In February, Mary Lide embarked on her most extreme adventure yet: "The world of totally unpredictable full-time freelance work."
And she dove into that world with a six-week icy plunge into Antarctica.
How did she get there?
The short story: on a boat.
The longer story: Mary lide worked for six years at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the research communications department.
“A lot of my job was writing, taking photos, and filming short videos about research happening at UNC Chapel Hill,” she says.
She went on scientific expeditions to places like Belize, where she scuba dived and worked with coral reef conser- vationists; southern Chile, where she worked on a volcano with geophysicists; and the Galapagos Islands, where she worked with oceanographers. But it was while Mary Lide was working off the coast of North Carolina with marine scientists that she met the researcher who asked her to join a National Science Foundation expedition to Antarctica.
But there was a catch. She would have to quit her job at UNC.
“I loved my job. I loved my boss. And I had to give that all up for this one experience,” she says.
However, the decision to seize the opportunity for a new beginning was an easy one.
Now, back to the boat, which is actually a ship. Mary Lide – who was tasked with documenting the expedition – and the research team flew to the port city of Punta Arenas in southern Chile, where they sailed across the dangerous Drake Passage on the Laurence M. Gould, a National Science Foundation vessel designed for research missions around the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Drake Passage is a narrow stretch of ocean on the 60th latitude between Cape Horn in South America and the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is the only current on Earth which flows unimpeded by land around the icy continent.
“We were fortunate during our crossing that it wasn’t extremely rough,” Mary Lide says.
After five days on the ocean, they reached Palmer Station, the main U.S. research base on the Antarctic Peninsula.
“The first land you see is a massive iceberg. It definitely feels like entering another world.”
The research team was there to study minke and humpback whales. After roughly two days at Palmer Station, Mary Lide and the researchers spent the next two weeks on the ship, travelling around the peninsula to tag the whales with special sensors and cameras.
“We got on these small zodiac boats, and one member of the science team would lean over the front of the boat with a long pole, using that to place a suction cup tag roughly the size and shape of a deflated football directly on the whale’s back. The tags adhered to the whales for up to 24 hours, and then they naturally came off and floated up to the surface.”
Krill is a keystone species in the Antarctic Peninsula, and the primary food source for the baleen whales that live there. Climate change and industrial-scale fishing pose a threat to the krill population, which has serious implications for other species. Researchers can’t easily study the krill, because they pack themselves under the ice; ice that, says Mary Lide, is melting at a staggering rate. That’s where the whales come in.
Gathering data from the whales gives us a lot of information on how much the entire environment is changing.
“The reality is that our planet is very dynamic and in a constant state of change, which only seems to increase exponentially as the climate changes. What we learn in Antarctica is not just pertinent to Antarctica. It is pertinent to the whole world.”
Before Mary Lide boarded the boat, before she quit her job to document a research expedition in Antarctica, and before she honed her passion for journalism at UNC, she was a student at Episcopal. She was editor-in-chief of the Chronicle and involved in the Daemon literary magazine, which laid the foundation for her journalism major and eventual career path. But the greatest lesson she learned at Episcopal was not specific to any particular activity or discipline. At EHS, Mary Lide learned “to find common ground with people who are seemingly very, very different from me,” she says.
From a 100 percent boarding environment at Episcopal to a 100 percent boating environment in Antarctica – and on her most recent expedition, a month-long stay at sea off the coast of California – Mary Lide is adept at living alongside many different types of people.
“It’s the exact same thing when you’re working on a ship in a really small, confined environment at the edge of the world,” she says, likening her time on the boat to her time at The High School.
Since Antarctica, Mary Lide has climbed Mt. Shasta in California, documented two research expeditions in the Pacific Ocean, and spent several weeks mountaineering in the Cascades and Rocky Mountain National Park. In September, she spent a week in Wilmington, North Carolina, to help her parents recover from Hurricane Florence, and in November she traveled to Japan. But her home base, for now, is Chapel Hill, where she has lived for the past decade – even if she’s only been home for a little more than 100 days so far this year.
“My friends say, now that I’m a full-time freelancer I could move anywhere, but I haven’t been home long enough this year to think about moving,” she says.
“At this point, I just need to be close to an airport.” Where in the world is Mary Lide Parker? Keep up with her travels on her website, mlparkermedia.com