February 1, 2010 – Isla Riesco, Chile
By Dr. David Treadway with an introduction by Herb McCormick
The news today from Ocean Watch is brief. We remain anchored in a small inlet off the Strait of Magellan while gale-force winds rake the waters in the nearby Strait. Today’s crew log is written by Sailors for the Sea co-founder David Treadway, who is serving as Guest Educator for this leg of the voyage. David is the author of four books, including his latest, due out next month, entitled Home Before Dark: A Family Portrait of Cancer and Healing. Here’s David’s story:
As Ocean Watch voyages up the Strait of Magellan, we follow our course closely with charts that have been roughly and then meticulously compiled over hundreds of years. From Magellan himself, to Drake to Cook and countless others who measured the topography and the depths. The first sailors through these waters had no idea which channel might lead them to open water and which might end in a cul de sac. The main ships would constantly anchor and send long boats ahead to sound the depths and check the possibilities, looking for undersea rocks and shoals rising close to the surface in the sometimes twisted narrow channels that might lead to a safe harbor. The earliest technology for developing chart data was a lead line, a sketch pad, compass bearings, and the naked eye.
Ocean Watch is making her way up these channels, finally headed north toward home. Throughout the 18, 000 sea miles traveled from the top of the Northwest passage to the bottom of South America, the crew of OW also has been taking soundings but of a very different nature.
Part of what we are trying to map is the impact on the coastal communities that surround the Americas of climate change, over fishing, pollution, acidification, and coastal development. By countless hours of filming, measuring and interviewing – and simply observing with the naked eye – we are taking soundings of our shared ocean and its people. We want to add our visceral experience and observations to the slowly developing social awareness of how seriously threatened our oceans truly are and the already pervasive damage to communities and cultures that dot the endless coast line.
As Herb McCormick, the ship’s chronicler has said, “It’s not good news.” He has reported that the dramatic ice melting is rapidly changing all the rhythms of life in the Arctic: from the loss of hunting and fishing for the indigenous peoples to the polar bears swimming for their lives because their ice-floe homes have melted. Islands are literally disappearing, and significant levels of ocean acidification were registered in the Gulf of Alaska: one of the many signs that our oceans are slowly becoming carbonated.
The Arctic is truly the “canary in the mine shaft” as all these changes are headed our way. Already in OW’s stops throughout the east coast cities of North and South America there’s ample evidence of polluted run-off inundating the coastal waters, depleted fish stocks, and ruined wetland and bottom habitat. Even here in the desolate wilds of Tierra del Fuego the wilderness is being invaded by the influx of cruise ships, hikers and tourists, all of whom bring their human needs and waste.
We are recording our own soundings as thoroughly as possible and beginning to chart the treacherous passages we all face. The good news is that it isn’t all reefs, sunken ships, shoals, and impassable channels. For each hazard encountered, there are people in every coastal community trying to make a difference.
One of the best examples is the story reported by McCormick of the collaboration in Barrow, Alaska between local whale hunter and community leader, Harry Brower and marine scientist, Craig George. Working together, they reassessed the population of the bowhead whale based on Harry’s vast local knowledge of whale patterns and behavior that the scientists in the lower 48 simply hadn’t understood. This was one good demonstration of what might happen if scientific knowledge is informed by the “ground truth“ derived from learning from those who have lived near and fished these waters for centuries. As Ocean Watch moved through the Arctic and down the coasts of North and South America, there have been many examples of scientists, environmentalists, local fisherman and boaters beginning to band together to sound the alarm about the living sea and changing the awareness and habits of those who use it.
Along with our co-sponsor, the Pacific Science Center, Sailors for the Sea, which is urging sailors to become ocean stewards, is only one example of activist groups ranging from Surfrider, Oceana, SEA, and the “Save the Bay” organizations among hundreds of groups that are committed to the protection of the oceans and beginning to effectively coordinate their efforts.
Aside from the difficulty of the voyage itself, here’s the main challenge of our expedition. We have accumulated an enormous amount of data (our soundings) through thousands of measurements and pictures, hours of film and pages written. But our job is just beginning. The British Admiralty had to assess centuries of ship’s soundings and charts to create a vast collection of reliable charts. We, too, have to distill our information into panoramic charts that show how the oceans as a whole are in peril as well as close up details about how local communities are banding together to fight these challenges.
We know this: People need more than doom and gloom warnings about environmental threats. Yes, we need to understand the risks to our oceans and ourselves, but more importantly we need to know what we can do and that what we do will matter. What all of us need is inspiration and a belief that each of us, bound together by our shared vulnerability, can contribute to change.
As a brief visitor on Ocean Watch, I am inspired by the commitment, courage, and competence of the four crew members who have dedicated more than a year of their lives circumnavigating the Americas. Schrader, Thoreson, McCormick, and Logan have already sailed collectively over 500,000 miles in their lives. They’re not here for the sailing or the adventure. They are doing what they do best in order to contribute to our knowledge and challenge us to change. They’ve bet their lives that committed individuals working together can make a difference.
They are taking soundings of our fragile Isle of Americas. In the months and years to come, they will utilize scientific reports, photo exhibits, books, talks, films and programs for school children to provide a compendium of charts that will help us appreciate the ineffable beauty of the sea and navigate the multiple threats to our beloved ocean.
-Dr. David Treadway with an introduction by Herb McCormick and photographs by David Thoreson
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