Classroom Chronicles | Educational Series with The Punk Biologist
We are always discovering and learning new things at Secret Atlas and we want to share with you an invaluable resource to gain a deeper understanding of our expeditions and the great outdoors. Discover the first of our educational series with Lucy Eckersley, aka The Punk Biologist!
Get to Know Lucy Eckersley, ‘The Punk Biologist’
Lucy Eckersley is the winner of our first-ever Polar Planet Photography Competition! Our aim with this competition was to provide a chance to a talented photographer committed to conservation who could benefit from the exposure and experience of a polar expedition in their professional career.
Lucy is a passionate wildlife biologist and science presenter, and joined us on an incredible expedition to Svalbard in the summer of 2023. Her unwavering dedication, genuine enthusiasm, and extensive knowledge were truly captivating, leaving a lasting impact on all of us. We were delighted to catch up with Lucy after the expedition and hear firsthand about her experience in Svalbard and the profound effect it had on her.
Tell us, what did it first feel like returning home from Svalbard?
Surreal, and exhausting! I had spent every moment I could scanning the horizon for bears, peering into the depths for whales, and, of course, craning my neck to spot birds, and now I’m back on the London Underground?!
I’ve worked in some fantastic environments before, including the rainforest and savannah, and it’s always a bit of a shock to the system to return to ‘normal life’, but something about the majesty of the Arctic made this return even harder. I also met some amazing people on my trip, staff, guides and fellow travellers, and my head was full of possibilities. I had stayed up the night before flying home until around 3am due to spotting a group of purple sandpiper chicks.
It’s an absolute pleasure to see how passionate you are about wildlife and the outdoors; what is your message to young people who want to pursue a career in a similar field?
I always think that there is nothing better to listen to than someone explaining their passion. And I think that is an important thing to remember; develop your passions, pursue them, and tell as many people as you can about them. I always remind the young people I work with that I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, until I was essentially doing it. There are so many big decisions to make, particularly for teenagers, that it can feel overwhelming. You just need to take one step at a time, don’t rush to have a ‘life plan’. If you aren’t certain, try things out, do some things outside of your comfort zone, and explore your interests.
It was through sharing my passions and saying yes to opportunities that I was able to make important connections and develop a network to explore wildlife and photography. Also, not everyone starts out with connections in their chosen field – I certainly didn’t – but that doesn’t mean you can’t make them. Reach out to the people you admire, follow their work, volunteer your time, and see where it takes you.
What surprised you the most about Svalbard?
It might sound strange, but the amount of wildlife! I’ve been to places like the Masai Mara where you look out of the truck window and see around 9 species, lined up like they are posed, but that is a protected biodiversity hotspot. I’m sure other wildlife enthusiasts have had the experience of searching for a long time for a glimpse of an animal, I’ve even spent 4 hours in one spot looking for a reed warbler! The Arctic is an awe-inspiring, vast and bleak environment, with tiny amounts of vegetation available on the frozen ground, but there was still so much life. The bird cliffs were completely extraordinary, hundreds of thousands of birds, bringing nutrients to the land for reindeer and foxes. It was incredible to see how much wildlife can be sustained in such an inhospitable environment, and how much we were able to witness with the help of our knowledgeable guides.
How has this experience impacted your career and what effects has it had on your personal perspectives?
I had the opportunity to meet some incredible people on the trip, including our fantastic guides – their insight and careers have really intrigued me. Since then, I have been looking into guiding and photography, which perfectly brings together my presenting expertise, love for the outdoors, and photography. I also feel more confident in my own work now, and will be submitting to more competitions and opportunities in the future!
My perspective has changed somewhalt because I previously had the mindset that individuals cannot cause enough of a change to mitigate the climate crisis, that it was mainly the responsibility of multinational organisations and governments to put into practice sustainable methods. I do still believe that, and the research supports it, but we do all have our own impact. Our personal decisions, multiplied by the millions of others who have the privilege of making them, do impact the planet, and so we have a responsibility. When I talk about the climate crisis now, I don’t downplay individual contributions, votes, and sustainable choices, because by highlighting our capacity for change, we empower people to stand up for our collective future.
Can you give examples of where your experience with Secret Atlas has had a direct impact on others?
I’m currently writing a talk based on the fragile connections we observed in the Arctic, which I hope to share in the new year with young people around the UK, and I have already had the chance to share an important observation. In early November I spoke to ~ 2500 17-18 year olds in Warwick, London and Manchester, and discussed the importance of disease monitoring for conservation. I showed them one of my favourite photos of an Arctic Tern and asked them to guess how long its migration is – from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and back! Then we discussed how the tern plays an important natural role in the movement of disease, however they have now been found to be spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria. One challenge of working with young people, and with generally trying to engage people with conservation, is connection – these things seem so far removed when you are living in Manchester, what can you do about all this?! The message with the Arctic tern is that we genuinely can make a difference by taking antibiotics only when needed, not for a viral infection, and finishing the entire pack, as these are the main drivers of antibiotic resistance.
The Arctic food web based on the sea ice is also a fantastic example of fragile ecosystems, and possible trophic cascades, which I have used numerous times since returning home, at summer schools and student talks. Understanding the specific steps between sea ice – algae – fish – seals – bears, helps people appreciate the perilous position the environment is in, and maybe, empower them to take what steps they can to mitigate the climate crisis.
As for my family, it was amazing to share my experiences and find out that the explorer Fridtjof Nansen we had been learning about on the trip, visited my partner’s family farm in 1900!
How valuable do you think these expeditions are to educate those who visit the Arctic and do you think an experience like this has the power to change how people think about the planet?
I think it would be almost impossible to return from a trip like that without being changed in some manner, and I know, having learned lots about the others onboard MV Freya there are people who can enact serious, systemic change as well. Secret Atlas were faultless from my point of view, ensuring that sustainable options were selected when possible, and clearly developing new and innovative solutions for the future. The guides met my expectations when it comes to interacting with wildlife responsibly, and the whole crew shared a passion for the incredible environment we were lucky enough to find ourselves in.
I do think that you can become detached from nature, very easily in fact, and that for many people it isn’t a choice. We have so much to worry about, and our brains evolved to deal with problems like ‘hungry’, or ‘big animal coming, run away’, we can get burnt out by the 24hr rolling news of awful things happening around the world, it is healthier to switch off. But an experience like this, being away from internet and phone signal, under the midnight sun, and watching a polar bear picking its way across the frost shattered rocks with a cub in tow, reminds you that we too are just animals. We are part of nature, and when the future of an entire planet rests on one species, it’d be good for us to take responsibility.
Thank you Lucy for those beautiful words and intrguring lectures on the wildlife of Svalbard.
We encourage you to share our Classroom Chronicles with your friends, family, students and children and if you have any suggestions for a topic for our upcoming chapters, We’d love to hear your ideas!