David Helvarg

“The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed …” OK, the 240 foot Laurence M. Gould (named after one of America’s premier Antarcticans) is no tiny ship; still, by Tuesday evening it was rocking and rolling in big following seas that had turned from azure blue to an ominous black broken only by whitecaps and surrounding walls of fog. But Randy, the marine projects coordinator on board, assures me this is nothing. He recalls a storm a few years ago here in Drake Passage with 40 foot seas and 90 mile an hour winds that woke him up in midair as he was tossed from his upper bunk by a particularly good swell. It’s no wonder every part of this ship is lined with handrails to grab onto. We’re also constantly reminded to dog all the latches on the doors and the hatches. (Is there a Dr. Suess on board?)

Personally I’m a born-again drug user. The Transderm Scop patch I’m wearing behind my right ear has given me dry mouth and blurred vision, but I haven’t got seasick yet. While a dozen people are in the lounge watching a video of The Abyss, I go out on the rainy stern deck, just above where two of the Zodiac inflatable boats are secured. There I begin to think about the sealers and whalers who charted these dark waters in far less seaworthy ships, dressed only in wool and cotton. Palmer Station is named after Nathaniel Palmer, a Connecticut sealer who, in 1820 at age 21, claimed to be the first human to spot the Antarctic mainland. He noted this in his log and then returned to the immediate task at hand, which was slaughter.

Within a year sealers from Connecticut and Britain had killed over 300,000 Antarctic fur seals (selling their pelts as sea otter fur in China). Sailors and Falkland settlers also melted down millions of penguins, herding them into boiling vats so they could extract oil, about a pint per bird. After the Connecticut sealers wiped out their prey, the Yankee whalers arrived out of New Bedford (329 whaling vessels, 10,000 sailors). They were soon killing off the humpbacks and right whales wintering just outside the southern ocean. Later they went after blue, fin, sei, and humpbacks within the southern ocean. In the 20th century they were joined by the Japanese and Soviets. Today only remnant populations survive–4,000 humpbacks out of 100,000. Five hundred of 180,000 blue whales, 2,000 of 400,000 Antarctic fin whales.

With the establishment of environmental protections for Antarctica many people now look back in shock and horror at what was done before. Of course few folks are aware that the Patagonian tooth fish, a deep water fish that can live to be 50 years old, is today being driven to extinction by overfishing in the southern ocean. Caught in Antarctic waters, the fish is often shipped and sold elsewhere as Chilean sea bass.

If not pretty, human history in Antarctica has at least been a short one, and even includes some real heroes, such as Brit explorer Ernest Shackleton, who chose to save his men at the price of his glory. A look around 02 deck, with its wet lab, dry lab, hydro lab, Baltic Room (for launching sampling instruments), and electronics lab, suggests how attitudes are shifting from seeing Antarctica as a place for killing and flag-planting to seeing it as a place of science and wonder. Unfortunately what the scientists are finding are ozone holes in the sky and melting ice linked to human-caused climate change.

Heating at the poles may also explain why a lot of the men onboard are wearing cheekless beards this year. “That way our smiling dimples show,” claims Mark, one of the hair enhanced. Like many others on board I’ve enjoyed the water taxi service but am now ready to disembark at Palmer, where, I hope, the flat land won’t make me sick.