Bowermaster’s Adventures: Transiting the Atlantic Ocean by ship

jon bowermaster atlanticSeated in a barber’s chair securely bolted to the stern deck I watch the sunrise over the heart of the Atlantic Ocean. A thin layer of pale blue sky rims the horizon, holding aloft a next layer of billowy cumulus. The air temperature is exactly the same as that of the sea, 77 degrees.

We are equidistant between the coast of Portugal and our goal, Puerto Rico, each 1,800 miles away. As far as I can see, 12 to 15 miles, there is no break on the horizon. In the past five days we’ve seen just three cargo boats in the far distance. The captain told me yesterday the longest stretch of open ocean he has ever covered – across the Atlantic, from Angola to New York City – took him twenty days during which time he saw not a single boat.

Except by satellite, this part of Planet Ocean is little seen, under-known territory.

The S-shaped basin brushed by the shores of Europe, Africa and the Americas, which has been known as the Atlantic since the days of Herodotus (450 BC) today seems almost void of life. The water is clear and dark, with very few fish near the surface; in five days I’ve seen just a handful of petrels feeding in the wake of the boat and the fin of a solitary yellowtail tuna.

As vast as the ocean is, what we don’t know about what lies beneath is even moreso. The ocean floor lies more than three miles beneath us, a place we know far less about than we do about the surface of Mars and the moon.All of which, from this vantage point, my feet dangling now over the railing of a dark, vast sea, makes it somehow difficult to shout out those claims that the world’s ocean is overfished, polluted, acidifying and rising. Out here in the heart of the 41 million square mile Atlantic, all seems very pacific.

It is one reason I like coming to the middle of the ocean because it such a powerful reminder that many of the its real troubles lie closer to shore, closer to where man lives and works. As a species we do have a tendency to muck up the very place we call home.

Ever since the first man, most likely a Phoenician, wandered out of the desert and down to the ocean’s shore we have flocked to the coasts. Today sixteen of the 20 largest cities in the world – from Tokyo (33 million) to Dhaka, Bangladesh (11 million) – are on the coast. Sixty percent of the world’s human population of 6.8 billion lives within 30 miles of a coastline.

Go get a globe or an atlas. Run a finger down the coastlines of the six populated continents. It is easy to see that’s where people have congregated, for obvious reasons of commerce and pleasure (the ambitious and the poor move to the big cities on the coasts for jobs, the wealthy head to the beaches for escape).

While there are some fishing fleets that still scour the far corners of the ocean and we know of a growing number of gyres far from shore swirling with plastic – and acidification, of course, knows no boundaries – the real hurt we cause the ocean is closer to home. The biggest competition for fish takes place within 200 miles of shore, often closer. Pollution of all kinds – oil, plastic, trash – line the beaches nearest where we live.

It’s not just manmade problems impacting coastal livers. Natural calamities impacting the ocean – more frequent and powerful storms thanks in part to rising sea surface temperatures, rising sea levels (expected to be three feet by 2100, perhaps double that) – most affect those living on or near the sea.

Maybe one of the answers to helping to clean up the ocean is for man to stay further away from it. As I’m floating here, atlas now in hand, feet still dangling over the three-mile deep Atlantic, maybe Kansas or Kamchatka, Saskatchewan or Siberia should become our new paradises … at least for the ocean’s sake.

Flickr photo By Nantaskart!

Bowermaster’s Adventures — Live from Antarctica: part 8

Dallum Bay, New Year’s Day – Stopped off in this beautiful, ice-choked bay to say goodbye to Antarctica for this season. From here the route runs due north, across the Drake Passage, towards Cape Horn and the tip of Argentina. One of the beauties of traveling down south this time of year is that the sun barely sets. At midnight, like now, it is dusky … the official time of the sun’s rising is 2:20 a.m. This time of year it never truly gets dark.

Tonight could be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen the nearby Melchior Islands, bathed in the pink light of an Antarctic sunset. The blue-black sea is coated with grease ice, sea on the verge of freezing, giving it a coating like cellophane paper which undulates with the currents, and laden with small icebergs. The narrow, u-shaped bay off the Palmer Archipelago is lined with glaciers; the glaciers are thousands of years old and hundreds of feet tall. There’s no possible way any man has ever walked along this shoreline, which is what I love most about Antarctica. Still today, with 14 billion feet trodding the planet on a daily basis – headed fast towards 18 billion – much of this continent remains untrammeled, untouched.

The air is cold and clear; sucking it in burns my lungs but it feels good. There isn’t a place on the planet I’d rather be and I feel fortunate to be able to return, year after year. When we sail away from Dallman, I will be filled with both joy and regret. The former, because I know how lucky I am to keep coming back to this remote corner of the planet; the latter because I would prefer to stay longer, until the days here grow short, and dark.

Due to the sour global economy, tourism to Antarctica this season and last has dropped off. A couple years back it topped an all-time high of 45,000 arriving by cruise boat. This year I don’t think it will get much above 35,000. Maybe too, those with the economic wherewithal to come to Antarctica have already been. Until it becomes cheap to visit the seventh continent, maybe tourism numbers will continue to decline. We shall see. This season there are thirty ships bringing tourists to the Peninsula and I know that right now on the streets of Ushuaia, the Argentine port town where the big boats come and go from, there are “sales” in tourist agency windows advertising “last minute, cut rate” prices in order to fill empty cabins and beds on Antarctic-bound ships. What’s cut-rate? $3500, $4000. Which may seem like a lot for a ten-day to two-week trip … but then again … it’s Antarctica, the most remote place on earth.

It’s been thirty-three years since a New Zealand tourist plane crashed in Antarctica during a flyover, killing all 257 aboard. Today I read that a Qantas Airbus A380 – a “super jumbo” will make a twelve hour roundtrip flight from Melbourne, carrying 450 New Year’s eve revelers, for a glimpse of the ice. Birthday parties, anniversaries and wedding engagements will be celebrated in the air over the edge of the continent. Many bottles of champagne are part of the deal, for prices ranging from $999 to $6000 per person. “It’s a party flight and also an expedition,” the organizers boast. “Passengers are welcome to dance to the jazz band if that is what they want!”

What a long way we’ve come in the past fifty years, since the treaty that governs Antarctica was signed. Then, no one could have imagined tourism coming to Antarctica. Today, somehow the place seems to be on everyone’s “list.”

I pause and look around, turning 360 degrees in the cold dusk air. I see no one. A trio of humpbacks break the surface, their breathing sending spumes of vapor into the pink sky, heading towards the open ocean. I am privileged to be here, and I know it.

Bowermaster’s Adventures — Live from Antarctica: part 6


Spied our first penguin chicks of the season today, on Petermann Island … fitting since it had been the home of both early explorers (Frenchman Charcot and his boat the Porquoi Pas camped here for two seasons one hundred years ago) and more recently researchers (the penguin counters from the Washington, D.C.-based Oceanites lived here in tents for five seasons, until 2008). The island is unique for the combination of breeding Gentoos and Adelies and blue-eyed shags, all living together, nest-to-nest, in a bird-world equivalent of very non-segregated housing.

The Adelies have been fleeing Petermann by more than ten percent a year and their numbers are down this year too, to just a few more than three hundred pairs … from five hundred a few seasons back. The Oceanites researchers predict they’ll all be gone from the island in another ten years. Why? Adelies love cold weather, and it simply isn’t staying cold enough, especially during the summer months. They love pack ice, and the sea isn’t staying frozen as long anymore. Meanwhile, the place is amuck with a booming population of Gentoos, a more temperate-loving bird, who are taking over the abandoned Adelies’ rock nests and booming in numbers.

Each season I ask my penguin-researching friends where they think the Adelies are off too and each season get a similar response: We’re not sure. It would be nice to think they’ve gotten the message that temperatures along the Peninsula are warming, are packing their bags and moving further south, where it’s colder. But that may be giving penguins too much credit. Some (many?) may simply be leaving here and not making it further south. It’s difficult to know because south of Petermann there are few scientists, very little regular monitoring. No one expects penguins to disappear from Antarctica — neither Adelie, Gentoo or Chinstrap, Emperor or King — but they are definitely on the move.

The chicks are about the size of a coffee cup, just two of them in the same nest. In the next week, ten days, the island will be covered with little squawkers. As I try to get a glance at the babies, I ask one of the researchers exactly how many penguins are on the continent. Same reply, No one really knows. Much of Antarctica is impossible to visit, so counting doesn’t take place. Aerial photographs don’t do the job. Estimates are there are about two-and-a-half-million Adelies alone; so let’s say there are somewhere upwards of five million of them scattered around.

The first penguin? It was a flightless bird of the Arctic sea, also known as the Great Auk, which was very similar to a penguin in anatomy, although from a different order of birds and was hunted to extinction in the 1600s. When later explorers discovered similar animals in the southern seas, they named them the same way. Penguin itself has muddy origins; it originally seemed to mean ‘fat one‘ in Spanish/Portuguese, and may come from either the Welsh ‘pen gwyn’ (white head), from the Latin ‘pinguis’ (fat) or from a corruption of ‘pin-wing’ (pinioned wings).

I spent most of the day on the island’s highpoint, hiking up through a slot in the granite hills to look south over a dark sea made more ominous by gathering storm clouds. Though it was cold, twenty-degrees with a gusting wind, and the skies grey I stood for several hours watching the ice move around the near sea, like a giant game of dominoes, the winds and currents faced off against each other, with no winner in sight.

Bowermaster’s Adventures — Overfishing the Galapagos Islands

The equation is straightforward: Too many people attempting to live permanently in the Galapagos + too few jobs to go around = a percentage are resorting to illegal economies to survive. Shark finning is one of those illegalities, and still growing. Financed by mafias based in mainland Ecuador, fins are taken – hacked off, the useless carcasses tossed overboard – and sent abroad for shark fin soup. Japanese are the biggest culprits though there are restaurants as far away as Norway and Germany, which sell the soup as well. The sad reality is that not only is it a complete waste of the shark but the fins have absolutely no taste, no nutritional value. It’s all about the show. If you can afford shark fin soup – at a business meeting, wedding, anniversary – it means you’ve got the bucks to spend on a frivolity.

You’ve seen the television ads recently promoting various shark weeks? Fear continues to sell mediocre TV, thus the boom of such shows. Another statistic: How many people are killed by sharks each year worldwide? On average, four or five. How many sharks does man kill each year, some for food, others for showy displays of money? More than seventy million. It’s the sharks that should be swimming away from us as fast as they can.
Over fishing around the globe is a huge problem. The over fishing of sharks, especially the big ones, known as “apex predators” (including the great white and reef sharks) is particularly damaging to the marine cycle since sharks maintain the populations of smaller fish that in turn feed on smaller fish that people consume commercially. Minus the predators, these sub-predators run rampant and decimate smaller fish stocks. While we may think there are unlimited numbers of fish in the sea, the more we rapaciously take the fewer species will live on into the coming decades. One more statistic? The World Wildlife Fund expects all of the fish that we know today to be gone by 2050. That’s what we should be scared of, not the very slim potential of becoming lunch while enjoying a sunny holiday at the beach. (To find a detailed chart and database of the world’s endangered sharks, visit the Shark Foundation.)

%Gallery-77072%Recent attempts to bolster international fishing laws may be getting an extra push in the U.S. pending the passage of legislation now being considered in the Senate (and recently passed in the House). The legislation is designed to close most of the loopholes in the current ban on shark finning in American waters. Hopefully other nations will follow suit.

In the Galapagos we spent time with Godfrey Merlen, who represents San Francisco-based Wild Aid there. A twenty-year resident, he leads the group’s local efforts against illegal wildlife trafficking. Small groups of paid informants keep him alert to who in the relatively small community are shark finning (as well as poaching sea cucumbers and other at-risk species). Unfortunately once the fins are back in mainland Ecuador, even when seized by officials they often end up back in the illegal markets. Corruption is a boom business in Ecuador too.
“Over fishing of a number species is a reality in the Galapagos and in some ways – for some species, like lobsters – it’s a little bit late to talk about. We also know that thousands and thousands of sea cucumbers are recovered from illegal fisheries every year, which has had a depressing effect on the remaining population and makes management of it near impossible.

Bowermaster’s Galapagos — Chapter V from gadling on Vimeo.

“Still, even though we know it’s going on, illegal sea cucumber gathering is an active component of the fisheries here and brings in considerable money. Just recently, at the end February, there was a capture of thirty sacks of cucumbers on the mainland, about 3,000 pounds, with an estimated value of about $200,000. This is a lot of money and a lot of sea cucumbers. Most of them came from right here in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Local fishermen say, What are we supposed to do, what are we supposed to fish? Lobster and grouper are nearly gone. So they get into the illegal market very, very simply and easily. Though the national park has patrol boats and keeps up vigilance the area is enormous and enforcement is difficult. As a result it’s been extremely easy to export illegal produce from the Galapagos.

“It’s exactly the same with the shark fin. Sharking finning, the removal of the fins and leaving the bodies to rot either in the ocean or on the shoreline, has become very common in Galapagos. Again, the fishermen say, “I have a lot of debt, I need to buy a new motor for my boat, and I don’t have any money.” Then someone comes along and says, Well, okay, I’ll lend you money but what I want is sea cucumbers, shark fins, sea lion penises, seahorses, whatever is the going mode especially in the far eastern countries where money is not a problem. Huge sums of money can be poured into a place like the Galapagos to fuel an illegal fishery. In the long run of course things can only go from bad to worse for the fishery.

“As resources decline whether through legal or illegal fisheries the resource is the basis of the fisherman’s economy. As those resources decline, incomes decline too and the cost of living keeps going up. Sooner or later the price of fuel will jump back up; currently it’s a very false $1 a gallon for diesel. What the fishermen fail to understand is that ultimately all these illegal activities combined with the lack of a sufficiently strong fisheries management, at a certain point the fishing sector of the economy will collapse.

“At the moment the fisherman finds himself in a really hot spot, partially through his own failure to appreciate the risks he’s running. He may make money today but tomorrow he will not make money. He’s already discovered that with the sea cucumber. Basically the fishermen have very little money because the resource is disappearing.”

Bowermaster’s Adventures — Going Going Gone! The World’s Biggest Tuna Auction

My first glimpse of Tsukiji fish market’s big, daily tuna auction is surreal: A thousand frozen blue fin tuna – weighing between one and two hundred pounds each – laid out in symmetrical rows on a concrete floor. That first look through a scratched plastic peephole, blurring the edges of the scene, makes it evermore otherworldly.

A pair of cavernous auction rooms sit at the far back of the market. Entry to each is through eight big yellow canvas roll-down doors, each bay representing a different company. Beginning around three a.m. the big fish are laid out; an hour later buyers or their representatives – from restaurants, supermarkets and vendors within the market – arrive to begin their daily inspection. This being Japan it is all very prompt: At 5:30 the first side of the room is auctioned, at 6 the second side. By 6:15, 6:20 at the latest, tuna are being dragged out and loaded onto carts to be sent all around Tsukiji, Tokyo and cities beyond, some destined for as far away as China.

Tuna are the biggest business in the world’s biggest fish market. Japanese love their blue fin and pay dearly. The biggest and best sell for $50,000, $80,000, occasionally more than $100,000. For a single fish. Last night we visited a high-end sushi joint in the chi-chi neighborhood of Ginza, which had split the cost of this year’s traditional “first” tuna with another restaurant, on January 8th – for a 129 kilos (261 pounds) tuna they paid more than $104,000. For the next several days’ lines stretched around the block for a taste.

The tuna come to Tsukiji from all over the world; Japanese processing boats scour the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere buying up everything they can. They are not alone. One result of this rapacious demand, according to the World Wildlife Fund, is that blue fin tuna may be wiped out in the next few years.

This morning laid out in neat rows, still wearing sheen of frost and numbered with red food die there would appear to be no worry about running out of tuna. Each fish is split along its belly and a chunk has been cut out of its side to be used as a handhold. The tail has been cut off and a circular piece of meat dangles there by a thin piece of skin. A flap of meat has been cut flayed back near the tail, which is the main spot of inspection. Apparently the back and forth motion of the tail generates lots of oil in the fish and the more oil the better.

More than one hundred buyers mill about the frozen fish, in a kind of uniform: Blue coveralls or jacket with company name in white on the chest. Rubber boots. Ball cap with official badge indicating the buyer’s number pinned to its peak. The tools of the trade are simple: A flashlight, a wooden handled metal hook for lifting and probing, a cloth or paper towel hanging from the belt for wiping off fingers and hands post probing, a tiny notebook for jotting in and a cell phone for communicating with an absent boss. My favorite shopper is tall for a Japanese and wears a green windbreaker the same color as his dyed green hair, which is swept back Elvis-style. He’s got to be in his sixties, wears thick glasses and jokes with everyone around him as he inspects.

The inspection is equivalent to the kicking of a new car’s tires. With one finger the flap of meat near where the tail used to be is lifted and a flashlight shined on the exposed meat. Sometimes the flap is held back with the wooden handled hook, the density of the meat of the meat tested with hook or simply eyeballed. If they like what they see they will whack at the meat with the metal hook, opening up the still mostly frozen tuna and then dig into it with their fingers, pulling out a red morsel which they roll in their fingers into a ball. Sometimes they take a big sniffing of the rare meat. I half expect them to pull a bottle of soy out of their pocket, juice it up and have a taste. I watch to see if they slip the meat into their pockets for later, but instead they most often drop it onto the floor, wipe their fingers on the towel hung from their belt and move onto the next fish. The biggest buyers bid on lots, buying a half-dozen at a time; some are here for an individual fish.

I’m curious about the hierarchy of the market and try to ask a couple Japanese men standing beside me. My assumption is that the auctioneers must be near the top of the heap. They say no, contending that everyone at the market – whether truck driver, fish cutter, icemaker or auctioneer – is equal. I ask who owns the market and they say they think it is three men. Which makes me wonder if it’s anything like the Fulton Fish Market in New York, which was long “administered” by the mob? One thing is clear: There are very few women and no Caucasians (“too tall,” they are told if they apply).


At exactly 5:30 the first of the two morning auctions begins with frantic hand bell ringing by four simultaneous auctioneers, each representing a different company, each standing on a blue step stool in front of one of the bay doors. Each rings with a different fervor and pace, beginning to shout out loud as the ringing increases. With a quick doff of his ball cap – to the fish, or the spirits at large? – each is off, shouting and gesticulating, faces turning bright red, yelling what sounds to the non-Japanese ear something like, “TACO TACO TACO …. HIPPO HIPPO HIPPO … SAMPLE SAMPLE SAMPLE … TACO TACO TACO … SAPPY SAPPY SAPPY …” at the top of their lungs.

Each auctioneer has a personal style, bobbing and weaving and shouting in odd fashion, each channeling some kind of individual tuna god. My favorite is a tall man in a blue jumpsuit and brown ball cap, wearing thick glasses and a # 2 pencil stuck in a sleeve pocket. He notates madly in a little book even as his calling gets louder, more fervent, his face maroon, eyes glancing up towards the fluorescents as if he were channeling directly from the god of the sea, yet somehow registering the subtle finger lifting from buyers until calling out the Japanese equivalent of GOING … GOING … GONE. As he shouts a pair of men on either side note with pencil on paper the winning bids and then quickly mark each fish sold with a thick black magic marker.

The whole shebang lasts about ten minutes, sending several hundred fish towards cutting tables scattered around the sprawling market.

Twenty minutes later the second half of the warehouse is auctioned. I keep my eye on an individual buyer, representing a vendor inside the market. I watched him study a particular fish – at one point turning his back to it and grabbing it between his legs, I’m guessing to judge its weight? As soon as his bid was accepted he turned his ball cap around – the number on the metal plate pinned to its peak is his i.d. – he pulled out his hook, grabbed his fish and began dragging it towards the door. Using the handhold cut in its side he hoisted it onto a waiting, man-pulled cart and trailered it off into the maelstrom, on its way by day’s end to someone’s table.