Bowermaster’s Adventures: Iceberg spotting in the rain

Enterprise Island— Rain, rain go away.

We woke tied-off to the rusted hulk of a half-sunken Norwegian whaling ship. Its story is legend along the Peninsula for having caught fire a century ago during a sail-away party, its stores of whale oil afire lighting up the sky for several days. Now it is just another ruined reminder of those boom days when Antarctica‘s whales were one of the world’s biggest producers of oil for lighting and heat.

Today is one of those days down here that you wish you could be sitting by some kind of warm fire, whether in the comfort of your living room or a preferably a bonfire. At eight this morning it is thirty-four degrees and raining, conditions which began yesterday and promise to be with us for at least two more. Thanks to satellite imagery we are able to track the weather up to five days in advance, more or less; at the very least we know when high and low pressure systems are on the way and from what direction to expect the winds.

Loading into a hypalon Zodiac — Graham Charles, an old friend of mine and great Kiwi explorer, Skip Novak, a longtime sail racer and owner of the “Pelagic Australis” that sailed us to Antarctica and myself — round the southwestern edge of Enterprise Island to have a look at the art show of grounded icebergs that gather in the relatively shallow waters each summer season.

We are not disappointed. Twenty and thirty foot tall icebergs litter the alley. One has a pair of small arches carved through it by wind and waves. Another has a sheer wall, like smooth granite, rising straight out of the cold sea. Another is ridged by undulations carved into its underside over many years before it rolled onto its side.
Graham, who has kayaked the length of the Peninsula and works every season as an expedition leader aboard one of the 30+ tourist ships that come south each season, is almost apologetic for the rain and gray. “It’s so unusual these days to see so many back to back days without sun. We’ve gotten spoiled by weeks recently where there’s been nothing but blue sky and glassy seas.”

Skip, who first sailed to Antarctica in the early 1980s and is one of a small handful of charter boat captains whose boats have returned each season since, agrees. “But even when you say that, I think back to conditions twenty years ago when we had far more wind. And back then, every morning you’d wake up to snow on the boat, which we almost never see now. It’s simply too warm to snow.”

Perhaps the most beautiful part of Antarctica, even on a gray, misty day, is just how much it changes from year to year. I’ve been to this corner of Enterprise more than a dozen times and the ice that surrounds it changes every 15 minutes. Sometimes by the light glancing off it or, like today, the mist that envelops it, or the wind and waves moving it up and down, from side to side, threatening to flip it onto its side.

Without question the biggest change to come to the Peninsula in my 20 years of experience down here is the weather. Today during the austral summer, November to February, each year is warmer and wetter. It’s not just my imagination: Data collected at the various science bases along this stretch of the continent detail that air and sea temperatures have risen dramatically in the past 40 years. During the summer, average temps have risen up 5 to 10 degrees F; year round, the average temps along the Peninsula, including during its long, cold, dark winters, have raised by up to 18 degrees.

The warmer conditions are relevant to us because they deliver more precipitation, i.e. rain. Our hope is that this will be a summer filled with many clear days, in large part because we’re trying to capture Antarctica in 3D … and we don’t want the audience to come away thinking the place is only gray, misty and wet.

Conditions have been making filming tricky during these early days of our exploration. A drop of snow or salty sea spray on the 18″ mirror or one of two camera lenses on the Epic 3D rig means lots of stopping and starting, stopping and starting. The result is long days and lots of waiting.

But the delays are worth it. The beauty down here is that when the sun does shine it’s like watching a Disney film on hallucinogens, surrounded everywhere you look by ice in its thousands of forms.

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Deception Island, Antarctica

Deception Island, Antarctica — The black volcanic sand beach carries a heavy history, of an efficient if somewhat desperate past, in evidence from the cemetery where British whalers are buried to the abandoned and rusted pumps and storage tanks that line the shore, once filled with the oil of thousands of whales killed here each during a 25 year run.

From 1904 to 1931 this bay was home to one of the Southern Ocean’s boomtowns. As many as 15 big processing boats and another 35 “catcher” boats worked this beach at one time, most from Norway and the U.K.

With a sun rare for this island south of the South Shetlands lighting up the beach we moved up and down it, not with giant tools for skinning whales but giant cameras for documenting the falling down boomtown. Rusting tanks that once held whale oil, collapsed dormitories that once housed men and wooden whaleboats buried up to their gunnels by blown sand are the subject. It is rare today that a whale ventures into the caldera, but just before entering through Neptune’s Bellows a trio of humpbacks had blown in the near-distance.

One thing we know for certain is that the sun won’t last. My hope is to make a landing the next day on the exterior of the island, at a beach known as Baily Head. Though it is just around the corner from the interior of the caldera, and we could hike to it in two hours, the preference would be to land by Zodiac on its steep beach.

How steep? It typically shuts out three of four attempts … and those are in big robust, hard-bottomed Zodiacs, not the more pliable nine-footer we will use.

Dump the Zodiac as we land here, and there goes the film, on Day 2.It’s the confidence of my Kiwi compatriot Graham Charles, who knows the coastline of the Peninsula as well as anyone, that is our ace in the hole. Sent to scout the beach just after 7 a.m. he returned with a thumbs up — or maybe it was a shrug of the shoulders, it’s hard to tell when we’re all dressed in six layers — but his message was that right now, it was calm enough to land. The worst case was that we could land by shore and have to hike ourselves and gear to the other side to get off the island.

One, then two and three runs were made with success and during the next two hours as we assembled the 3D camera in a growing wind on the cusp of the beach, observed by several thousand chinstrap penguins, the seas rose quickly and were soon crashing onto the shore. If we’d arrived an hour later, we’d have never been able to land.

The reason to make the effort to reach Baily Head are those thousands of chinstraps that trudge up and down in a continuous file ten to twenty abreast from high in the amphitheater behind to plunge into the cold Southern Ocean for a day of feeding. They line up on the beach, assess the surf, count the sets and then — often hesitantly, sometimes with a stutter step — dive or are swept in.

Landing for them can be even trickier; from a distance you can see them coming — 40 to 100 at a time, porpoising out of the sea, headed for the beach — and then surfing, or being slammed, onto the black sand.

Leaning into the sensitive camera to keep it upright, wrapping it in space blankets and plastic sheeting to protect it from the wet, we watch the scene for several hours in the admittedly freezing wet and cold — 32 degrees with a wet blowing wind and cold spray off the ocean.

The hike with gear to the top of the 500-foot ridge in the now-grassy and muddy bowl that is home to nearly 200,000 birds was easier than we expected and after shooting atop the beautiful ridge for several more hours, by five p.m. we were clambering down the backside towards a small black sand beach.

As we hiked down, a single file line of dutiful penguins, their bellies stuffed with fish and krill, headed back to their nests, most now featuring two fuzzy gray chicks.

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Departure for Antarctica

Drake Passage — Ever since sailing men first proved the world was not flat they have been cursing the weather conditions at Cape Horn and the Drake Passage that lies below, separating South America from Antarctica.

Everyone from Sir Francis Drake, for whom the windy passage is named, to Captain Bligh, who fought into the winds for 100 days before giving in, turning around and sailing to Tahiti the long way, no one in their right mind has looked forward to these seas.

I’ve crossed the Drake a couple dozen times now and include myself on the long list of those who live with a mild and constant dread of the place. Whether leaving from the southern Chilean ports of Punta Arenas or Puerto Williams, or Ushuaia in Argentina — from which most of the 30-odd tourist ships that carry visitors to the Antarctic Peninsula each austral summer leave from — in the days leading up to each of the crossings my fingers are tightly locked for many days in advance, praying for calm seas.

This time out was no different. We were set to leave aboard the 74-foot “Pelagic Australis” from a dock lined with expedition yachts on January 2 and the five-day outlook was for incredibly light winds and … calm seas. If that luck held, it looked like we’d make what we anticipated to be a three-day crossing in good time, with little turbulence.

Unfortunately our luck did not hold. Delayed waiting for an underwater housing for our 3D cameras, which never arrived and as far as I know is still stuck in customs in Buenos Aires, we finally sailed away from Ushuaia at midday on January 4 in 45 mile per hour gusts. Just minutes later they closed the port due to strong winds.That luck — bad luck — managed to hang in for the next four days, as we were bucked by strong easterly winds pushing us far off our hoped-for course of due south to Deception Island. Instead we were forced to tack far to the east to avoid sailing directly into the wind, taking us slightly out of our way to the eastern edge of the South Shetland Islands. When we finally turned the corner around the Shetlands at King George Island, we had to lower the sails and motor face-on into a pounding wind and sea, making less than four miles an hour.

At 7 a.m. on the 8th we finally sailed into the caldera of Deception Island, wearied by a trip that had taken about 24 hours longer than it should have.

I had chartered the “Pelagic Australis” four years ago for a similar exploration; the crew this time around has some overlap: my friends and expedition partners Sean Farrell and Graham Charles were with me then, as was Skip Novak, who owns the “Pelagic.” But the camera crew has changed, to include 3D experts Ken Corben, Bob Cranston and Johnny Friday.

During the four days of bashing our way across the Drake it was easy to lose focus on why we were headed to the Antarctic Peninsula in the first place. But as a rare sun came out over Whaler’s Bay at Deception Island — lighting up the long, black volcanic sand beach that a century ago was home to one of the most efficient whaling operations the world has ever known — it was easy to put the seasick pills away, crawl out of our bunks and start pulling camera gear out of the holds below.

“Wild Antarctica 3D” is my first entry into the growing genre. The film industry, pushed by coalitions of heavyweight broadcasters and theater owners around the world, are gambling that 3D’s time has finally arrived and are demanding more and more high-level content. For me, being able to bring the Antarctic Peninsula, which I’ve been visiting the past two decades, initially into theaters in museums and science institutions all the better. I can already see penguins and icebergs jumping off the screen and into people’s laps.

Like much of my writing and filmmaking about Antarctica in recent years this film will ultimately be about Antarctica’s ice, specifically how it is changing.

Despite that the southern continent is covered in some places by nearly three miles of ice, along the Peninsula each summer for the past four decades its ice edges have been being degraded thanks to warming air and sea temperatures. Stepping onto the rare, sunshine-filled beach at Deception Island we were reminded that many things change here, and fast.

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Running out of water in the Maldives

Kunahadhoo Island— On a very hot, very typical, mid-morning in the Maldives I walk the streets of this tiny island just north of the equator.

Most of its 800 residents had gathered at the shoreline to greet visitors from a nearby island. While they focused on a first-of-a-kind beach clean-up along the rocky coast, accompanied by a drum band and dancing, I took a small walking tour looking for something the Maldives doesn’t have much of: drinking water.

(A late morning visit to its elementary school provided another interesting glimpse into island life; while most of the students raised their hands said they knew how to swim, yet virtually none had ever worn a mask and snorkel, so had no idea of the rich life that surrounded their island home.)

It was quickly evident from the jury-rigged plumbing systems fitted to the exteriors of most of the one-story cement homes that the options for delivering clean water were few. Some homes had barrels for collecting rainwater; others had wells dug into the rocky island terrain. Most of them, they admitted, leaked.

Everyone on the island also admitted that if it weren’t for the arrival of the weekly cargo boat, and its bottles of water in plastic, they wouldn’t last a week on what they had in storage.
A recent news story from another Maldivian island group exemplified the problem, reporting that a dozen islands had nearly run out of water completely.”I am very upset with the government because we need water,” 42-year old Jameela Aboobakuru from Gaafaru had explained to the Maldives Bug. “We ran out of water, so we borrowed water from our brother. When he ran out of water we started buying bottled water imported from Male’.”

She said her 12-member family was spending $22 a day to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking, on a combined daily income of just $26.

That means 85 percent of their income was going to buy fresh water.

The response from the government in Male was that it was installing water makers in a boat that could travel from island to island to help out in such emergencies.

Just two days before my walk around Kunahadhoo, the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu had actually declared a state of emergency due to a severe shortage of fresh water. Officials in that Indian Ocean island group were reporting that some parts of the country had only two-days of water left. Its tiny island of Nukulaelae in the Tuvalu’s reported it had just 60 liters of drinking water left for 330 people.

Like the Maldives, Tuvalu relies almost exclusively on rainwater collected from the roofs of homes and government buildings to supply a population of 10,000.

Speaking at the WaterWoMen conference I was attending on the neighboring island in Laamu Atoll, Dr. Jacqueline Chan, president of Water Charity, which helps communities around the world find clean water and sanitation (SEE VIDEO), reminded us all that the lack of clean water was certainly not a problem faced by the Maldives or Tuvalu alone.

“There are 884 million people in the world without access to safe water,” she said. “That’s the equivalent of the populations of the U.S., Vietnam, Germany, the U.K., Kuwait, Russia, Thailand, France, Italy and Qatar combined.

“If all those countries had no water, would we do something? Or just stand by and watch?”
In a lively debate that concluded the day Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (Elizabethand Elizabeth: The Golden Age) was specific in his prediction about the planet’s future when it comes to clean water: “Long before we run out of water, we’ll go to war over it.

“Nature loves cockroaches and algae as much as it does people, and it’s possible only they will survive.”

[flickr image via Ian Sane]

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Protecting the Maldives

Laamu, Maldives— The recent four-day, ocean-focused conference — dubbed WaterWoMen by its sponsors, Six Senses Resortsand +H2O— was a first-of-a-kind blend of water sport activities and intellectual athleticism.

Equal part coming out party for the resort on this remote Maldivian atoll just a100 miles north of the equator included were not just some of the world’s top water athletes (surfers, windsurfers, free divers, kite boarders) but some of the planet’s more thoughtful thinkers on ocean issues as well.

On the athlete side were surfers Layne Beachley and Buzzy Kerbox , windsurfers Levi Silver and Keith Teboul, kite surfers Mark Shinn and Alex Caizergues and extreme wake boarder Duncan Zuur.

The slightly less active contingent included biologist and oceanographer Dr. Callum Roberts; aquatic filmmaker and 3rdgeneration ocean lover Fabien Cousteau; Carl Gustaf Lundin, director of the IUCN’s Global Marine Program; Bollywood producer/director Shekhar Kapur; Chris Gorell Barnes, executive producer of the film “End of the Line;” and Water Charity co-founders Dr. Jacqueline Chan and Averill Strasser.

The Maldives is a perhaps the perfect place for such a meeting since warming sea temperatures have put its coral reefs at risk, thus endangering both its local population and the tourism industry that is its economic base. The event was prudently also a fundraiser for a trio of ocean non-profits:

The Blue Marine Foundation(, created by Barnes, a recent initiative pushing for ten percent of the world’s ocean to be placed into marine reserves by 2020 (today less than one percent is thus protected);

Plant A Fish(, Fabien Cousteau’s hands-on marine education and restoration effort to engage local communities around the globe through schools, businesses and government agencies to “re-plant” aquatic plants and animals in environmentally stressed areas;

Water Charity(, focused on providing safe drinking water, effective sanitation and health education to those most in need via the most cost-effective and efficient means.

One the most important subjects whenever marine folk gather is that of how to better protect the ocean at the edges of our coastlines. The statistics are simple and seemingly ridiculous: More than 12 percent of the earth’s land is protected, whether as park, reserve, preserve or sanctuary. Of the ocean, which covers nearly 72 percent of the planet, far less than 1 percent is formally protected.

The Maldives is proudly home to the new, 1,200 kilometer square Baa Atoll World Biosphere Reserve.
One frank discussion during the Maldives gathering included some of the more experienced players in that arena: Callum Roberts, whose “Unnatural History of the Sea” is perhaps the best book out there about how man has so badly treated the ocean over the past 500 years; Chris Gorrell Barnes, a London-based advertising executive who used his promotional skills to help “The End of the Line” move from book to internationally seen film about man’s grave impact on the planet’s fisheries and Carl Gustaf Lundin, who oversees marine and polar programs for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is responsible for helping create MPAs around the globe.

Roberts led off and was most direct: “So-called paper MPAs won’t work,” he said, referring to all the talking about, thinking about and hoping to protect parts of the ocean that goes on without actually doing it. “Establishing them, then enforcing the boundaries is key.”

“And only local protection works,” he continued. “Bringing in environmental groups or government agencies from outside won’t work. Local people have to protect their own waters.”

Calling MPAs “barometers” of the ocean, he said he was thankful for the newly announced set aside of the Baa Atoll — one of 26 big atolls that make up the Maldives, which include more than 800 individual islands or smaller atolls — because the Indian Ocean that surrounds the island state has been badly impacted by development stress, overfishing, pollution and, particularly, the impacts of climate change.

Barnes, whose Blue Marine Foundation — created as a follow up to the success of the “End of the Line” — was among several instrumental in getting the Baa Atoll approved as an official UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The goal of Blue Marine is to see 10 percent of the world’s ocean formally protected in the next decade.
“What we need now is not more science. It’s money. The biggest challenge is how to fund marine reserves, especially in bad economic times,” said Barnes.

Working with the IUCN, an MPA five times the size of the one in the Maldives has been set up in the Chagos Islands. “But in order to get that accomplished,” said Barnes, “we had to raise outside money to help the U.K. government, which is a prosperous First World nation. Imagine how difficult it is for countries in the developing world to find money to protect the ocean.”

Roberts chimed in that the money needed to protect even 30 percent of the ocean was not that much, in the big picture. “That would cost just over $14 billion,” he said, “or about the amount spent on beauty care products each year.”

The IUCN’s Lundin suggested that $14 billion was paltry compared to the $70 billion spent by countries around the world to subsidize fishermen. “The big question for MPAs, including here in the Maldives, is how do you subsidize people notto fish?”

He had dived off Laamu earlier in the morning and had seen just five big fish in a stretcher where “I should have seen 50.”

“We have to do better at teaching people that a live manta ray, which helps bring millions of tourist dollars to the Maldives, is a far better deal than killing and selling its gills in China for a few hundred dollars.
“But the time to act is now,” he said,” since we’ve only got 10 percent of the fish left.”

He agreed with Roberts that enforcement was key to making MPAs work.

“We have helped many areas in India gain protection, but enforcement then becomes a low priority. The reality is that you have to hang a few people high from time to time, as example, to help with enforcement,” he said.
The IUCN keeps a list of scofflaw vessels around the globe, including the names of ships and their captains, but Lundin liked the example of Malaysians who when they catch a boat poaching in its waters sink it within 24 hours.

” ‘Warm and fuzzy’ doesn’t always work,” he said. “For MPAs to work, enforcement has to be swift and effective.”