The Antarctica Expedition That Inspired Activist Fraser Morton To Save the Last Great Wilderness

Antarctica is one of earth’s last great wildernesses. Amid bottomless water and towering glaciers, the crux of a climate change story unravels; a vastness further than the eye can see, changing more rapidly than the mind can imagine.

With a long history of international conservation efforts, Antarctica provides a dramatic stage for rising temperatures and melting ice shelves. Banning commercial mining in the region, the Protocol on Environmental Protection through the Antarctic Treaty was agreed on in 1991 and is critical in protecting Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”

Raising awareness for its 2041 review, the 2041 Foundation embarked on an Antarctica expedition with journalist and documentary filmmaker, Fraser Morton, who made his first voyage into the humbling landscape. With British polar explorer Robert Swan and his son Barney at the helm, a promise to Sir Robert was made. Following Fraser’s 2018 journey on his first Antarctica Expedition, documenting wonder and danger in Antarctica, earlier this year he began the Two Poles podcast, where storytelling has a say in shaping a society who take action and support environmental regeneration.

Regenerative Travel speaks with Fraser about youth activism, hope for greener politics, and engaging people in the plight of polar regions with human stories of wild places. As Fraser urges, Antarctica needs us.

Antarctica Expedition
Photo © Fraser Morton

Can you tell me about your first time Antarctica expedition and the project you were working on?

In 2018, I travelled on an Antarctica expedition on assignment for Eco-Business news to shoot a documentary film and take photographs for a climate change exhibition called Changing Course. We joined an expedition with climate change activism foundation called 2041, led by British polar explorer Sir Robert Swan and his son Barney.

In 1989, Rob became the first person to walk to both the South and North Poles. Since, then the Swans’ mission has been to draw attention to the plight of the polar regions through activism, expeditions, and a host of renewable energy initiatives through Climate Force. The two-week voyage was joined by 90 individuals ranging from activists, scientists and teachers, to journalists and renewable energy specialists from around the world. My place in the group was as a documentarian and journalist, filming a documentary about the expedition and climate change.

As the journey commenced, we sailed across Earth’s most treacherous sea crossing, The Drake Passage, all the while hearing stories of the Swans’ expeditions. In January of that year, the pair had led the first-ever renewable energy expedition to reach the South Pole. They dragged sleds fitted with NASA-designed solar panels, used biofuels for cooking and survived solely on renewable energy. The Antarctica expedition was 100 per cent carbon neutral. While 61-year-old Rob made it halfway, 23-year-old Barney made the full distance, a decision he says was the “hardest of his life”, particularly to “face the terror of what was to come”.

Barney nearly lost toes, but the 56-day historic walk has now etched both their names in polar history. “If we can survive in the harshest place on the planet, then why can’t we get our act together back in the real world, in order to use more renewable energy?” asks Rob Swan.

Swan’s vision for climate change is simple: “It can’t be negative. Because people switch off. And no one I’ve ever met on Earth is inspired by someone who is negative”. Swan urged us to instil wonder in the wild places, as he collaborates with inspiring professionals and companies to live more sustainably and speed up our transition to renewable, clean energies.

What was the most stand out and profound moment for you on that first Antartica expedition?

We do as we said we would. We cut a path through glassy waters to a remote bay far away from the other zodiacs and Dagny, our tall Scandinavian boat driver, cuts the engine. We all take a few photos and I start filming and give Inch, the Singaporean musician among our group, the nod we are all ready for silence. Inch stands, raises her binaural microphone in the air – the one with the funny ears and ear muffs – and she hits record. Anthea closes her eyes. So does Jess. So does Jen and Dagne stares off into the white mountains far in the distance.  We sit in silence. There are no words to say because words are stupid when sitting in an Antarctic seascape staring at ice cathedrals and mountains that tower from the sea. I will find words when I’m back to say about this place. For now, today, we all shut up and listened to the silence of Antarctica.

Antarctica Expedition
Photo © Fraser Morton

What are the most urgent issues facing Antarctica and why is the ocean protection act of the Southern Ocean so crucial to the future of this pristine environment?

To stay wild, Antarctica needs us. This is a fact often misunderstood. We banned whaling, put national interests and claims to one side and have put science and peace first, which must be commended. Just like Earth’s great National Parks – Yosemite, The Great Barrier Reef, The Serengeti to name a few – which needed to be established and routinely patrolled to keep them safe from our own exploitative tendencies. 

The protection of the Antarctic Treaty, which keeps the continent as the last free places on Earth and as a land of science and peace, is a priority. That Treaty, widely regarded as humankind’s greatest conservation achievement, comes up for review in the year 2041. It’s imperative that Treaty is signed again and continued. 

The Southern Ocean marine protected areas (MPAs) have helped protect an area of ocean the size of Europe this year. It’s a historic set of conservation acts for the surroundings waters of the continent, which are severely sensitive to climate change. The instability of ice sheets and the protection of biodiversiy in these waters are crucial to the health of oceans worldwide. 

Why did you start the Two Poles? What is the vision behind this podcast?

I started the Two Poles podcast because while on my Antarctica expedition assignment in 2018, I made a promise to Sir Robert Swan to draw attention to the plight of the polar regions. Everyone on that 2041 expedition was part of his Leadership On The Edge program, which challenges people to make contributions to climate action by using their own skillsets. Through my work with Eco-Business and now the Two Poles podcast and Project Reset, I’m trying to use storytelling as a means of connection to these remote wildernesses. 

Antarctica Expedition
Photo © Fraser Morton

How do you use storytelling as a vehicle for change and activism? 

At our Changing Course exhibition by Eco-Business at the ArtScience museum last October, more than 20,000 people visited, many of them families with young children. The kids went straight for the 360 headsets, picking them up and were in awe of what they were seeing. It’s young people that we have to get hooked on the environment. And it’s working. Look around the world today at the Fridays For Future Movement, Extinction Rebellion and the demands for change from youth movements. That’s happening because of storytelling. From big stories, like Our Planet and David Attenburgh, to small stories that start with a single school girl that goes viral, and to other stories, found in documentaries, in news, in cartoons, in animations, in books. Our cultures and beliefs are based on shared stories that we circulate in societies. And just now, we need more stories of the polar regions and what’s happening in these unravelling regions. We need them now. I think we need more young people involved in those stories and that is a tricky thing to do.

The polar regions can feel like abstract concepts to people living in bustling metropolises worldwide. Who can worry about lonely polar wildernesses when there are so many other pressing issues in society right on people’s doorsteps. That’s the challenge as I see it. Telling stories of the polar regions is actually telling human stories. You need people to go there, and come back with the stories and share them far and wide with people, told in new ways, in new forms, in whatever way can turn heads, and pique interest. That’s my job as I see it. And so that’s what many other people in my line of work are doing making films and telling stories from the polar regions.

There is actually a huge amount of creative work coming out now about the polar regions and that gives me confidence some tides will start to turn in popular opinion and widespread knowledge of issues happening in Antarctica and the Arctic. Project Reset is a time capsule and user-generated documentary project using AI text-to-speech to collect 2020 experiences and predict the future year 2041.

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