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

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.

Did you have curious looks or tag-alongs?

The Altiplano is a very high, dry desert, so certainly they'd never seen kayaks. Most of the families we met kept their children far from us, because I think they thought we were extraterrestrials. . . . We swam with dolphins and whales out in the ocean, but we never had anything follow us. We did have a few sharks bump the kayaks in French Polynesia. A little scary, but, of course, there are sharks everywhere.

Though these areas are so different, did you come across any similarities?

The thing that ties all of these places together is that everywhere we go, we see evidence of three things: One is climate change. People say there are more storms and more violent storms, which is largely related to warming seas. We also see overfishing, and lots and lots of plastic pollution.

What is your main goal for the Antarctica portion?

People say, "Why go to Antarctica? There aren't any people living there." But you can't talk about the health of the world and the oceans without talking about Antarctica. As the coastline of the peninsula melts more and more each year, that adds greatly to the volume of water around the world.

Are you right now the opposite of melting?

I hate to tell you, but it's like 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Yeah, it's balmy. To get here, of course, we had to sail across the Drake Passage, which is one of the windiest places on the planet. We've paid our dues.

Any chance anyone from your team of eight will partake in a polar bear swim?

Absolutely, yes.

What about real wildlife sightings?

We saw whales this morning; that was a good start. We stopped on some of the Antarctic islands and had interactions with penguins, because penguins are impossible to avoid in Antarctica. The rules say you have to stay at least 50 feet away from penguins, but they run right up to your feet when they see you, because they are extremely curious. They don't regard humans as predators. Because we walk on two legs like they do, they basically see us as giant penguins.

Can you talk about the tourism boom in Antarctica?

One way of looking at the increase in tourism is that it creates these new ambassadors who go home and talk to their friends about the need to protect and preserve Antarctica. The downside is, as we saw in November [when a cruise ship struck ice], you put more boats out there with inexperienced captains and you end up with bad accidents.

What's the safest way to visit the continent?

Small expedition cruise boats that take 100 passengers or so are fine, because those ships are filled with dedicated naturalists and really experienced crews. And with those ships, you can go ashore in a smart, environmentally savvy way. I think the risk is the big ships, some of whom are blatantly ignoring the voluntary rules of not taking more than 100 [ashore]. Big ships carrying 500 people are landing 100 at a time, but 500 people over a period of a few hours leaves a pretty sizable footprint. Then they have bigger cruise ships that are bringing 2,500 to 3,000 people almost for a Disneyland-like photo shoot. They sail down, take a few pictures of the icebergs, then sail back.

After you wrap this up [on Feb. 1], will you take a vacation?

I'm going to spend a couple weeks in the south of Chile, traveling around and visiting some penguin colonies. It's not work; it's just a holiday.

Any place you wish to see before you die?

I have never been to the Galapagos, so that is a place I should definitely see. Antarctica is the Galapagos of the polar world.

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