Bowermaster’s Adventures: Paradise Harbor, Antarctica

Paradise HarborIts common knowledge among Antarctic veterans that no two days here look or feel alike. Ever.

The reality is that no quarter hour looks alike. Or can be predicted, no matter how many months or years you’ve spent here.

We spent the night in a small, protected bay about 400 miles down the coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula. The tricky thing about sailing a small yacht here (the aluminum-hulled Pelagic Australisis 74 feet) is that there are very few truly protected anchorages; it reminds me often of the coast of Maine, with its thousands of small islands, where finding safe haven is often similarly dodgy. Here the combination of rapidly changing winds and weather mean that even when you’ve securely tied off bow and stern to rocks with a pair of heavy metal lines at each end, there is no certainty that you’ll really be safe through the night.

The biggest threat, of course, is ice. A big wind comes up, a seemingly protected bay can fill with icebergs big and small, and any sailboat can be locked in within an hour, unable to move until the ice blows out again. Which might be an hour, or days.

(While most of the private boats that sail to Antarctica are aluminum or steel-hulled, as it becomes an increasingly popular destination for adventurous yachties, the greater number of plastic, even the occasional fiberglass boat, show up here, more greatly threatened by sharp-edged ice.)

This morning we are lucky; there’s no ice in the bay when we awake. We are even luckier to spend the entire day just half a mile from where we slept, hiking, sailing and filming the rare beauty of Antarctica as it changes, seemingly by the minute.Steel gray skies turn bright blue. High white clouds skid across the horizon, then disappear. Brash ice — small bits of broken-up sea ice — turn the ocean surface into what resembles a giant frozen margarita. One by one a handful of icebergs the size of small houses float into the bay, pause, circle, then continue on, pushed slowly to the north by winds and current.

From up high looking down, whether perched on the spreader 30 feet above the Pelagic’s deck, or standing atop one of the 100 foot tall glaciers rimming the shallow U-shaped Skontorp Cove — named for Edvard Skontorp, described as an “outstanding” Norwegian whale gunner — the scene is otherworldly: ice moving in and out, winds picking up then calming, high clouds casting shadows on the sunlit, black Southern Ocean.

Since the rain that haunted us the first few days of this exploration have stopped, on a day like this it’s easy to be reminded of how privileged we are to see this remote corner of the planet. Its also a good reminder of just how relevant the theme of change– the subject of the film we’re shooting here, Wild Antarctica 3D — is to this place. Ice comes and goes, sea and air temperatures change, species are threatened, and every day the changing weather is the primary topic of conversation.

Mid-afternoon I jump in a Zodiac with Graham Charles, my Kiwi friend who knows this coastline as well as anyone, and we take a long, slow ride along the glacier’s edge.

We purposely stay a safe distance away from the towering ice. Those who know Antarctic best are the ones who respect its threats most, including its 29-degree waters but particularly its ice. Only the foolhardy pull cowboy acts here — like lingering too close to glacier walls or attempting to thread through tempting arches carved in icebergs — given the harsh penalty to be paid if you misjudge.

It is a warmish day, just above freezing, and the sun has been heating up the exterior of the glacier all day, making it more vulnerable to calving. When big chunks fall off it into the sea it’s like bags of cement being tossed in, sending waves and spray rolling. When a section of wall collapses it’s like a mini-tsunami.

Just as we pass a particularly sculptured wall, sure enough, a 30-foot wide section atop the glacier wall gives out a few warning groans and then drops into the ocean. It slides at first, then seems to explode. Watching over our shoulders, the engine on full throttle, six-foot waves chase us but do not catch up. Skidding the boat onto smooth waters we put it in neutral and watch as Antarctica continues to change all around us.

Maldives meltdown

As political unrest swept through the Muslim nations of North Africa, even the remote island-nation of the Maldives was caught up in its own Arab Spring in the form of political protest and street clashes.
One major difference: Efforts in the Maldives were focused on pushing out a young, democratically elected president and replacing him with an aging despot.

President Mohammed Nasheed, 44, has gained accolades around the globe for his commitment to preparing the Maldives for the coming impacts of climate change on an island nation and simultaneously attempting to turn the country carbon neutral. Since the first of May intermittent protests have wracked the streets of the tiny island capitol of Male – just two square miles and home to 100,000 – with some calling for Nasheed’s resignation; the irony, of course, is that he is the country’s very first democratically elected leader.

As many as 5,000 protestors have been shouting not about green issues, but about homegrown concerns, including a sour economy and increases in crime and inflation.

They have also complained about Nasheed’s alleged “westernization” of the traditional Islamic culture and allowing the economy to crumble. One report has his popularity rating at just 18 percent. The military has dispersed youthful crowds with high-pressure hoses and batons.

Waiting in the wings? None other than Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 74, whose 30-year dictatorship was ended in 2008 with Nasheed’s election. Nasheed has no love loss for the former president, who still lives in the Maldives. A former journalist, activist and political prisoner, Nasheed was tortured while in prison during Gayoom’s presidency.

Many attribute the economic mess of today to the 30-year long Gayoom administration. It’s no big surprise that it is the former president and his representatives who are working behind the scenes to fan the current protests.

Nasheed spokesman Mohamed Zuhair suggested to the BBC that the former president is encouraging violence in the streets. “In the Middle East, you have democrats on the streets bringing down dictatorships. Ironically in the Maldives, the remnants of the former dictatorship are trying to bring down a democratically elected government.”

It doesn’t help that oil prices are going through the roof, since everything in the Maldives is imported and it spends one quarter of its GDP on oil. Tourism, which accounts for 70 percent of the Maldives economy, has been negatively impacted by the unrest.

On May 25 the government proposed an agreement with representatives of the International Monetary Fund that would raise import duties, lower capital spending, freeze public sector wages, taxes on goods and services and tourist taxes as a way to help fix some of its economic woes.

Nasheed is well known internationally for his outspoked-ness regarding the fate of all island nations as sea levels rise. Among his first pronouncements after he was elected in 2008 was that he would set aside money from tourism to help buy land to move Maldivians as sea levels rose (to India or Pakistan, maybe Australia). To draw attention to the very real impact of climate change on a nation that is barely more than six feet above sea level he held the first “underwater” cabinet meeting, which garnered more than a billion global media impressions.

[Flickr image via Ula Ahmed]

Sushi Wars

The question arises with more and more frequency these days: To sushi or not to sushi?

There is a growing contingent of conscientious mariners and travelers out there who refuse to eat all seafood, arguing that sea life has been so injudiciously hammered in the past five decades that if it’s going to survive we need to give it a true break. That path, of course, puts at risk the livelihoods of 30 million-plus global fishermen and the related industry they support.

Others, attempting to choose wisely, attempt to navigate by choosing so-called sustainable seafood, which leads away from the big-name predators (tuna, salmon, swordfish, mahi-mahi) towards smaller, less-popular thus still prolific species.

But in the booming sushi trade, opting for that admittedly delicious tuna and other at-risk fish can prompt lively pre-dinner brawls, even among the most enlightened carrying smart phones armed with apps to help steer them towards the “safest” fish on the menu.

With bluefin season heating up in the Mediterranean the question is ever more relevant. Several weeks ago Sea Shepherd’s “Operation Blue Rage” sent two of its boats, the Steve Irwin and Brigitte Bardot, to the coast of Libya to help monitor and take direct action if it observes illegal tuna-ing.”Any tuna fishing vessel we find off the Libyan coast will be operating illegally,” said Sea Shepherd’s boss Paul Watson as his boats steamed away from the coast of France toward Libya. “We will cut their nets, free the fish and document and report their operations to ICCAT and the European Union.”

A decade ago it became clear that bluefin would soon be extinct if the hunting continued apace and little has been done to slow the take, even as the popularity of the species booms in sushi restaurants around the globe, from Stillwater to Moscow (and particularly in Japan, which is said to consume 80 percent of the planet’s bluefin). Some marine protectors stick with the prediction that bluefin will be commercially unavailable by 2012 … next year!

A small and hopefully growing number of chefs and restaurants have taken bluefin off the menus. At the same time necessary further protection for the species continues to erode. In May, the Obama administration refused to list it as endangered, which conservationists were calling for; late last year European quotas for tuna were reduced, though by just a few tons, even as worries that any decrease in legal takings would result in a rise in illegal fishing.

NYT food critic Sam Sifton got into the middle of the debate a couple days ago when reviewing the NYC restaurant Masa Masa, which he admits serves “an enormous amount” of bluefin, and of which he admitted to happily sampling during several visits.

So back to the question, To sushi or not to sushi?

Casson Trenor’s book (Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time) and website may be the best place to start building your argument. He operates San Francisco’s only sustainable sushi restaurant, Tataki, and recently hosted a sustainable seafood feast at the National Geographic Society in D.C.

On his recent birthday (32) he blogged: “I talk a lot about moderation on this blog – staying away from critically endangered delicacies like bluefin tuna, not eating sushi four times a week, and all that – and I stand by it. But there’s a time and a place for celebration, and that’s important too. Not that I would eat bluefin tuna even for a holiday banquet, but I just might gorge myself a little bit (or a lot) on some sort of sustainable delight and fall asleep on the couch. My birthday is not a good day to be a crawfish, believe me.”
I think what we’re seeing is the emergence of a list of “good sushi” and “bad sushi.” Or should we simply put it all off limits … for now? Where do you fall?

Sifton’s review elicited a slew of responses. A majority but not all sided with the fish. Others suggest if you don’t like what’s on the menu, vote by not walking through the door. Have a look for yourself and weigh in here at Gadling.

[Flickr image via Bill Hails]

Bonnaroo goes green

It’s possible that some of the biggest applause heard at last weekend’s Bonnaroo extravaganza was not for Lil’ Wayne or Mumford and Sons, Eminem or Dr. John, but for the phalanx of silver tankers that arrived once or twice a day slopping over with cool, fresh water to resupply the fest’s communal fountain/shower.

Each time a line of the half-dozen shiny trucks entered through the campgrounds, their big rolling tires generating even more dust, the crowds parted reverently to allow them access.

Even more than microbrews and vegetable samosas, drum circles and pot, umbrellas and sun block, fresh, clean water is the key to keeping the festival alive.

During its ten-year run, the mid-summer fest – this year’s version hosted 120 bands and more than 80,000 – has experienced all weathers, from downpour to heat wave. This year’s was the latter. Other than a few drops and some distant lightning near the onset of Buffalo Springfield’s reunion show late on Saturday night, the skies were clear and pale, dry and hot. Which meant those 160,000 feet scuffling around the 700-acre compound very quickly turned the place into a dust bowl. The stages were often masked by a fine scree of brown Tennessee dust hovering in the air 30 feet above ground.

Creating a sizable city, even if for just four days, requires massive logistics on top of selling and delivering all those computer-coded wristbands and organizing the arrival and departure of fleets of band-bearing tour buses. Most of life’s essentials – particularly water – have to be brought in from elsewhere. (Two deaths were reported over the weekend; heat exhaustion may have been in part responsible, though so could have overdose, genetics or freak accident. That number brings the total to have taken their last breaths at Bonnaroo at 10 in 10 years.)

%Gallery-126954%Thankfully there seemed to be plenty of water. While there were the ubiquitous long lines outside the occasionally overflowing porta potties, the lines to fill water bottles, Camelbacks and empty gallon milk jugs with drinking water were manageable (the drinking water was tested daily by the state’s Department of Health to make sure it stayed … drinkable). One of the most popular carry-ons at the fest was a Nalgene water bottle with their own misting fans. Surprisingly a big semi-circle of misting fans near the fountain seemed to be underused.

The fountain strategically built at Centeroo – big enough to shower 50 or 60 at a time – is the literal heart of the festival, especially when temps reached nearly triple digits, with some dropping by multiple times in a day to dust off.

Like several of the big summer fests, Bonnaroo has put lots of effort into greening its event, for obvious reasons: Anytime you create a small city in the middle of nowhere for several weeks (set-up begins months in advance, especially now that the show’s organizers own most of the land that hosts the festival) you’re going to have an impact: Think of all the air miles, buses, RVs spewing fossil fuels that deliver those 80,000+ and the garbage left behind. To its credit the festival has won a variety of awards for its efforts, based on self-evaluations and external audits.

Attendees, for example, have the option of adding any amount of money to their ticket purchase price to support the festival’s green efforts, like carbon offsets, a composting program, future plans for more solar power, which about half of ticket buyers pay into.

Last year’s event was about the same size and the North Carolina-based Clean Vibes company, which was hired to look after the leftovers, reportedly sorted 489 tons of garbage, diverting about a third of it to be recycled. That included carrying 101 tons of recyclables (81 tons of that was plastic bottles), plus 23 tons of cardboard, 21 tons of scrap metal, 45 tons of compost and 5 tons of cooking oil.

I talked with a bunch of the dedicated “Trash Talkers” – they are identified so by their t-shirts – who stand by each recycling drop and either advises on which bin to drop what (recyclable, compost, garbage) or stick plastic-gloved hands into the mess to personally re-sort. They’d gotten in for free, saving the couple hundred bucks on a weekend pass, and seemed happy to be there, despite a weekend of trash sorting. A 24-year-old from South Carolina standing near the Which stage said he’d organized his whole weekend work schedule around this one, Friday night posting, so that he’d have a good view of Primus.

Despite any touted green ethic, whether by organizers or attendees, there was trash… everywhere. I watched 40,000 people back off from the stage after Mumford & Sons played for 90 minutes and the ground was carpeted with plastic cups, plastic beer bottles, plates, wrappers, etc. People are people, essentially slobs, and it wouldn’t have mattered if the crowd had gathered for a jam band or a Nascar race, it was a mess. As it moved away, many heading for the main stage for a Black Keys set, even more volunteers moved in with plastic garbage bags to try and pick up and sort as much of the mess as possible. Convoys of electric ATVs piled high with plastic bags filled with garbage were even more ubiquitous than the water truck convoys.
Organizers clearly understand the link between clean water and life since several international non-profits focusing on water issues were featured at this year’s version, including its lead non-profit partner Challenge, as well as charity: water and Water for People.

Even post-fest, water was on people’s mind. This suggestion from a chat room posted minutes after the last act left the stage:

Ways to improve bonnaroo?

  1. Several more mist tents with a slightly higher output of water
  2. At least 5 more filtered water stations, with adequate water pressure
  3. MORE SHADE!! 1 tent the size of “This Tent”, without a stage, and without the sides. 40 cheap ceiling fans running at full blast would be a nice touch too.
  4. More / Better art installations
  5. More / Nicer / More frequently cleaned Portapotties

[flickr image via Jason Anfinsen]

Overfishing and the future generation’s catch

The biggest debate in the ocean world today continues to be, Will we run out of fish, and when?

An intense squabble has been going on for nearly twenty years, since the global catch of seafood peaked in 1994. Predictions since have warned that we’ve taken 90 percent of the fish from the sea and that by 2050 or so all of the fish we currently know would be gone, that jellyfish will rule the seas.

Which is very true … in some places. Globally, despite growing international awareness, fisheries are still being abused, particularly the big fish we most love to eat, including marlins, bluefin tuna, cod and snapper.

But highly-placed members of the U.S. government have been making the rounds in recent months very publicly saying that our fisheries are actually doing quite well, thank you, due largely to laws that are working and a grumbling-but-dutiful bunch of fishermen who are obeying them.

A couple weeks ago Eric Schwaab, administrator of the National Fisheries Service, a branch of NOAA, told a crowd at the Boston Seafood Show that overfishing in the U.S. was in many respects and for the moment … over.

He bolstered his argument with statistics suggesting that the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which imposed strict annual catch limits in U.S. waters, is working, that the 528 different fish species it monitors are doing okay. He called it an “enormous milestone.”

How big an area are we talking? Just how big is the U.S. fishing zone? 3.4 million square miles paralleling 90,000 miles of coastline.

Those who agree with those government stats say the good news deserves better publicity, that doom-and-gloom headlines about the “end of fishing” attract more eyes than those that show, in fact, fish in some places are making a comeback.

I admit to having contributed to some of those gloomy reports, based primarily on my own empirical research. During my travels to coastlines around the world the past two decades I am constantly quizzing fishermen on their personal experiences at sea. Are you catching as much fish as you did ten years ago? Do you have to go further out to sea to find a reasonable catch? Are some species you used to depend on gone or lessened?

Virtually everywhere I go outside the U.S. the responses are the same: There are fewer fish, especially big ones, which requiring fleets to venture far out to sea in order to find a reasonable catch.

One important distinction is that there is a difference between a fish species that is “overfished” and the act of “overfishing.”

While the two can exist simultaneously, there are some differences, which can be confusing, especially in a headline-dominated media.

A species that is “overfished” means it is below its healthy population level. An overfished area can recover if it is temporarily placed off-limits or certain catch limits are instituted, which is what’s happened in recent years in many U.S. waters.

“Overfishing” means taking more fish out of the ocean than natural reproduction rates can replace. There are many examples of fish species that have been so badly overfished they will never come back. Bluefin tuna is currently headed that direction.

Michael Conathan, director of Ocean Policy for the Center for American Progress (CAP), explains it this way: “In effect, this is the difference between a household’s budget and debt. Exceeding an annual budget is overspending. Overspending for multiple years will accumulate debt, which can be referred to as being in an ‘overspent’ state. Even when overspending stops, the red ink doesn’t magically turn black. The deficit remains. Many of our fisheries are still overfished (or overspent), but the first step in resolving that dilemma is halting overfishing.”

At a minimum, the current laws regulating fishing in the U.S. have helped the fisheries “make progress” (Schwaab’s words). I am happy to help spread that word. But a worry exists: There are plenty in the commercial fishing business, and politicians whose voters work in the fishing industry, who want to take a glimmer of good news and change the laws and open the fisheries back up to bigger takes. Many believe that would be too much too soon, that the fisheries need more years to fully recover. Grumbling fishermen disagree.

One overriding concern no matter which side of the debate you’re on is that fishing, like all big businesses today, knows no boundaries.

The market for fish is a global one. Eighty-four percent of the fish consumed in the U.S. comes from abroad; half of that is from farms. Much of the fish caught in the U.S. is sent abroad.

Government fishing officials in countries ranging from Vietnam to Indonesia, Japan to the Mediterranean, are not as optimistic as their U.S. counterparts. Many of them report parts of their fisheries that are dead and gone, never to return.

While U.S. enforcement seems to be working for now, the worldwide demand for fish continues to grow and someone’s going to fill it. There are plenty of fishermen out there on the ocean happy to comply, rules and regulations be damned.

[flickr image via katiedubya]