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“Be Good For Your Mother And I’ll Bring Home A Penguin”

Not a direct quote I am certain, but it is what I imagine Charles Moore whispered to his three young children in the fall of 1957 as he headed off on the adventure of a lifetime.  He was first headed from his home near San Francisco, California to Christchurch, New Zealand.  A flight path I know all too well and a journey that takes at least three calendar days if there are no delays.  As a passenger, since the man was also a pilot, he would continue to fly south.  Charles would fly just about as far South on planet Earth as a person could in 1957.  He landed at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.  The only aircraft to ever fly and land further south at that time was when the US Navy’s Douglas DC-3 made the very first landing at the South Pole only one year prior.

Charles had been tasked with documenting and reporting on Operation Deep Freeze III.  Borrowing its name from a never published James Bond novel (so I assume), Operation Deep Freeze began in 1955.  Due to the extreme locale, it needed to be carried out in multiple phases.  The goal was to build “permanent” research stations at both McMurdo Station, on the coast, as well as the South Pole itself. All of this was in preparation for the first International Geophysical Year (IGY).  The IGY was a collaborative effort of many nations with the intent to explore the unexplored and document previously undocumented phenomena all around the globe.  With his military experience and employment with United Press, Charles was up for the challenge of accompanying the US Navy on their mission.

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He agreed to forgo Christmas at home with his family, another path I know all too well.  My mother was one of his three young children, Charles is my grandfather.   Gone for more than six months, my grandfather traversed the frozen continent alongside the Navy task force from McMurdo Station to the South Pole, and back.  Antarctica is larger than the United States and Mexico combined.  All of those little white slivers at the bottoms of maps in textbooks and classrooms are very misleading. The altitude also takes some getting used to and since any snowfall at the pole never melts, it gradually grows higher every year.  I only became aware of the elevation after reading this letter that he wrote to his wife’s parents (my great-grandparents) in Portland, Oregon on December 26, 1957.

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Charles’ mention of the penguins was referencing the group of Adelie and Emperor Penguins that had been shipped to the Portland, Oregon Zoo.  Sadly for his children, he was not able to take any home with him.  The penguins’ arrival in Portland is a hilarious side story worthy of a Disney movie plot and can be read here: Penguins of Peninsula Park.

It was lucky for mail to be delivered to the men (there were only men) at the Bottom Of The World once every few months.  While my mom does not have any letters that they may have written and sent to him, we do have a few of the ones he wrote back.  At least one to each of his children, his wife Isabelle, and the one pictured above to his parents-in-law.  On the fronts of some of the envelopes you can read “By first plane to land at the South Pole during IGY, Deep Freeze III, and first mail plane to return from the Pole”.  Also on the fronts of two envelopes is a scribbled signature, E. Hillary.  It took a geologist to point them out and ask, “Is that Hillary? As in, Sir Edmund Hillary!?.”  I had no idea as my mother and I had both overlooked the small scribble.  As it turns out, it is indeed Sir Edmund Hillary’s autograph.  After becoming the first man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, Hillary was leading the New Zealand contingent of the IGY.  At least at one point, possibly more, Hillary’s path overlapped my grandfather’s.

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Today there is a sort of highway, though really more of a packed down snowy trail, traversing the approximately 1,000 miles between McMurdo and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station.  Which definitely did not exist 60 years ago.  The only previous trans-Antarctic overland expeditions were in 1911-1912 when Amundsen and Scott (Norwegian and British, respectively, and for whom the South Pole Station is named after) independently made treks to the South Pole.  While both groups completed their goal of reaching the pole, Scott’s team did not survive the return trip due to combinations of scurvy, hypothermia, exhaustion, starvation.  Based on my grandfather’s letter mentioning their Christmas Day feast and fresh vegetables from New Zealand, Operation Deep Freeze III was much better supplied.  Instead of relying on dogs and sleds, the Navy men had their diesel-powered snowcats, which are essentially tanks specially designed for ice and snow.   Since the well-traveled “highway” did not exist, special teams had to go out ahead of the snowcats to test the ice for crevasses that hide under snow and could swallow an entire team.

The detailed description of the entire arduous mission in this US Navy memo lies in such contrast next to Charles’ remarkably casual letter back home.  We do not know all the details of the six months Charles spent with the Navy task force, but my mother and I have been able to piece together quite a lot.  What we don’t have are copies of any articles and reports that he sent back to United Press to be published.  If anyone reading this has any leads to share about additional Operation Deep Freeze III details and published articles by Charles R. Moore, we would be hugely grateful.

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Exactly 60 years after my grandfather took his journey to Antarctica, I find myself bobbing around on a scientific drilling ship  in the Amundsen Sea, just offshore from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS).  I am working with scientists from all over the world who are here to collect sediment samples from underneath the furthest stretches of the WAIS.  The samples contain a record of melts and freezes over the millennia. This will give us a glimpse as to what may have been happening on Earth before the presence of such intrepid humans. I am in awe when I think about my grandfather being on that very first IGY expedition and here I am, so very close to the same spot, alongside scientists/explorers still searching and discovering.  I watch icebergs pass by us every day, remnants of the ice sheet that the ship has to incessantly dodge.  Little bits coming off the continent I so wish I could set foot on just as he did.  Maybe next time.

 

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Karsten Gohl is the Co-chief scientist of our Amundsen Sea Expedition and he graciously let me borrow his coat to take this photo.

 

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Fiji Six Hundred and Nine Minutes

His hand slipped out of mine as he began to wave it around forcefully in front of the coral. With nothing surrounding me but black, plankton filled water, I grabbed at and dug my fingers as hard as I could into his BC. “He won’t know how tightly I’m hanging on,” I thought as my knuckles, had I been able to see them turned white. I blinked, and blinked, trying to get my eyes to adjust faster to the darkness. After seconds, which felt like minutes, giggle filled bubbles soon surrounded my mask. My eyes finally focused on swirling trails of glowing something. The glowing something was coming from the coral, and his frantic waving was somehow stimulating it. My fist loosened from his BC and I gave it a whirl, literally. I alternated between admiring the bioluminescent marine magic show and leaning back to stare up at the stars and moon through the 30 feet of water we were under. This surreal night dive comprised only about 36 of the total 609 minutes I spent underwater during my visit to Fiji.

I met Trevor a couple years ago when I was at the time filling in for a couple weeks on the S/V Juliet and also pretty much still a novice at the whole SCUBA diving thingy.

Out on "Baby J" (Juliet's inflatable) on our first Juliet trip together.
Out on “Baby J” (Juliet’s inflatable) on our first Juliet trip together.

His seemingly bottomless patience with me was always appreciated while I bumbled around the boat trying to figure out how to tie a knot, and how to not die underwater, and how to not die underwater while tying a knot. We’ve both since moved on from our favorite sailboat but I was fortunate enough to take a break from my current job to visit him at his current job, at Wananavu Resort in Fiji. My learning from Trevor had also not ended, as it was there I completed a PADI Rescue Diver course. So many of the skills we practiced I realized I had already accidentally learned during my time with Trevor and on the Juliet. While my new friend Giulia, who was at Wananavu working towards her divemaster, did her best at trying to drown us in class as we each took turns saving her nothing can ever quite replicate real world experience.

Reunited in Fiji.
Reunited in Fiji.

Trevor and I had a great time reminiscing and lamenting that fact that both our new jobs don’t exactly condone (nor do they forbid….) wearing silly hats and singing songs about marine creatures.  However, we both still are doing exactly what we love doing and there’s nothing better than that.

Just a normal day giving a dive briefing to our passengers.
Just a normal day giving a dive briefing to our passengers.

I’ll Have The Mystery Meat Sandwich, Please.

Something along the lines of “fish and chips” or “grilled fish sandwich” on a restaurant menu, to me, is synonymous with mystery meat – and nobody would feel comfortable ordering that, right?!  Is it beef, pork, horse, guinea pig?  An entire list of possibilities runs through my head when I see the word “fish”.  It is essentially as vague as ordering “grilled land animal”.    Is it cod? tilapia? sea bass? shark? Does it come from Florida? Alaska? Japan?

Why are consumers okay with this?  I don’t have an easy answer.  It tastes fine, why question it.  The general public wouldn’t be able to identify more than a handful of ocean or freshwater swimmers anyway. For example, calling something a “flounder” sounds specific enough, but what runs through the mind of anyone who knows even a little bit about fish would be, well, there are many species of flounder so what kind is it? The sixth most highly consumed fish in the United States is pangasius– ask ten people on the street if they’ve ever heard of it and I would suspect you would get ten no’s even though they’ve probably consumed it.  Even I was only made aware of this multi-purpose pangasius when I attended a talk this fall hosted by Paul Greenberg.  Paul completely won me over by being hilarious, informative, and challenging all at once and I look forward to running into him again someday.

Asking is always a good first step to identifying mystery edible sea creatures.  Sadly the answer seems to be not much more than an educated guess at times.  It is all too easy to disguise one species of fish for another, since realistically you or I really wouldn’t be able to tell the difference once it’s cooked, fried, and seasoned.  It happens constantly, whether on purpose or not.

This makes things like those helpful “safe seafood” eating guides and smartphone apps seem, well, completely irrelevant.  The New England Aquarium provides a guide on sustainable seafood choices, so that’s great, if you are actually getting what you are asking for.  Institutions like NEAQ also need to practice what they preach.  As someone who attended a members event held at the aquarium I was a bit taken aback when I entered and was approached by a caterer offering me a plate of shrimp.  I was actually really excited about it, for about two seconds.  “Oh! Where does the shrimp come from?!” I asked excitedly and was expecting a super informative answer like “I’m glad you ask, it’s actually legal wild caught shrimp from the good ole’ U S of A.”  In reality the response that completely took the wind out of my sustainable seafood sails was , “I don’t know.”  Okay I get it, this young woman is hired by a catering company to walk around with plates of yummy snacks and it’s not HER responsibility to know.  However, it was in my opinion the responsibility of the hosting institution to know, especially when  your purpose of existing is to educate the public about ocean creatures and human actions that affect them.

I love eating seafood. I do not love eating ambiguous swimming animal food.  That’s why I ate more seafood than I have in the past three years combined during my two week adventure in Hawaii.

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The reason for my seafood binge being the fact that when I would ask where a particular fish came from the response would begin with body language.  When a waiter can literally gesture in a direction that insinuates “from the dock down the street” I want to eat as much as possible.  I know what it is. I know where it came from. And I could probably walk over and shake the persons hand who caught it.

Buy Local…Eat Local…Aloha.

Wake Me Up For Whales

A while ago I met a guy on a boat.  Okay, that’s about as vague as the sky in my life.  The boat was the Juliette (NOT to be confused with the Juliet….).  We were two solo travelers on a snorkeling trip in Grenada.  He had a mustache- I knew this wasn’t going to start off well for him (it can be very difficult for a snorkel mask to seal on ones face when facial hair is present).  After choking down some phytoplankton filled sea water Greg was none too fond of such an invasive ocean experience.  I offered to not only hold his hand on his next attempt but also mentioned, probably more than once, that I would be super willing to simply shove his mustached face back in the water- shockingly he declined my well intentioned offers.

Gregory Lenz on a snorkeling trip in Grenada
Gregory Lenz on a snorkeling trip in Grenada in 2013

Flash forward to a year and a half later, and my salt water inhaling snorkeling buddy is an official videographer who has the very tough obligation to board whale watching boats in Provincetown, MA every single day.  I can see the joy on his face and hear it in his voice when he explains what he does for a living.

I finally had the privilege to join Greg and the Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch crew for an entire day of humpback happiness in Stellwagen Marine Sanctuary.  With the exception of the Juliet, when I am working on a boat (fishing, drilling, etc) we are generally trying to avoid marine mammals.  It was immensely exciting for me to specifically go to a place where whales just like to be whales, and are very good at it if I might add.

Well prepared and guarded for disappointment I happily boarded the Dolphin VIII after a sunrise drive out to the very tip of Cape Cod.

Spouts.  Flukes.  Mothers.  Calves.  (even whale poop).  Not a drop of disappointment for miles.

High five for humpbacks!
High five for humpbacks!

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For dust you are and to dust you will return

“Just crush it like all the others?” I asked the petrologist.  “Yes. Now don’t get sentimental because it’s shiny, they’re just rocks.”
Don't be a fool it's just fool's gold
Don’t be a fool it’s just fool’s gold

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I am a collector of data.  I no longer ski down mountains of paperwork laced with eau de fish guts, but the premise is the same and so are the ocean views.

I get a thrill from being on the front lines of science.  The “real” scientists are not better or smarter but have chosen a different path and have the qualifications to make a mark in the Big Book of Science while I am happy to do their bidding.  Extracting otoliths with a razor blade in one hand and forceps in the other on a rocking boat requires some of the same finesse and patience as separating minute flecks of one mineral out of a larger sample.  My job is not to analyze any of the data yet my hands, my little human hands, are the ones touching and handling those precious fish and rocks respectively.  I’ll never have my name put on a research paper about tectonic plate subduction or a new fishing regulation that gets passed but I have pride in knowing that my little bits of data are floating around in there somewhere.  So thank you, scientists, for doing what you do in your offices and labs, because I prefer to be over here getting my hands dirty and watching the sun rise in the East.

The Attitudes Are As Real As The Latitudes

I don’t use stock photos.  I don’t use stock smiles.  Every photo and every smile week after week is the real deal.  The most unexpected job perk has been the amazing people I am lucky enough to meet and become a part of their vacation memories.  Sierra was excellent at spotting every Fish Of The Dive

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From getting to be a newly certified diver’s buddy and holding their hand until they’re comfortable enough to let go, to doing an awe inspiring wreck dive on Spiegel Grove, to free diving to retrieve mooring lines for Juliet to tie up, every day brings so many unique rewards no matter how seemingly insignificant to the passengers and crew.  I never pretended to know anything about sailing, and up until just recently was still nervous and unsure of my own diving abilities.  But now, “You want to jump in with your dive gear to a site you’ve never been to and try to find a mooring line that may or may not be there?”  “Yes Please! But which way is North?!”.  I’m not even officially an “Advanced” diver yet, but attitude and confidence can take you for (nautical) miles.  “You have such a calming presence underwater, it’s so helpful.”- one newly certified diver told me.  I have been mistaken for a dive instructor more than once and while I may have seemed to brush it off and even be a little embarrassed about the misunderstanding, it meant more to me than I could explain.  A few years ago I found myself more than frustrated and lost when after countless  visits to various ENTs resulted in me begrudgingly giving up on ever diving again.  Now I can dive comfortably in an ill-fitting bcd with broken inflator hose and still help another diver with their buoyancy control and not think anything of it.  Free diving down to 20 feet to retrieve lines is about as exciting and technical as cleaning the heads to the other crew members.  To someone who had once accepted as fact that I would never dive again its a personal “Take that!” to the universe and my physical limitations.

Blue Vision Summit

While enjoying our outdoor coffee break from the stimulating sessions of the IFOMC at the Hotel O’Higgins courtyard in Viña del Mar, Chile I begin chatting with another young woman who seemed to be pretty interested in talking to a “real live observer.”  I tell her about this thing I might end up doing in DC in a few weeks IF I have time, and IF my travel plans work out.  “I work for Oceana.  I live in DC.  I volunteered at that event you are talking about two years ago.  Absolutely do it!  And you must stay on my couch.”  I liked this girl immediately and replied, “Okay!”  And that was that.

I sent in my application to volunteer at the Blue Vision Summit but wasn’t sure at the time if I would go- having sadly failed at rounding up any other northeast fisheries observers or NMFS employees to volunteer with me.  Now that I had a new friend (who I met in South America, of all places) and a place to stay there was no excuse.  I bought my plane tickets to fly to DC for the week of the Summit and planned to take Amanda up on her couch offer.

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