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Antarctica: An unlikely ally

Justin Hofman Instagram

I’ve had this rattling around in my head the last few days but really haven’t felt like committing it to words. I don’t know if my apprehension has been laziness or acknowledging that my season in the Antarctic is over. I wouldn’t say it ended with a bang nor with a fizzle. It was somewhere in between and I haven’t completely digested just what the hell went on. It wasn’t the easiest season in more ways that I’m willing to admit. There were flashes of brilliance but overall I was distracted by a barrage of bullshit one wouldn’t expect at the bottom of the planet. Sometimes I just wanted to shake people and scream “Look out the window! Look at where you are!”

I don’t get to pet whales or swim with sharks every day. If someone put a Critter Cam on me this past contract they’d probably fall asleep or format the memory card after just a few hours. Most of my days were spent sitting on the bridge watching the beautiful landscape go by, scanning for whiles with my binos, or writing dire emails to the bosses back home. I felt so sessile this season. Sometimes it felt like Groundhog Day. My entire justification for working in this fuel-guzzling, ego-inflating business is to affect the way wealthy people see the world. If I don’t do that or at least get the opportunity to try and fail, then it’s not worth it at all. The money is alright, but the money does not turn off this stupid brain of mine.

On my last trip we had some incredibly influential people onboard but I didn’t have much access to them because they weren’t that interested in Antarctica. On the final landing the older guys decided to pull themselves away from their card game and actually go to shore. This was the first time that everyone had gone to shore on the entire trip. For reference, the expedition leader and I planned an outing a few days ago, lowered the Zodiacs, got dropped off at a penguin colony with the emergency stranding equipment, and waited. We stood around for about 20 minutes before a radio call came in from the yacht: the guests don’t want to go to shore any more. They’d rather go find whales. In some way I can’t blame them as whales are WAY better than penguins. We did end up having a nice morning with the whales, but these are the sorts of expectations we’re trying to meet on a daily basis. “We are bored with penguins. Let’s look at whales.” Even once we found whales, only about 8 of them came out on the Zodiacs.

Back to the beach. The guys were all standing together for a group picture and I asked their assistant (whom I had gotten to know pretty well since he was one of the only people that ever visited the bridge) how much money do you think is standing there? His reply was perfect: “Enough to change the world”. The way he said it was somber and honest. I couldn’t help but take in the details of the scene: We are ensconced within the caldera of an active volcano in Antarctica. Here are 4 businessmen and their friends/family who hold more wealth than probably 1/3 of the world population all standing together like old friends (which they apparently are). The tide is very low and the thermal activity high, so steam rises as the freezing water is slowly heated by Earth’s molten core. The traveling band of billionaires stands amongst hundreds of pieces of wood lying long forgotten in the volcanic ash. They were carefully hewn: not totally flat but have a slight curve and taper gently at each end. Their length is uniform and runs to between the hip and knee. Scattered on the black beach protrude odd, irregular shapes which are not uniform in shape but in color. This beach is called Whaler’s Bay. The wood: staves for barrels. The odd shapes: whale bones.

Once a full island, Deception Island now stands as a nearly perfect ring with a tiny entrance on the eastern face where the sea has flooded into the caldera after a catastrophic eruption nearly 10,000 years ago. It would have made Krakatoa look like a party favor. The explosion was likely felt world-wide by roving bands of hunter-gatherers and by those just starting to experiment with cultivation in the Fertile Crescent. Had it happened anywhere but Antarctica it might have altered the course of human history. Once discovered by sealers in the 19th century, Deception Island became the first and longest-manned settlement in all of Antarctica. People have been here continuously for the past few hundred years save for a few times in recent history when the island sprang back to life for much smaller, but still dangerous, eruptions notably in the 1960s & 70s. Today all that remains of the whaling and sealing operations are piles of ‘historic trash’, wrecked boats, and ruined buildings. The billionaires stand atop the toils of Norwegian whalers whose work produced the lubricants that drove the industrial revolution. The lamps of countless streets and millions of homes burned with the oil of Antarctic whales.

From diatom, to krill, to whale, to barrel, to ship. It was a short supply chain but it still met its match when a better, and cheaper alternative to whale oil was found deep within Earth itself. Petroleum products doomed the whale when man invented fast moving boats and doomed the whalers by producing a cheaper lubricant, soap, and fuel. It was a double-edged sword.

Instead of taking selfies with penguins, these are the things I want world-shapers to realize. They are walking amongst and over a great tale of human error and inattention to the natural world. Hark the tales of these bones and ruins or risk committing the same mistakes. This whole trip I’ve been patiently waiting for my opportunity to have a one-on-one with the lead guy because I know his philanthropic background includes conservation issues, some of them very close to my heart.

The two of us walked along the shores of an active volcano, the steam smelling faintly of sulfur and salt. I finally had my moment alone with one of the most influential people on Earth. Efficiency would be key as attention spans are understandably short with busy thinkers. In just a few short minutes we talked about the whaling operation here, how lucky we were to see the whales this trip and their incredible abundance. I had zero game plan, just to have a cordial chat as we walked. Eventually a conversational door was left ajar and I was about to take a risky step across the threshold from friendly guide to dedicated conservationist.

He asked about blue whales and where he could see a blue whale. I told him about the huge impact whaling had on blue whale populations around Antarctica. “I could show you blue whale bones right now but we don’t see them alive around here”. Roughly 300,000 blue whales were killed around Antarctica, mostly by the Norwegians during the 19th and 20h centuries. We pivoted our conversation to talking about krill and their role in this amazing ecosystem. I told him about the controversial and unnecessary krill fishery happening around Antarctica and he seemed genuinely surprised and concerned especially at the mention of a Norwegian company attaining a sustainability rating for a fishery we know nothing about.

“I will arrange a meeting with the Prime Minister of Norway next week and we will discuss this krill fishing. I came here to see blue whales and we saw no blue whales. Krill fishing will not help blue whales recover from whaling”. It was the sort of matter-of-fact statement only a person in power could make.

He seemed to get it. Who knows if anything will ever come of this but I’ve been warned by his assistant that when an idea forms, it is almost always taken to fruition. Surrounded by ecological ruin and economic collapse, I found a bit of hope in an unlikely ally.

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