A song wasn’t what got me aboard the first airplane, mile zero, the start of a meandering journey to Antarctica, but a different kind of transmission that I ended up hearing from a radio station inside a log cabin surrounded by giant coastal redwood trees. How I came to hear it was not a mystery by any stretch. Tracing back, it made perfect sense. It would have been impossible, though, to predict how I would end up here. My life to this point had been dedicated to preparing for this moment. Only now did I begin to recognize it. And with time to sink in, I would finally understand the magnitude.
It had poured nonstop throughout the night before but began to clear as I left early in the morning from my home in Monterey, California. I usually slept great in the rain but instead had chosen to sacrifice rest for more last-minute preparations. With a little more than thirty hours of travel ahead of me, I had plenty of time on my four crisscrossed flights to play catch-up. Flying to Los Angeles, to Washington, D.C., to Buenos Aires, and then to Ushuaia would sadly be the protracted yet most expedient way for me to reach the Southern Aurora bound for Antarctica, a frozen land changing faster than any other place on Earth. I wanted to see it happening for myself by stepping onto its inhospitable ice. I wanted to write about it.
With my head pressed against the airliner window, my eyes drifted aimlessly as I huffed pained breaths at the countryside below. During the previous flight—a puddle jumper from Monterey—rough turbulence had rattled us most of the way. My lingering nausea finally began to subside. I typically didn’t get airsick. Motion sick in a car as a backseat passenger, sometimes. But seasickness was a near certainty in water with waves not much bigger than ripples. Soon I’d be sailing the roughest water on the planet. What the hell was I thinking?
Somewhere, down there, our jet-speed shadow traced east over land contours as we flew over a high desert speckled with Joshua trees and craggy rock outcrops. At least I’d seen river systems while flying south along the coast from Monterey to Los Angeles. Now water conveyance occurred not between riverbanks but inside concrete aqueducts. Rivers didn’t belong to deserts. I was not sure uncovered aqueducts did either. This was no place for the streams and rivers I’d known back when I was a kid. I wondered if the ones near my old home still flowed or if anything still lived in them. I missed them and the time when my major concerns were finding bait for hooks or tying the right knot on spinners or fish-shaped lures so that they wouldn’t slip off if they got snagged when I dared to cast too close to partially submerged branches and fallen tree trunks. Those were the places fish liked to hide. I never worried about catching them. Always did.
As the coast and Los Angeles disappeared in our contrails, salt flats and dry lakes became sand dunes and solidified lava flows, then mesas and plateaus, then small mountains with alluvial fans that looked like glaciers running down a mountain. Only, alluvial fans were made from sediments of sand and soil, not deposits of ice and snow. As we cut across the top of Arizona and into New Mexico, the scorched, rocky terrain had the color of fire until we reached the nearly impenetrable wall formed by the Rocky Mountains, a more than 3,000-mile-long range that ran deep into Canada to the north and stopped shy of the Mexican border to the south. But even Mount Elbert, the tallest peak of the range at 14,440 feet, could not touch us, cruising up at an altitude of 7 miles, giving us about 4 miles of clearance.
It was not too high to miss seeing the dehydrated rivers like the once-mighty Colorado River that, in 1998, had stopped flowing all the way to the sea. This river had made its way into the Sea of Cortez for 6 million years. Now the siphoned-off Colorado River became a trickle and evaporated into nothingness more than 70 miles from the seashore.
The Rockies formed a continental divide, which our jetliner stepped over like it was a street-side curb. Butted against these mountains stretched the undulating and roaming Great Plains, their tan, dry, and grassy vastness blanketing much of Middle America. This series of geological transitions reminded me of the stages of life. Often they were abrupt and immediate, like the boundaries between the coasts, deserts, mountains, and plains. For my life they certainly were. How easy it was to look out the window of the airplane to see my insides spread out across the terrain below.
I was born in Miami, Florida, but my family moved to Long Island when I was five. Growing up in Long Island was a fantastic experience. The island looked like a fish. At the head were two of the five boroughs of New York City: the top of the mouth was Queens and the bottom was Brooklyn. The north fork of the tail ended at Orient Point, while Montauk Point lay at the end of the south fork. I was from Smithtown, which was about halfway girth- and lengthwise.
Smithtown’s claim to fame was a large bronze statue commemorating the bull that the town founder purportedly rode during a summer solstice in order to claim land from the Native Americans, which was hard for me to wrap my head around on so many levels. The years have given the bull a light bluish-green veneer. But inebriated townsfolk, or sometimes jealous relatives from neighboring towns without bovine monuments, often ritualistically painted the bull’s bullhood in flashy colors.
Even though I was landlocked as a kid, I was never far from water. Our house was surrounded by parks and undeveloped land with water all around. And though my friends and I knew the woods like the backs of our hands, it never stopped us from exploring or fishing or concocting some mission of vital importance that justifiably allowed us to return late for dinner.
My upbringing was camping, sloshing through swamps and bogs and mud, climbing trees, and throwing dirt bombs from mud forts during the summer and snowballs from forts made of snow during the winter. It wasn’t considered growing up in the country. You could consider it growing up in the wild.
But for as much time as I spent in the outdoors, I knew nothing about the environment and did not realize when I first heard the word. The environment was always something that just was. It never had to come in for dinner. Already made of dirt, the environment never had to wash it off from every surface. But more important, the environment always seemed much larger than I was, vastly more formidable, and simply able to fend for itself without care. It never had go to bed early because it didn’t come home in time for dinner or fail to wash up.
What I remembered most from this time was being outdoors and loving it. Back then, I took the fish for granted. I took the frogs for granted. I took all the animals for granted. I really had to stretch my memory to recall my first outreach on behalf of wildlife.
One morning, while in my late teens, I’d woken up early to go fishing with Eddie, one of my younger brothers, at nearby Blydenburgh Park. Just past the skunk cabbage and muck at the swampy eastern edge of Stump Pond, we usually caught largemouth bass and sometimes reeled in bluegills and yellow perch. The pond was at the headwaters of the Nissequogue River, which flowed into Long Island Sound.
As we started casting from shore, we noticed a large American bullfrog sitting right along the edge of the water. I caught all kinds of snakes and turtles and lizards and frogs. Never a bullfrog, though. Usually the much smaller pickerel frogs and Fowler’s toads.
I crept up to give it a try. Somehow I was able to reason that instead of trying to grab where the bullfrog was, I should try to catch where the frog might be—in the air—once it jumped. I was dumbfounded and a hundred times more astounded than that bullfrog when I actually managed to snatch it around its waist mid-jump. I certainly would have garnered the highest admiration of Steinbeck’s Mack and the boys, even after the grand success of their own frog-collecting foray within the pages of Cannery Row.
It didn’t take more than a few microseconds to hatch my plan. My sister, Marie, was a big fan of Kermit the Frog. So, I hightailed it out of the park, leaving my fishing gear with my brother, jumped on my bike, and pedaled like mad with the giant frog in my hand as its long legs dangled in the airstream. I ran into my house and snuck up to my sister’s room.
My good luck held out. Not only was my sister asleep, she faced me and slept near the edge of the bed. I got real close and put the bullfrog a few inches from her nose. I started calling softly, “Marie, Marie, Marie,” until she woke up . . . and screamed.
Knowing a little of my family history explained a lot. I was the oldest brother, and she was the only girl of six. Out of all us, she was the one to become a herpetologist with a side expertise in bats. I liked to think I’d had a helpful influence on her career choice. You never knew what experiences would make lifelong impacts on kids.
At one time or another I had just about every kind of pet there was. Snakes, lizards, salamanders, frogs, toads, fish, hermit crabs, guinea pigs, dogs, ants (yes, an actual ant farm), birds, and so on. I spent hours in an exotic bird store in town and even helped out. When I was too young to work for cash, I worked in a pet shop for store credit. My mother drew the line at a large, hairy, fanged tarantula. She made sure my father drove me back to the pet shop right away to return it.
I still loved animals, but had since become less enthused about animals as pets. I preferred to use my time and energy to help them prosper in the wild because this was where they needed our help the most.
Before becoming a freelance writer, I had worked as a microchip engineer for a company based in Silicon Valley. My master’s degree was in materials science, which was the study of the composition, structure, and properties of stuff. It didn’t go to waste after I switched careers. Exactly the opposite. This background provided me with an uncommon insight into how and why the world functioned as it did. Much of my writing was for educational publishing companies, where I covered the hard sciences, like physics and chemistry. Though, I often softened up with poetry, journalism, and other forms of writing.
As my focus shifted more and more to the environmental and natural sciences, exposure to the heated subject of climate change was inevitable. How could we humans possibly cause changes to the atmosphere and climate on such a global scale?
Looking up, the sky seemed to reach all the way to the stars. This was an illusion. In reality the atmosphere around Earth was more like a single thin layer of plastic wrap that tightly covered a basketball. Hadn’t the air pollution we produced caused holes in the ozone layer high above the surface of Earth? Hadn’t the smoke from burning coal turned water in the clouds into acid that then rained down from the sky very far from the source of the smoke? Once pollution restrictions were put in place, then these problems began to reverse. Even the horrendous, human-caused smog that choked Los Angeles greatly relaxed its death grip on the city after tighter emission standards were adopted. Was climate change that much of a stretch from these problems? I needed to know more.
One did not just simply buy a ticket to Antarctica. No airliners flew there. No hotels existed there. And just plain roughing it was the surest way to freeze to death. So, I kept my eyes and ears open for opportunities while mulling over how to pull off something like this.
Living on the Monterey Peninsula, I was surrounded by the rugged and rocky Pacific Ocean coastline. Like back in the wilds during my youth, only now the animals seemed grown-up in size compared to the neighborhood animals of Smithtown. Sea lions, harbor seals, and sea otters frolicked, brown pelicans flew in breathless formations, forty or more cormorants laced through the sky like a strand of long, black hair, porpoises and dolphins splashed by the shore, and whales spouted as they cruised up and down the coast. At 2,600 miles from where I grew up, I was home again in the outdoors. I no longer had to worry about being late for dinner, just cooking it.
I listened to KZSC all the time, a radio station nestled in a forest of redwoods along the coast and run by college students from the University of California, Santa Cruz. The signal came in strong, since Santa Cruz was on the other side of Monterey Bay. As I edited material about food webs for fourth graders in my home office, which doubled as my kitchen, I heard the most wonderful public service announcement between songs. The DJ announced an expedition to Antarctica that was a fundraiser for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Right away I looked into the company running it and found that Ecological Expeditions, based in Northern California, had a great reputation for its focus on wildlife, the environment, and conservation. It had a staff of world-class guides and experts. One guide had had a nature documentary made about him. Another, a professional wildlife photographer, had shot the cover photo of a penguin on an iceberg for a news magazine’s global warming issue. I learned that people from all over the world had signed aboard. They were serious naturalists, birders, and photographers. Even the head veterinarian of a zoo had joined up. For the people on this expedition, it wasn’t about what the ride was like. The opportunities at the destinations were what mattered.
Nearly the perfect solution, the expedition would do all the hard work for me—the itinerary planning and travel arrangements. All I needed to do was come up with the funding, which I did by working even more like a madman. For the cost of the expedition, I could have bought a snazzy new car. Not that I would have bought one with the money anyway.
My friend Ann helped put it into perspective by saying, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. How many people get the chance to do something like this? Car? Cars are everywhere. Who cares? Later in life when you look back, what are you going to want to remember? The cars you had or this?”
The expedition would begin at the end of the year, wintertime here but summer in the southern hemisphere. I had plenty of time to prepare. I did have one big problem with it, which was that we would first stop off at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. We weren’t going to Antarctica straight away. I had heard about the Falklands years ago in the news because of the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom. But I couldn’t recall hearing about South Georgia, let alone show anyone where it was on a map. I needed education about the environment being most impacted by climate change, and I was about to get it. I just had to suffer through these two detours first.