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Category Archives: Conservation
As I prepare for another season of working in Antarctica with the tourism industry it is hard not to reflect on how accessible this most remote of continents has become. No need to pack the ponies or push the pack of huskies onto the ship anymore, getting to Antarctica is relatively straight-forward these days. As a tourist you can choose from several companies offering trips in the Antarctic Peninsula and even beyond – you can even choose the level of luxurious add-ons that will make your trip more comfortable. And as a scientist, the days of ship-born visitation are fading … most national operators now adopt fly-in programs to open up the continent to science.
The isolation of Antarctica is being gradually eroded by human ingenuity – and now opportunities exist for people across the globe to view one of the most pristine and remote environments on the planet. However, easy access to Antarctica also means that the resources of the frozen continent are tantalizingly close. Several nations have recently made subtle changes to their goals regarding Antarctica (http://www.worldcrunch.com/led-russia-quiet-rush-may-be-antarcticas-resources/3999), and Russia has made it quite clear that the resources of Antarctica should be accurately assessed with a view towards future extraction (http://theconversation.edu.au/antarctic-visions-what-is-the-future-of-australias-forgotten-territory-2799).
Antarctica has long been heralded as a reserve for peace and science. This is one of the few places on Earth where big business and industry are forgotten, where scientists and intrepid adventurers are able to sidestep the demands of modern society to observe wilderness in its most untouched form. To look “the wild” in the eye and see ourselves reflected there is something that changes a person’s perspective on the world and for many, leaves us with a drive to protect the last remaining wild places on the planet from the implacable advance of industry.
For me, the idea of opening up Antarctica to mineral exploitation is an indication of avarice winning out over common sense. Various political agreements make Antarctica a very special place in regards to politics – the continent (and its natural resources) is protected by international agreement that make it a showcase of cooperation in the interest of science, the environment and world peace. As the world reaches a population on 7 billion (http://7billionactions.org), everyone recognises the need to make sustainable decisions to safeguard the planet for future generations … digging up the non-renewable resources from the last untouched corners of the globe seems a very short sighted solution to ensuring our collective future.
Dredging the “undiscovered” oil from the Arctic has been justified in the interest of national security and the economy of the Nations fringing the Arctic Ocean – what could possibly be the justification for flinging away 50 years of conservation, peace and science in the Antarctic to blunt our avarice on the frozen rocks of the icy continent?
Despite the continued clucking of climate sceptics the sea ice in the Arctic is continuing to dwindle each year. Sea ice in the 2011 season represents the second-lowest summer ice extent since records began (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14945773) and all signs indicate that this retreat will continue.
Some are hailing the retreat as an opportunity – new shipping lanes are emerging and resources historically guarded by impenetrable ice are now opening up. Soon the millions of barrels of oil and gas locked beneath the Arctic seafloor will be ripe for the taking. Super tankers will be able to carry the precious fuel though the dwindling ice fields to western markets were we can pump this Arctic gift into our SUVs and trucks to burn. Some will wrinkle their noses as the fumes of Arctic oil scratch at their sinuses as the carbon escapes our exhausts to join the army of anthropogenic gases circling above our planet to continue the attack on the ice.
As the sea ice of the Arctic grows and shrinks with the seasons it seems a slowly flapping white flag signalling the surrender of the sea ice – an easy flag to ignore as it is well beyond the sight
of most of humanity …. and it gets a little smaller every year. But the surrender of the ice is seen by some eyes.
The Arctic is not entirely barren – indigenous people have called the frozen north home for thousands of years and to local communities the retreat of the ice represents the retreat of a lifestyle that defines them. The lost ice means that many of the animals that the Arctic people rely upon are also lost. Certainly, there are also opportunities that come in the wake of the retreating ice…. but what good is a fist full of oil stained cash when the larder is empty?
And, of course there are other less human eyes that see the retreating ice. Though comprehension may be beyond animals such as the polar bear and the walrus, the ice unravelling beneath their paws and their flippers may be flagging the end of their species. Many arctic animals depend upon ice as a platform for breeding or hunting in the short summers of the north. No ice may mean there is no future for many of the species we love to see in our BBC documentaries – a disappointment for many lounge chair naturalists certainly, but a disaster for the species involved.
For two in the blue the retreat of the ice may make our trip north next year a little easier, less ice means the way is clear to explore more of the amazing coastlines of Svalbard and Greenland. A thrill for us certainly, but ultimately a poor consolation prize. In a way it feels like we are joining the gold rush flocking north in the wake of the ice – joining the industrialists sailing north to seek their fortunes amidst the remnants of the ice. I only hope that we leave the Arctic a better place when we turn south again. We head north to records the surrender of the sea ice, and I hope that a few may listen to the cry for mercy.
The season is coming to a close here in the Arctic; the days are growing shorter, a bitter wind is whipping through the rigging of Widdershins and the faint threads of the Aurora Borealis can be seen in the skies some nights. Given the cooling weather, yours truly made sure to don a few extra layers underneath the dry suit yesterday before jumping into the water for a quick SCUBA dive.
It’s actually been a while since the gear has seen the water and this was just a test dive to make sure all was working well – in a couple of weeks I’ll head south to do some real diving … but not too far south! Scotland will be by destination and I will soon be donning my dry suit in the lochs of the west coast with Graham Edgar, a renowned marine biologist from Australia. The aim is to familiarise myself with the ReefLife survey methodology: www.reeflifesurvey.com – this is a collaborative program between recreational divers and scientists that aims to collect marine biodiversity data from around the world.
Following a week of training we’ll be using the ReefLife survey methods to collect biodiversity data throughout our pole to pole journey – a continuous band of data to show which denizens of the deep are to be found in the shallow waters between one pole of the Earth and another. The program will see us diving in diverse environments from the sea ice in the Arctic to kelp forests and coral reefs near the equator. It will be a big project but a lot of fun and great contribution to our knowledge of the earth’s marine ecosystems.
Yesterday the dive was in shallow water where hermit crabs and starfish were clambering over the mussel shells lying beneath the hull of Widdershins … but before we finish our trips we will dive in some of the most spectacular dive locations on the planet and see some of the truly amazing denizens of the deep ….can’t wait!
Well, only a couple of days before the water is once again cradling Widdershins and I begin sailing south towards my rendezvous with Leonie in Kristiansand late in May. It’s been a long week of re-fitting Widdershins with new equipment and servicing all the various parts that will keep us safe on the seas. However, waking early to the sound of seagulls wheeling around and the gentle spring sun of Norway has been a pleasure, albeit I feel just a little grotty having been covered with oil, pain and various other substances for the past few days.
As I speak on oil, I should also divert to mention that while I am ok with my own person being covered with a horrible black mess I am definitely not happy with the prospect of an oil spill in the Arctic. After the mess in the gulf of Mexico last year the world called strongly for a halt on oil exploration in the Arctic and the need to prevent a similar disaster in this pristine part of the world where the wildlife is far more vulnerable to a spill and where the physical conditions make it almost impossible to either engage in a spill response similar to the Gulf (as there are no facilities and few people or boats capable of aiding). Similarly the weather conditions and sever climate mean that most of our technology for cleaning spills simply won’t work here which in my mind suggests we should simply keep out until we can show the capability of adequately responding to a spill here. Better yet, the world should take note of the universal call for alternative energies and keep out completely. It seems just a little short sighted to drill for every last drop of oil before we finally take the initiative to look elsewhere for our energy and the health of our planet.
Meanwhile, as the universal concern over the Gulf fades into our short media memory, sights are being turned back towards the Arctic – towards profit and resource security for the nations that circle this wilderness. Greenpeace have just abandoned their protest of the drilling platform heading to Greenland due to weather conditions that should be a reminder to the operators that this is not a safe place to drill. In the US Thad Allen, the government point person for the Gulf response while acknowledging the various concerns has not ruled out further exploration and drilling the Alaskan Arctic (http://www.star-telegram.com/2011/04/30/3039017/arctic-oil-spill-could-be-more.html). In the meantime Shell’s existing lease in the Chukchi Sea is still planning on being operational by 2012 despite all the risks and inadequate technology.
As for the oil I will be carrying on Widdershins we will have a strict zero discharge policy to make sure we don’t contribute to any spills or impacts in the Arctic. More importantly perhaps, wherever possible we will not be using diesel – we are in no rush and the wind supplies ample energy to get us around and see this fantastic wilderness. Besides …wind is free.
As I paint the hull of Widdershins with a thick coat of black antifouling paint it is worth thinking of the journey before us and the vestiges that we will leave behind us. The paint, you see, is an antifouling paint containing toxic copper compounds that prevent animals settling on the hull and slowing us down. Perhaps more importantly, the paint stops marine species from here in Norway catching a ride with us to the Arctic and ultimately even to the American continent. Having spent years as a scientist researching the types of impacts such alien hitchhikers can cause I am determined that our venture into the remote extremes of the earth will not be the vector for an invasion that will cause havoc to the natural environment. On the other hand, we will be heading north with a coat of toxic paint designed to slowly leach into the water. A bit of a conundrum. Some paints such as Tributyl-tin (TBT) have been internationally banned due to their toxic effects and though we aren’t using such strong toxins, copper paints have also been found to cause impacts in high concentrations.
Meanwhile, the University of Alberta has recently found toxic levels of mercury in the Arctic ocean http://www.montrealgazette.com/health/Deadly+form+mercury+found
+Arctic+waters+researchers/4691544/story.html – and to show how unpredictable these things can be. The origin of these toxins, which reached the oceans via our industry and coal burning plants, was originally a non-toxic form that unfortunately transformed into a killer neurotoxin that will affect not only Arctic wildlife but also the Inuit people that depend upon them. Remember also that the Arctic is one of the largest sources of whitefish for the entire planet!
As for me, I’m currently liberally covered with the toxic paint myself, not being the neatest painter on earth, so I guess I’ll be the first to suffer, but it is a reminder that when we set forth into the pristine frontiers of the globe we need to pause and consider all details to make sure we leave it in the same state we found it. In our case I hope we can leave it even a little better!
Today while pottering around the twisting maze of channels in the Argentine islands in a small rubber boat it wasn’t the spectacular ice formations or the seals and penguins that caught my interest – it was the teeming swarms of tiny planktonic mollusks. They are called Pteropods which literally means “winged foot” which is a pretty good description. They have a small coiled shell mage of aragonite (similar to calcium carbonate found in your average mollusc) but rather than the typical slug like foot of your average mollusk these guys have two wings which they use just like birds – to slowly flap their way through the water and keep up near the light where all the food is. While not many know much about Pteropods they are an essential and important part of the food web in most oceans. Unfortunately they are also under significant threat from human activities. The hidden catch 22 with climate change and the carbon in the atmosphere is that most of that Carbon Dioxide ends up in the ocean where is forms carbonic acid. An important exit for the gasses that are causing dramatic climate change but unfortunately the result is that the seas are slowly becoming more acidic. The sad news for Pteropods is that in the increasingly acidic waters they are no longer able to build their aragonite shell, especially in cold southern waters. The result? Many believe we will lose some of these fundamental organisms in only decades leaving a critical gap in the ocean food chain. Watching these small winged mollusks slowly flap through the still waters of Antarctica was a special sight and one that may be hard to come by in the future.