Student goes on the adventure of a lifetime to see the effects of global warming, writes Lai Ying-kit
Joe Wang Hongrui was so excited at seeing penguins, seals and whales up close, he forgot about the seasickness he had suffered on his trip to the Antarctic. But despite the excitement, the trip was not for fun - Wang had headed south early this month to see how global warming has devastated the continent.
The 22-year-old student from Hong Kong Polytechnic University travelled with a team of 50 explorers from around the world. During the journey, Wang witnessed the natural beauty of the area near the South Pole and how rising temperatures had damaged its environment and affected people's livelihoods.
The two-week expedition - from March 5 to 18 - saw Wang and his fellow explorers hike on ice-covered mountains, look at wildlife and visit scientific research stations set up by different countries on the Antarctic Peninsula, the western tip of the continent. They also underwent leadership training and learned about environmental protection.
Wang says before setting foot on the continent, his knowledge of environmental protection came mostly from books, the internet and academic talks. He had also taken part in green campaigns in Hong Kong. But the first-hand experience - setting foot on the ice and seeing for himself - gave him the most solid idea.
'I saw icebergs falling into the sea every day. The noise was loud and clear because the region was really quiet,' Wang says. 'The sight was shocking.'
He adds there were many floating pieces of ice along the expedition. 'Our guides showed us pictures taken a few years back at the locations. They used to be icebergs but have broken into bits and pieces due to increasing temperatures.'
The weather was highly unstable. Average temperatures were about minus 10 degrees Celsius. Their expedition began with a rough voyage at sea. The team set off from Ushuaia, the southern tip of Argentina. They sailed on Russian icebreaker 'Akademik Loffe' for three days to reach the Antarctic.
'The sea was rough and the wind was very strong. The ship rocked despite its size. We all became sick,' Wang says.
The expedition was organised by international green group 2041 and led by environmental activist Robert Swan. The British explorer is an advocate of Antarctic protection and renewable energy. He was the first explorer to reach both the South and North Poles on foot. He trekked to the South Pole in 1986, and to the North Pole three years later.
Environmental experts on board the icebreaker told the participants that the melting icebergs meant the loss of habitat for native animals, such as penguins and sea lions, and plants.
Wang says this year's higher-than-average temperatures threatened the lives of a group of baby penguins. They were born a week later than in previous years, and will probably be unable to change their feathers in time.
'They still had down on half of their bodies so they could not swim. When the sea around their island freezes up, they will be trapped there and they will die,' he says.
The student learned a lesson about wildlife when he saw how 'survival of the fittest' worked. 'A small penguin was standing in front of me when a seal emerged from the water and grabbed it.'
Wang, now a Year Three student of logistics, came to Hong Kong from Xian for university three years ago. He was inspired by a talk Swan had given to explore environmental issues, such as climate change and the green house effect.
Late last year, Wang learned about the international expedition online and decided to apply. In February, he was told he had qualified. He received a full scholarship from Coca Cola, one of the sponsors of the trip, to fund his voyage, estimated to be about HK$250,000.
He says after this trip, he is determined to lead a green lifestyle to protect the planet.
'I will use less paper, less electricity and less water,' he says. 'This trip made me realise that how small man is and yet how huge their impact on the environment is.'
Towards the end of their trip, the explorers had a chance to camp in the wild. But instead of staying in the tents they put up, all of them, including Wang, slept in the wilderness to be closer to nature.
'We saw countless stars and comets. It was a wonderful sight. Although it was very windy, we stayed outside to admire the beauty of nature,' Wang says.