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Thin Ice

By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Independent Magazine, Saturday 24th March 2007

Two decades ago, the author and environmentalist Stanley Johnson wrote the definitive book about Antarctica. Here, he returns to see how life has changed in the last great wilderness.

Stanley in AntarcticaThere is nothing cuddly about a leopard seal. I was standing on a rock in an ice-strewn bay on Cuverville Island, just west of the Arctowski Peninsula, enjoying some of the finest scenery the Antarctic has to offer, when the seal surfaced — like a submarine — less than 10 yards away. It was a vast animal, 10 or 11ft long, with a huge head and a snake-like body. When it lifted its head from the water to gaze balefully at me, I could see on its throat and belly the spots from which it derives its name.

Cuverville Island is home to a colony of gentoo penguins, one of the seven species of penguin found in the Antarctic. Gentoos are not particularly large — around 30-32in high and 12-13lb in weight — but what they lack in size, they make up for in numbers. There are several hundred thousand gentoos in Antarctica and quite a high proportion of that total seemed to be gathered that afternoon on that rocky beach.

It would be wrong to say that the penguins were totally undisturbed by the leopard seal’s presence in the in-shore waters where they were getting on with their daily business. They squawkingly registered its arrival, beating a hasty retreat from the water’s edge.

The seal waited patiently, hull-down in the water with its nostrils just above the surface. When, a few minutes later, a gentoo decided to make a rash dash for the open sea, the leopard seal pounced. It grabbed the penguin in its mouth, like a gun dog retrieving a bird, and swam out with it into deeper water.

There then ensued one of the most extraordinary spectacles I have ever witnessed. The seal appeared to p1y cat-and-mouse with the traumatised bird, releasing it two or three times, then pouncing on it again before it could escape. Once the seal tired of this game, it settled down to the more serious task of preparing its meal. This involved thrashing the penguin from side to side in the water with such violence that the head eventually became detached from the body and the poor bird was, literally, turned inside out, so that it could be more conveniently eaten.

Nowadays, of course, we have all seen films in which animals — lions, leopards, cheetahs or whatever — seize and devour their prey. We know that nature is red in tooth and claw. But I have to say that this particular scene of a leopard seal catching and then eating its lunch on a brilliant sunny Antarctic day will stay with me for a long time.

AntarcticaIt wasn’t the first time I had seen a leopard seal. At the beginning of 1984 I was lucky enough to be invited by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to join its research and supply vessel, the John Biscoe, on a six-week trip to Antarctica. On that occasion, we left Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego, Chile’s most southerly port, and crossed the dreaded Drake Passage below Cape Horn, to visit BAS bases on the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as the South Orkney Islands, South Georgia and the Falkiands.

We saw plenty of leopard seals on that occasion. I remember the briefing I was given the first time I set out in a Zodiac inflatable on a ship-to-shore trip. “If you come across a leopard seal, give it a wide berth,” the first mate warned as I climbed down the rope ladder into the rubber boat. “Their teeth can easily puncture an inflatable. You won’t last long in the freezing water. A couple of minutes, I’d say. Maximum, five.”

Leopard seals, of course, were just one element in the vast array of Antarctic wildlife that I saw on that trip. As the John Biscoe left South Georgia on the last leg of our voyage (we were heading for Rio de Janeiro), we passed tiny Willis Island, home to no fewer than six million penguins. The sight and sound of a penguin rookery on that scale has to be seen to be believed.

I wrote at the time: “When the elephant seals and the fur seals mass alongside those penguins on the beaches; when the albatross and petrels and blue-eyed shags beat their way across the icy waves; when you glimpse at close quarters — as I did one manky morning in the Lemaire Channel — the blurred shape of a humpback whale, you can quite easily believe you are in paradise, and a very special paradise at that.”

Almost a quarter of a century later, and after a second visit to Antarctica, do I still feel as I did when I penned those words? Has Antarctica changed over the past few decades? What are the prospects for the future?

Stanley in Antarctica The first thing to say is that the sheer beauty and majesty of the Antarctic has in no way been diminished by the passage of time. The wildlife, the scenery, remain utterly spectacular. The ice-covered cliffs rise almost vertically from the water. The glaciers swoop down to the sea. If the weather is fine, the clarity of the light is unbelievable. Yes, it can be cold, and you need to take your balaclava and thermal underwear with you, but in the summer, at least when the sun is out, the temperature doesn’t drop too far below zero and the air can be almost balmy.

Twenty-five years ago, one of the issues that preoccupied environmentalists was the fear that Antarctica would be opened for exploitation. In a foreword that he very kindly provided for a book I wrote called Antarctica: The Last Great Wilderness, the late Sir Peter Scott (son of the great Antarctic explorer, Robert Falcon Scott) wrote: “Another serious threat to Antarctica is the prospect of its oil and minerals being exploited. The Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties are holding a series of meetings to discuss how, rather than whether, this should happen. They acknowledge that the risks of catastrophic pollution from oil spill, blow-outs and the increased human occupation of the few ice-free areas (which are also the most important areas for wildlife) are very real but they seem to regard them as acceptable if the world can be given perhaps another four or five years’ supply of oil ... Will our children and grandchildren ever forgive us if we allow our short-sighted greed to despoil the beauty and the teeming wildlife of the last great willderness on earth?”

It was a close-run thing. A treaty on the exploitation of Antarctic minerals was actually signed by governments in 1988. Happily, it was never ratified. Men such as Sir Peter Scott acted as pathfinders and spokesmen for an NGO community increasingly determined to make its voice heard against such madness. In 1991, the Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environmental Protection came into force, including an indefinite ban on mining and minerals exploitation.

If the adoption of the Antarctic environmental-protection protocol was a tremendous victory for conservation, it’s hard to be so optimistic where the marine (as opposed to the mineral) resources of Antarctica are concerned.

Twenty-three years ago, I walked around the site of an old Norwegian whaling station in the South Orkneys. A piece of whalebone had been fastened to one of the huts with the following inscription: “Antarctic whale catches South Orkneys and South Shetland 1911-1930 - Right: 38; Blue: 61,336; Fin: 48,023; Sei: 1,796; Humpback: 6,742; Sperm: 184.”

That brief record, as cold and factual as a tombstone, brought home to me as nothing else could the sheer scale of these Antarctic whaling operations in their heyday: 61,336 blue whales! The total is unimaginable. The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived on earth. If you go to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, you can see a complete skeleton suspended In a room the size of an aircraft hangar, Yet now the species is virtually extinct, since its population is at such low levels that recovery seems impossible.

The South Orkneys was just one whaling station of many. On the John Bliscoe, I also visited South Georgia where the beaches were knee-deep in discarded whalebones from the factories of Grytviken and Stromness. And on my most recent trip on board Antarctic Dream, we stopped at Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island where you can still see the huge rusting boilers and tanks that held the processed oil, as well as the flensing boats and water barges half-buried in the black volcanic sand.

The horrendous truth is that industrial whaling in Antarctic waters probably accounted for one and a half million whales, bringing most Antarctic whale species to the point of collapse. Recently, there have been signs that some populations are beginning to recover. On that recent visit to the Antarctic aboard the Antarctic Dream, we were fortunate to be able to see humpback whales on several occasions. On our last day in Antarctic waters, a group of humpbacks gave us a grandstand view of their feeding technique.

AntarcticaThe captain ordered the engines to be shut down. We gathered round the taffrail at the stern of the ship while Rodrigo, the resident biologist, explained: “The whales circle the krill, trapping them inside a cylinder of air bubbles, like a net. Then they dive under the air-bubble cylinder and rise to the surface in an upward spiral with their mouth open, gulping great quantities of water and filtering the krill through the baleen-plates.”

We must have stopped in a particularly productive stretch of ocean. For more than 30 minutes, the humpbacks circled, plunged and rose again to the surface, blowing and spraying. If you leant over the rail and looked closely, you could almost count the barnacles.

“Each whale,” Rodrigo said, “may be carrying up to half a ton of them.”

Ironically, that very day we learnt via the ship’s radio of the confrontation then taking place further south in the Ross Sea between the environmental activists aboard the Sea Shepherd and Japanese whaling vessels determined to catch their self-allocated “quota” of 1,000 minke whales on the pretext of so-called “scientific” research.

As far as the Antarctic’s marine resources are concerned, it is not just the whales that are under considerable threat. Commercial fishing is also taking its toll, particularly on the bird-life of the region.

In 1984, when the John Biscoe left the Magellan Straits and turned south for Antarctica, I remember being struck by the number of albatrosses that followed the ship. However sick you felt as you crossed the Drake Passage, one of the roughest seas on earth, you could — like the Ancient Mariner — take comfort from the presence of these majestic birds. Sometimes they would skim the water, with their long narrow wings, at wave-top level. Sometimes, they would rise high into the air, swinging in a wide arc far out to sea, before returning to follow in the wake of the ship.

After a while, and with the aid of a decent pair of binoculars, I learnt to distinguish the wandering albatross from the black-browed or grey-headed variety.

Petrels, too, were in abundant supply. Giant petrels, Cape petrels, Storm petrels and half a dozen other types of petrel – the sky seemed full of them. There was, as it were, no petrel shortage.

Today, I am not so sure that is the case. When the Antarctic Dream left Ushuaia and headed south, I had the distinct impression that there were far fewer sea birds around than there had been on my earlier trip. Of course, there were birds in the air, including the great albatrosses that had so thrilled me in the past. But the numbers, surely, weren’t the same.

Since I returned to England, I’ve had a chance to look at some of the mortality figures as far as albatrosses and petrels are concerned. Estimates made by organisations such as BirdLife International indicate that as many as 68,000 albatrosses a year, as well as 11,000 giant petrels and up to 178,000 smaller petrels may lose their lives as a result of commercial fishing techniques, notably longlining. The birds dive for the bait on the longlines as the lines are laid out. They are then dragged under and drowned.

Efforts are being made — under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), to name just two — to address this problem, for example by prohibiting longlining in daylight hours and by taking measures to ensure that the baited hooks sink faster. But there is still a long way to go. Even if you pass laws and regulations, how easy will it be to enforce them in the immensity of the Southern Ocean?

In 1984, when I first went to Antarctica, there was virtually no organised tourism apart from a couple of vessels, such as the Lindblad Explorer, making occasional visits. How things have changed. My second visit to Antarctica last month was actually on a tourist ship. The Antarctic Dream was built in Holland in 1957, incorporated into the Chilean Navy in 1959, rebuilt completely in 2004-3005 and refurbished as an Antarctic expedition cruise ship. In its new configuration, there are 38 double cabins located on four decks.

The Antarctic Dream is by no means unique. Today, Antarctica is witnessing a veritable explosion of tourists, with up to 40 ships operating in Antarctic waters, mainly around the Peninsula, as well as — for those who have time for a more extended visit — South Georgia and the Falklands.

Towards the end of my recent voyage, the Antarctic Dream called in at Port Lockroy, on Goudier Island, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The base at Port Lockroy – designated a Historic Site and Monument under the Antarctic Treaty – was built in 1944 to house a secret British Second World War mission codenamed Operation Tabarin. It was subsequently taken over by BAS for ionospheric research.

A few weeks before the Antarctic Dream arrived, Princess Anne had visited the site as patron of the United Kingdom’s Antarctic Heritage Trust, a splendid organisation whose mission is to protect and restore Britain’s Antarctic Heritage.

If anyone is in a position to have an informed view on the issue of Antarctic tourism, it must be Rick Atkinson, who serves as the trust’s project leader at Port Lockroy.

Atkinson spends four months of the year at Port Lockroy in conditions that exactly replicate those experienced by the wartime base. His team operates a Post Office, which each year handles over 40,000 items of mail, as well as running a souvenir shop and environmental monitoring programme.

“Most days:’ he told me, as we sat inside the bunkroom in the original prefabricated hut first brought down to Antarctica in 1944, “we have two or three cruise ships. Tourist numbers here have risen from 11,000 last year to 15,000 this year.”

AntarcticaTaking Antarctic tourism as a whole, Atkinson believes that there could be well over 30,000 visitors to the region each year and that some overall limit should be set under the Antarctic Treaty.

“Last year the United States voted against limiting the number. Because you need consensus, the proposal was blocked. An alternative approach would be to require every tourist operator to demonstrate they have a system in place for dealing with an emergency. That would soon sort out the sheep from the goats.”

Atkinson tells me that the issue of environmental accidents and emergencies in Antarctica is by no means academic. He is not convinced that all the ships operating in Antarctic are adequately ice-strengthened. Only a few weeks before we had met, a large tourist ship had run aground off Deception Island and it was only a matter of good fortune that the 300 passengers and crew could be rescued by a sister ship that happened to be in the area.

As to the impact of tourists on Antarctic wildlife, Atkinson is less emphatic. The monitoring programme at Port Lockroy has found no significant impact by tourists on the 800 pairs of gentoo penguins.

“Of course, tourists have an impact. They are all visiting a relatively small number of sites. And they don’t always keep to the rules, staying away from the penguins, not stepping on moss and lichens and soon. But the direct impact of tourism in Antarctica is minor compared with the global impact — the air-travel undertaken by the tourists to come here, the clothes they buy, the fuel consumed by the cruise-ships and so on. The biggest problem for Antarctica is going to be global warming. Compared to that, all other issues pale into insignificance.”

I had plenty of time to reflect on Atkinson’s words on the long haul back to Ushuaia. I had brought with me a copy of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and I was now able to study it in detail.

Based on deep ice-core samples taken in Antarctica itself, the IPCC report linked, with great precision, historic atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels with global increases in temperature. Future temperature increases, and associated sea-level rise, were projected under a series of different scenarios.

Losses from the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica had very likely contributed to sea-level rise between 1993 and 2003 and would, under all the projections, continue to do so in the future. The report further indicated ominously, “Global average sea level in the last interglacial period (about 125,000 years ago) was likely four to six metres higher than during the 20th century, mainly due to the retreat of polar ice.”

Four to six metres! It wouldn’t just be goodbye to the Maldives. It would be goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square.

I took the report up to the ship’s bar where the barman, Manuel, served me a very drinkable pisco sour. I spread the document out on the polished wood in front of me. At that moment a majestic iceberg with a strange and wonderful bluish tinge floated past the wide plate-glass windows of the Antarctic Dream’s observation deck. What an amazing, utterly stunning place Antarctica was, I thought. How incredibly lucky I had been to visit it not once, but twice in my lifetime. And what a tragedy it would be if it just melted away into thin air. Currently, the Antarctic Peninsula was registering the highest temperature changes in the world, over three times the global average. Did we really want to live in a world without icebergs?

It suddenly occurred to me, as I flipped through the grim IPCC report, that maybe the authors had missed a trick.

“Ask not, Manuel:” I said to the barman, echoing President Kennedy’s inaugural address, “what Antarctica is doing for us. Ask rather what we can do for Antarctica. We may have flown a long way to get here, but when we go home, surely we can all of us join more determinedly than ever in the battle against global warming, knowing that we will be helping to save Antarctica as well? Isn’t that so?” “Si, senor,” he said, refilling my glass.


The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust is at www.ukaht.org. The International Polar Year, a large scientific programme focused on the Arctic and the Antarctic from March 2007 to March 2009, is at www.ipy.org. Stanley Johnson travelled courtesy of the leading nature travel specialists Discovery Initiatives (01285 643333; www.discoveryinitiatives.com) on board the M/V ‘Antarctic Dream’. All Antarctic cruises arranged by Discovery Initiatives include a contribution to the Scott Polar Research Institute ( www.spri.cam.ac.uk) and a climate care levy to offset carbon emissions. A 14-day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, including all flights and accommodation in Buenos Aires, starts from £4,950 per person


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