, advised Wise over the course of her project.

Wise was the only Dartmouth student in a group of 20 undergraduates from universities across the country. Two faculty members — one from SUNY Brockport and the other from Oregon State — accompanied the group and provided advice during the course of the trip.

Before traveling to Antarctica, the group spent time in the small port city of Ushuaia, Argentina — the starting point for many trips to Antarctica — to investigate the impact of tourism, Wise said. From there, the group spent three days traveling to Antarctica on an academic cruise ship built for researchers.

Half of the students in the program studied ecotourism, while the other half studied biodiversity in marine birds. Wise took an online ecotourism course during the fall prior to the field study portion of the course in December.

The group lived on the ship for 10 days, conducting research, observing the behavior of visitors and tourists, attending lectures and going on excursions. The students examined overall adherence to tourism guidelines, including boot-washing to reduce the spread of pathogens and staying a safe distance away from wildlife, Wise said.

“Though the staff was really dedicated to reducing our impact on the continent, ultimately, obviously we will make an impact,” she said. “It was ironic I was making the impact as well as studying it.”

One of the main draws for Antarctic tourism is the area’s wildlife, which includes whales, seals and penguins, Wise said. The natural beauty of the landscape also sparks enthusiasm among those who make the journey to Antarctica.

“The staff would say, ‘people come for the penguins, but they stay for the ice,’ and I definitely agree with them,” Wise said.

Wise said the highlight of her trip was a group excursion on a relatively warm day for Antarctica. Clad in tank tops and T-shirts, the group hiked a mountain to enjoy the breathtaking view and look down on the spray from whale blowholes in the distance. Later, upon returning to their Zodiac — a small inflatable boat used to ferry the group from their ship to land — they started following minke whales.

“We had lost them, and then seconds later, we all jumped up because a minke whale surfaced just behind our boat,” Wise said. “It was incredible.”

Alli Fisher, a junior at Virginia Tech and Wise’s roommate on the trip, said one of the most memorable nights for her was the first when they stayed up to watch the sunset and sunrise, which in Antarctica occur consecutively between 12 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. during summer.

“I don’t think anything will ever come close to what we experienced there,” she said. “It’s something that is irreplaceable.”

Fischer said she and Wise bonded quickly, which was particularly valuable because of the ship’s cramped living quarters.

Wise said that one of the program’s challenges was taking time away from the camera to simply sit and reflect on the importance of appreciating the beauty and immensity of the barren landscape.

“You can sit there forever. You feel so small,” Wise said. “I wanted to go in with low expectations because I didn’t really know what to expect, but it is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been and the wildlife and colossal glaciers and isolation [were] completely overwhelming.”

Wise, an environmental studies and neuroscience double major, first became interested in Antarctica and the program while taking Virginia’s “Pole to Pole” environmental studies course. The class focuses on environmental issues in polar regions, including northern Arctic areas and the continent of Antarctica.

Virginia said that the course focuses on issues facing Antarctica’s environment — from climate change to human impact.

“Students get interested in the place through that course and naturally want to have a more direct, first-hand experience,” he said. “That’s kind of the Dartmouth way.”

Virginia said that interest in Antarctica has been growing because of an increased focus on climate change and tourism’s impact on “the most pristine place on the planet.” There are conversations about Dartmouth developing an Antarctic program of its own in the future, he said.