How a Kayak Can Get You a Long Way, Even in the Desert

"Everywhere we go, we see evidence of three things," says Jon Bowermaster, who has paddled the world: climate change, overfishing, plastic pollution. (By Fiona Stewart)
Sunday, February 10, 2008

Six continents down -- plus Oceania -- and one to go. That was the final count for Jon Bowermaster, the 53-year-old visionary behind Ocean Eight, a series of expeditions in which Bowermaster kayaked the world's oceans, paddling along the coastlines of every continent.

The New York adventure writer started in 1999, in the Aleutian Islands. Since then, he and his crew of photographers, filmmakers, scientists and navigators have explored Vietnam; the Tuamotu Atolls in French Polynesia; the high plains of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina; Gabon in West Africa; Croatia's Dalmatian Coast; and Tasmania. When staff writer Andrea Sachs caught up with him by telephone in early January, he was about 100 miles north of the Antarctic peninsula, on the last leg of his nine-year endeavor.

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Q. Where in the world are you?

A. I'm on a sailing ship and we are passing beautiful snow-covered Livingston Island [in the Shetland Islands]. There are big, fabulous icebergs floating around. We haven't quite hit the continent, but we are definitely in Antarctica.

What was the inspiration behind the project?

We did the first trip with sea kayaks in 1999 to the Aleutian Islands. At the time, I had this idea that maybe we should just continue and each year go to a different continent with the sea kayaks and look at a different coastline to see how the seas are doing and how the lives of the people who depend on them are. So each year since 1999 we have done a different trip on a different continent. This trip to Antarctica is the conclusion.

Can you describe some of the journeys?

We went to Vietnam, which was quite a hassle working with the government because they had never hosted a kayaking expedition like this before. They insisted on sending a monitor 24 hours a day. The monitor hated the water; I'm not sure he could swim. And he loved Elvis Presley; he loved karaoke. His favorite song was "Love Me Tender." But he became part of the adventure.

In Gabon, we circumnavigated the first big national park on the west coast of Africa and couldn't carry much food. We kayaked alongside elephants, hippopotamuses, crocodiles and big water buffaloes. In South America, we went to the driest place on Earth. We took the kayaks to mountain lakes to talk about how even the highest places on Earth continue to change.

Why did you decide to travel by sea kayak?

They are kind of floating ambassadors, and they allow us to reach places we couldn't otherwise.

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