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Antarctic Journal

December 23, 2002

In one week I will board the research vessel R/V Laurence M. Gould and set sail for Antarctica, a journey I have anticipated for more than two years. It is penguins that are taking me there. Ad�lie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula have declined by more than 50% in the last two decades. Some ad�lie [pronounced like the Indian capitol, Delhi, with an "ah" in front] colonies there have completely disappeared. Ornithologist Bill Fraser, who has studied this species there for a quarter of a century thinks these birds are early casualties of global warming. Winter temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have shot up an astounding 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 20 years. It's still cold there (Average temperatures vary from the mid 30s in January to the high teens in August). But 10 degrees is a huge change. If Fraser is right these penguins are among the first evidence of what could be worldwide changes to plant and animal communities caused by warming.

As a guest of the National Science Foundation at the Palmer research station, I'll be one of the only journalists to report on Bill Fraser's exciting research in person. While I'm there I'll also have the opportunity to report on some of the other research that takes place at this tiny scientific outpost on the rim of the world's most forbidding continent. Fraser is also studying the impact of tourism on penguins (about 15,000 tourists in cruise ships visit Antarctica each year, 1,500 of whom stop in at Palmer Station). Donna Patterson, Fraser's wife, is studying breeding and migration of southern giant petrels. This huge bird (its wings stretch almost seven feet tip-to-tip) is declining throughout Antarctica. However at several islands along and near the Antarctic Peninsula it's thriving. Patterson wants to know why. I'll also be learning about research on the chemical warfare fought between predator and prey in the Southern Ocean's icy waters. University of Southern Florida chemist Bill Baker will be making dives to sample sea life like sponges. Baker says his research will not only clarify how species interact but could also yield discoveries of compounds that could have applications as new drugs. I will have the chance to watch the activities of scientists aboard the Laurence Gould who will be taking a cruise along the Antarctic Peninsula to increase understanding of the biology of the Southern Ocean.

Getting ready for this six-week expedition was a big job. The boat I'll arrive on will be the same one that will take me back 31 days later. There will be no chance of getting extra equipment or supplies in between, so I've had to make meticulous preparations. I have backups for every piece of equipment I'm bringing, including recording devices, cables, cameras, microphones and batteries. Batteries are a special concern because most of my equipment-my minidisk recorder, my microphones, my camera, laptop computer and video camera-is battery operated. Batteries don't work as well in the cold. The Antarctic Peninsula is not only cold but wet. So I'll be carrying (lugging is more accurate) my equipment in three sturdy waterproof cases.

As a science journalist I've had the good fortune to visit many beautiful and exotic places including the Australian outback and Alaska's far-north Seward Peninsula. I've been put up by Eskimos, interviewed Australian aborigines and recorded an Argentine rain forest. This trip will be the most exciting yet, challenging me to stretch my skills as a reporter, audio engineer, photographer and outdoorsman to the limits. I'll be flying to Punta Arenas at the tip of South America, with a layover in Santiago, Chile-where I'll interview environmentalists about the impact of long-line fishing on fish and birds. In Punta Arenas I'll interview a doctor who has studied the impact there of the ozone hole on sun burns and skin cancer. Then I'll pick up survival gear and board my ship. We'll sail though the Straits of Magellan, named for legendary 16th century explorer and round Cape Horn into Drake Passage, an area Ernest Shackelton biograher Alfred Lansing called as "the most dreaded bit of ocean on the globe." In his book Endurance Lansing describes the stormy seas there created by intense winds stirring up currents circling round the white continent:

    The waves thus produced have become legendary among seafaring men. They are called Cape Horn Rollers or "graybeards." Their length has been estimated from crest to crest to exceed a mile, and the terrified reports of some mariners have placed their height at 200 feet, though scientists doubt that they very often exceed 80 or 90 feet. How fast they travel is largely a matter of speculation, but many sailormen have claimed their speed occasionally reaches 55 miles an hour. Thirty knots is probably a more accurate figure.
As I journey to Antarctica and once I arrive there I'll be posting the sounds, sights and my thoughts on this web site. I hope you'll join me.