Mayday at the Bottom of the World

[Personal note: People often ask what prompted me to found PACEs Connection, which began as ACEs Connection in 2012. There are two parts to this answer: the professional part—how ACEs Connection grew out of my reporting on violence epidemiology. And the personal one, which I haven’t written about in great detail until now. It appears on HiddenCompass.net, a remarkable travel site that calls itself “the antidote to clickbait”.]

Photo: Fred Olivier/Alamy

CONTENT WARNING: This story contains graphic content and descriptions of sexual abuse involving a minor. Reader discretion is advised.

In my beginning is my end. — T.S. Eliot

Friday, July 24, 1998 / 2:29 a.m.
Aboard The RSV AURORA AUSTRALIS
100 miles off the Antarctic coast

One long, ear-thrumming alarm jerks me from the edge of sleep. A fire drill? At this hour?

I struggle from beneath the blankets of my narrow bunk, open the cabin door, and wince at the bright light of the ship’s empty companionway.

“Is this a drill?” I ask a scientist who stumbles past. He sleepily shakes his head and shrugs.

The alarm stops. I pause in the doorway and will the silence to settle in.

detest middle-of-the-night surprises. Always have.

~~

The edge of the mattress tilts.

But it’s the breathing that sets my heart to racing.

~~

The alarm erupts again.

“Attention! Attention, please! There’s a small fire in the engine room.” The captain’s voice, tense and remote, issues from the ship’s loudspeakers. “Please muster to the heli-deck.”

My roommate, a penguin researcher, shakes herself awake and rolls out of her bunk. She steps into her “freezer” suit, designed to withstand temperatures as low as minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 C). I don a turtleneck sweater, pullover, jacket, long underwear, sweatpants, socks, and wool-lined boots.

I start through the doorway and — for a reason that I will never understand — dash back into the room to grab a small flashlight. I bought it in Hobart, Tasmania, the port we’d left eight days earlier, to quiet some mind-gremlins that had been shouting at me, “Don’t go! Don’t go! Go home! Go home!”

But my home was 9,000 miles away.

I’m on a seven-week expedition aboard the research icebreaker RSV Aurora Australis with several dozen scientists, technicians, and crew to explore the winter sea ice around Antarctica — a journey I’m chronicling for the Discovery Channel.

We’re exploring one of Nature’s most mysterious phenomena: Every year, starting in May, 20 square miles of sea freeze each minute in the ocean surrounding the Antarctic continent. By July, enough sea ice will form to double the size of Antarctica.

Life abounds in this ephemeral world, but for humans, it’s one of the most isolated, forbidding places on the planet.

I trudge with others single file toward the stern. As we emerge onto the helicopter deck, I smell smoke.

It’s frigid outside. Thick clouds solidify the moonless night. Floodlights punch holes of illumination onto the deck, which is covered with a thin layer of snow. Lowered lifeboats crouch in shadows along the railings.

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