Kate Dernocoeur

Kate Dernocoeur

Jul 132018
 

Whales are so mysterious, rising from the deep the way they do. It begins with an impression of presence, then your eyes discern a change in the darkness of the water, then, yes!, there’s something there. Right there! See it? A whale!

For those, like me, who mainly come from earthbound realms, seeing whales could never get old. Sometimes they are so distant that you only see the far-away puff of “blow” as a whale exhales at the surface. Sometimes you get lucky, and they swim past more nearby. Either way, it must be impossible to be a lover of nature, and not love whales.

Humpback blow

Humpbacks rising from the deep!

Here’s some interesting sleep research trivia related to whales. Sleep occurs in phases, include rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM (NREM) sleep. During REM sleep, the tone of voluntary muscles is completely absent, rendering one essentially paralyzed. This bodes poorly for mammals who are swimming! Not wanting to drown, dolphins and whales have evolved the ability (researchers say) to skip REM sleep. However, the restfulness produced by NREM sleep is so essential that marine mammals do something called “split-brain” NREM sleep. “When it is time for sleep, the two sides of the brain can uncouple and operate independently, one side remaining awakes while the other snoozes away,” according to Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep (p.64).

During our time plying the Antarctic waters in January & February, 2018, travelers aboard the National Geographic Explorer saw fin, minke, humpback, and killer whales, and also a couple of the mighty (and mighty rare) blue whales. Even our naturalists were excited to see the blue whales there in the waters south of the South Shetland Islands.

Killer whales surface near the ship!

Our collective excitement stemmed from knowing how, as seal populations faltered in the face of the hunting frenzies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whale hunters swept into the region. They targeted one whale species until it became scarce, then another, and another, until the whalers worked their way through populations of humpback, blue, fin, sei, minke, and sperm whales. Now, most have rebounded some, but they’re far from safe.

An artfully-arranged whale skeleton

The blue whale population is still rebounding from the decimation of their numbers. In all, more than 300,000 blue whales were taken. The world population now estimated at about 2,000 is still just a fraction of the pre-1911 population. To see them at all, even for seasoned veterans, was highly encouraging.

The whale’s blow-hole — up close!

Blue whales aren’t the only ones in trouble, though. The killer whale researchers onboard our ship said that those they studied on this visit seemed thin. Their theory is that as sea ice diminishes (the place is warming faster than anywhere else), there are fewer stores of krill, which are the shrimp-like creatures relied on for nourishment by all the creatures along the food chain there. Of course, this is worrisome. The researchers are dedicated to monitoring the situation. Armchair whale lovers everywhere: support the science being done on behalf of these magnificent creatures, won’t you?

Antarctic Seals

 Generally Write  Comments Off on Antarctic Seals
Jun 112018
 

Being at the tip of Antarctica brought about unusual wildlife viewing opportunities. I’m more accustomed to watching out for land-based critters in my travels. In Antarctica (the only continent without an indigenous human population), evolution still resulted in many “locals,” but they are mostly in the water. Even penguins, who go ashore to hatch and raise their chicks, spend much (maybe most) of their time in the water. Here, a good pair of binoculars and time spent studying the surface of the water and icebergs were necessary for success.


Because it was late February, the critters were “enjoying” the end of summer. Often, ice floes were populated by basking seals, mostly of the Weddell, Antarctic fur, and crab-eater species. We watched a leopard seal “take” a penguin for a meal one day, which was both gory and fascinating. We were also lucky to encounter elephant seals, on our first foray ashore (see the blog “Oh, Those Penguins!” dated Apr 9, 2018).


Here’s some Antarctic history: In the 1700s and 1800s, seal hunting (and then whaling – to come in the next blog) ran unabated in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, until many species were nearly wiped out. According to www.coolantarctica.com, “Captain James Cook visited the island of South Georgia in 1775 and reported that there were a great many seals present. Within 25 years of being discovered, the summer catch had climbed to 112,000 animals. By 1822, the southern fur seal was virtually extinct on South Georgia.” It was a story sadly repeated throughout the region.


It was the search for oil (of the seal and whale variety), however, that also led to exploration of the white continent. The first sighting is credited to Russian Naval Captain Thaddeus Bellingshausen in Jan.1820. The first overwintering experience (unplanned!) was a British crew on the ship “Lord Melville” in 1821 (they were rescued the following summer). Throughout the 1800s, intrepid adventurers peeled back the continent’s mysteries, mapping and exploring it (many seeking commercial feasibilities, although none were really found once the whales and seals were hunted down).


The “Heroic Age” of exploration lasted from 1900 to 1922, placing Robert Scott, Roald Amundsen, and Ernest Shackleton firmly in the history pages (along with many others). A familiar saying credited to Raymond Priestley is: “For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”


The first female to set foot on Antarctica wasn’t until 1935, when Caroline Mikkelsen accompanied her whaling captain husband there. Luckily, people of vision prevailed and treaties to protect this final frontier. In 1958, the International Geophysical Year initiated efforts to keep the place “non-national,” leading to the Antarctic Treaty in 1961. This has led to strict environmental controls over this fragile place (which seem to be heeded, refreshingly), and thank goodness for that.



[Source: https://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/science/threats_sealing_whaling.php, accessed June 6, 2018]

May 042018
 

As mentioned in the previous blog post, ice is the most prominent feature in Antarctica. No surprise, considering that the continent is covered with it. Add to that the ice shelves and sea ice that greatly enlarge its area in winter.

Under the ice are vast mountain ranges and sprawling plains, crushed to elevations measurably depressed by all that massive weight on top.

This was a huge iceberg!

Scientists report that if all the ice in Antarctica melted, it would raise sea levels by about 200 feet. It’s pretty cool to see on this photo from NASA how the continental US would look superimposed on the “white continent.”

Closer up, ice offers an unending array of otherworldly and beautiful vistas. Here are some more images from my January/February 2018 visit to the Antarctic Peninsula.

The suggestion was made after the previous blog post to mention how incredibly hard old glacial ice is. It’s an excellent point. I tried to bite some crystal clear glacial ice in Alaska once and was unable to make a dent. The effort nearly broke my teeth!

Notice the seal tracks!

My reader went on to comment that the density of glacial ice is, “part of the reason the Titanic came away so badly damaged, and why the [National Geographic] Explorer [our ship] pushes relatively blithely through sea ice, but is very, very respectful of even small pieces of glacial ice. Whether the pitcher hits the stone, or the stone hits the pitcher, it is still going to be bad for the pitcher. Ditto ships and glacial ice, I believe.” And he’s right!

Home Away From Home

Apr 092018
 

How can a heart not melt when amongst penguins?

Photo Credit: Alison Taggart Barone

This, my first close encounter, came January 29, 2017 on our voyage’s first foray onto the Antarctic landscape. This chinstrap penguin looking directly into the camera can’t possibly be for real…can it? I know anthropomorpholizing animals is antiquated, but, gosh, it was impossible not to attribute any number of endearing adjectives to these hardy, impressive creatures. Continue reading »

Mar 052018
 

Some of the roughest seas of anywhere in the world belong to Drake Passage, making it one of the most iconic, must-experience journeys for anyone in love with adventure. How did I come to know about Drake Passage? I don’t remember. All I know is it has figured in my imagination seemingly forever.


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Chomolhari: Bhutan’s Goddess Mountain

 Adventure, Generally Write, Travel  Comments Off on Chomolhari: Bhutan’s Goddess Mountain
Jan 312018
 

The Kingdom of Bhutan in the eastern Himalaya is among the world’s few remaining mystical, magical places. Hidden from external influences until just a few years ago, the tiny landlocked nation of mostly Buddhists continues to honor its traditional ways while also trying to enter the mainstream of the 21st century, cell phones, internet, and all.

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Jan 102018
 

It was a nasty crash: five vehicles, one on its roof, another ripped in half. One fatality. My job was traffic control. For three and a half hours, I stood by the orange cones, waving oncoming cars forward to the detour. It was one of the busier intersections in town. Beckon forward, point, beckon forward, point.

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Nov 152017
 

As autumn lingers and winter waits in the wings with its icy breath, I find myself pondering time again. The trees in the hardwood forest outside my office window are still leafy, but they are late-fall dun and backdropped by a slate-grey sky. All too soon, the branches will reach up bare and stark.

Here inside, it’s time at last (after three months of preliminaries) to start over again on my first book, Streetsense: Communication, Safety and Control, initially published in 1985. The digital version has arrived from PennWell (the publisher), research is underway to update the 1996 edition, and my personal life is being reined in to focus on generating the words of a fourth edition.

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