Homeward Bound: Women Leaders in AntarcticaHomeward Bound: Women Leaders in Antarctica

Story: Marie Knowles
Photos: Steph Gardner

February 21, 2019

We need women to lead our thinking and actions around climate change. That’s the premise behind Homeward Bound, a program that aims to develop 1,000 women into leaders in crucial environmental fields. The transformative experience? A journey to Antarctica together. Here we find out first-hand from marine biologist Steph Gardner about her own path to climate change leadership.

How did you join the program?
I became curious about Homeward Bound after a friend of mine did it. I ended up spending two hours reading the website and knew I wanted to be a part of it. It was for women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM); to apply I had to show how I would contribute to the overall vision of Homeward Bound.

How did you pack for the trip to Antarctica and what would you recommend?
I travel a lot for work, but usually to tropical destinations. This was the first trip in over 10 years where I didn’t pack a diving mask and snorkel. Packing for a cold climate involved a lot more planning and checklists. I was advised to layer, so I had various icebreaker merino items with me, including socks, track pants, thermals and hoodies and they were exceptional. They wore really well, dried quickly, didn’t stretch out of shape and kept me warm and dry.

What was it like being on a ship in Antarctica with 79 other women?
The atmosphere onboard was one I will never forget. It was the most supportive, safe, and trusting group. There was an incredible sense of belonging and mutual respect, which is remarkable given the diversity of women – 28 different countries, across a range of ages from early 20s to early 60s, at different life and career stages. Antarctica gave us this unique opportunity to connect without distractions (including no phones or internet). We had more time to get to know each other, which enabled us to dig deep and form strong bonds. It reminded me how important it is to build relationships with people that are authentic and made to last.

Tell us about meeting Christiana Figueres, the former-UN climate chief who led the 2015 Paris Agreement?
Christiana Figueres is one of my role models, and when I heard she was joining us on the ship I couldn’t believe it. Christiana was part of the leadership faculty and she was extremely generous with her time. From her I learned how important it is to look after yourself – self-care, your inner peace, and mental and physical wellbeing. Once we know and understand ourselves and our values, we can be more effective leaders. As women, we generally put others before ourselves in most, if not all, aspects of our lives, but we need to treat ourselves with kindness, compassion and respect.

The campaign around Homeward Bound states that ‘Mother Nature needs her daughters’. What does that mean to you?
As a marine biologist, it’s been devastating to return to field sites to find the coral colonies have been bleached because of the seawater warming. It’s incredibly important to me to use my research, knowledge and voice for the environment, because she is having trouble doing it alone. Mother Nature is sending a powerful message in the form of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions – beckoning us to help rethink the way we care for our planet. Through Homeward Bound we must use our collective influence to do what we can towards living and leading sustainably. At the end of the 10-year program there will be 1,000 women united in the Homeward Bound network, committed to doing what we can for the environment, with the strength of numbers to make people take notice.

What did you learn from Homeward Bound?
I gained confidence in my ability to lead; I could see this happening to the other participants too. One of the tools we used across the year was the Life Styles Inventory (LSI), which assesses how we see ourselves as leaders. With the help of a coach, we each identified our strengths, opportunities, and barriers in the way of how we lead. The passion, drive and excitement we developed alongside our leadership skills gave me newfound hope; I’m excited to hear how my fellow leaders work towards changing the way we care for our planet.

Any life-changing experiences while in Antarctica?
Yes, the whole trip was life-changing. In ways that I wasn’t expecting; it was an incredible surprise and gift. Such as when we experienced complete silence. We were on Danco Island, having walked up a 200m mountain in knee-deep snow. We each had our own space to sit, with 360-degree views of the Antarctic landscape around and below us. The sound of complete silence was breathtaking. Antarctica is one of the few places in the world you can experience this. You could hear your own heartbeat. Intermittently we could hear the humpback whales breathing. After some time, the bang of a glacier breaking apart sent a huge shock wave through us, the sound echoing around the whole bay.

What local wildlife did you meet?
I saw my first orca – I’ve been wanting to see one for as long as I can remember. Our ship approached cautiously, and we could see about 20 orca. Three females peeled away from the pod and came right up to the ship, apparently checking us out, before returning to the sleeping pod, satisfied that our presence wasn’t a threat. It was incredible! We also saw gentoo, adélie and chinstrap penguins on our landings, numerous humpback whales, crabeater, weddell and leopard seals, petrels, and the great wandering albatross. We enjoyed comparing our observations of penguins in their natural habitat to the leadership skills we developed. For example, if you fall down – get back up and keep going. Some penguins were cautious before entering the water, but some just dove straight in. They follow in each other’s footsteps faithfully and they persist through sheer strength in numbers.

What goals have you developed since taking part in the program?
My goal for myself is to focus on self-care and self-awareness. For others my aim is to empower and inspire them to turn intention into action, to realize strength in numbers to create change. And for the Homeward Bound collective, I want to continue to raise our visibility and use our collective voice to increase the number of women in positions of influence as we work towards a more sustainable future.

What drives you in your career?
Our natural world drives me. Our ocean and marine environments inspire me. I want future generations to have the privilege of experiencing so many wonderful ecosystems, like I’ve had the opportunity to. I want people to see the beauty and value of it like I do, but to also understand how vulnerable these ecosystems are. I think this will prove to be absolutely key in motivating people to act as a collective and use their voice for the environment.

What does nature mean to you?
Nature to me means awe and a freedom that is grounding. I love the thrill of adventure and exploring new environments. Nature always welcomes us with open arms and is non-judgemental. I have a huge appreciation for nature. Experiencing nature helps us connect with the Earth and ensures we do what we can to protect it.

"The passion, drive and excitement we developed alongside our leadership skills gave me newfound hope; I’m excited to hear how my fellow leaders work towards changing the way we care for our planet."

Dr Steph Gardner

The first continental landing in Antarctica, at Brown Station.


Inspecting icebergs up close in Flandres Bay.

Gentoo penguin

A Gentoo Penguin, the third largest Penguin species.


Scenic views in Andvord Bay.


A still and overcast day in the Errera Channel.

Team HB3

The 80 women on the Homeward Bound 3 voyage, including the 10 on-board leadership team.