Like so many parts of our still-protected world, in Galapagos it is sometimes easy to get swamped by what’s gone wrong with the place and overlook its uniqueness. Our new film, “What Would Darwin Think,” attempts to show both. Obviously the close to 200,000 tourists who arrive each year are coming for good reason – Galapagos offers the most spectacular glimpse of biodiversity on the planet. Albatross, boobies, finches and mockingbirds; iguanas, tortoises and penguins; sharks, dolphins and hundreds of species of fish. And more. Everywhere – everywhere — you look.
While I’ve been focused these past couple weeks on some of the ills besetting this truly special place – too many tourists, too many locals, shark finning, sea cucumber poaching, etc. — I’ve just put up some reminders of why Galapagos is such a draw. Photo galleries from Santa Cruz are up now: A peek at the natural world archives at the Charles Darwin Center; a look at local’s life and tourist life; the fish market and some of the incredible beauty. During the week we’ll add more photos from Santa Cruz, of Sea Shepherd’s operation and a recent protest by tourist operators plus beauty shots from seven more islands – Bartolome, Espanola, Fernandina, Isabella, North Seymour, Plaza and Santiago. If you can think of a place with more creatures per square meter … let me know.
I found myself mingling with kids and their parents, a smattering of friends and one six-foot-tall penguin at the American Museum of Natural History last Saturday. I showed clips from our new, high-def Antarctica film (“Terra Antarctica, Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent”) most of which we shot a year ago, during the course of three months traveling along the Peninsula by sea kayak, sailboat, foot and small plane. It was the first time I’d shown the clips in public and I snuck to the back of the room myself to see them on the big screen. So far … so good. The hour-long film will be finished next month, will start showing at festivals around the world soon after and on television hopefully in the fall.
During the course of AMNH’s “Polar Weekend” I learned a lot myself, particularly about the Polar Palooza project. Supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Science Mission, with money from Apple, ASTC and science and natural history museum’s across the country it’s the hippest way I’ve seen yet to try and educate people, particularly kids, about the cold regions.
Dependent on ice researchers, geologists, oceanographers, climate scientists, biologists and Arctic residents the goal – via pod casts, blogs, vlogs and more – is to provide the simplest info about the poles (“Why do penguins live down South and polar bears only up North?”) for a wide audience. It’s even got it’s own rap song about climate change, which has to be a first.
As for the six-foot-tall penguin, I buddied up to him enough to query whether he was Adelie or Gentoo and all I got was a shoulder shrug, not a squawk out of him … very unusual for a penguin of any species.
Photo, Anne Sparkman
A few days ago China opened its third Antarctic science station, at 12,000 feet above sea level on the continent’s highest icecap. The station – named Kunlun – at Dome Argus is the country’s first inland base. (It has two others, Zhongshan and Great Wall, on King George Island.) While the rest of the world is choking economically and Antarctic science is far down the list of most government’s priorities, China is spending big down south, expanding its presence on the continent.
The base is small, accommodating just twenty people. The government says it will be used for a range of Antarctic research, especially deep glaciers and the mountains underneath them and the effect of extreme cold on human physiology and psychology and medical supplies and equipment.
“It is another great contribution by our country to the human being to unveil the Antarctic mystery,” said Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a telegram.
Members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society accused Japanese whalers of attacking them this weekend with sound guns, water canons, concussion grenades and other weapons in frigid waters near Antarctica, according to Reuters.
Two Sea Shepherd activists in inflatable boats were slightly injured by water canon and metal balls thrown by the whaling crew as they tried to obstruct the launch of harpoons, said Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling vessel, the “Steve Irwin.” A Japanese government official denied the accusations.
“If our crew can hit them, then they would be better off quitting the research vessel and joining a professional baseball team,” Shigeki Takaya, assistant director of Japan’s Far Seas Fisheries Division, told the Reuters News Agency.
Takaya admitted the whalers used water canons and “beeping warning tones,” but protested that the activists hurl bottles of dye and foul-smelling butyric acid (rotten butter) at whaling vessels. Sea Shepherd has also deployed a helicopter to document the whaling activities.
Whale hunting was banned by a 1986 International Whaling Commission moratorium, which Japan has sought to overturn each year. Japan continues to kill about 900 minke and fin whales per year in what it calls a “scientific whaling program.” Most of the resulting whale meat is sold on the Japanese market.
“What is important is that despite the violence from the whalers, no whales are being killed,” Capt. Watson said. “They can’t get away from us, and if we keep on their tail they can’t kill whales.”
During my recent seven weeks in Antarctica we saw just one Emperor penguin, afloat on a piece of pancake ice, alone, a beautiful if somewhat sad scene. It’s unusual to see Emperor’s along the Peninsula, since their home is far, far south. Yet I’m still stunned to see them twinned – like polar bears in the North – to endangered species lists:
Yet a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that the world’s largest penguins could suffer serious population declines through at least part of their range before the end of the century. The paper, co-authored by five researchers and led by WHOI biologists Stephanie Jenouvrier and Hal Caswell, used mathematical models to predict the effect on penguins from climate change and the resulting loss of sea ice.
“Penguins need sea ice to breed, feed and molt on. The ice also serves as a grazing ground for krill – tiny crustaceans which penguins, along with fish, whales and seals, feed on. The research indicates if climate change continues to melt sea ice at the rates published in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, the median population size of a large emperor penguin colony such as one in Terre Adelie, Antarctica, will likely shrink from its present size of 3,000 to only 400 breeding pairs by the end of the century. There are about 40 emperor penguin colonies that exist in the world.
“Emperor penguins weigh around 66 pounds and can stand about 3.8 feet tall. They can dive to a depth of 1,800 feet and hold their breath for up to 22 minutes – allowing them to get food other birds can’t get.
“The researchers say the probability of a population decline of 95 percent or more is at least 40 percent and perhaps as much as 80 percent. If that many penguins are lost, extinction could occur.
“Over the last 50 years, climate change in Antarctica has been most pronounced in the Antarctic Peninsula, where Terre Adelie is located. In the future, the Ross Sea—where sea ice actually has increased in recent years—may be the last sanctuary for penguins.” Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decided not to list the emperor penguin under the endangered species act.
Holding their breath for 22 minutes?
I spent part of the afternoon with Google Earth, er, Google Ocean, the brand new add-on to the Internet phenom. My initial search took me directly south, to Antarctica, where Google underwater research is still limited. I scoured the Peninsula for underwater views, but I guess it’s too early. Go to the Ross Sea, though, and there are some very cool – if dark – glimpses of Antarctic life beneath the sea.
The best early review of the new software comes from my friend Andy Revkin at the New York Times. In his Dot Earth posting yesterday, he worries about the advancement of seeing the world as a high tech video game and quotes Dr. Steven Kellert, professor of social ecology at Yale, who is skeptical of the way many are now experiencing the world’s landscapes:
“Like most aspects of the modern telecommunications age, it is a complicated situation. My sense of the data is that there is a strong correlation between environmental awareness, even environmental activism in the most limited sense, and the advent of video/ television/ film depictions of nature and conservation. The down side is that it appears this exposure to nature and conservation via film bears very little correlation with a more complex and deep understanding of the natural world and its protection, or actions relation to personal lifestyle and responsibility. Moreover, a great deal of the increased awareness is abstract and remote – e.g., for tropical forests, charismatic wildlife in distant place, issues like climate change, but correspondingly little awareness, appreciation, or action related to the local and regional environment in one’s place or state of residence.
“The sad reality is that while more abstract, vicarious/representational awareness of nature and its conservation via the video and computer have grown enormously, concurrently, there has been a profound decline in more commonplace, everyday experience and contact with nature and the often deeper and more realistic and lasting appreciation and action that comes from this personal involvement.”
What better place to spend what around the world is being hailed as a Brand New Day, than on a beautiful Falkland’s rock called … New Island.
Home to nesting albatrosses, Macaroni and rock hopper penguins and another forty breeds of birds, it is the most remote of all inhabited islands in the Falklands. Its human population is just two families and the entire island has recently been set aside under conservation easement turning it into a forever nature reserve.
Bonding with the rock hoppers, New Island, the Falklands
The cliffs on the far side of the island are rimmed with nesting birds and I spent the entire morning watching sizable albatross swoop in full-steam and throw on the brakes just before setting onto their cylindrical nests. Oddly, a few sneaky penguins had taken over a couple of the outsized nests making for strange side-by-side couplings.
Five hundred feet below the sea crashed onto tall rocks and I could see penguins swarming in from the ocean onto them, so vowed to figure out a way down for a closer look. A muddy scramble led to an incredibly pristine V in the wall, carved from centuries of wild seas crashing. I sat for an hour and watched as penguins were literally spit out of the violently raucous sea onto the rocks. I’m always amazed when I see them and their surf landings, surprised they don’t break wings, necks, beaks and more with great frequency. Instead, what I’ve observed, is that penguins tend to bounce pretty well.
It was a beautiful way to end this seven week adventure on the Southern Ocean; the next day it’s back to the tip of Argentina and civilization.
Looking back to late November, the days pile up on top of one another, a bit confused from this near-distance. While each day has been new and different, the one constant – from the Antarctic Peninsula to South Georgia and the Falklands – has been the Southern Ocean. Whenever I leave this deep south, it is with some regret because I love this part of our globe. But it’s also with some joy that I depart too, because … I know I’ll be back.
A line up of rock hoppers, New Island, the Falklands
Forget Walt Disney. This particular scene is far more Spielbergian, straight out of something like “Jurassic Marine Park II.” Which dawned on me as I walked across the flats here, over short moss and through tall tussock grass, literally surrounded by thousands of fur seals and tens of thousands of King penguins. It didn’t help that Pete Pulesten had told me earlier in the day of a friend who’d tried to outrun a sizable fur seal, only to be taken down from behind. The resulting chomp in his back was big enough to expose part of his lung. “You could see it sucking in and out through the wound,” said Pete, cheerily. Which meant I was keeping both eyes peeled 360.
Climbing above Salisbury Point
The beach here is short, steep and rocky, and covered by seals. We carve a path among them to get onto the flats. While half of South Georgia is covered year-round by ice and snow, the other half is incredibly rich in deep hues of green, brown and gray. Latitude-wise, if this island were in the northern hemisphere it would rival the countryside of Labrador or northern England, though much steeper. Two sizable mountain ranges – the Allardyce and Salvesen Ranges, form its backbone.
South Georgia is what is known as a ‘sub-Antarctic’ island, a term unfamiliar to many from the north because, well, we don’t have any. They lie outside the Antarctic Treaty boundaries but within the Southern Ocean and south of the Antarctic Convergence or Polar Front.
Circling the globe, in the so-called Furious Fifties, a dozen like-islands – Macquarie, Kerguelen, Heard, Crozier, Marion, and Campbell – are variously territories of New Zealand, Australia, France and South Africa. South Georgia is governed by the U.K. While there is small debate over which of them is the most stunning, it’s largely agreed that South Georgia takes the prize for most otherworldly.
It’s without question the most surreal place I’ve ever been. As I navigate the spongy, flat fields I fully expect massive giant petrels to come swooping from behind the hills, followed by seals the size of dump trucks and giant penguins, which is not so far off … remember it wasn’t too far from here that the fossils of a 300 pound penguin were discovered.
Before climbing a heavily tussocked hill for a grand look out over the sea I stop along a shallow river lined with King penguins and watch the molting one-year-olds interact, like schoolyard toughs. As always when among big colonies of penguins I wonder what they see when they look at me? Given their non-chalance, I have to think they see just a big, red-furred brother.
Meditating among the King's
Photos, Fiona Stewart
The other day I suggested that South Georgia was like some kind of Magic Kingdom envisioned by Disney. Today I’m revising that; it’s more like something old Walt might have created after a visit while ingesting heavily of magic mushrooms.
Late this afternoon I found myself crossing a wide, six-inch deep pond on St. Andrews ringed by a portion of the 300,000 King penguin colony that bases here, both adults and their several-month old chicks. Most of the chicks were molting, meaning their thick brown down was itching and beginning to fall off, leaving behind an exterior shell that made them look like some kind of “Cousin It” penguins … half-tuxedoed, half covered by wildly sprouting brown tufts of fur.
King penguins, St. Andrews
Everywhere I looked it is surreal. Tall mountains, peaks dipped in snow. Hanging glaciers (though definitely receding) separating the green valleys. Six-foot tall tussock grass running straight to the sea. A wide river of glacier melt running towards the sand beach, lined on each side by penguins, with sizable fur seals surfing and feeding in its fast-running center.
I’ve seen big wildlife gatherings in other parts of the world. Migrating caribou in Labrador. Herds of giraffe running along tongues of hardened lava in west Kenya. The most giant of penguin colonies in Antarctica. But nothing prepared me for both the size and oddity of this mass. The chicks, who unlike other penguin species, are born over a four or five month range and stay with their parent for up to thirteen months, follow mom or dad for all that time … everywhere.
The King lays a single egg and builds no nest, holding it on its feet under a fold of skin. Unlike the smaller penguin breeds, Kings occupy their rookeries all year and travel several hundred kilometers to find their food, mostly lantern fishes which they find at three hundred to one thousand feet below the surface.
Adult and chick march nearly lockstep, braying constantly, bumping into each other like some kind of Three Stooges act. Two weeks after they are born they are nearly the same size as their parents, two and a half feet tall. Imagine if humans birthed the same way, with a son or daughter the same height as his father when he is two weeks old.
Son and Father/Mother
As the sun lowers behind the ridge tops the pond brightens and the brown down of the chicks turns golden. It’s not quite as bright as the brilliant yellow-gold plumage of the adult’s neck and throat, but getting there.
There seems to be lots of wandering among the Kings. Unusual among penguins, they are not a vary fidel bunch. I sit for an hour and watch trios squabble, usually two females fighting over a male. They walk in threes, two of them fwapping their short wings at each other, like big city dilettantes on a crowded street. While most penguins, and albatross are faithful to a mate for life, among King’s the divorce rate is near 80 percent. Blame it on timing. When they arrive back at the island after months of feeding, their partner may still be months away. Given limited food reserves they cannot afford to wait faithfully for a late returning mate … so …
Molting penguins line the glacial stream at St. Andrews Bay
View a slideshow of the King Penguins of St. Andrews Bay.
Photos - Fiona Stewart