Featured Video: Under the Ice of Antarctica

Rachel Heckerman has a strange love between art and science, and through her work has been finding unique ways to bridge the gap between the two. Her interest in both fields have led her to work from the Amazon of South America to the icy terrain of Antarctica. You can see more of her on her website or check out her photos on Instagram.

First thing’s first — how did you wind up washing dishes at McMurdo Station?

Back in 2018, I was on the explore page on Instagram, when I went down a rabbit hole of random posts. I wound up on a post about this guy that had worked at the South Pole for a year, and I was so shocked by this idea that you could work in Antarctica, that I immediately sent him a direct message. Asking him how this was possible, and what he did for work, he told me there was a job where you could wash dishes, and be a dining attendant as a support contractor for the science community. He said the work itself wasn’t glamorous, but the experience of being there was unlike anything he had experienced before. I applied the very same day to that job, but after reading about how competitive the job was, I really didn’t think that I would actually hear back from the company. But I did hear back and got the job. I have always dreamed of going to Antarctica since I was little, but never would have thought that I would wind up living there for almost half a year. 

penguin lying on belly on ice field

How did the idea for this film come together?

The whole thing was very serendipitous. I was on my way to the cafeteria for lunch when I ran into somebody that I had only met a few days earlier. It was my first week at McMurdo Station, on my first day off so I didn’t know too many people yet. I asked if I could sit with him to eat, and he agreed. When we sat down at the table, I found out that everyone else sitting there were either scientists or scuba divers. After chatting with them for a bit, they invited me to join them at their dive hut, and watch them dive through a hole in the ice. While I was down there, I instinctually just started recording the whole thing but didn’t really think about what I’d use the footage for. 

I wound up becoming friends with these two teams for the rest of the season, and that’s when the idea to create a short film about them began to emerge. They were really kind and agreed to me interviewing them. I really had no idea how I wanted to tell this story, so I just asked as many questions as I could think of and recorded as much as I could in my down time around the station. When I got home to edit, all the elements slowly started to tell its own story. It was really cool to watch it unfold so organically. 

It seems like the scientists and divers down here totally let you into their world. What was it like having an “outsider’s” perspective on all this, if that’s how it felt?

To be honest, the whole thing felt like it was happening in an alternate reality. It still hadn’t hit me yet that I was even in Antarctica, so when I was sitting in this little hut staring down this hole in the ice, looking at the crazy blue water with scuba divers waving up to me, I was like “Is this actually happening?”. In the background of a lot of my original footage in the dive hut, you can hear me saying things like “I can’t believe this is real.” “This is incredible.” “I’m like freaking out right now.” It still doesn’t feel real. 

What challenges did production pose? Did you have to learn how to dive Antarctic style, etc?

Just to clarify, I didn’t go diving myself. All the footage of the diving underwater was graciously given to me by the divers! But there were definitely other challenges. Everyone’s contract is different, and some people were leaving the continent before others. This is something I didn’t realize right away, so I wound up scrambling to get all the interviews finished before everyone left. I also didn’t want to be disruptive to anyone in their work because their main focus is their research, so I wanted to be respectful of their time and schedules.

Beginning to edit the film was really hard, because I had never made a short film before. I actually had never really interviewed anyone before this experience, so it was really hard to know where to begin, especially with 4 interviews. It was incredibly overwhelming, but I kept working through it, and slowly it started to come together. The best moments were when a video clip and song would mesh perfectly together, and you can just feel it emotionally. Those would always spark inspiration, and then I would get a big wave of motivation to keep going. 

How does the feeling of being at this extreme end of the earth compare to any other “off the beaten path” adventures you’ve had?

I think the whole thing was just very trippy. When you’re inside the station, you lose a sense of where you actually are. You might think you’re indoors somewhere back at home. But then you step outside and the cold hits you, it’s all white, and you might see a whale or penguin in the distance– it’s really just the weirdest sensation. I don’t really know how to accurately put it into words. 

I think most people would imagine Antarctica being desolate, barren, and harsh, to say the least — but this video really gives the sense that it teems with life, from the ecosystems under the ice to the scientific community. How did making this change your perception of the continent?

It’s very interesting considering how the landscape is so isolated, and intense, but the community itself is one of the most lively, and interesting communities I’ve ever been a part of. 

You’re surrounded by these talented minds, witty senses of humor, and it’s very fascinating because you’re experiencing this very strange existence together. There’s something really special about that. 

I definitely thought that I would feel the sense of isolation and that would just be something I had to accept while I was down there, but I felt so socially stimulated the entire time and it was never boring. Towards the end of my season, there were over 1,200 people. There are science lectures, language exchanges, art gallery shows, knitting clubs, and even a music festival called “Ice Stock”. 

What do you want people to take away when they see this video?

I think the main thing I want people to take away is that these crazy things exist at the bottom of the world. I never would have thought that people could scuba dive in Antarctica, and that a species called sea spiders exist. When it comes down to it, I just wanted people to know about it. 

I also wanted to bring attention that there are big shifts and changes happening with the climate in Antarctica. And the scientists still don’t necessarily know the direct impacts it will make on the sea creatures below the ice. I didn’t want it to be a sad story, because people tend to turn a blind eye when things are sad. Rather, I wanted it to be about the people that care about this strange world under the ice, and the incredible things they do to learn more about it.

Would you ever consider working in Antarctica for a once in a lifetime experience? Let us know on Twitter!

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Passion Passport’s community includes explorers, creators and storytellers from around the globe. Their travel experiences have challenged them, shaped their perspective of the world and given them a better sense of who they are. Both online and off, Passion Passport offers the opportunity to connect with one another, to share those pivotal moments, and to travel with purpose.