Words

A Day Off-Grid With Meg O’Hara: Artist, Conservationist, and 11th Hour Racing Ambassador

published
4.25.24
category
Ambassadors
A Day Off-Grid With Meg O’Hara: Artist, Conservationist, and 11th Hour Racing Ambassador
Words

A Day Off-Grid With Meg O’Hara: Artist, Conservationist, and 11th Hour Racing Ambassador

7 mins
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A Day Off-Grid With Meg O’Hara: Artist, Conservationist, and 11th Hour Racing Ambassador

7 mins
A Day Off-Grid With Meg O’Hara: Artist, Conservationist, and 11th Hour Racing Ambassador
published
4.25.24
category
Ambassadors
Canadian artist Meg O’Hara is one of 11th Hour Racing’s newest ambassadors; an artist and environmentalist, her work not only inspires but educates people globally about the ever-changing state of our planet.

Her unique art focuses on ocean conservation in the polar regions, and she is often selected to participate in various expeditions to the Arctic, Antarctica, and other isolated locations (alongside explorers and scientists) to help bring to life the beauty—but also the drastic changes—of these regions. As she puts it, through her art, she’s “found purpose in bridging the gap between science and communication through art.”

Originally from Toronto, Meg is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. She’s also a Member International at The Explorers Club, a WINGS WorldQuest Flag Carrier, and a Creative Ambassador for Protect Our Winters. Her ever-growing list of accolades is impressive. 

To give you an idea of just how popular her art and the story behind it is becoming, last year she was a ‘Featured Artist’ for Ocean Week and as part of that project, her work was included in the James Cameron exhibit in conjunction with National Geographic, Rolex, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and many more. 

We’re excited that Meg agreed to take us behind the scenes for a day in her life as an ‘Artist in Residence’ for a Canadian delegation in Antarctica looking at the impact of climate change in a remote region few think about, and even fewer visit. 

A Day Off-Grid With Meg O’Hara: Artist, Conservationist, and 11th Hour Racing Ambassador
Good morning Antarctica! Or is it goodnight? 

Spending time living aboard a research vessel in Antarctica can throw your body clock out of sync by confusing the circadian rhythm. This is because the polar regions have ‘polar day/polar night,’ which is basically (depending on where you are on the continent and what time of year it is) 24-hour daylight.

For Meg, the sun dipped below the horizon for 60 minutes each night at around 2 a.m., and it was well worth waiting up for and looking out the window from her room on the boat. 

She said: “It was always the most beautiful time of day where you could see the colors of the sunset. I’d be up again at 6 am so needless to say, some nights were short! 

“Every morning, we’d wake up, open the blackout blinds very slowly, put on our base layers, and head up to the dining area for breakfast. Everyone was on time, and no one was late, not even by 5 minutes. The ship kept a tight schedule that must be respected.” 

Layering up 

Dressing for the coldest continent on Earth is no easy feat. Picture getting ready to go skiing and multiply the layers a few times. For Meg, it was a daily performance that occurred during the 45 minutes between breakfast and docking off the big ship via zodiac (inflatable boat) onto land. 

“45 minutes can seem like a long time in theory, but in reality, it’s not,” Meg explains. “Firstly, you must - and I cannot stress this enough - go to the toilet as the land and ocean are preserved by the Antarctic Treaty, so going to the toilet anywhere other than on the ship is not an option.

“Brushing your teeth is also an interesting one as you’re doing it with your sunglasses on! By the time you’ve gathered your affairs and put your four clothing layers on the bottom and seven on top, you make your way back up to regroup and get ready for the first dock off. Trust me, those 45 minutes go pretty quickly.”

Meg O'Hara

"What’s extraordinary - and I’m sure people aren’t aware of this - is that nothing except your boots touch the continent."

A Day Off-Grid With Meg O’Hara: Artist, Conservationist, and 11th Hour Racing Ambassador
Dock off and total immersion 

Meg explains that usually, there would be 8-10 people per zodiac, and each vessel would have its own mission that could last up to four hours. This mission could involve hiking, exploring the bird colony, or sometimes roaming freely along the shoreline. 

“The dock-off process can be quite something as the waters in Antarctica can be rough. We’re all given safety briefings on how to get on and off the zodiac,” Meg explains. 

“Also, when preparing to dock off, everyone must sterilize their boots, it’s like putting your feet through a mini car wash.” 

This small detail is a critical measure to protect the delicate and unique ecosystem. It prevents the spread of disease, preserves scientific integrity, and prevents invasive species. Given Antarctica is an isolated environment with fragile ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years in isolation, it’s important to preserve this and eliminate risks of anything that could disrupt this balance and cause irreversible damage.

“What’s extraordinary - and I’m sure people aren’t aware of this - is that nothing except your boots touch the continent,” says Meg. 

“You can’t put your backpack down, you can’t even kneel if you’re taking a picture, you can’t put your hands down. So now you understand why going to the toilet on land really isn’t an option!"

Sensory deprivation 

Meg explains that some people on her boat believe that you can be up to 5km away from someone in Antarctica and still smell them. This is because very few things create a smell of any kind. Meg also reveals it’s a common misconception that there are loads of animals around. 

“There’s penguins and whales but little else,” she says. “The lack of smells (penguin poop aside) and color is the first thing you notice. There are virtually no plants except a few types of moss.

“The other sensory deprivation is the monochrome tones of the Antarctic, 50 shades of blue and then monochrome. Of course, I find it fascinating and beautiful, but it’s a shock to the system.” 

A Day Off-Grid With Meg O’Hara: Artist, Conservationist, and 11th Hour Racing Ambassador
Inspiration and art

Painting in situ has many complexities at the end of the world. Mixing your paint with water? Nope. The water would freeze, so she had to use gin instead! One thing Meg never had any trouble with, though, was the daily inspiration in front of her eyes. 

“The minute I see ice, I feel something powerful,” she says. “I can’t say I feel like I’m home, but I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be, I feel connected to my purpose. Anytime I’m in a polar region, I feel in my element because there’s so much depth to it, both physically and metaphorically.”

In terms of her process for creating art, starts with rough sketches in her notebook before transitioning to the first watercolor versions. The real work would then begin when she’s back home and has had time to process the adventure.

Meg O'Hara

"Anytime I’m in a polar region, I feel in my element because there’s so much depth to it, both physically and metaphorically."

A Day Off-Grid With Meg O’Hara: Artist, Conservationist, and 11th Hour Racing Ambassador
Back to base

Once the exploration for the day was over, it would be back to the ship for some food, one of the onboard lectures, or some downtime. During these evenings, you’ll often find Meg catching up with her colleagues or sitting by the window with her sketchbook, watching the icebergs pass - still in broad daylight.

“Constantly being surrounded by so much beauty is unbearable because so many times I would be having dinner and have to race off because a beautiful iceberg is passing, and I knew I had to sketch it,” she remembers. 

“There’s no technology, no phones or internet - your colleagues become your family and you’re grateful for the company and I’m always so in awe of the cognitive diversity of the groups I’m with.”

Peppermint hot chocolate time 

“Once we’ve eaten, I would make a peppermint tea and hot chocolate combo - I know this sounds bizarre, but I promise you it’s so nice. Please try it!” 

Late every evening Meg and her roommate Ronnie, a marine biologist, take themselves to the ship’s library, peppermint tea hot chocolate in hand, to find peace in the tranquility of their environment. 

“I became very close to Ronnie, we were joined at the hip,” Meg says. “As the day came to a close, she loved reading, and as we climbed into bed each night, she would read to me. That’s how I would fall asleep each night, blackout blinds down and Ronnie reading. Then the alarm would go off at 0530, and we’d do it all again.”

Meg O'Hara

"I see my art as a form of science communication, bridging the gap between academia and the general population to show this beautiful landscape."

A Day Off-Grid With Meg O’Hara: Artist, Conservationist, and 11th Hour Racing Ambassador
A Day Off-Grid With Meg O’Hara: Artist, Conservationist, and 11th Hour Racing Ambassador
Purpose and passion 

It’s clear Meg embodies her purpose and passion, the enthusiasm with which she shares her story is almost like she can’t quite believe it happened herself. Like other 11th Hour Racing Ambassadors, Meg is a changemaker and believes in a better future. 

She concludes: “I see my art as a form of science communication, bridging the gap between academia and the general population to show this beautiful landscape that so few people get the opportunity to experience. That’s why I do what I do.”

“There’s such a bridge in storytelling between what it’s like out there and what the general population sees. These polar regions are disproportionately affected by climate change, 3-4 times more than the rest of the world.

“So if I can spark a passion, interest, and curiosity for the polar regions in others through my work… that’s where the real change happens.” 

Top fun facts from Meg’s notebook

  • Antarctica is the home to 90% of the world's ice.
  • The oldest ice core sample ever discovered, about 800,000 years old, was found in Antarctica. (Another sample recently found in Antarctica is believed to be closer to a million years old). In contrast, the oldest non-polar ice ever found was collected from Mount Logan in Yukon by her friend Dr Alison Criscitiello and is about 40,000 years old.
  • The average depth of ice on the continent is about 2,000m, with the deepest point being 4,700m (that means you could be standing on top of a mountain taller than the Matterhorn in Switzerland and have no idea, it would all be flat around you).
  • The ocean water is often below freezing but stays in liquid form because of the salt content.
  • Antarctica only experiences two seasons - summer and winter. It has ‘polar day’ (24-hour sun) in the southern hemisphere's summer and ‘polar night’ (24-hour night) during the winter.
  • The continent is considered a desert, or at least parts of it are. They are places that get only around 1 cm of precipitation a year.
  • It has a working British ‘penguin’ post office called Port Lockroy.
  • Penguins travel around on what are called Penguin Highways, which are pretty much walking (waddling) paths.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF MEG O’HARA:  ARTIST, CONSERVATIONIST AND PEPPERMINT HOT CHOCOLATE LOVER
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF MEG O’HARA:  ARTIST, CONSERVATIONIST AND PEPPERMINT HOT CHOCOLATE LOVER
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF MEG O’HARA:  ARTIST, CONSERVATIONIST AND PEPPERMINT HOT CHOCOLATE LOVER
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF MEG O’HARA:  ARTIST, CONSERVATIONIST AND PEPPERMINT HOT CHOCOLATE LOVER
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF MEG O’HARA:  ARTIST, CONSERVATIONIST AND PEPPERMINT HOT CHOCOLATE LOVER
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF MEG O’HARA:  ARTIST, CONSERVATIONIST AND PEPPERMINT HOT CHOCOLATE LOVER
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF MEG O’HARA:  ARTIST, CONSERVATIONIST AND PEPPERMINT HOT CHOCOLATE LOVER
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Jamie Haines, sailor “I grew up on the ocean, and in order to protect it, we need to solve the climate crisis. It all goes hand in hand.”

our story image

Ian Walsh, big wave surfer “As athletes, ocean health and sustainability are at the heart of what we do – without the ocean, we wouldn’t be here.”

our story image

Steve Benjamin, filmmaker “I really want people to fall in love with the ocean, to appreciate it more, and to try to alter their behavior around it. Everything ends up in the ocean, and it’s such a dumping ground for humanity. My hope is that people see the ocean as a living entity that needs to be protected.”

our story image

Amory Ross, storyteller “How can I describe the ocean? The ocean is impossible to describe because it is endless; it is full of life, wonder, and mystery.”

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Todd Hannigan, surfer, composer, filmmaker “For my entire life, if things were upside down, I could always count on the ocean to set me straight.”

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