Shortly before our three week long voyage to Antarctica with the inspiring leadership program Homeward Bound, we were told to expect little or no internet connectivity on the ship. While it was definitely daunting, I diligently prepared for being cut off from the rest of the world. I downloaded the recommended materials for the onboard program and some movies to chill during any free time. I created video messages for my kids and talked with my research students about what to do and who to talk to while being away. I told my colleagues that I would be ‘away’, as in ‘for real’, at that icy place with truly no wifi. For the first time in my life I worked out how to use an automated response with my work email to let anyone contacting me know about my impending unavailability.
This process provided a lot more gravitas to my departure than I had anticipated since I sometimes felt like I was never to return. Leaving instructions with people, anticipating various future needs of myself and others, and just trying to make sure that nothing would be accidentally forgotten about took major bandwidth and was just exhausting at times.
On the day of my departure, I had worked out most of what I thought required advanced notice but I also had that sinking feeling about having forgotten something. But there I was, about to fly to the end of the Earth — what could possibly go wrong? I let out a seemingly random big sigh in the Uber on the way to the airport trying to prevent my throat from closing up. Staring nervously out the window I remembered that part of our upcoming Homeward Bound leadership training and practice was about leading in uncertainty and being ok with letting some things go. My first lesson had happened even before embarkation and I only barely passed.
Fast forward to being on the Island Sky, one of the first announcements from the onboard staff was about how to use the StarLink satellite internet throughout the ship. Soon after, we also learned what could cause possible disruptions although they were expected to be only temporary, if at all occurring.
With the satellite in use being located in an orbit near the equator, apparently, once we would be south enough, large icebergs could potentially block the signal coming in at a low angle. While my general nerd brain found this quite interesting, the irony didn’t get lost on my astronomy brain. The StarLink satellite fleet that brings internet to remote places around the globe including ships in Antartica are the very same ones that are causing massive problems for astronomers. They are relatively close and brightly reflect sunlight, making them very visible in the night sky as they orbit the Earth thus altering this natural wonder forever for humanity. Flying in formation, they also cross through astronomical images, impacting our data collection processes and scientific research.
There I was, holding the little card in my hands with the code for internet access. Somehow, it ended in the bedside table drawer without too much thinking. I only realized later that all that prep work had somehow created a pathway for me to truly let go of the need to constantly check email, social media and whatnot online. It was surprising but I was so ok with not knowing what my inbox looked like.
However, about halfway through the trip, a sense of obligation overcame me. So I somewhat reluctantly tried to access my work email ‘just to check’. But thanks to two-factor authentication and no working phone down there, this urge resolved itself on the spot. I’ll be forever grateful for this technology doing its job and preventing unwanted access.
In the end, I did used the onboard internet in the second half of the trip for connecting with my family and children by personal email and even FaceTime (yes, it was fast enough for that), several social media posts, and various google searches about Antartica and places we visited.
Since we had non-stop program from about 7am to 10pm on most days, there was no time to even think about watching any of my downloaded movies. A full day after disembarkation, I finally dared to re-establish my access. But that rush, that constant need, to know at all times what was happening, seemed to have stayed in Antartica. For the first time in my life, I was ok with leaving my emails for later. But I also knew that the sooner I’d deal with the onslaught of what turned out to be 'only' about 1000 emails, the sooner I’d be reacquainted with modern civilization. There was no escaping that.
Since then, I will say that I’ve had a hard time catching the email train. I still have unread emails from that time, and over the holiday season I’ve had no issues with leaving my inbox become some untended garden in need of pruning. It’s actually been quite liberating to not worry about it so much.
So if I have ignored you over the past two months, please know that this has nothing to do with you and everything with my new more Antarctica-chill self. But know that you’re in my thoughts and heart, just not my fingertips. Like in the real before times, before we were all glued to our smartphones. Maybe we can just call instead to actually connect?