Journey to the Edge

UAB Antarctic explorer guides cruises to a changing continent
By Charles Buchanan
Photo of Antarctic landscape
UAB Antarctic explorer guides cruises to a changing continent
By Charles Buchanan

Jim McClintock, Ph.D., loves his job so much that he just can’t stay away from the office. Which is pretty impressive when you consider that one of his workspaces sits 6,898 miles away from Birmingham, at Palmer Station in Antarctica.

McClintock is UAB’s Endowed University Professor in Polar and Marine Biology. He and fellow UAB biology professor Charles Amsler, Ph.D., conduct frequent Antarctic research expeditions supported by the National Science Foundation. Their team often dives into the frigid seas beneath the ice to study chemical ecology and the frontline effects of climate change—particularly ocean acidification—on marine organisms.

But when those expeditions end, McClintock finds it hard to leave the icy continent behind. So every December, he packs his bags and returns to Antarctica to lead a different kind of expedition—aboard an Abercrombie & Kent cruise ship full of curious tourists.

Behind the Scenes of Science

At first, McClintock wasn’t sure about tourism. “Antarctica is a sensitive habitat, and I considered whether it was a good thing to bring people into it,” he says. But “I was impressed that the companies taking tourists are aware of and proactive about environmental issues,” he says. In fact, the entire 10-day Abercrombie & Kent cruise is devoted to the topic, branding itself as the Climate Change Challenge. As expedition leader, McClintock shares his firsthand scientific observations and knowledge with the 200 guests—on board, on shore, and sometimes while piloting them past sky-blue icebergs in a Zodiac inflatable boat. One highlight of the journey is a visit to Palmer Station to meet McClintock’s fellow scientists. “The guests love that they can go there with somebody who works there and knows it,” he says. “They can see a sparkle in my eye when I talk about my friends we’re going to see.”


Antarctica photos from Jim McClintockPhotos courtesy of Jim McClintock (pictured with ice), who has made the long journey to Antarctica 22 times—which includes 14 research expeditions—since his first trip in 1982. The continent's McClintock Point is named for him.

The cruise also is a philanthropic mission. “Everyone on board contributes a small amount of money, which Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy and I use to purchase a piece of equipment that we give to the scientists working on climate change at Palmer Station,” McClintock explains. These pieces of technology, which have included instruments to measure undersea chlorophyll and a camera for studying microscopic plankton, are used extensively, he says, adding that the contribution gives the guests a sense of ownership in the research. The cruise also benefits McClintock’s work at UAB. Guests on the ship can contribute to an Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy climate change fund or a UAB fund that McClintock has set up; both support his research and his students. Birmingham’s Andavo Travel, which books the cruises, also donates a portion of that revenue to aid McClintock’s graduate students. “It’s a neat way to support the university,” he says.

Birmingham On Board

McClintock doesn’t undertake these journeys alone. Over the past eight years, he has encouraged 120 people from Birmingham—from CEOs to UAB students—to join him on the cruises. For the local travelers, the hometown connection makes the Antarctic experience even more exciting and relevant. As for McClintock, he is eager to show Birminghamians what UAB is doing in Antarctica—and provide deeper insights about the urgency and importance of the work.

“Polar environments are very sensitive, and organisms have adapted to a particular temperature,” McClintock says. “You raise the temperature two degrees in Birmingham, and you might not notice. But if you raise the temperature two degrees in Antarctica, it’s huge.” From ecosystem-level shifts that imperil the food chain to community-level changes that threaten wildlife, “guests can see climate change happening like no other place on earth,” he explains. “They experience it in the first person, and they come back better educated about how to educate others.”

The travelers undergo their own changes as well. McClintock enjoys watching the guests’ faces as they glide by “granite walls shooting up 2,000 or 3,000 feet from the water, covered with icy pinnacles and glaciers dripping down,” or as they walk among thousands of squawking Adelie penguins. “The entirety of the place is overwhelming,” he says. “It’s important to get people to Antarctica. You can’t go there and not come back changed. You want to retain that beauty for future generations.”

Five travelers from Birmingham recall their journeys with McClintock, share memorable moments—and photos—and reflect on how they have become ambassadors for Antarctica:


Antarctica photos from Adam VinesPhotos courtesy of Adam Vines (pictured in inset)

Putting Wonder Into Words

Adam Vines is a critically acclaimed poet and creative-writing teacher, but the grandeur of Antarctica has left him speechless—for now. “The stark, obstinate landscape haunts me,” says the assistant professor in UAB’s Department of English. “The beauty is almost too much to bear. The work of the poet is to find language that captures the intricacies and complexities of the subject, providing greater insight into it. I have numerous drafts of poems and a notebook full of impressions, but I have not yet found the best approach to write about my experiences.”

Vines journeyed to Antarctica in December 2013 after editing Lost Antarctica, McClintock’s book on climate change. Determined to experience the icy world behind the words, he made a “visceral connection” with his destination, he says, recalling the roar and “overwhelming fish smell tinged with iron” from thousands of nesting penguins and the “charged radiance of blue emanating from icebergs.” He even took a dip in the just-above-freezing water. The most extraordinary moment, however, was his close encounter with a pod of humpback whales. For over an hour, he watched them feed, breach, and slap the water with their tails from an inflatable boat just a few meters away. “I will never forget those huge eyes looking at me,” he says.

The trip to Antarctica “humbled me even further and made me even more of an environmentalist,” Vines says. “It still occupies my senses and my imagination.” As for the poems, “they will come, though they will take some time, maybe years,” he says. “I am still ruminating and distilling.”


Antarctica photo from Bruce and Michele KorfPhoto courtesy of (left to right) Michele and Bruce Korf

Alien But Not Immune

While penguins and whales dominate the memories of most Antarctic visitors, Bruce Korf, M.D., Ph.D., also can’t forget the unusual fish without red blood cells. “It was like an adventure through an alien world,” says Korf, chair of the UAB Department of Genetics, who traveled to the continent with his wife, Michele, a national expert in educational-media production, in 2006. “I was fascinated by the way in which species have evolved to adapt to the most unlikely of environments to support life,” he says.

The Korfs had always wanted to visit Antarctica, drawn by its isolation and pristine beauty, and the opportunity to travel with McClintock and other members of the UAB community was irresistible, says Michele Korf. Highlights included traversing the Lemaire Channel near midnight, with dusky light illuminating walls of ice on either side of the boat, as well as more intimate moments. “Late one afternoon, I walked the ship’s promenade for a long time, watching the light change on the water, the ice, and horizon and braving the wind,” she recalls. “It was a chance to be contemplative and to see myself in relationship to the vastness of my surroundings. It was very beautiful and humbling.”

Another unforgettable image: watching glaciers collapse into the sea. “I had read books on Antarctica and worked with polar scientists on educational programming, but there is nothing like seeing environmental effects firsthand and experiencing the impressive attention to preserving a delicate balance,” says Michele.

Since their return to Alabama, the Korfs have been eager to share their experiences. Bruce Korf invited an Antarctic scientist to speak to his genetics colleagues about the unusual flora and fauna. “There is much to be learned from the genomics of Antarctic species in the understanding of human health and disease,” he says.

Michele Korf, who then directed distance learning and outreach for the University of Alabama System, collaborated with McClintock, his team, and Alabama Public Television to develop science learning modules for middle-school students, which eventually reached a national audience through PBS. Two virtual field trips also gave Alabama high-school students a live window into Palmer Station, where they could watch McClintock’s colleagues work, ask them questions, and learn what inspires them.

“This trip reminded me how we are intimately tied to what happens all over the world,” says Bruce Korf. His wife agrees. “Antarctica may seem like an alien environment, but it’s not immune to our actions,” she says. “And so we bear a responsibility for that.”


Antarctica photos from Luke StannardPhotos courtesy of Luke Stannard (in white shirt), pictured with a group of UAB students

Spiritual Experience

“The thought of going to a largely uninhabited continent and seeing nature the way God created it was incredibly inspiring to me,” says Luke Stannard, who visited Antarctica with McClintock on a UAB Study Away trip in 2009. A veteran of other UAB trips to the Bahamas and the Galapagos Islands, Stannard “knew the extremely high quality of the trips and the amazing instruction and learning opportunities available through them.”

But the mathematics major was not prepared to be charmed by penguins. “One of my favorite experiences was standing very still and watching a line of penguins gradually get closer to me—some passing within three feet of me,” Stannard says. He lost count of the number of photos he took of the waddling birds. “I never felt like I had enough,” he says.

The continent’s drastic temperature changes—from 50 degrees to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit in 20 minutes—also wowed him. But the most striking aspect of Antarctica was its tranquility, Stannard says. “It was so silent that you could hear the wind moving, ice cracking, and every other sound of nature. This, against a pure white backdrop, was incredibly peaceful.”

Stannard, who calls himself a climate-change skeptic, says the trip didn’t sway his opinion, “but it did give me a greater appreciation for being conscious about how we treat our environment,” he says. “Protecting and fostering the environment is always helpful and beneficial, whatever your views are concerning climate change. It’s a win-win situation. If climate change is correct, then this would help slow or reverse it; if it is not, then we still have a cleaner, better-kept environment.”

Stannard graduated from UAB in 2010 and now works with a ministry in Hungary. But the peace and beauty of Antarctica are never far from his mind. “Having the opportunity to share, both in words and pictures, the beauty of God’s creation has been wonderful,” he says. The trip “left me more amazed and in awe of God’s creativity.”


Antarctica photos from Dee HellmersPhotos courtesy of Dee Hellmers, pictured with Timothy Bear

Field Trip of a Lifetime

Teacher Dee Hellmers can thank a teddy bear for introducing her to the wonders of Antarctica. In 2000, McClintock and his research team took Timothy Bear, the traveling mascot for Hellmers’s second-grade class at Homewood’s Hall-Kent Elementary School, to Palmer Station. The scientists chronicled the bear’s adventures and answered the children’s questions via e-mail during the trip, and McClintock visited the class after the group returned to Alabama with Timothy in tow. “My students and I were instantly hooked!” Hellmers says. Over the years, her classes looked forward to annual visits from McClintock and to their Antarctica project, which included research, poetry, art, and the construction of a large 3-D diorama. Hellmers also supplied materials for UAB’s Antarctica web site for other classroom educators to use.

In 2007, Hellmers followed in Timothy Bear’s footsteps, joining McClintock on a cruise. She was still teaching, though—e-mailing letters and photos to her students throughout her trip. “I shared firsthand experiences they would not find in textbooks,” Hellmers says; these included a “water ballet” between two humpback whales and a rocking, rolling crossing of the Drake Passage that nearly tossed Hellmers out of bed. “Describing the comical antics and curiosity of the penguins made my students laugh,” she says. “Seeing the whimsically shaped icebergs seemed almost magical and surreal to my seven- and eight-year-olds. Above all, I wanted them to know Antarctica is a special place that needs to be respected and preserved.”

Hellmers recalls the “thunderous sounds” of massive ice chunks breaking free from glaciers and crashing into the sea. Global climate change has made that a common occurrence, she says. Her group also experienced snow and sleet—weather that once was rare in Antarctica, Earth’s driest continent. “Seeing this firsthand and hearing experts including Dr. McClintock talk about climate change have made me more aware of the far-reaching consequences, not only for Antarctica but also for the entire planet,” Hellmers says.

Though she retired in 2011, Hellmers continues to share information about Antarctica and photos from her trip with several grades at Hall-Kent. “I have become one of Antarctica’s biggest cheerleaders,” she says. “Through education, perhaps the next generation will understand more about global climate change and work to seek solutions.”


• Learn more about McClintock’s Abercrombie & Kent cruises by contacting him or Jane Hazelrig at Andavo Travel.

• Give something and change everything for UAB climate-change research conducted by McClintock and his biology students.


Published December 2014