26 Jan 2024
by Ashleigh Kitchiner

Antarctica Expedition Journey

IMarEST member, Ashleigh Kitchiner talks about her recent Antarctica expedition and her passion for the marine environment. 

In the serene, untouched landscapes of the Earth's polar regions, where icy winds dance over vast expanses of shimmering ice and majestic glaciers, lies an ecosystem so delicate yet robust, captivating the hearts of those who seek to understand its secrets. Enter me, yes me, Ashleigh Kitchiner, a biologist with a northern accent!  I never thought I would be on this journey or that I’d be lucky enough to see these pristine environments in my life, never mind through my career! My journey has taken me to the farthest corners of the world, navigating the frozen frontiers of both the Arctic and Antarctic. 

I’ve always loved the ocean, for me, it was where all the answers were to be found, on a personal level but also on a scientific level. For example, anti-cancer treatments: did you know that bowhead whales live up to 250 years old, and they have really low rates of cancer, which is not expected in a mammal that lives this long? This is because there are thousands of cells dividing over a long space of time, meaning the risk of cancer is higher. Yet, these animals have low rates of cancer. The reasons for this are currently being investigated and who knows if what we find can help our survival. My desire to unravel the mysteries hidden in the ocean has fuelled my relentless pursuit to explore and study marine environments. 

Since graduating, I have worked for organisations and as a freelancer. I currently work as a freelancer in a few different roles. I am an Expedition Guide, Marine Mammal Specialist and offshore observer in the energy industry. As a Marine Mammal Specialist, I am primarily desk-based. As an offshore observer in the energy industry, my work is focused in developed, busy areas offshore. I thoroughly enjoy working in industry as I believe being dedicated to environmental stewardship allows industry to apply best practice mitigation and enhancement strategies. I also work as an Expedition Guide as this allows me to visit some of the remotest parts of the world such as the Arctic and Antarctica.  

The Arctic, with its stunning vistas and diverse wildlife, welcomed me with open arms. I was able to see healthy polar bears, bowhead whales, blue whales and an Arctic fox, just to name a few of the species I recorded. Every moment spent among the ice floes and frigid waters revealed new insights into the interconnectedness of life in this fragile ecosystem; however, it was the Antarctic, a land of extremes with its colossal ice shelves and towering icebergs, that truly captured my imagination.  
"Explore the extremes, stand as a beacon of change, and remind others that within the depths of their curiosity lies the power to transform the world for the better."
Amidst the formidable cold, I witnessed the resilience of species like the king penguins, enduring the harshest conditions to nurture their young. I marvelled at the intricate web of life that thrived beneath the Antarctic ice, discovering species that evolved to thrive in this extreme environment, such as the Adelie penguin, Antarctic shag and Snowy Sheathbills.  

Yet, beyond the scientific discoveries, it is the profound lessons learned from these polar odysseys by people such as Ernest Shackleton, who’s buried in South Georgia, and the countless explorers who have made Antarctica their life, that resonated deeply within me. The resilience of humans surviving against all odds highlights the human spirit’s astounding strength to overcome challenges. Returning from my polar ventures, I know more about these ecosystems, but I also carry a message of hope and responsibility. I wish to share my experiences, urging the world to protect these fragile ecosystems, and emphasising the urgency of global action to combat climate change and preserve the wonders of our planet. 

I hope my story inspires a generation of young scientists, adventurers, and conservationists, igniting a passion to safeguard our planet's precious corners. I never thought I would get these opportunities, as a working-class child of a single-parent family, yet here I am!  I dared to dream, and you should too!