Where is Felicity right now...?

Failing to find basking sharks in the Hebrides...

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The waters around the Isles of Coll and Tiree of the Scottish inner Hebrides are a hotspot for the UKs largest fish - the basking shark. Not much is known about basking sharks generally and so no one is really sure why basking sharks gather in this particular spot in such great numbers but they return year on year throughout July and August. The ‘Shark Squad’ based on Coll have been taking limited numbers of guests out to see the sharks, creating greater awareness with the aim of establishing a marine protected area. The numbers of sharks spotted on a regular basis are pretty astounding….stories of 30 or 50 sightings in a day are common and we even heard of a drone survey around Coll that counted over 900! That is not a typo, they said nine hundred!

Which makes it even more gutting to admit that in a week of solid searching we saw just one. During the final hour of our final day, as the boat was relunctantly heading for home, came the cry, ‘Shark!’

The No-Sharks Squad….

The No-Sharks Squad….

It was a fleeting view but no less thrilling for that. The fin rising proud from the surface, preceeded by the lump of the fish’s nose and followed by the slender spike of its curved tail. It fed just under the surface for a minute or two, circling, before dissappearing - reemerging a few minutes later and then gone for good.

There was no chance to get in the water despite the best efforst of the shark squad - and no time to search further - our time was up. Still, the sight of the ~7m shark is ingrained and definitely worth the wait.

Braving Siberia in the summer...

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I have been very fortunate over the years to have visited many different regions of the vast swathe of wilderness we loosely term ‘Siberia’.

I am a definite fan.

But I have only ever experienced this part of the world in the winter, when it is a playground of extraordinary frozen wonders and in the spring, when, by anyone elses standards, it is still pretty much winter (I traversed Lake Baikal in March, which is spring in Siberia, but the lake was still frozen with a solid layer of ice and felt very much like ‘winter’!)

So it felt like discovering this part of the world anew when I returned to Yakutia for the third time in my life, but in high summer. Standing in the central square of Yakutsk, the regional capital, under the outstretched arm of the ubiquitous statue of Lenin I was surrounded not by passersby in fur coats stretching from neck to ankle and sheltering their faces from the frost but by families in shorts and summer dresses eating ice cream and having picnics. It was a lot to take in!

Happy to report that Siberia in the summer is a lush paradise of fertile steppe dotted with wild flowers, rolling green hills and forest alive with the chirp of birdsong and the chatter of chipmunks….

Global Exploration Summit 2019, Lisboa, Portugal

Three cheers for The Explorers Club who organised a completely epic three-day event in Lisbon last week celebrating Global Exploration, past, present and future. Speakers included the first and second people to reach the deepest point on Earth, the woman preparing to send a probe to explore a completely metal world (Psyche) and the man who holds the current record for the most space walks…and me (a highlight for many I am sure!). We also heard from Bertrand Piccard and Fabien Costeau, both with fascinating family legacy…and then Julian Lennon arrives…

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It was the event that just kept giving; after two very full days hearing everything from what it feels like to be lowered into a fiery pit of zillion-degree hell, to how it feels to discover a cave full of bones that disproved every theory in your branch of science … we learnt how to mummify a rabbit.

But perhaps what was especially great about GLEX was the opportunity for brilliant people from totally different disciplines to get to know each other (over endless glasses of free-flowing wine). We will probably never know precisely how many or how vital the projects that will come into being thanks to last week, but I’m sure they will be AMAZING!

Svalbard

It felt strange to be back in Longyearbyen. The last time I was there was with the Euro-Arabian expedition team having just returned from the North Pole. It was peak winter season, full of snowmobiles. This time, though, I was in town to get on a ship and take part in a journey around the coast of the archipelago. We had a wonderful trip with plenty of Walrus and sunshine and even a Polar Bear on the ice beneath a glacier front…

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Trekking in Ethiopia

I had insisted that we wouldn’t need the donkeys - but as we set off into the Agame Mountains in the heat, I was grateful to be able to offload my bag into the care of the waiting donkey drivers. Our journey was part of a ‘community trekking’ initiative that tries to involve as many local people as possible in order to spread the benefit of low-impact tourism. We stayed in basic community guesthouses and were accompanied each day by a local farmer who would pass us on into the care of the next community and so on. The system had immediate benefit for us as we were invited to a local ‘holy ceremony’ - a sort of party in a nearby farmstead - and we were also taken to see some of the famous-for-not-being-famous rock-hewn churches. There are more than 175 scattered around the eastern Tigray region and although most continue to be used as places of worship, there is still an element of secrecy that hangs around them. Unknown to the outside world until the 1970s, there is still much controversy about dating the churches and the artwork they contain, the story of each individual church wound up in local folklore and Ethiopia’s extraordinary history, so that it becomes difficult to work out what is fact and what is unlikely.

The churches were extraordinary in their location and construction as well as their character - each so different from the last - but equally extraordinary was the scenery we walked through. From mountains the mauve colour of blackcurrent sherbet to table-top summit plateaus that seemed to float above the fiery valleys below, forests of cactus so aged the trunks looked like bark and rock the reds and orange of the Grand Canyon…it all looked far more Wild West than my expectation of east Africa had been.

Ethiopia is a country that needs more than one trip to explore it, we saw one tiny part and a part that appears to be radically different from any other part ! So, clearly, I need to go back!


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Speaking at #PolarDay2019...

Congratulations to Eric Post, Pernille Sporon Boving and the Polar Forum at UC Davis in California for putting on yet another thought-provoking, inclusive and memorable Polar Day.

I was completely thrilled to be involved again (I spoke at Polar Day at Penn State a handful of years ago) alongside a stellar line-up of polar presenters. First was Hester Blum, Professor of English, Americanologist and polar devotee who set eyes on her newly published book for the first time at the event: The News At The Ends Of The Earth - The Print Culture of Polar Exploration. Hester shared just a tiny amount of the paper ephemera from polar expeditions that she has been carefully studying over the last decade including menus, newspapers, play bills and cairn notes.

Next was Liz Bradfield, who coincidentally also saw her new book for the first time at the event. ‘Toward Antarctica: An Exploration’ is a volume of poetry, travel journal and photography inspired in its style and format by Basho, a Japanese poet of the 1600s. I was first introduced to Liz’s work by Hester, so it was a real treat to meet her and hear her read from her new book.

Before it was my turn (I spoke about last year’s Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition), Lily Simonson introduced us to her work - some of which was on display around the room. She traced her journey from painting lobsters, moths and Yeti Crabs (white hairy crabs from the deep ocean) to diving in deep sea submersibles and under Antarctic sea ice to depict otherworldly sub-ice worlds and polar sea creatures.

It was such a pleasure to be part of an event that took such a holistic approach to the polar regions, beautifully blending art, the humanities, science and exploration to give a much more rounded view of the Arctic and Antarctica. At the heart of it though was a committed and positive determination to ensure the well-being of these regions that we each care so deeply about.

In particular, for me, one phrase rang out - stated by Eric right at the outset of the day: What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.

This is a stark reminder that the consequences of changes in the Arctic environment will be felt globally, providing one more reason why we each - no matter where we live or come from - have reason to be informed and engaged in the fate of the polar regions.

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Celebrating launch of Wild Women!

Couldn't be more chuffed to have a chapter of my book 'Alone in Antarctica' included in this new anthology of travel writing edited by Mariella Frostrup. Other authors include some of my all-time heroes; Gertrude Bell, Mary Wollstonecraft...as well as modern-day heroes like Lois Pryce, Junko Tabei and even some names I haven't come across before. The book is yet another demonstration that women have always been explorers and adventurers, we just don't celebrate them nearly often enough.

I went along to the book launch in London last night and met five of the other living contributors to the anthology; Christina Dodwell, Lois Pryce, Catherine Fairweather, Bella Pollen and Josie Dew.

Even if I wasn’t in it, this book would be a joy to own. It will certainly sit proudly on my bookshelf at home ready to be used anytime I am in need of some extra motivation.
You can buy the book from Waterstones at: https://www.waterstones.com/book/wild-women/mariella-frostrup/9781788540018

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Walking a frozen river...

Years ago I heard of the tiny Himalayan region of Zanskar in the far North of India, which was completely cut off from the rest of the world during winter when the mountain passes were blocked by snow, except for a narrow river gorge whose waters froze, forming an icy highway link.

For years slow progress has been made on a road to link Zanskar permanently to India all year round, but today, the road is still far short and the frozen river remains the only way to get in and out of Zanskar during the winter. There is a helicopter service but - as we were to find out - this is for emergencies only and the waiting list for non-emergency passengers is a long one.

The frozen river is called the ‘chadar’ meaning blanket and i’ve just got back from hiking the chadar into Zanskar (and back out again) with a group of women gathered on Facebook. The Chadar and Zanskar has undoubtedly changed unrecognisably from the place I read about all those years ago but I was still blown away - like countless others before me - by the beauty of the place and the culture. I was also deeply grateful for the good company of the group, which goes to show that Facebook is not completely populated by axe-murderers and weirdos.

The Himalayas now loom large in my daydreams and I’m already starting to plot other journeys in the region…here’s to future Momos!

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The non-axe-murderers of Facebook and our superstar Zanskari guide, Angla.

The non-axe-murderers of Facebook and our superstar Zanskari guide, Angla.

Talking at schools up and down the UK

It’s always lots of fun to share with schools my experiences of Antarctica and the Arctic - plus I get to feel that I am doing my bit to inspire the next generation. So it was a real joy spending a couple of months concentrating on visiting schools of all ages in various parts of the country as they completed projects on the polar world. In some workshops we designed new polar stations or came up with ideas for polar clothing and equipment and I was struck by how knowledgeable the students were about new technology and different demands on various resources. For me, the best bit is the Questions and Answer sessions…I am always asked questions that make ME think and that provide food for thought long after I’ve left the school. So thank you to all the explorers of the future I have met…I am reassured that the future of the worlds most magnificent environments is in good hands with you all x

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At the annual EXPLORE Seminar

They told us not to look like a line-up…

They told us not to look like a line-up…

The Explore weekend is always awesome - not just because I come away feeling re-motivated and re-inspired to do more and be better, but also because it is often the one and only chance each year to catch up with some friendly faces from the expedition community (as well as to meet with some new ones).

This year was no exception. I enjoyed being on the Polar Panel alongside Steve Jones, Martin Hartley, Claire Grogan and Denise Martin. It was a particular treat to finally meet Denise who I have heard so much about thanks to all her legendary polar guiding but have never actually met before.

It was interesting that this year, unlike previous years, the panel was asked more about Russia/Siberia and Greenland/Arctic Europe than it was about the High Arctic and Antarctica.

Presenting the Euro-Arabian Expedition at the Royal Geographical Society

It is always an honour to speak in the wonderfully historic Ondatje Theatre in the Royal Geographical Society headquarters in South Kensington, London - so I was really thrilled to be invited to speak about The Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition 2018 as part of the Society’s Monday Night Lecture Series.

The event was a great opportunity not just to share the story of the expedition but to thank all our wonderful supporters and sponsors (many of whom were able to be there in person) and to have a small team reunion! Misba and Natasa both joined me on stage to answer questions from the audience after the talk, while Steph supported from the stalls. We were also delighted that Caroline Hamilton (who was on the expedition with us as a guide to the film crew), Alexandra Shackleton (descendant of the Polar Hero) and guests from both Oman and Slovenia were also in the audience.

A special thank you to BRBL who provided gifts for the guests that asked us questions after the talk! I bumped into one of the lucky recipients the following week who was wearing the thermals at the time and said that she had barely taken them off!

Lots of people asked afterwards about the forthcoming film ‘ Exposure’ - the latest news is that the production team are planning for a 2019 release. We will be sure to post any additional news as soon as we have it.

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Celebrating 'First Women'

On Thursday I was invited to the opening of Anita Corbin's '100 First Women Portraits' at the RCA Dyson Gallery in London. Anita has spent a decade travelling across the UK to photograph women who have been first in their fields and the exhibition has been timed to mark 100 years of women's suffrage in the UK. The result is an amazing collection celebrating the variety and depth of what women have been doing in the UK over the last 100 years. Walking around the exhibition I was struck by how recent some of the 'firsts' were and how fundamental. For me, it had the effect of highlighting just how far women still have to go as well as a demonstration of how far we've come.

I can't recommend enough going to take a look. The exhibition is free to the public until 22nd August at the Dyson Gallery which is on the south side of Battersea Bridge. Anita has also produced a book of the portraits available at www.1stwomenuk.co.uk.

It was such a privilege to celebrate the opening with so many of the first women - 62 of the 100 were there - great to see Sarah Outen and Rebecca Stephens, and to meet Beth French, Dany Cotton and so many other experts in their fields. Wonderful, uplifting evening.

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Celebrating the heritage of women in Exploration

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A loud THANK YOU to Tania and Bex of the Womens Adventure Expo for putting on an event at the Royal Geographical Society in the centenary year of suffrage in the UK to celebrate the long history of women in exploration. A day-long conference was followed by an evening event at which I was incredible grateful to be given the opportunity to talk about a subject I feel passionately about - the story of women in the polar regions.

It is a surprise to many that the story of women in Antarctica for example, begins in 1773 - the same year Captain Cook first crossed the Antarctic Circle. Many of the women whose stories I share were not free to explore in their own right, but nevertheless they found ways to explore within the roles available to them (or sometimes trespassed into roles that were not open to them). Either way, they carved out their own relationship with the Polar Regions and left us with a rich heritage that is in itself worth exploring.

The day was topped off by the appearance on stage of the Ice Maidens and my own Women's Euro-Arabian North Pole team. The Ice Maidens skied across Antarctica earlier in the year and although the Euro-Arabian journey was a lot shorter (!), it felt unique to have a stage full of women who had been both North and South in the same year sitting together on stage at the Royal Geographical Society - I wonder whether anything similar has happened on that particular stage before?

Fresh back from the North Pole!

After two long years of preparation and delays, successes and setbacks, I finally stood at the top of the world alongside the 10 team members of the Women's Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition on the 21st April.

The sea ice of the Arctic Ocean was simultaneously intimidating and mesmerising. We saw such beautiful colours and incredible variety of ice formations and yet everywhere was the unnerving evidence that we were not on solid ground but a shifting, unpredictable raft of fragile ice. We saw open water steam into the freezing air and hang over the ice like a sinister mist, we saw vast boulders of ice balanced in heaps as if swept up by giant hands and once, on prodding the far side of a lead, I saw the seemingly solid ice move away from me frighteningly swiftly.

I am used to expeditions that last weeks, that are all about making slow and steady progress - but the Arctic Ocean was the exact opposite of everything I was used to. We had a very short time window to complete our journey and from the moment we were deposited on the ice we were against the clock. Everything had to happen so quickly and the challenge was to be ready for that. No time to fall into routines or to adapt.

I look forward to sharing the story and experiences of this expedition in the months to come - as always I learned a lot from those we travelled with, about mistakes made and things that I could have done better, as well as a reaffirmation that the human spirit is a wonderful thing to be admired. The team are each speaking about their personal journey in schools and at events, we are all writing up our memories and Holly has already begun the long process of editing expedition footage into a film.

With things changing so rapidly in the high Arctic I feel very fortunate to have been able to experience it and I very much hope this won't be the last time I stand on the ice at the top of the planet.

 

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Longyearbyen Svalbard

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I've been here in Longyearbyen for a week and am already beginning to feel like a local - it doesn't take long to settle into such a small community and for faces to become familiar. Preparing for the Women's Euro-Arabian North Pole expedition later in the month, we have set up a temporary HQ on the last hunk of rock before the frozen expanse of the Arctic Ocean. There is a lot to do.....preparing equipment, sorting logistics for the arrival of the rest of the team, keeping sponsors and supporters in the loop and undertaking the initial tests for the science studies the expedition will take part in. You can follow our progress on the expedition website and social media strands at @northpole2018.

In between the feverish activity, it's been a real pleasure to spend time in this unique town - to see the light travel around the mountains that rise up on all sides - watching the lines of snowmobiles trail up the glacier every morning and return every evening - to hear the stories in the bars and coffee shops - and to catch up with the extraordinary friends that live here.

GLOBE Forum 2018

Delighted to have presented the latest expeditions at the GLOBE Forum 2018 in Vancouver - a wonderful platform. The theme of the conference is 'Disrupting Business as Usual'. That is precisely what our Euro-Arabian Expedition aims to do by inspiring everyone to think twice about their perceptions. Lots of shock in the room about the precarious state of Arctic Ocean sea ice.

My big takeaway from the conference came from Emily Penn's talk about ocean plastics. Of 39 toxins banned by the UN that come from plastic she found 27 present when testing her own blood. This coupled with the news today from the BBC that plastic fragments were found in all brands of bottled water sold within the UK has really hit home with me.

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Competition to win a trip to the North Pole

How would you like to join Kaspersky Lab CEO Eugene Kaspersky on a unique trip to the North Pole?

To commemorate Kaspersky Lab's support for the Women's Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition, Kaspersky Lab are offering one EU citizen the chance to accompany Eugene when he meets and congratulates the expedition team at the finish line.

The winner will be flown to Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, then to the remote Barneo ice camp at latitude 89 degrees North, before boarding a helicopter and flying to the geographic North Pole.

The prize is valued at €20,000 and includes all travel, accommodation and meal expenses, as well as equipment hire.

This is a very special once-in-a-lifetime experience. Win it, and you'll never forget it..

So if you're an EU resident, in good health, aged 18-years or older, and ready to fly between April 10 and 16 2018, enter now. It couldn't be easier to get involved!

To enter go to: https://www.kaspersky.com/about/sponsorships/win-your-trip-to-the-north-pole

On a snow-covered lava field in Iceland...

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For the past week the Euro-Arabian team have been braving some stiff Icelandic winter storms to prepare for their North Pole expedition in April. You can follow their progress on social media or through the expedition website at www.euroarabianexpedition.com

Look out for some dramatic tent-footage of a storm and the team courageously taking part in ice-breaking drills!

University of Reading

I was very honoured to be presented with the 2017 Alumnus of the Year Award by the University of Reading today. I attended Reading between 1999 and 2000 to complete a Masters degree in Applied Meteorology.

Recognition is always lovely but receiving this award was particularly wonderful because when I graduated from the University I wasn't able to attend the graduation ceremony - I was already on my way to Antarctica for the first time. So, today, it felt like I finally graduated - just 17 years late!

Huge thanks to the Chancellor and everyone at the University who made the day special - but especially Professor Giles Harrison who gave a wonderful award speech. You certainly did your research!

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Giving Public Lectures in the UK

I have three very different but equally exciting public lectures coming up in the South East of the UK this October.

The first is a return to the Guildford Travel Club. It will be an extended lecture (2 x 45 minutes, with a very sociable interval for wine and chat) about the Pole of Cold expedition, followed by a book signing on Tuesday 3rd October. I spoke at the GTC a few years ago about my last Antarctic expedition and thoroughly enjoyed the evening so I am looking forward to this return. Details can be found here: http://www.guildfordtravelclub.org.uk/events/2017/talks/01-FelicityAston.html

Next up is Salon London, the always thought-provoking mash-up of art, science and psychology with its unique speaker format. This time it is an afternoon event in central London on Wednesday 4th October. Details and tickets here: http://www.salon-london.com/content/About_Us/

Finally, I will be interviewed by Jim McNeill at the Royal Aeronautical Club in Mayfair, London, on the 4th October as part of his 'Icons Interviewed' series. Details and Tickets at https://spark.adobe.com/page/oTJ7CAhOAASZP/?w=3_3106

If the South East is not your usual stomping ground, never fear! I'll be venturing West to Bristol later in the year (see Forthcoming Events) and North to Scotland for a mini speaking tour with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society early in 2018. I'll post full details as soon as dates and venues have been confirmed.

I look forward to seeing some of you there!