Enter to win a signed paperback copy of MY LAST CONTINENT on Goodreads! The giveaway is open until October 2. 2017.
Enter to win a signed paperback copy of MY LAST CONTINENT on Goodreads! The giveaway is open until October 2. 2017.
It’s frustrating to go to an fundraiser for an animal rescue and find animals on the menu. Many organizations that believe in saving cats and dogs unfortunately do not believe in sparing cows, pigs, or chickens. Slowly, education and progress is happening — Animal Place‘s Food for Thought program offers wonderful tools to help organizations see that all animals matter — yet many organizations still resist.
Likewise, very few environmental organizations make the connection between animal agriculture (which is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined) and the environment — and yet this is a vital connection to make, especially during a time when our government is rolling back environmental protections. We as citizens and consumers can do so much good simply by making wiser choices — not only in how we get to work but what we put on our plates. Consider these statistics, from the Cowspiracy website (Cowspiracy is a must-see film about the connections between environmental degradation and animal agriculture):
There is good news, however: Increasing numbers of animal rescues see the myriad benefits of protecting all animals, and some environmental organizations do realize that saving the planet means being plant-based. I reached out to many of them to learn how they came to this realization and how they deal with those who challenge them … and most of all, to thank them.
All rescue and environmental organizations need to consider their food policies in order to truly do their best for animals and the planet. Oceanic Preservation Society executive director Louis Psihoyos puts it well: “You have to walk the walk in the environmental movement. I don’t believe in gray areas in this issue…People are starting to understand that the best way to make changes for the environment is to change what’s on your plate.” And GREY2K USA president Christine A. Dorchak says, “Helping dogs while hurting cows, pigs, or chickens just doesn’t make sense.”
I spoke with Barbara Troyer of Food for Thought, as well as the executive directors of Alley Cat Allies, Animals Asia, the Beagle Freedom Project, Foster Parrots, Grey2K, Oceanic Preservation Society, St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, Sanctuary One, and the Washington Federation of Animal Care and Control Agencies. I ended up so inspired by their passion for and dedication to the animals, the environment, and to making the world a better place. You can learn more about all these wonderful organizations in these two articles in Barefoot Vegan Magazine and in VegNews.
The International Association of Antarctic Tour operators (IAATO) has released its data for the last Antarctic travel season, and the numbers are what most expected — which is still to say they are quite staggering, when you think about the sheer number of visitors to this fragile and isolated place.
The total number of visitors reached 44,367 in 2016-2017, an increase of 15% over the previous season, and IAATO’s estimate for next season, 2017-2018, increases by another 5% to 46,385. If Antarctica sees this number next season, it will pass the largest number of visitors the continent has ever seen (which was 46,265, reported by IAATO in 2007-2008).
A few other tidbits: Americans still represent the largest number of Antarctic tourists, with the Chinese in second place. Australian, German, and British travelers represent the third, fourth, and fifth highest numbers, respectively.
The good news is that 98% of travelers take ships from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, and the majority of these vessels carry fewer than 500 passengers. As many familiar with the Antarctic know — including readers of My Last Continent! — it’s the gigantic ships carrying thousands of passengers that are most at risk in the Southern Ocean. Fortunately, as IAATO reports, this type of “cruise-only” tourism (i.e., larger vessels with more than 500 passengers who do not go ashore), declined by 8%.
IAATO is a force for good in Antarctica, and I’m so glad the organization not only tracks such numbers but that it works so hard to keep tourism safe and sustainable, even as the desire to see Antarctica keeps growing. As Bob Simpson, Chair of IAATO’s Executive Committee, says, “Visiting Antarctica is a great privilege for anyone. Our goal is to provide our guests with a safe, enriching experience while leaving no discernible evidence of our visit.” This will be ever more important in the years to come.
Happy World Penguin Day!
One thing I’m celebrating today is having met my seventh species of penguin: the little penguin. Ever since meeting four species of penguins in Antarctica, I’ve become a little obsessed: Next I went to Argentina to volunteer with the University of Washington’s Penguin Sentinels, counting the Magellanic penguins of Punto Tombo. On more recent visit to the Galápagos Islands, I was able to see the elusive and endangered Galápagos penguin. And last year, one of the best things about visiting Australia as part of the My Last Continent tour was meeting my seventh species.
The little penguin is also called the “fairy penguin” in Australia, and in New Zealand it’s known as the “blue penguin” or “white-flippered penguin.”
All names fit this little bird, as it is no more than a foot tall, and its feathers are a lovely bluish-gray and white. These penguins appear in several places in Australia, one of them being Manly, where you can see signs like this on the sidewalks, alongside indicators for bikes and pedestrians:
The little penguins forage at sea all day and come ashore when darkness falls. One of the best places to see them is the (terribly touristy) Penguin Parade on Phillip Island, which is a two-hour journey from Melbourne and completely worth it, especially if you can ignore the other tourists (some of whom are respectful, far too many of whom are noisy, take photos (which aren’t allowed), and otherwise flaunt the rules of the park and disturb the birds).
Once it gets dark, no photos or videos are allowed, but on a daylight walk we glimpsed this little penguin, near the natural and man-made burrows created to provide nesting opportunities for them.
Years ago, the little penguins’ numbers here on Phillip Island decreased dramatically when a bridge was built and humans began inhabiting and vacationing on the island, bringing foxes, dogs, and other predators, including traffic; even now, many penguins are run over by cars. Foxes have now been eliminated, and while the birds’ numbers are still down in Australia, we can hope the conservation efforts pay off. One effort is the building of nests for them; below, you can just barely see a little penguin inside one of these man-made burrows.
The little penguins are adorable to watch. After the sun sets, they come in from the water in “rafts” — groups from five to ten penguins to dozens — because there is safety in numbers, and they shake off the water and waddle up the sand to the scrubby brush where they have their nests. Perhaps because they’re so small, they always look as though they’re walking in a huge hurry, as if being chased; it’s particularly cute to watch, as they’ll often take a tumble or bump into one another in their rush. Fortunately, being so small, they don’t have far to fall. If you focus your eyes on the burrows, you’ll see dirt and sand flying out as the penguins dig out their nests.
Sometimes the penguins will stop or turn back to pick up pebbles and seashells for their nests. (If you do visit Phillip Island, sit tight and wait until the crowds disperse and until the rangers tell you at least three times that it’s time to go. This is when it gets quiet and peaceful, and you can hear nothing but the sounds of the penguins scuttling to their nests and calling to their mates. The rangers will, eventually, escort you off the premises; they turn off the lights at the same time every day to give the penguins consistency and peace. Even as you leave, you’ll be able to hear the birds’ “ecstatic cries” from the darkness as they reunite with their mates.) The next day around dawn, they will head out to sea again, then return home for the same nightly ritual.
Another place to see the little penguins is much closer to Melbourne is the breakwater at St. Kilda, where the penguins come to shore every night after sunset. Guides are there to enforce similar rules (no photography, no approaching the penguins), and it’s about a half-hour away from downtown Melbourne by bus or light rail.
To celebrate World Penguin Day, here are a few links where you can learn more and support conservation efforts for penguins around the world:
Wishing you a very happy World Penguin Day!
In My Last Continent, when the fictional tourist ship Cormorant arrives at Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island in Antarctica, Deb observes …
…a shantytown of enormous oil containers and abandoned buildings—relics of the Antarctic whaling industry—so old and suffused with rust that they blend into the lava-blackened cliffs behind them. This reminder of whaling’s gruesome past makes me shudder: the whalers removing the blubber on the ships, then bringing the remainder of the bodies to shore, where they’d boil them down to get every last bit of oil. And the whaling industry isn’t even history—though the International Whaling Commission banned whaling in 1986, the Japanese have continued hunting in the Southern Ocean, killing minke and fin and even endangered sei whales under the guise of “research,” even though they haven’t published a paper in years and continue to sell the whale meat commercially.
It’s true that whaling has been banned by the International Whaling Commission since 1986 — and it’s also true that Japan is still killing whales in Antarctica. That’s because there is indeed an exception for “research” — but the slaughter of hundreds of whales a year by Japanese whalers can hardly be considered research.
In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s whaling program did not meet the research qualifications, and Japan was ordered to stop whaling. But this only lasted one year — and, as this NPR story reports, Japan just returned from its 2016-2017 season with more than three hundred whales, all needlessly slaughtered.
It’s not enough that the whales are vital to the ecosystem in the Southern Ocean and should not be taken at all — but the methods are barbaric. Whaling vessels go after the calves, because they know the mothers (the real target) will not leave their babies. A member of Sea Shepherd Australia describes the way the whales are killed: They are “hit with an explosive harpoon that goes straight into their body; hooks come out, and shrapnel is sent through their body; it’s a terrible, bloody death… these whales can take up to 30 or 40 minutes to die.”
As Humane Society International Executive Vice President Kitty Block tells NPR, “It is an obscene cruelty in the name of science that must end.”
Visit the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to learn more about how this organization helps protect the oceans, especially from those who violate international law.
I was delighted to discover this project from the British Antarctic Survey.
Data as Art shows sea ice, krill (seen below), the ozone hole, and other scientific data as works of art.
In keeping with the British Antarctic Survey‘s mission to “engage a wide range of people in science through a variety of methods,” these works of art — which use real Antarctic data sets that explain important scientific research — are wonderful to look at. Even more important are the stories they tell about this continent and how important it is to fight climate change and increase conservation.
Last weekend, the least-populated region of this planet held a women’s march. For the penguins, this was the most important march of all.
The women’s marches taking place around the world last Saturday eclipsed the presidential inauguration in numbers and passion. The most far-reaching protest took place in Antarctica—and while this shipboard protest boasted only 30 marchers, it was one of the biggest in that this number represents the highest percentage of the continent’s population.
There should be so surprise that the protests extended this far south. As I write this, the President of the United States has been in office for only a week, having already removed any mention of the environment from the White House website and having signed orders to move forward with the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. He not only does not believe in climate change, he has picked Scott Pruitt—who likewise doesn’t embrace the unequivocal science behind the reality of climate change but also has a longstanding reputation against regulating pollution—to head the Environmental Protection Agency (which, by the way, he has sued no fewer than 14 times). And meanwhile, for weeks the world has been watching (or should be) as the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica threatens to break off into the Southern Ocean, which in the short term will change the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula—and in the long term will leave the Antarctic glaciers vulnerable to flowing into the ocean, potentially raising sea levels by several feet. (And this is only the new administration’s environmental offenses…when it comes to human rights, it gets even worse.)
Environmentally, Antarctica is becoming one of the most important regions in the world. And this is why scientists and travelers held “Penguins for Peace” signs in Antarctica last week.
The number Adelie penguins on the Antarctic peninsula have already decreased by 70 to 90 percent. Climate change, pollution, and the fishing industry are all factors, and unless each of these is controlled, the penguins will not survive. The new administration is poised to ensure that these birds become extinct.
What can we do for the environment? Keep protesting. Write our representatives. Donate to causes that are on the ground working to protect the environment and its creatures (such as Sea Shepherd Conservation Society). And don’t forget that we can each can make a difference for the environment (check out Cowspiracy for the very best individuals can help). And, of course get ready to get out the vote next time around—2018 is right around the corner (and can’t come soon enough).
I was saddened to read that “the father of Pinyin” died this weekend in Beijing (though he did live to be 111 years old). While until now I never knew very much about the man himself — who daringly criticized the Chinese government, wrote dozens of books, and was exiled during the Cultural Revolution — I was very familiar with (and grateful for) Pinyin when I began learning Chinese.
Pinyin, a romanized version of the Chinese language — which allows non-native speakers a much, much easier way to learn the language — was adopted by China in 1958, replacing the former Wade-Giles system. (Wade-Giles had been conceived by two British diplomats, and its pronunciation guide was very different and far less accurate — for example, the Wade-Giles word for Beijing is the far-less-accurate Peking.) And, as Zhou’s New York Times obituary notes:
Since then, Pinyin (the name can be translated as “spelled sounds”) has vastly increased literacy throughout the country; eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese; afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille; and, in a development Mr. Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese on computer keyboards and cellphones.
I began to learn Chinese in the early 1990s, before moving to Asia to teach English as a second language. I began in the States with an introductory university class in which we were required to memorize characters, which was insanely difficult. In addition to that, our Chinese teacher was Taiwanese, which meant he used traditional characters as opposed to simplified characters (adopted in mainland China to increase literacy). Here is the word for beautiful in simplified Chinese:
And here is the same word in traditional Chinese:
Notice how many more strokes are required in the traditional version. Also note: There is no way for a native English speaker to tell, just by looking at either character, how to pronounce the word. This is where Pinyin comes in. If it weren’t for Pinyin — that is, if I’d had to go by Wade-Giles’ pronunciations — no one I spoke with in Taipei would’ve been able to understand a word of what I said (and it was hard enough as it was; Mandarin Chinese also has four tones for every character, and getting those wrong is all too easy for a foreigner).
Once in Taiwan, I realized I had to focus on spoken Mandarin rather than the written language — most important to survival was learning how to talk. I did have to learn a great many traditional characters, however — this was necessary for everything from eating (in places with written menus, though I ate mostly from food carts) to banking (all transactions on ATMs were in Chinese characters) to finding my way around the country (all of the road signs and bus signs were also in traditional characters).
The language was so different that I learned to “forget English,” as my Chinese tutor taught me; the only way I could grasp the language was to approach it not by translating things in my head but by thinking in Chinese. And this was fascinating…the Chinese language is beautiful, complex, and vast, and when you start to think in Chinese, it’s easier to learn the language, as each character is built from a combination of ideas. To use a simple example, here is the simplified character for the word America:
And here is the traditional character:
It is pronounced Mĕi guó, which is translated as “beautiful country” — as you can see, the first part of the character (美, mei) is from the character above, for beauty.
When I returned from Asia after two years, I was so used to thinking in another, very different, language that I found it hard to put English sentences together; I often spoke in simple sentences, as if I were translating my thoughts from Chinese back into English. It took a long time to sound like a normal native English speaker again.
I reflect on all this as my first book, Forgetting English, is released in its third edition. The title story, while fictional, has many moments — including the one with my Chinese tutor — inspired by my time in Asia.
It’s been especially enlightening to reflect on the extraordinary life of Zhou Youguang; as you’ll read in his obituary, he was so much more than the father of Pinyin. Sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, he remained an open critic of Chinese communism. His many accomplishments include overseeing the translation of the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese, and he wrote more than 40 books (some of them banned in China), at least 10 of them published after he turned 100 — truly inspiring.
With the Antarctic travel season upon us — the austral summer, from November to February, is the only time the sea ice allows tourist vessel access — the increasing numbers of travelers to this region raise many questions. How many tourists are too many before the region is compromised?
Antarctic tourism began in 1966 with fifty-seven travelers. Now, upwards of 40,000 tourists visit the continent every year. Most tourism is, in fact, concentrated in a two-square-kilometer region on the Antarctic peninsula — which means a lot of feet on the ground for such a fragile environment.
And Antarctic tourism shows no signs of slowing down — quite the opposite, in fact. Beginning in 2018, Argentina will offer commercial flights to Antarctica. And while the U.S. and Australia comprise the majority of Antarctic visitors, Chinese tourists are now visiting Antarctica in large and growing numbers.
Most travelers to Antarctica travel by ship, and thanks to IAATO (the International Association for Antarctica Tour Operators), tourism in Antarctica is well managed — for now. But tour operators are clearly adapting to the demands of travelers and will likely continue to do so. IAATO expects the number of visitors to jump 14 percent this season, with increasing numbers of landings on the islands; last year, cruises that included landings increased by more than 10 percent.
With IAATO being a voluntary membership organization, there is reason for concern — Antarctic tourism needs to be managed well, and already Antarctic treaty members have raised concerns and called for more regulation. Just yesterday, the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division announced that Princess Cruise Lines will plead guilty to deliberately dumping oil-contaminated waste into the ocean and covering it up in incidents dating back to 2005, resulting in seven felony charges and a $40 million penalty, the biggest fine yet in the history of criminal cases involving vessel pollution. While these ships were not in Antarctica, this is alarming given the increase and expansion of ship travel, as Reuters notes: “Cruise ship travel has generated concern among environmental groups and governments over water contamination and waste as the industry adds passengers, routes and larger ships.”
I’m often asked how many times I’ve been to Antarctica (once) and for how long (less than two weeks) and whether I will ever return. Even though it’s my favorite landscape on earth, I’m not sure I belong there, especially having already had the privilege of going once. In her poem “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop asks: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” When it comes to Antarctica, I lean toward yes.
I’m so looking forward to this Saturday’s festivities at the Wordstock festival in Portland.
You can see the incredible lineup of authors and presenters here — and in addition to panels, workshops, and readings, there will be so many fun events, like Friday night’s LitCrawl and pop-up readings at the Portland Art Museum.
I’ll be on the panel The World Changed: Disasters Natural and Man-made, with Sunil Yapa and Alexis Smith, moderated by Zach Dundas, at 10 a.m. at The Old Church, and I can’t wait to chat about these amazing authors about their books.
I’m also looking forward to my pop-up reading at the museum at 12:30…and to catching so many of the other events of the weekend. Check out the full Wordstock schedule here, and I look forward to seeing you there!
Though the book tour began in June, Admiral Byrd and I are still busy with events (and post-event festivities). We had an especially fun book-launch party in Ashland…
…at the lovely Liquid Assets Wine Bar.
Then it was on to Southern California for a few more weeks of events…
..all over San Diego County.
And then, onward to the Bay Area…
…where post-Litquake festivities included mimosas and green tea.
I’m looking forward to a few more events — including a reading at Sunriver Books & Music on October 22, Portland’s Wordstock literary festival, and Friday Words & Wine in Ashland. Click here for details!
As the ice melts in the Arctic, tour companies are taking advantage of the ability to bring tourists to the region like never before. As I noted in this article for The Daily Beast, “despite all our technological advances, a ship is only as safe as her captain—and the capricious nature of ice and polar weather means even an experienced captain isn’t immune from human error.”
And due to these new opportunities, tour companies like the one that owns the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity, are taking advantage. Yet when it comes to polar cruises, bigger is most certainly not better. This article in The Guardian (titled “A new Titanic?”) made the point very clearly: “If something were to go wrong it would be very, very bad.”
And another article, in the Telegraph (titled “The world’s most dangerous cruise?”) reported: “In 2010 it took a Canadian icebreaker 40 hours to evacuate just 120 passengers from the 330ft Clipper Adventurer when it ran aground on an underwater cliff. At times, Serenity will be 1,000 miles and at least 11 hours’ response time from coast guard assistance.”
In other words, this cruise was extremely risky — and while its voyage was successful, the risks will increase if this type of tourism becomes a trend.
In the last 15 years, cruise-ship tourism in Norway has grown from 200,000 to almost 700,000 visitors. Canada’s fleet of passenger vessels was 11 in 2005 and rose to 40 in 2015. Iceland’s foreign tourists have more than tripled since the year 2000, to nearly a million visitors a year—about three times Iceland’s population. And in Antarctica, the number of visitors this season is expected to be upwards of 40,000—more than double what it was in 2004.
Can the planet’s most vulnerable places handle much more tourism?
As the Antarctic tour season begins next month, the concerns are similar to those of cruises in the Arctic; it’s an unpredictable place where there are not enough resources to rescue large numbers of passengers and crew were something to happen. Last year, a small tourist vessel was damaged by ice and, while all on board were safe, the company had to cancel its next voyage. It’s worth noting that this happened in the South Shetland Islands, which is pretty far north on an Antarctic cruise; in other words, ice is unpredictable even farther north and can wreak havoc on ships anytime and anywhere.
While Antarctic travel is considered safe (unlike these new uncharted voyages in the Arctic; as this Guardian article notes, “even before the Crystal Serenity began planning its voyage, the coast guard and local communities were raising concerns that the Arctic was not ready for the sharp rise in traffic through the Bering Strait”), all travelers should carefully vet their tour operators, most of which follow the guidelines of IAATO, and choose a company with vast experience in ice-filled waters. The Southern Ocean is highly unpredictable, and an experienced captain, crew, and staff makes all the difference — not only for the safety of passengers but for wildlife as well.
This New York Times article outlines one of the most interesting aspects of life in Antarctica: It’s a continent owned by no one, which means that there is no rule of law for a land nearly twice the size of Australia.
Everyone working in Antarctica is subject to the rules of their home country, which means that if you work at the U.S. base McMurdo, you’re required to live by the laws of the United States. But what happens when you visit the nearby New Zealand base at Scott Station?
As this article outlines, crime is fairly rare (there’s not much to steal and nowhere to flee), but the isolation and abundance of alcohol can make for criminal activity nonetheless — and this is when things can get complicated. As the article notes:
An unsolved death. Assault with a deadly weapon. Lots of alcohol-fueled misbehavior. It’s quite a rap sheet for a continent where almost nobody lives.
Fortunately, most researchers and staff go to Antarctica in peace. And, once there, that’s most often what they find.
It was such a pleasure to have the privilege of presenting My Last Continent at the Women’s Museum of California as part of its Second Sunday Author Series: Women’s Voices, Women’s Stories program. Although the narrator of My Last Continent is a female penguin researcher, women are relatively new to Antarctica — the first woman to set foot on the continent didn’t do so in 1935.
Still, women are a big part of Antarctic history; they made it possible for the explorers, all men, to be away for years at a time. (Check out the book Polar Wives for a fascinating look at the lives of the women behind the polar explorers.)
It took a long time for women to become part of Antarctic research and exploration in their own right. The first woman to land on Antarctica, mentioned above, was the wife of a whaling captain. The first women to winter on the continent, in 1947, were the wives of expedition members. And even the first woman to work for the U.S. Antarctic Program, during the 1969-70 season, was there with her husband.
Yet by 1974, the U.S. base McMurdo Station welcomed the first female chief scientist, and now one-third of the scientists and support staff at McMurdo are women. We still have a long way to go, but it’s great to see this trend.
And this year has seen an increasing spotlight on women working in Antarctica. And, as part of an initiative to bring women scientists together, a women-only expedition to Antarctica will depart for the continent this December. In addition to science, tourism brings many women scientists, researchers, and naturalists to Antarctica as well.
For some fantastic reading about women in Antarctica, check out the short story “Sur” by Ursula K. LeGuin…one of my favorite short stories ever, and a brilliant glimpse, albeit fictional, into women’s lives in the Antarctic.
I am delighted that My Last Continent has just launched in the United Kingdom, and while it would’ve been fantastic to do an in-person tour of the UK, I loved doing this week-long blog tour, which was the next best thing…and tons of fun.
I got to chat about My Last Continent, Antarctica, penguins, and so much more — and I got some terrific questions and enthusiastic reviews.
A million thanks to all of the fabulous bloggers who made this possible — and check out the tour stops via the links below…
July 21 – Annabel’s House of Books
July 22 – The WormHole
July 23 – Sincerely Book Angels
July 24 – Chick Lit Pad
July 25 – Jaffa Reads Too
July 26 – The Writing Garnet
July 27 – A Day Dreamer’s Thoughts