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.
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 landed 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.
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.
Pelagic / Chilean Base
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.
For nearly forty years one of the planet’s most energy-rich continents has been ruled successfully by international treaty. It has also been off-limits to drilling for the sizable oil reserves, which lie off its shores.
Of course given that no one lives in Antarctica (other than a few thousand seasonal scientists) and that much of it is covered by two miles of ice makes it a tough place to drill and far more easily managed than say Gaza or Afghanistan. Its remoteness has kept its vast offshore oil resources far more easily protected than those in the Gulf of Mexico or the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
Yet the ice-cover in both the Antarctic and Arctic gradually disappears, each region — rich with oil and other precious minerals — is being viewed anew, with many eyeing future resource development.
The treaty that governs Antarctica officially keeps the continent off-limits to drilling for oil until 2041. It’s a different story in the Arctic. As the Arctic Ocean’s annual sea ice cover disappears – many believe that within two decades the region will be ice-free during the summer – competition has already begun among its neighboring countries (the U.S., Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway plus Iceland and Greenland) over who owns what, especially when it comes to oil. (For the rest of my dispatch from the Arctic, go to takepart.com.)
Captain Paul Watson and his band of merry whale-hunters from Sea Shepherd took a big hit last week when their $2 million “attack” boat the Andy Gil was run over by a five-hundred-ton Japanese whaling ship. Video of the incident shows the Batmobile-like trimaran – made of carbon fiber and Kevlar, designed to pierce the rough seas of the Southern Ocean – baiting the bigger ship, being cascaded by fire hoses and then being landed on.
Its bow severely damaged, though none of its six-person crew seriously injured, the Shepherd’s main ship, the Bob Barker (the boats are named for their prime funders, in this case Gil – a Hollywood set designer – and Barker – longtime host of “The Price is Right”) attempted to tow it to a French science base on the Antarctic continent, but it sank along the way. Sea Shepherd assures that the seventy-foot boat had been drained of fuel and oil before it sank. The accident occurred about two hundred miles off the coast of Antarctica.
Sea Shepherd is on the Ross Sea harassing Japanese whalers for the fourth consecutive season; on board is a film crew from the Animal Planet show “Whale Wars” for which the accident should provide plenty of promo material for next season. Has the accident dissuaded the Japanese from continuing their questionable whale hunting? Not at all. In fact, they are suing Sea Shepherd for “piracy.”
Before the season began down south I talked with Paul about what he expected this year:
Has your current campaign in the Southern Ocean been successful?
Captain Paul Watson: I believe it has been successful. Our strategy is an economic one. I don’t believe the Japanese whalers will back off on moral, ethical or scientific grounds but they will quit if they lose the one thing that is of most value to them – their profits. Our objective is to sink the Japanese whaling fleet – economically, to bankrupt them and we are doing that.
We have slashed their kill quotas in half over the last three years and negated their profits. They are tens of millions of dollars in debt on their repayment schedule for Japanese government subsidies. The newly elected Japanese government has pledged to cut their subsidies.
I am actually confident that we can shut them down this year. They are on the ropes financially.
JB: How do you measure success? Fewer whales taken by Japanese? Other signs??
CPW: Of their quota of 935 Minke whales last year they fell short by 304. Of their quota of 50 Fin whales, they took only one. The year before they only took half their quota and in the last three years did not kill enough whales to break even so have been operating at a loss. We have also exposed their illegal whaling activities to the world and initiated a controversy and a discussion on whaling in the Japanese media.
JB: How do the Japanese continue to get away with the whale hunt when so many things say they shouldn’t, i.e. the Antarctica Treaty forbidding commerce below sixty degrees south latitude and the International Whaling Commission’s ban on all whaling?
CPW: There is a lack of economic and political motivation on the part of governments to enforce international conservation law. The Japanese whalers are targeting endangered and protected whales inside the boundaries of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in violation of a global moratorium on commercial whaling, in violation of the Antarctic Treaty that prohibits commercial activity south of sixty degrees and they are in contempt of the Australian Federal Court for continuing to kill whales in the Australian Antarctic Economic Exclusion Zone. There is no difference between Japanese whale poachers in Antarctica and elephant poachers in East Africa except that the Africans are black and impoverished.
JB: Do you know what the reaction among Japanese people – not scientists, not government – is towards the continued whale hunts?
CPW: I’m not actually concerned. I’m Canadian and the majority of Canadians are opposed to the commercial slaughter of seals but the Canadian government subsidizes it nonetheless. I believe it is a myth that once the people of a nation oppose something that things will change. First, most people are apathetic and could not care one way or another. Secondly, the pro-whalers have an economic motivation to lobby for continued whaling and thirdly in Japan it is considered inappropriate to oppose government or corporate policy. I’ve always felt that educating the Japanese public was a waste of time and smacks of cultural chauvinism. The fact is that whaling is illegal and we intervene for that reason and the key to ending it is the negation of profits.
AITUTAKI, Cook Islands – I’ve been to Aitutaki before, a few times … though I have to admit that sometimes these South Pacific islands have a tendency to run together. Attu, Tahaa, Raiatea, Raratonga, all covered with lush green mountains, simple cement docks serving as welcome mats, a fringe of coconut palms paralleling a solitary ring road circling, sometimes it’s hard for my feebling memory to keep them all straight. Aitutaki I remember best from gray days, its welcome veranda – metal posts, faux palm roof – filled with young boys and girls dancing, practicing. I remember it too for its “starring” role in the “Survivor” series, which came here a few years back, camped out for six-plus months, the best thing to ever happen to the place economically.
I’ve seen “Survivor” impact on other islands. A crew of one hundred moves onto the island, often building its own living quarters, docks and marinas. They bring a fleet of small pickup trucks, speedboats and bulldozers. Much of which get left behind. They employ dozens, treating them well and paying them U.S.-television rates (about thirty times what the local fishermen were making spending ten hours a day in their mahi-mahi boats, harpoon in hand), spoiling them for those inevitable days post-“Survivor.”
Under a shore side tent a New Zealand woman – the Cook’s lean distinctly Kiwi, not French – remembers the “Survivor” crew’s coming … and going. “It left a lot of people more or less distraught. When they were here filming, there was big action everyday. Boats racing back and forth, people coming and going, money being spent. And then … one day … they were gone. They left boats and trucks and houses behind. But no more action, no more money.”
The first Polynesians settled here in 800, led by a voyager named Ru, who named it Utataki Enua O Ru Ki Te Moana (“the leading of the cargo people by Ru over the ocean” or “where Ru turned his back on the sea”); the first westerner to stop was Captain William Bligh, 1789, just seventeen days before his infamous mutiny – he would return three years later, searching for the men who had cast him adrift.
It’s a wild and rough day in the South Pacific, three to four meter swells under a deceivingly blue and unadulterated sky. It’s easy when the ocean here is living up to its name to be lulled into believing the entire Pacific region is ruled by calm. Days like this are reminders that wildness is far more common. Watching the wild, sun-drenched seas from a brand new cement porch built by and for the local fishing co-op, constructed super strong against the potential of tsunami and other storm waves, I wonder what Captain James Cook would have made of “Survivor.”
I marvel often about how many times my route around the world has crossed Cook’s path; that dude was truly a wanderer. On so many islands I’ve stopped at I’ve been greeted by welcome signs – made of bamboo, surrounded with half clam shells – detailing the historic arrival of Cook and gang.
Cook’s first assignment, in 1768, from the Royal Society in London, was to sail the Pacific Ocean tracing the transit of Venus across the sun – a task more scientific than economic. After rounding Cape Horn he made it to Tahiti for the first time on April 13, 1769, where the observations were to be made. Unfortunately the astronomer he carried with him was not up to the task and the mission was a failure. Over the next few years Cook criss-crossed the Pacific several times all the while keeping his southern eye open for a place we both have an affection for, then known as Terra Incognito Australis. Antarctica. While Cook never fully found Antarctica – spying large icebergs he confused with the continent – he got closer than anyone before.
His complete mapping of the Pacific left little for future expeditions; he died ignominiously in Hawaii, due to either cultural arrogance or confused i.d., dependent on which story you prefer/believe. Maybe Cook would have liked “Survivor”; certainly he would have much preferred being judged by some kind of tribal council than a bunch of Hawaiian tough guys swinging heavy war-sticks.