Monday, 6 Jan 2003
Somehow I knew the Antarctic would be unique and amazing — and it was, despite the 15,000 pounds of C02 emissions created by my journey there and back.
I returned last week from a 10-day eco-tour of the Antarctic Peninsula. The majority of Antarctic tours take place on the peninsula, as it is the most geographically accessible hotspot for wildlife activity during the brief Antarctic summer. The peninsula juts out from the northwest side of the Antarctic continent, making it relatively accessible from South America.
I decided to go to the Antarctic while browsing travel catalogs last summer to plan a vacation. The idea of the place seemed to resonate with a younger part of me that remembered the wonder and fascination I felt when I first learned about whales, polar bears, and the like. As it turns out, there are no polar bears in Antarctica — they only live in the Arctic — but I didn’t realize this until about a month after I booked my trip.
Because I have not traveled extensively, I felt no personal guilt about going to Antarctica. I’d listened to enough of my friends’ travel tales to feel that it was “my turn” (at least in the entitled mind of a first-world tourist). I wanted to see Antarctica before the impacts of global warming might change it forever. Remembering the 1990 movie The Freshman with Mathew Broderick and Marlon Brando, in which wealthy socialites paid substantially to dine on endangered species, I joked with friends that I hoped to drink a martini with the last of the Antarctic ice. (That opportunity actually arose, but I missed my chance, because I’d unwittingly asked for a ginger ale instead.) Still, I worried about the impact of my trip — and the probable environmental impact of future travelers.
Strangely enough, the greatest impact on the growth of Antarctic tourism stems from the break up of the Soviet Union. That political reshuffling has meant that, over the past 10 years, many ice-class vessels and their capable crews have become available for tourism operators looking to charter trips. But luckily for the region’s natural resources, Antarctica remains relatively geographically and financially inaccessible to most of the world.
To get there, I flew from Seattle to Atlanta to Miami to Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina (the very tip of South America), a total of about 36 hours of travel. Round trip, I traveled approximately 17,312 miles. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s estimate of 48 miles per gallon per passenger for airline travel, I was responsible for the burning of more than 360 gallons of airline fuel.
From Ushuaia (which I expected to be a sleepy, remote seaside town but turned out to have an active tourism industry, somewhat to my disappointment), I boarded a Russian ship chartered by Quark Expeditions for a 10-day voyage, beginning with a two-and-a-half day crossing over the usually formidable seas of the Drake Passage. Our ship, the M/V Orlova, burned diesel fuel at a rate of 142 gallons per hour, or 3,408 gallons per day. With approximately 90 passengers on board, my personal share for the entire voyage was 378 gallons. Given that the older ship’s exhaust was likely more environmentally damaging than that of the airplanes, my trip probably created more than 15,000 pounds of CO2 emissions.
The website ClimateTicket.org recommends that air travelers mitigate their impact on the environment by investing $5 per hour of flight in green energy alternatives. (While some web sites encourage you to invest in tree planting to absorbs CO2 emissions, recent research suggests that this may not be an effective long term solution, as many trees later re-release CO2.) Although I have not yet selected an appropriate charitable organization, adjusting for the ocean travel as well, my personal Antarctica climate mitigation “tax” will require a donation of approximately $450.
Part of the appeal of Antarctica is that it remains one of the few places in the world where you can see a relatively pristine ecosystem not visibly exploited by humans. In the age of the anti-environmental Bush administration, it’s important to reflect on the kind of world we could preserve and restore if we had enough self-awareness to question our entitlement to natural resources.
Tuesday, 7 Jan 2003
To reach Antarctica by sea, you must sail 600 miles across the Drake Passage, notorious for its fierce storms. We were extraordinarily lucky on our initial crossing: We encountered only mild swells, described as a two on a scale of 10 by our guides.
Despite the calm weather, most of us wore Scopalamine patches to ward off seasickness. The nickel-size patches, which are worn behind either ear, gradually secrete medication that wards off potential nausea — at the cost of certain dizziness. The scene vaguely resembled an “X-Files” episode, since those of us wearing patches appeared to have been taken by aliens. The Russians even had a crew member who resembled Fox Mulder, or at least the single women on board thought so. We might not have been able to think straight, but at least we kept our food down.
On our second day at sea, we crossed the ever-shifting Antarctic Convergence, where the warmer tropical waters of the north blend with the cold waters of the Southern Ocean. The mixing temperatures of the waters creates rich conditions for krill, the macroscopic base of the Antarctic food chain that sustains many seabirds and other wildlife.
Large, majestic albatrosses followed our ship, gliding back and forth across the stern on their eight-to-12-foot wingspan. Albatrosses spend their first nine years at sea riding wind currents, coming ashore again to breed only once they’ve reached maturity. Aside from the birds, only the open ocean surrounded us. Not since Sept. 11 had I seen the skies so empty of airplanes.
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a storm drives a ship off course into the southern seas. Accompanied by an albatross, a strong northerly wind begins to carry the ship back northward — until a sailor shoots the great bird with his crossbow.
Following the death of the bird, the winds dissipate and the ship becomes stranded. As the sailors begin to suffer from thirst, they hang the dead bird around the neck of the man who shot it. It is a haunting allegory of gradual repentance.
If you eat tuna or Chilean sea bass, you might have an albatross around your neck as well. According to New Zealand’s World Wildlife Fund, “Long line fisheries are widely believed to be the major cause of falling albatross populations. … In the Southern Ocean, tuna fleets alone set more than 200 million hooks annually.”
In addition to albatrosses, we saw our first icebergs. Large tabular icebergs break off of various Antarctic ice shelves and drift around the continent on circular currents for up to two years. Photos do not do justice to the size of these giants. Generally, the visible part of the iceberg represents only one tenth of its true mass; the remainder lies below the sea. The icebergs we saw seemed to be a few miles long and 15-30 stories high. As a casual observer, I can’t claim to have seen much evidence of global warming on my trip — but the recently accelerating breakup of Antarctic ice shelves represents some of the best scientific evidence of global warming.
Midway through our crossing, our expedition leader admonished us not to whistle on the ship, as our Russian crew believed that it encouraged the winds and created stormy weather. On our boat, as on that of the ancient mariner, superstitions lived on. As the ship moved quite a bit even under mild swells, most of us respectfully wondered aloud what a stormier crossing would be like. Even though I’ve been back more than a week, I still occasionally wake up in the morning feeling my room rolling as it did on the ship.
Wednesday, 8 Jan 2003
One of our guides joked that there are only two species of penguins: the black ones walking away from you and the white ones coming towards you. Actually, there are 17 species worldwide. We saw three on our trip: chinstrap, gentoo, and adelie.
When we reached the South Shetland Islands, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula, we used the small, inflatable Zodiacs on our ship to land at Aitcho Island (pronounced “ho” after the British Hydrographic Office). Here, the penguins were gentoos and chinstraps. Gentoo penguins have orange beaks and look much like images of penguins you’re probably familiar with. Chinstrap penguins have black beaks with a thin black line running under their chins as if they are wearing a helmet — hence the name.
I hiked over the first ridge on the island, avoiding curious chinstrap penguins, to see five large juvenile elephant seals sleeping alongside each other. This is when the magic of Antarctica that I’d only imagined began to come to life for me. We were instructed to remain at least 15 feet from wildlife. However, most Antarctic animals do not have any land-based predators, so they are often quite relaxed and won’t hesitate to approach you if you remain still.
Penguins live most of their lives at sea, coming ashore only to breed and nest. The penguin rookeries that we visited here and elsewhere were fairly small in size, with populations probably numbering in the hundreds. Others are home to thousands of birds. All of them are noisy places, often covered in penguin guano, and consequently quite smelly.
The Antarctic summer is short, so the rookeries tend to be hotbeds of activity. When I came ashore, I could see them stretching hundreds of feet from the water’s edge onto steep hillsides covered by snow and rocks. The penguins use pebbles and small rocks to build nests within a few feet of other nesting penguins. Usually, you’d see one penguin lying on the nest above one or two eggs. Meanwhile, the penguins that were wandering around back and forth through the colony or to or from the sea would attempt to steal pebbles from other nesting penguins. Pebble thievery is an ongoing activity in penguin rookeries and makes a fun spectator sport.
Overhead, large brown seabirds called Skua circle the colonies, watching for any sign of distracted penguins and unprotected eggs. The penguins seem to have a cooperative neighborhood Skua watch, taking turns barking at the birds as they fly over different areas of the colony. Tourists occasionally distract the penguins enough to allow Skuas to steal an egg — as happened at our first site visit — but otherwise the penguins are fairly unaffected by us.
I learned later on the boat from a BBC video series called Life in the Freezer that chinstrap penguins mate for life and can find their mates from amongst thousands of other identical looking birds by sound. Once chicks are born, the parents take turns gathering food by hiking up and down hillsides to and from predator-infested seas. Killer whales and leopard seals can eat up to six penguins an hour near the rookeries. Wounded chinstraps lucky enough to escape will hike back to their nests or die trying. The video of a bloody wounded chinstrap collapsing from exhaustion en route to its nest touched me. I already thought penguins were cute, but after seeing this, I had a deep respect for these amazing survivors.
From the ship, we often saw penguins as dark specks in the distance resting in groups on ledges of icebergs. Sharp claws on their feet allow them to scale fairly steep ice. Occasionally, we’d also see them swimming in porpoise-like fashion alongside the ship. In the water, penguins are incredibly graceful and speedy.
Towards the end of our trip at Cuverville Island, we were lucky to encounter a rare gray leucistic gentoo penguin. After returning home, I found a photo of a leucistic penguin chick atMickTravels.com taken at the same island in 1999. You be the judge — are these pictures the same penguin?
We sailed through Neptune Bellows into the center of Deception Island, a massive caldera of an active volcano that last erupted in 1969. The bay there is surrounded by a ring of reddish mountains more than six miles wide. This was a major whaling center for the Norwegians in the early 1900s. So many whales were killed that the bay was occasionally clogged with whale carcasses. We hiked to the site of the last eruption and later rested in lukewarm “hot” springs on the beach. Inspired by my adrenaline-filled day, I ventured twice into the frigid Southern Ocean. I was quite surprised when the shore dropped away completely on my third step.
We cruised Paradise Bay in our Zodiacs near massive tidewater glaciers. Although we could hear explosive cracks and see small avalanches, change actually takes place quite slowly here. Antarctica is the driest continent, so change in the glacial landscapes is much slower than in, say, Alaska. The packed snow that forms these glaciers has been building up in layers over millions of years.
We encountered our first crab-eater seal resting on an iceberg. Almost all adult crab-eater seals (which actually eat krill, not crabs) have scars from being attacked by leopard seals as pups. They have beautiful fuzzy light brown fur, drippy noses, and often sport pleasant looks.
We visited Port Lockroy, an old British base and museum. At Port Lockroy, gentoo penguins nest all around you. According to seven years of research, the penguins near the museum have reproduced more productively than those in a distant, isolated, and roped-off area. It is believed that tourists frighten away Skua, thus protecting more eggs. Here, we also saw the first penguin chicks of the season. Strangely, one lone adelie penguin and one chinstrap penguin lurked among hundreds of gentoo penguins.
At Flanders Bay, we spotted a number of Minke whales and a pair of humpback whales. We took a Zodiac cruise and were able to observe the humpbacks for about 20 minutes. We were blessed with clear, sunny weather and the beauty of the snow-covered mountains and icebergs rivaled the excitement of seeing the whales. One of the humpbacks was still covered in barnacles, indicating that it had recently migrated from South America. According to our guides, the barnacles die and fall off in the cold polar waters. Humpbacks can be uniquely identified by the markings on the bottom of their tale flukes.
At Wilhelmina Bay, we encountered a leopard seal (the only penguin-eating seal) lounging on an iceberg. We also found a group of five adelie penguins resting on some rocks near a large tern colony. Adelie penguins have black faces and striking blue eyes; they also walk with a very amusing awkward gait and make strange barking noises. The leopard seal and adelie penguins were a gift to see, as it was our last day on the peninsula.
After all this, I can see now why Antarctica haunted the early explorers and compelled them to return repeatedly to face isolation and hardships far beyond those of my cozy, gore-tex-era trip.
Friday, 10 Jan 2003
The 1959 Antarctic Treaty may represent one of humanity’s most thoughtful and forward-looking documents, on par with the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. That treaty recognized that, “it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.”
Thereby, 45 nations, representing approximately two-thirds of the world’s population, decided to peacefully protect, preserve, and study this magnificent continent. At least in Antarctica (and at least for now), profit-driven capitalist forces of exploitation do not drive policy. But the environmental protocols of the treaty will expire unless renewed in 2041. In the meantime, treaty provisions are voluntary, and there is no enforcement body to respond to violations. Nations that have signed the treaty aren’t bound to its current provisions. And the treaty is not perfect, as is clear from the following passage:
The provisions of the present Treaty shall apply to the area south of 60 degrees South latitude, including all ice shelves, but nothing in the present Treaty shall prejudice or in any way affect the rights, or the exercise of the rights, of any State under international law with regard to the high seas within that area.
In other words, the treaty does not stop signatory nations from exploiting fishery stocks in the region. While Antarctica may appear pristine and unexploited, its oceans are being devastated.
One of the victims of that exploitation is one of the world’s ugliest fish, the Patagonian toothfish, which was given the far sexier name of “Chilean Sea Bass” by marketing experts and has now been fished nearly to extinction. More than 400,000 tons of krill, the key component of the Antarctic food chain, is harvested each year for fish meal and pet food. As stated earlier, tuna fleets set more than 200 million hooks annually, killing unknown numbers of Albatross and depleting pelagic fish stocks. The Japanese continue to hunt Minke whales and reports indicate that they quietly kill other species, including the endangered blue whale, the largest animal ever known to man.
According to Greenpeace, “Antarctic fish are especially vulnerable to over-fishing because most species take a long time to become sexually mature and are long lived.” They also report that the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, responsible for Southern Ocean fisheries management, has failed in limiting illegal pirate fishing, leaving many species vulnerable to extinction. Member nations wanting to protect their illegal fisheries block any real enforcement activity. “It appears that the E.U. and Spain are the main protectors of illegal fishing,” says Greenpeace.
While our guides expressed their desire for passengers to return to their homes and become Antarctic ambassadors, the kitchen crew offered up a daily menu of meat and seafood. Global warming and ozone depletion are a major long-term threat to Antarctica, but I believe overfishing is a more immediate threat to the region. Most people just don’t realize that their appetite for seafood is not sustainable.
In better news, the fur seal population has rebounded from presumed extinction to levels as high as any historically recorded. Some scientists theorize that the scarcity of whales may be allowing fur seals to benefit from the lack of competition for krill. Krill harvesting is likely retarding the recovery of endangered whale species, such as the blue whale and the right whale. Antarctic blue whale stocks have dropped from perhaps 200,000 in the era before the whaling industry to less than 1,000 today.
We have no way to measure how much krill exists worldwide, but we continue to harvest it for our own purposes, ignorant of the impact we may be having on the Antarctic environment. If you would like to protect Antarctica, stop eating seafood and be sure to vote for candidates willing to fight for environmental protections, especially in global trade agreements.
Before my trip, I worried that, as a tourist, I was also playing a role in spoiling the Antarctic. Although the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators has established its own voluntary guidelines to protect Antarctica, if everyone felt entitled to travel here, what would be left of the solemn, quiet beauty that I enjoyed?
On a small island, 90 eager tourists is a lot of people to put ashore. Most of the IAATO member ships travel to the same sites in the peninsula, agreeing to avoid and protect the most pristine locations. While we only occasionally saw other ships, their presence definitely lessened the experience. When we encountered wildlife, we were generally surrounded by three other zodiacs, usually from our own ship.
While our guides stayed a good distance behind the humpback whales, had another tourist ship been in the bay, it could have easily begun to look like the Northwest’s summer orca hunt, where numerous whale-watching ships simultaneously converge on resident orca pods rather than observing from a reasonable distance.
Approximately 12,000 tourists visited Antarctica last year. Aside from the carbon dioxide emissions from my journey, I don’t think my visit had an overly negative impact. The penguins, whales, seals, and birds seemed mostly unaffected by us. But the experience would have been more congested and less peaceful with 50,000 annual tourists, and the possible harm to wildlife and the terrain would increase.
If you have an interest in visiting Antarctica, ask yourself two questions: Would seeing this amazingly pristine environment and its wonderful animals be a powerful and meaningful life experience for you? And, would you be willing to advocate for its protection on your return? If not, please stay home; there are plenty of wonderful videos of Antarctic wildlife that show far more than you will ever see on a short trip.