I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

No untouched wilderness

This is the first of several blog posts I will write about Antarctica, and certainly the most sobering. Along with many passengers on this ship, I came to Antarctica believing I was visiting a place that had been relatively untouched by humans – the last great wilderness, or something like that. But from the very first landing we made, in the South Shetland Islands just northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula, I learned that this is very much not the case.

The human footprint in this part of the world is large, and marked by an almost inconceivable violence against nature. We have killed nearly every animal that makes this part of the world remarkable, except, perhaps, for the krill. One of our early landings was at a place called Whaler's Cove on Deception Island, where I spent several hours wandering along a beach littered with the remains of what was once a very productive whaling station. A mudslide destroyed or crippled most of the buildings some time ago, but we could easily see the remains of an airplane hanger, living accommodations, and the enormous barrels used to process whale blubber. The beach was littered with whale bones.

The scale of devastation wrought by whaling in the Antarctic is hard to believe, and as a tourist who prizes any sighting of these animals, I still do not understand how any person, much less the thousands who worked in the industry, could be so brutal and careless of their life. The largest mammal on earth, the blue whale was the biggest prize, as it yielded the most blubber. Whalers were not seeking meat, but oil – oil that lit the street lamps of London before electricity, and supplied power for the early Industrial Revolution. Blue whales were hunted nearly to extinction, and a single whaling station could process hundreds of thousands of animals. Today there are fewer than a thousand blue whales left on earth.

After the blues, whalers hunted fins, seis, right whales, and humpbacks, all of them also large, reducing populations of these animals by ninety percent or more. They left only the relatively small minke whale to its natural course. With its competition decimated, the minke has actually flourished in the region, and is one of the most often sighted from the vessels that cruise in these waters.

Though their oil output was meagre, penguins were not spared the slaughter. Penguins have no natural predators on land and are easy to capture and kill. Hunters who could not find a place in the whaling industry caught penguins and threw them live into boiling vats, to sell the scant amounts of fuel they yielded. Seals they clubbed or skinned alive for their pelts, driving these populations to near extinction as they became very rich back in the northern latitudes.

Even the contemporary fishing industry continues to decimate seabirds, as the petrels, shearwaters, and great albatrosses are caught on fishing lines. Without drastic changes to fishing techniques, the only possible outcome for some of these birds is extinction.

I did not expect to learn any of this on a voyage to Antarctica; I thought I was some kind of intrepid explorer, headed to vast tracts of untouched wilderness. But there was evidence of human occupation on nearly every landing we made, from refuge huts to research equipment to old concrete structures whose purpose was no longer clear. In the north, we learn that no nation lays claim to Antarctica, that it is a free continent, populated by a tiny number of benign scientists who want to preserve the place for posterity. But that's not what I saw.

Britain, Chile, Argentina, and Australia all lay claim to different parts of the continent – indeed, Australia claims the whole eastern third. These countries fly their flags wherever they put up a hut or piece of research equipment. Under the treaty that governs Antarctica, other countries – the US, Russia, China – can ignore these claims and put up their own research stations, but the place is far from free of territorial wrangling.

Under the Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, commercial industries are prohibited from mining the continent´s mineral resources, but there are surveyors down here all the same. In fact, the great polar resource reserves are concentrated in the Arctic, which is being much more rapidly laid to waste by industry, but rest assured that if there is something of value that can be mined or extracted from Antarctica, someone will find it, and they are looking even now. The environment is protected, but I do not know how strong that protection will be if someone finds a truly valuable resource deposit.

And then there are the tourists – everyone from people on ships like me, to the climbers who come down here to hike unnamed peaks (and then name them after themselves), or ski or sled to the South Pole. There are people all over this continent, all looking to take a piece of it, literally or metaphorically, for themselves.

Having said all that, a great deal of natural beauty remains, and there is enough animal life to keep tourists happy, at least for now. Global warming is of course affecting this place, and climatological change undoubtedly presents the most significant threat of all to the continent, far beyond what even the whalers accomplished. I now know enough about this place to want to come back, but that will most likely be a few years away, and I dread to see the changes that might take place in even that short amount of time.

So that is a bit of a black introduction to Antarctica. I will write next time of something more cheerful, like penguins.

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