January 30, 2010 – Isla Carlos III, Chile
By Dr. Ned Cabot with an introduction by Herb McCormick
On Saturday, winding their way through the labyrinth of Chilean canals, the crew of Ocean Watch set sail for the first time in the famed Straits of Magellan, so named for the intrepid Portuguese navigator whose expedition for the riches of the Far East led to the first circumnavigation of the planet. By day’s end, they were anchored in a protected enclave called Bahia Mussel on Isla Carlos III, some eighty miles east of the mouth of the Strait.
Since leaving the Falkland Islands, the regular crew has enjoyed the expertise of one of the most experienced offshore sailors to join the expedition since leaving Seattle. Dr. Ned Cabot is a board member of Sailors for the Sea, and he is also the skipper of the J/46, Cielita, which he’s sailed across the Atlantic, to Newfoundland and Greenland, and as far north as 80º N. As well as crewing aboard Ocean Watch, Ned has also taken charge of the scientific duties for this leg of the voyage. Today he takes the helm of the crew log to report on what he’s learned thus far.
A Report from Sailors for the Sea Board Member Dr. Ned Cabot
I should start by pointing out that I am only a pseudo-scientist. I am a surgeon by training with only a very limited knowledge of oceanography and meteorology and geology and all that sort of thing. I know a lot about human biology, but I am not trained in environmental science. Having said that, however, I am an experienced sailor and an active conservationist, and I serve on the Board of Directors of Sailors for the Sea, an environmental education organization concerned about the health of our oceans and a sponsoring organization of the Around the Americas Project. As such, I have signed on for one three-week leg of the journey as a crewmember aboard Ocean Watch and as a visiting scientist to help with the collection of data that is part of our mission as the ship circumnavigates both American continents.
One of my duties is to record cloud observations twice a day. These observations are timed to coincide with the passage overhead of NASA CERES Terra and Aqua satellites that take pictures from above the clouds covering the Earth as they orbit our planet. We are given the exact time that each satellite will pass overhead, and we record information about the clouds as they appear from below. This information is then relayed to the NASA S’COOL Program so they can compare what the satellites see with what we see down here from the ocean. We also record and report information about air temperature, relative humidity, and barometric pressure, as well as our exact location by GPS at the time of each observation.
When we are stationary, such as when we are at anchor, we are also interested in recording sounds in the ocean with an acoustical device called a hydrophone. And we are trying to examine particulates in the atmosphere by means of a Microtops Sunphotometer.
And there is a lot of other scientific gear on our boat, such as the SeaKeepers system that continuously takes water samples for analysis, and a special camera that takes thousands of pictures a day in a 360 degree circle around the boat. It’s pretty neat stuff. The data we are collecting is being sent to the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington and various other institutions for analysis and will eventually contribute to research to be published in scientific papers.
Of course, I’ve also been making some observations of my own. We are presently at the very bottom of South America. We sailed around Cape Horn at the southern tip of the continent, and now we are sailing up the Beagle Channel, named for the boat that Charles Darwin was aboard when he formulated his famous theory of evolution. This is an incredibly beautiful place, with high mountains rising out of the sea and huge glaciers tumbling down and breaking off. It appears that many of the glaciers are melting faster than they are growing, so they are receding and their melt will likely contribute to the rise of the oceans.
The weather down here is pretty severe, even in the summer, which in the southern hemisphere occurs the same months as our winter up north. Cape Horn is at 56 degrees south latitude, which is about equivalent to the middle of Labrador and the middle of British Columbia in Canada up north. But down here the weather is generally more severe than at the same latitudes in the north because of the impact of the Southern Ocean that circles the globe to the north of Antarctica, and the only place on earth where land masses or continents do not slow down the wind, and is known for its high winds and big waves.
So the trees down here are generally very small and often nonexistent. The winds are very strong, and the weather changes very rapidly. The water is very cold, around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so the air is usually pretty cold too, sometimes just above freezing even in the summer. We’ve actually experienced several snow flurries, usually followed by a brief hailstorm.
And the geology of this region is fascinating. I wish I knew more about it. There is a ridge of high mountains that runs along much of the west side of South America. Further north this mountain range is known as the Andes. Down here in Chile it is known as the Cordillera. On its west side, where we are, the mountains attract a lot of moisture from the winds coming off the Pacific Ocean. This causes a lot of precipitation on this side of the mountain range in the form of rain and snow. And many thousands of years of snow have given rise to the glaciers, huge rivers of slow-moving ice that pour down the mountain valleys and sometimes reach the sea, sometimes creating icebergs and often creating spectacular waterfalls. You can see how the glaciers have carved out the valleys, scraping the sides and leaving behind huge ridges of gravel and stones called moraines. They are really something to behold. And where the glaciers have receded, which they are doing at an alarming rate due to global warming, they leave behind what is called a terminal moraine. When approaching a glacier in our boat, these terminal moraines can pose a real threat because they may be under the surface of the water, with deep water on either side but a shallow bar that might cause our boat to go aground (hit bottom).
In addition, we have been making our own observations concerning the flora and fauna of this region. On numerous occasions we’ve had Peale’s dolphins jumping clean out of the water nearby and swimming next to the boat in our bow wake. And we’ve sailed through a pod of humpback whales, including one of their babies, feeding near the surface – not to mention a number of South American fur seals that often appear quite close to the boat.
There are lots of sea birds to identify. We’ve seen Magallenic cormorants, several pairs of kelp geese, Turkey vultures, giant southern petrels, Magallenic penguins, black browed albatross, and one royal albatross, with a wing span of some 350 cm (over 11 feet!). Hiking ashore, we’ve identified a number of trees and plants, such as the evergreen beech, the firebush, and the holly-leafed barberry. We’ve also been learning some about the native tribes that used to inhabit these islands, such as the Yamana, also known as Yahgan, who are now almost entirely extinct. We were privileged to visit a very special place in the woods called Ukika where the descendents of the Yahgans have hung woodcarvings from the trees that represent the spirits of their deceased ancestors.
So science is an important component of this Around the Americas Project. Along with our other sponsoring organization, the Pacific Science Center, we want to call attention to some of the problems facing our oceans and how we all might help to make them healthier. We are thinking of the Americas as one giant island, populated by many different peoples but surrounded by ocean: the Arctic Ocean in the north, the Atlantic Ocean on the east, the Southern Ocean in the south, and the Pacific Ocean in the west. We must remember that more than two thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered with ocean, and the oceans control our climate and affect our lives on land in a whole host of ways.
So our oceans play a critical environmental role and must be better understood. And they must be protected from pollution and from being over fished and from acidification due to the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Mankind can and does have a major impact on our oceans. We must make ourselves better stewards of the ocean environment.
So that’s why Ocean Watch, and all those involved with this Around the Americas Project, both on the ship and on shore, have undertaken this exciting scientific and historic voyage. We are trying to make a difference.
-Ned Cabot, M.D. with an introduction by Herb McCormick and photographs by David Thoreson
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