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For Bethesda woman, Antarctica becomes 'a special place'

AntarcticaBiologyConservationEcosystems

During her second day on the Antarctic Peninsula, Elena Perry and her fellow students silently looked around the cold, dry landscape as the driver of their boat turned off the motor. In one of many such instances, the group was struck by how much Earth's southernmost continent abounded with life.

"That was the first time we had gotten so close to the wildlife there, and it was an amazingly calm day," said Perry, 21, a junior ecology and evolutionary biology major at Yale. "There were hardly any waves."

Perry was there — listening to penguins dive into the water — alongside more than 70 students from around the world and an international staff, as part of the 2013 Students on Ice Antarctic Expedition.

"For a moment I just tried to imagine: What is this place like when people are not here?" Perry said via satellite phone from Cape Horn, Chile, on Tuesday, thousands of miles from her home in Bethesda. "It really just opened my eyes to how special a place Antarctica is."

She had flown north to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, then south to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and farther south to Ushuaia, Argentina. From there, the team sailed across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula, the warmest and liveliest part of the planet's only continent with no native humans.

"Coming here, I've been able to see firsthand that this place is actually teeming with life. I was able to see that there was billions of plankton growing in the water," Perry said. "Some of the places we've seen here have been so fantastic that I didn't think they could exist on Earth."

For more than a century, Antarctica's specialness has attracted and confounded explorers and researchers such as Geoff Green, the expedition's leader and the founder of the Students on Ice program. This expedition, which began Dec. 26 and ended Friday, was his 81st to the continent.

"We've taken just over 2,500 students from 52 countries to both the Arctic and the Antarctic," Green said of the program, which began leading expeditions in 2000. "In the early days, what brought me back was passion for the place and interest. … Now what brings me back is not so much on a personal level, but it's more to share it with these youth, to give them that experience at the beginning of their lives."

Green said Perry is a "terrific young lady" who is already on a career path.

That path, ranging from marine hydrozoan digestion to urbanization's effects on wild bee populations, previously led Perry to her mother's native South Korea, where she lived for a year and worked in a chemistry laboratory. Unlike her previous destinations, Antarctica remains mostly inaccessible and inhospitable even now. The Students on Ice program's offerings for later this year cost at least $10,900 per student.

"I never really thought about [Antarctica], only because I didn't think it was possible for someone like me when I was growing up," Perry said. "I never thought about going there until Geoff came and did a presentation at my school a couple years ago. I just immediately thought to myself, 'I don't want to miss this opportunity.'"

Bill Perry wasn't surprised when he heard that his daughter wanted to go on this adventure, which has a strong focus on the environment and sustainable lifestyles. Among other activities, Elena has worked in Yale's writing assistance center, co-chaired a project encouraging people to stop using plastic bottles and assisted Yale's environmental groups, he said.

"She's always been interested in science and nature," he said in a phone interview. "Particularly biology and the environment, going back to when she was a kid, looking at bugs and beetles and that sort of thing. And looking through encyclopedias of animal species."

He and his wife, Gina Kim Perry, had no contact with Elena from the time she arrived in Argentina until she returned to South America. They followed the Students on Ice website's itineraries and daily logs.

In a post dated Jan. 4, their daughter wrote about landing on the peninsula and seeing seals, Gentoo penguins and humpback whales. But what struck her most was watching the flight of a rare light-mantled albatross.

"It was a spectacular bird, quite possibly the most beautiful that I have ever seen," she wrote.

The Perry family annually visits North Carolina's beaches.

"[Elena] loves just walking up and down, looking for more seashells, looking for creatures," Gina Kim Perry said.

But they've never gone nearly as far as Cape Horn and Antarctica, known for centuries as a no man's land of sometimes-fatal nautical accidents.

"I knew she could handle herself, but I had to put faith in the group leader," Gina Kim Perry said. "Knowing that they've done this many years, I felt confident. I was pretty comfortable that she would come back safely."

The expedition provided Elena Perry multiple opportunities for professional growth by teaching her tidbits such as that nutrients in the Southern Ocean support 75 percent of Earth's marine life or that Pacific island birds thousands of miles away from civilization are dying after consuming garbage that washes up onto the beach.

"Before this expedition, I probably knew about as much about Antarctica as the average person," she said. "I didn't really know what I was getting into, to be honest."

Few people ever have known what they were getting into when embarking toward Earth's southern icecap. For Green, the expedition's mystery, like most of its other aspects, provides a context for moral growth.

"You've got to adapt and use your life lessons, as well. It feels good," he said from the deck of a ship while winds roared at 40 mph. "The seasickness that everybody's experiencing probably doesn't feel so good."

The trip also helped Perry learn more about herself and spurred her to spread her newfound knowledge through avenues such as presentations at Yale and her church's youth group.

"I'll be thinking about some of the larger implications of what I'm learning in classes and what I've learned here," she said. "It's really important for people to be aware of how small, everyday actions can have a severe impact on the planet on an individual scale."

Those goals are part of the mission of Students on Ice, Green said.

"We always hope that the expedition will be a platform and a catalyst to reach people around the world through different means," he said. "The youth voice is not only important, but critical in so many ways. If it's used properly, it can create change and action."

As elsewhere on the planet, climate change threatens Antarctica. That enchanting albatross Perry saw was farther south than it should have been, Green said — possibly a sign of the peninsula's warming. But amid all the science and teachable moments, the magic that struck Perry still enthralls the experienced Green.

"You realize Mother Nature's in control, like right this second," he said. "It's inspiring in so many different ways."

mkingjr@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaelrkingjr

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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