Summit Club member Gavin Marshall calls himself a “wannabe adventurer”. In fact, the Sydney-based New Zealander has climbed the highest peaks on four continents, volunteered as a paramedic and for Search and Rescue. An accountant and project manager by day, Gavin took 10 months off in 2014 to chase his goal of scaling the seven summits.
In March 2016, Gavin embarked on his latest adventure, joining a 14-person expedition to sail to the remote Antarctic outpost of Heard Island to collect rock samples, photograph shrinking glaciers and conduct a beach debris survey.
Where is Heard Island?
Heard Island is one of the most remotes places on earth. It’s an Australian Territory located deep in the Southern Ocean, 3,500km to the south west of Australia.
The island is one of the most biologically pristine areas in the world; home to a significant population of penguins, giant petrel, seals, and elephant seals. It’s also home to Australia’s only two active volcanoes and the slopes of Big Ben peak are covered in no less than 12 glaciers.
A journey into the unknown
When we set sail from Cape Town, I quickly realised that I wasn’t mentally prepared for 12 days of travel by boat to Heard Island. It took me two days to get over the motion sickness, but then the boredom had set in. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Those were the landmark times during the day and in between I was either asleep or lying in my bunk reading. It was a challenge to stay engaged mentally, and I found myself thinking about the people who regularly make this journey into this frozen wilderness. We arrived at our destination after a little over 12 days at sea.
I had entirely underestimated Heard Island. My first glimpse of the island was the cliff line silhouette of Laurens Peninsula, poking through the mist and cloud. Below, the waves crashed onto rocks. We had a near complete view of Big Ben as we anchored in Atlas Cove on the first night and it was ENORMOUS. The crevasse slots of the glaciers cut up to the summit from the lower slopes between ribs of exposed rock. It was rugged beyond expectation. Sensory overload was an ongoing issue.
An unpleasant surprise
One of the most startling things we noticed was the amount of plastic debris on the western beaches, especially around Erratic Point. We were dismayed at the level and type of waste that was washing up on the island.
One of our commitments from the trip was to conduct a survey in conjunction with Australia’s Tangaroa Blue Foundation, to determine the scope of marine debris and pollution on the shores of Heard Island. Tangaroa Blue estimate that there are 18 pieces of plastic per square meter of ocean. Being south of the major Southern Ocean currents, Heard Island should be free from plastic debris. Sadly, we found that this was not the case.
Moved to action
I was stunned by my first glimpses of the cliff lines of Lauren’s Peninsula, but the most vivid picture I now have in my mind is of all the plastic drink bottles floating in the water at Erratic Point. I did not expect this simple data collection activity to have the emotional impact on me that it had. I felt sick. It reminded me of a rubbish dump. I now understand the Tangaroa Blue message: “if all we do is clean-up, that is all we will ever do”. We have to do more.
To solve the problem of pollution caused by marine debris, we need to look at how we can stop the flow of litter at source, and help support local communities to tackle this problem. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see this amazing place. But, I also feel moved to take action, otherwise future generations may not be so fortunate.