Bowermaster’s Adventures: The winds of change in Antarctica

We spent the morning watching and following big groups of swimming/feeding penguins on the backside of Pleneau Island, about halfway down the Antarctic Peninsula.

It was one of the most prolific wildlife scenes I’ve ever witnessed here. The skies were dark, hinting snow, but the incredible beauty of the scene kept us out on deck all morning. Literally thousands of Gentoos swimming and porpoising surfaced in one big pack after another. In single file they would surface, jump one at a time onto a tiny piece of ice, which quickly disintegrated under their accumulated weight. Others seemed savvier, popping up onto bigger icebergs, which they scampered up and over, again in single file, before diving one at a time off the opposite side.

As well as gathering krill and small fish for their by-now two-month old chicks, I’m convinced whenever I see penguin action like this they’re also out horsing around, having some fun. It’s summertime, after all. In another month or two this scene will be dramatically different, frozen and iced-in, and all of Antarctica’s wildlife will be pushed to the ice edge.

It’s an interesting year to talk about ice along the Peninsula. Every year the sea around Antarctica freezes solid, essentially doubling the size of the continent. And every year with spring and summer most of that frozen sea either melts or breaks into smaller pieces and is blown away, offshore.

This year is different. Though summer is two-thirds over still-thick sea ice borders the coastline and encases many of its just offshore islands. It’s more ice than any of us who’ve been visiting the Peninsula for the past couple decades have seen in fifteen years or so.

After watching the penguins hunt for a couple hours we sailed south, to Petermann Island, a traditional summer stop, home to nesting Adelie, Gentoo and blue-eyed Cormorants. For several years the Washington, D.C.-based environmental group Oceanites had put up tents here, allowing its volunteers to come and live for an entire season, documenting wildlife. On an average day all season long one or two tourist ships would land passengers on Petermann for a walk around.

No one has visited the island this year. We attempted to chug through the two miles of thick, slushy ice separating the island from a clear channel. Several times our boat’s engine overheated due to the thick slush being sucked into the intake, requiring us to turn off the engine and plunge it out to prevent it from stopping for good.

%Gallery-147996%Through binoculars we could make out the fuel storage tank at the Ukrainian science base of Vernadsky in the Argentine Islands. We’ve stopped there many times in the past, to anchor in the calm creek that sits behind it and to share a meal and home-brewed vodka with the 14 scientists based there for 12 straight months. This year, thanks to all the ice, no one has been able to reach the base. The Ukrainians have been iced-in for nearly one year. We raise the base commander on the VHF and he assures us all is good; they had recently celebrated the Ukrainian New Year with a big dinner … but admitted they were anxiously hoping their 14 replacements would be able to reach the base in another month.

Sailing back to the north, heading towards a safe anchorage at Pt. Charcot, near where we’d watched the penguins — and leopard seals! — frolic earlier in the day the wind came up, the seas darkened and the ice that surrounded us began to move. It was pushing towards land, filling in any open gap in the sea.

As Skip Novak piloted the boat in, around and through the ice I sensed worry. If we were to anchor at Pt. Chacot and the wind kept blowing out of the west as it was predicted, it was very likely we’d be stuck, unable to move or get off the boat, for many days.

Standing outside in the blow we talked — actually shouted over the wind — about our options. It was actually a very short conversation. “Let’s get north, away from this ice,” said Skip. I agreed.

Now stories of too much ice along the Antarctic Peninsula may run contrary to those you’ve heard — many from me! — about how much the temperatures in this part of the continent are warming and ice melting.

That hasn’t changed: Both air and water temperatures along the Peninsula have gone up on average 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the past forty years, the biggest such change on the planet. The issue this season is not lack of warmth, but lack of wind.

During our adventure this year I’ve had two fascinating conversations with longtime Peninsula veterans about the changes they’ve seen. Each agreed the warming is creating big differences, though each focused on different impacts.

Bill Fraser, one of Antarctica’s premiere penguin scientists, has been visiting the American Palmer Station since the mid-1970s and is convinced the warming temps are changing wildlife patterns. He blames the changes specifically on the lack of sea ice due to warming air and sea temps.

Leif Skog is captain of the “National Geographic Explorer,” operated by Lindblad Expeditions, which has been bringing tourists to Antarctica since the mid-1960s. Skog has been coming here for nearly 40 years. We spoke on the bridge of his ship at Pt. Lockroy, the former British refuge hut known as ‘Camp A.’

For him, the biggest change has been the weather, specifically the wind. Or lack of it. “We used to get katabatic winds roaring down off the glaciers every three days or so. Gusts of over 100 miles per hour. We prepared for them, worried about them constantly. Now … we never see winds like that.” Changing weather patterns influenced by warming temperatures — and the lack of sea ice — makes perfect sense for what we’ve witnessed this season.

As we sailed the Pelagic Australisto safety, slowly pushing through the still-thick, slushy ice towards the backside of the beautiful Lemaire Channel, standing outside in blowing snow and cold Skip and I talked about just what an incredible part of the world Antarctica is. We sail past a sizable iceberg we had lingered near this morning, under far different conditions. Reminding us that every day — every hour — is different in Antarctica. Make that every 15 minutes.

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Palmer Station, Antarctica

Palmer Station — When we sail into the narrow channel fronting the U.S. science base here at the tip of Anvers Island it is clear of ice, but for one sizable iceberg which we wait out, watching it drift slowly out to sea.

Once anchored and tied to the rocks at four corners — a necessity in Antarctica given the unpredictable winds and constantly moving ice, which are the twin constant threats of boats both big and small alike down here — we settle in for a good night’s sleep before going ashore the next day to interview and film scientists based here for the austral summer.

But when we awake the scene around our boat has changed: Big winds have pushed a field of brash ice — small chunks of floating ice that have a tendency to congeal into bigger masses when temps are cold — into the narrow channel, threatening to trap the sailboat and make getting back and forth to shore a nightmare.

Tying our nine-foot rubber Zodiac up next to the station’s row of a half-dozen bigger, sturdier versions it feels a bit like we’d ridden up to an Old West town and saddled our Shetland pony next to a string of quarter horses.
Though it is gray and misting heavily when we climb ashore the station’s manager, Bob Farrell, in sweatshirt and jeans, meets us outside. His charges this summer total just 41, a third of them scientists, the rest support staff.

Whether krill expert or IT guy, whether studying Antarctica’s longest-living insect (a midge) or looking after the station’s wastewater system, every one of the 42 based here for three to six months treats the place with equal parts reverence and occasional disdain. While each loves Antarctica in their own way, many returning year after year, the isolation — and grayness — of the place can sometimes make the assignment feel more jail sentence than golden opportunity. The two days we are at Palmer it rains and snows and rains and snows, with the sun coming out for just a tempting 30-minute peek, and then starts to sleet.

Luckily for us the place is busy with interesting science and super-committed-scientists. While the NSF-supported scientists are often in the field counting penguins or sampling underwater algae, a handful are here working the first-floor labs doing what scientists do: count, recount, analyze, compare, dissect, hypothesize, write and edit. Among the hi-tech support here is full-on Wi-Fi connections which allow phones with U.S. prefixes to ring and experiments launched with colleagues back home in New Jersey watching over scientists shoulders via Skype or Immarsat.For example, we find Rutgers’s University grad student Travis Miles in a lab preparing a four-foot long yellow “glider,” which he and assistants will slide into the ocean a couple miles from the station to collect data from deep channels nearby. The program has already sent one of its gliders 7,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
In a similar but different underwater endeavor, across the hall we meet Kim Bernard – native of South Africa and currently studying at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science — who shows off colorful screen grabs from her own undersea work, which is focused on krill fluctuations. The mainstay of Antarctica’s food web, recent krill numbers have been way down. Is it the warming waters? Overfishing? Extra-hungry predators? While the Rutgers’s team goes deep for answers, Kim studies the potential influence of tides on krill.

And both studies benefit Palmer’s most long-term study, of Adelie penguins, led by Bill Fraser who has been coming to Palmer since the mid-1970s. HQ for Fraser and his birding team — he currently has two teams of two scientists out on remote islands, counting — is a sturdy half-dome tent on the station’s front deck.

Sharing a glass of early evening whisky Fraser details some of the changes he’s seen since first arriving at Palmer in 1975-76, staying the first season for three months, the next for 13 months. During those decades he’s watched Adelie penguin populations decrease significantly, due to warming temperatures thus lack of sea ice; Gentoo penguin numbers increase, as they move into the warming neighborhoods abandoned by the Adelies; and krill numbers fluctuate wildly.

But the main thing he’s witnessed is less and less ice. Photographs assembled by various Palmer Station managers and visiting photographers show that at this tip of Anvers Island the retreat has been significant; they show a glacier behind the station that has retreated by 1,500 feet.

“That is the future of the Antarctic Peninsula,” says Fraser. “The ice is definitely disappearing. And fast.”

Bowermasters Adventures: Update from the coup in the Maldives

In a move surprising those not living in the Maldives — where most of the recent press has focused on its green-thinking on climate change and carbon use — the island nation’s president, Mohamed Nasheed, has apparently been forced out in a coup d’etat.

Fingers are being pointed at allies of the previous president, Maumoon Gayoom, for orchestrating Nasheed’s resignation. It was the Gayoom administration, which spanned 30 years, that had locked up and tortured a younger Nasheed before he became the first democratically elected president in the country’s history.

While celebrated internationally for his environmental politics, Nasheed’s presidency has been at risk at home. Critics have claimed the “Island President” (the name of the documentary that has recently won awards and attention at festivals from Toronto to Sundance) was paying too much attention to global issues and not enough to his backyard; others complained his leadership was not “Islamic enough” for the all-Muslim nation.
In recent months the country has experienced its own brand of “Arab Spring,” but here rather than oust a dictator the movement was against the country’s first democratically elected president.

Three weeks ago President Nasheed ordered the arrest and jailing of a high court judge — an ally of the former president — on charges of corruption. Street protests against the president, said to have been coordinated by allies of the former president including a half-brother and members of his security force, were successful enough that the military was sent into the streets.

Nasheed’s resignation speech indicated he was stepping down to avoid further and more serious clashes between the military, the police and protestors.
Coincidentally, when I flew into the Maldives four months ago I landed at the southern island of Laamu, where a sizable crowd was gathered on the sidewalk outside the airport. The street was clogged with women in headscarves and men in pickup trucks. They seemed to be surrounding a man walking; I asked what all the hubbub was about and was told it was former president Gayoom, who was clearly still liked by many.

One of the ironies of Nasheed’s three year long democracy is that a number of political parties emerged, including one devoted to his predecessor. When I met Nasheed later that week, he was clearly worried about his upcoming re-election, especially due to the loyalty being garnered by Gayoom’s Progressive Party and a handful of other, smaller pro-Islamic political parties. I don’t think then that he envisioned that his presidency would last just another 100 days with his being forced to quit.

That same day I had dinner with then-Vice President Dr. Waheed Hassan, a seemingly kind man who had previously worked for UNICEF, and his wife, a teacher who schooled students in her home. When asked at dinner (by Richard Branson) if he wanted to be president, he politely deferred. I’m sure he did not imagine that night that 100 days later he would be being sworn into the office.

There is concern that Nasheed may be being detained. Reports show military men going in and out of his private residence, carrying out boxes, including so-called “illicits” like liquor bottles. Be sure and read the accounts in the Guardian by Nasheed’s environmental adviser, Mark Lynas, who reports: “Gayoom controls the judiciary, now the executive, the media, and in couple of weeks probably the parliament. One thing he cannot control is popular support for President Nasheed, so he needs to find a way to jail or discredit him ahead of the 2013 election,” the spokesperson said.

“Using violence and then taking over the TV station, as well as recruiting converts among the police, the anti-democratic opposition faced Nasheed with a choice – to either use force or resign,” writes Lynas. “Ever the human rights activist, he chose the latter option and stepped down to avoid bloodshed. Even as I write, his whereabouts are still unknown, and though he is supposedly in the “protection” of the military I fear desperately for his personal safety and that of his family. I have heard that he is currently being held against his will under military house arrest, in which case he must be immediately released. All I can do is take comfort from the fact that the struggle can only continue for a man famous in the west for his outspokenness on climate change, but whose real lifelong cause has been his commitment to bringing democracy to his Indian Ocean island homeland.”

Several members of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) were seriously injured during the lead-up to Nasheed’s resignation and some are reportedly missing. Part of the president’s decision to quit was hoping to avoid a bloodbath on the streets of the capital city Male, where 100,000 live squeezed into 1.5 square miles.

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Finding civilization in Antarctica

Port Lockroy If there is a human population center along the Antarctic Peninsula, this is it. While there may be hundreds of thousands of penguins, tens of thousands of seals, whales and sea birds that call this remote stretch home, few people do.

But at the height of the austral summer season — December-February — more people congregate in the protected harbor here at the former ‘Camp A’ of the British Antarctic Survey than anywhere else for many thousands of miles, if temporarily. (The next most populated place in Antarctica would be the American base at McMurdo, home to 1,200 scientists and support crew during the summer months, but located on the opposite side of the continent.)

The former refuge hut has been turned into a mini-museum and gift shop, demanding a mostly volunteer staff to run it and keep the small island relatively tidy (it is surrounded by breeding Gentoo penguins, everywhere …) for the tourist boats that arrive, often twice a day.

When we go ashore at Goudier Island we find an all-women staff of four plus a visiting guide from one of the tourist ships who’s spending ten days here helping out. The two men are here temporarily, installing video cameras around the hut so the penguin colonies can be monitored remotely during the eight months no humans live here.

I had a slightly selfish interest for pulling into Lockroy; a pair of kayaks I’d asked to be dropped off by the National Geographic Explorer had been stashed alongside the residents’ Quonset hut a few weeks ago. We find them, bright red and yellow polyurethane wrapped in plastic badly deteriorated by the ozone-free sun that shines brightly here during the summer thanks to the still-present hole in the atmosphere that grows over the deep, deep south this time of year.The even-more-temporary residents of Lockroy are those that arrive by private sailboat, a growing phenomenon, seeking well-known shelter from Antarctica’s fiercest winds. Twenty years ago, it would be rare to see a sailboat here, maybe one or two during a complete summer season. Today there are almost always five or six boats at anchor in this bay alone.

Skip Novak, the owner of the Pelagic Australis that I’ve chartered, has been coming to the Peninsula by small boat since 1988 and is one of a the charter members in a very small (3 or 4?) club of pioneers. He is on board with us and regales us nightly with stories of those early days when they used to tap into the fuel deposits left behind at abandoned science bases, debauched nights in Ushuaia’s lone strip club (the Tropicana, still there) at trip’s end and the always odd and colorful characters who initially came here in small boats against the advice of virtually everyone.

We anchor at Lockroy for three nights, filming in the iceberg-studded bays nearby, diving under icebergs and photographing the whalebones left on the sea floor by rapacious oil barons of a century ago. During those days a half-dozen sailboats anchor nearby:

An Italian couple on their private boat pull in, crewed by a staff of six sailors. The report from its skipper, who used to work for Skip, is that they are already bored by the penguins and ice and will most likely cut an anticipated 30 day trip short by two weeks. A Brit in a plastic sailboat carrying four friends comes and goes from the anchorage on day trips. Daily they return with a slightly fearful look in their eye and worried tone in their details; their boat is certainly not cut out for bashing through ice and this season there is a lot of still-frozen sea ice out there in the passes.

Another small plastic boat, the Paradise,operates out of Ushuaia and specializes in bringing (mostly French) climbers to the Peninsula. In my 20 years coming to this part of the world, on top of the general tourist boom the biggest change has been that the adventuring crowd has finally found ways of getting here. The result is lots of skiers and climbers are chartering small boats and spending their days exploring new peaks and routes. While most of the biggest mountains along the Peninsula have been previously climbed (the tallest is Mt. Francais, at nearly 9,256 feet) there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of smaller ones no one has ever stood atop or ski traversed.

But the number of sailboats we see is down from a few years ago; then we pulled into Lockroy and there were ten boats. Similarly general tourist visits are down; four years ago Lockroy had a record 18,000 visitors by cruise boats, this year they anticipate 13,000. The record high for visitors to the Peninsula was more than 35,000 in 2008; this year it will be just over 20,000. Global economic woes are an explanation for the drop, as is the elimination of most of the giant cruise boat visits thanks to a change in law ruling out the heavy fuels they use from operating along the Peninsula.

One boat we’re keeping our eyes out for left Ushuaia a couple days before we did, stacked with nine British special forces soldiers down here for “drills.” We’d run into a similar group a few years ago — similarly 8 men and 1 woman — and they’d welcomed us into various anchorages along the Peninsula with bagpipes, proper British tea and good Scotch.

More traditionally for Antarctica we meet up with a handful of boats being run by second-generation sailors, who have inherited a passion for the place by essentially growing up here … both a job and lineage no one could have imagined just fifty years ago when the international treaty that governs the continent was written. The word “tourism” is never mentioned in that original agreement.

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.