I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The great chinstrap chase

When I left for the Antarctic, my brother, who came here a couple of years ago, told me to expect many wonders, but not to even try to imagine what those wonders would be. He was right, because on the very last day in the Antarctic, our ship was privy to an extraordinary moment that was like National Geographic come to life.

Everyone on board had been thrilled on our last afternoon when we spotted a pod of orcas; we had, unusually, seen very few whales on our trip. Afterwards, most folks had gone down to dinner, but I was sitting up in the bar with two shipboard friends, Eric and Stephanie. Steph was looking out a window and remarked that the orca pod was back. Eric and I went over to have a look.

The orcas were moving in and out of the waves nearby, and we marveled as they swam right up close to the boat. Next thing we knew, a little chinstrap penguin flew out of the water, just ahead of the whales. We looked at one another in amazement as we realized what was happening. A great chase had begun.

We ran outside, not even stopping to put on our parkas, and watched the spectacle unfold. It was the most thrilling event I have ever seen. The pod of whales included two babies, no more than a few months old, and the adults were training them to hunt. Orcas are basically assholes, and will kill for sport as well as food, and they set out to give the poor little chinstrap the fright of a lifetime.

The penguin, meanwhile, had discovered that it could use the hull of the ship for cover, and was desperately weaving in and out of the whales, trying to get behind or beneath the Sea Spirit. The whole pod had risen to the surface for the chase, not ten feet from us as we leaned over the rail, leaping over one another and twisting spectacularly as they pursued the penguin, who was literally flying for its life. Twice it slammed into the ship's hull, and we covered our faces with our hands, sure that it had knocked itself out, expecting every moment to see blood. But that little penguin recovered like lighting. Each time it surfaced again, we cheered.

By then other passengers realized what was happening and all came swarming out from the dining room. Soon everyone was rushing back and forth, calling out, "They've gone forward! Go forward! No wait, they're swimming back. Other side, other side!" The Sea Spirit listed from side to side as everyone ran from port to starboard and back again, the expedition staff were knocking passengers out of the way to take their own photos, and even the captain came down from the bridge and was running back and forth with the rest of us.

It was as thrilling as the Hunger Games, or any lion chasing a zebra on tv. Orcas are skilled hunters, and very deft in the water. Over and over again they lunged at the chinstrap, and the crowd would gasp in horror. But each time the penguin reappeared, flying out of the waves for all it was worth, hurling itself from death's jaws like a champion. The crowd cheered and threw fists in the air, and all around there were cries of¨Go penguin! Go penguin!¨ (From all except the marine biologist, that is, who was rooting for the whales).

Penguin definitely enjoyed home court advantage. On top of its mighty will to live, I think it was spurred on by all our cheering. It never gave up, never wavered, not even when it crashed into the ship. At long last, the orcas turned and swam away. We watched as the chinstrap made great, flying leaps in the other direction, fast as possible. It is surely a much-decorated hero or heroine now in its colony (difficult to tell the gender, really).

It was two days before there was any other conversation topic on the ship. Not a single person was left unmoved, and for me at least, I do not think I shall ever see its equal.

Penguins (of course)

Penguins are the funniest creatures. I have now seen thousands of penguins, and I do not think I could ever tire of watching them. Everything about these birds is silly, until they get in the sea, when they are compact, speedy underwater flyers. But on land, they are comedy.

Four species of penguin live in the Antarctic -- the Gentoo, Adelie, chinstrap, and macaroni -- and I saw all four.

left-->right: chinstrap, Adelie, Gentoo

We were extraordinarily lucky on our voyage and made several landings that are not often possible due to weather conditions, including one at a place called Baily Head, the largest chinstrap penguin colony in the Antarctic. With an estimated sixty thousand breeding pairs, plus many more singletons and juveniles, it is literally a penguin city, with a downtown and suburbs and a port and highways in between.

Penguins make highways everywhere they live, dirty little roads of compact snow streaked with poop, where they walk along alone or in little parades, stepping graciously out of the way of oncoming traffic. The smell is atrocious. Their snow-white bellies are often covered in their own filthy brown crap, their ebony backs streaked with the white stripes of some neighbor's projectile poo. It's actually hard to get a photograph of a nice, clean penguin, unless you catch them right by the sea.

walking through puddles of poop at Baily Head

They are the busiest creatures. Penguins have many tasks to do in the course of their day: waddle or toboggan back and forth from their nest to the sea to hunt for food, build and repair the nest, engage in pre-breeding rituals, mate, sit on eggs, feed the young, and ward off predatory skuas, the large brown birds that enjoy eating penguin eggs and young chicks.

A penguin's most prized resource is the pebble, which the males use to build their nests. Pebbles are pretty much central to the penguin existence, and even their pre-breeding ritual is pebble-based. When a boy and girl penguin like each other, they both reach their necks down to the ground and rise back up again, mimicking the act of picking up a pebble.

Once they mate, the male continues to collect pebbles to fortify the nest, while the female sits on the egg. But the birds build their nests pretty close to each other, so penguin rookeries are one gigantic pebble-stealing fest, with everyone skulking around their neighbor's nest waiting for them to look the other way, or simply grabbing pebbles outright, which results in much squawking and beak-waving.

The funniest part is watching the young mated males bring pebbles back home. These first-time fathers have worked out that pebbles are important, and that they need to continually make home repairs and improvements, but they often don't understand that they have to drop the pebble within the female´s reach as she sits on the nest -- if she gets up and leaves the egg exposed for more than a few moments, it will freeze. I watched one young Gentoo walk all over the beach, finding the best sorts of pebbles, bring them back home, and drop them about a foot away from the female, who would stretch her neck out in vain while the male walked away to find another. The bird did this about twenty times while I watched, and every time some neighbor would just grab the precious pebble away. Poor young fool.

Chicks! Gentoos lay two eggs each breeding season.

The thing that impressed me most about penguins is their industriousness. They are constantly on the move, their feet making a sweet little pitter-patter on the snow. They don't mind about humans at all. I could stand practically amongst them, and they would simply go about their penguin business. A few times, a curious one would walk up and stare at me, but mostly they just got on with their lives. It was a privilege and a treasure to be amongst them, and a natural comedy.

Whales next time, and one more penguin.

No untouched wilderness

This is the first of several blog posts I will write about Antarctica, and certainly the most sobering. Along with many passengers on this ship, I came to Antarctica believing I was visiting a place that had been relatively untouched by humans – the last great wilderness, or something like that. But from the very first landing we made, in the South Shetland Islands just northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula, I learned that this is very much not the case.

The human footprint in this part of the world is large, and marked by an almost inconceivable violence against nature. We have killed nearly every animal that makes this part of the world remarkable, except, perhaps, for the krill. One of our early landings was at a place called Whaler's Cove on Deception Island, where I spent several hours wandering along a beach littered with the remains of what was once a very productive whaling station. A mudslide destroyed or crippled most of the buildings some time ago, but we could easily see the remains of an airplane hanger, living accommodations, and the enormous barrels used to process whale blubber. The beach was littered with whale bones.

The scale of devastation wrought by whaling in the Antarctic is hard to believe, and as a tourist who prizes any sighting of these animals, I still do not understand how any person, much less the thousands who worked in the industry, could be so brutal and careless of their life. The largest mammal on earth, the blue whale was the biggest prize, as it yielded the most blubber. Whalers were not seeking meat, but oil – oil that lit the street lamps of London before electricity, and supplied power for the early Industrial Revolution. Blue whales were hunted nearly to extinction, and a single whaling station could process hundreds of thousands of animals. Today there are fewer than a thousand blue whales left on earth.

After the blues, whalers hunted fins, seis, right whales, and humpbacks, all of them also large, reducing populations of these animals by ninety percent or more. They left only the relatively small minke whale to its natural course. With its competition decimated, the minke has actually flourished in the region, and is one of the most often sighted from the vessels that cruise in these waters.

Though their oil output was meagre, penguins were not spared the slaughter. Penguins have no natural predators on land and are easy to capture and kill. Hunters who could not find a place in the whaling industry caught penguins and threw them live into boiling vats, to sell the scant amounts of fuel they yielded. Seals they clubbed or skinned alive for their pelts, driving these populations to near extinction as they became very rich back in the northern latitudes.

Even the contemporary fishing industry continues to decimate seabirds, as the petrels, shearwaters, and great albatrosses are caught on fishing lines. Without drastic changes to fishing techniques, the only possible outcome for some of these birds is extinction.

I did not expect to learn any of this on a voyage to Antarctica; I thought I was some kind of intrepid explorer, headed to vast tracts of untouched wilderness. But there was evidence of human occupation on nearly every landing we made, from refuge huts to research equipment to old concrete structures whose purpose was no longer clear. In the north, we learn that no nation lays claim to Antarctica, that it is a free continent, populated by a tiny number of benign scientists who want to preserve the place for posterity. But that's not what I saw.

Britain, Chile, Argentina, and Australia all lay claim to different parts of the continent – indeed, Australia claims the whole eastern third. These countries fly their flags wherever they put up a hut or piece of research equipment. Under the treaty that governs Antarctica, other countries – the US, Russia, China – can ignore these claims and put up their own research stations, but the place is far from free of territorial wrangling.

Under the Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, commercial industries are prohibited from mining the continent´s mineral resources, but there are surveyors down here all the same. In fact, the great polar resource reserves are concentrated in the Arctic, which is being much more rapidly laid to waste by industry, but rest assured that if there is something of value that can be mined or extracted from Antarctica, someone will find it, and they are looking even now. The environment is protected, but I do not know how strong that protection will be if someone finds a truly valuable resource deposit.

And then there are the tourists – everyone from people on ships like me, to the climbers who come down here to hike unnamed peaks (and then name them after themselves), or ski or sled to the South Pole. There are people all over this continent, all looking to take a piece of it, literally or metaphorically, for themselves.

Having said all that, a great deal of natural beauty remains, and there is enough animal life to keep tourists happy, at least for now. Global warming is of course affecting this place, and climatological change undoubtedly presents the most significant threat of all to the continent, far beyond what even the whalers accomplished. I now know enough about this place to want to come back, but that will most likely be a few years away, and I dread to see the changes that might take place in even that short amount of time.

So that is a bit of a black introduction to Antarctica. I will write next time of something more cheerful, like penguins.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In the Drake Passage

We are now at latitude 59 degrees south and longitude 62 degrees west, in the middle of the Drake Passage - some of the nastiest waters on earth. A few hours ago, we passed through the Antarctic Convergence, where two oceans meet, and warm(er) waters hit cold, creating conditions for life to flourish beneath the waves. We had birds again! This afternoon I saw many of the iconic ocean birds from this region, including the cape petrels with their lovely speckled black and white wings, the small, fast Antarctic prion, and my favorite - of course - the albatross. We had a few black-browed and brown-headed albatrosses following the boat this afternoon, just after we passed through the convergence, and it was marvelous.

I am very glad to be out at sea. Ushuaia was a pretty cool city for the end of the world, and I had a good, long four-hour trek along the Beagle Channel during my one day there, but I wanted the sea, and now I have about as much of it as anyone could wish for. The Drake has not been so bad, with 6-8 meter waves to start and less now, but most of the boat has been seasick anyway. This morning at the bird lecture, half the audience looked like corpses and there are some people who just walk around with barf bags. I have been completely fine, so one of my favorite activities is sitting around in the lounge or bar watching everyone else stumble around, getting their sea legs.

There is a large party on board from China, and I am rooming with two of the women from their group, including the leader. This has been a wonderful opportunity to begin learning Mandarin. So far I have learned the staples - hello, how are you, thank you, and goodbye, but also some nice context-specific vocabulary, including "penguins" and "many penguins." Tomorrow I will learn iceberg, whale, and albatross. I have not yet asked the word for seasickness.

The one aspect of this trip that I do not yet know how to classify is the eating. After all my first class plane rides and several meals on what is basically a luxury cruise, I feel like a goose being stuffed for foie gras. I sit in confined but humane spaces, and people continually serve me rich meals, and then before I have had a chance to digest, it starts all over again. But my brother told me  that as soon as we arrive in the actual Antarctic, my body will want every calorie it can get, so I guess I should just be glad for the chance to stock up now.

We have made such good time through the Drake, going at or near the boat's maximum speed of 14 knots for most of the journey so far, that the captain is hopeful of reaching the South Shetland Islands tomorrow by lunchtime. It's possible we might be able to make a landing as soon as tomorrow afternoon. It is almost too exciting to even think about, but we could see our first penguins (chinstrap) by tomorrow!

This blog alone has used up 25% of my alloted megabytes for this journey, so I think pictures will have to wait till I am back on land. But I will send wildlife updates as soon as we have some good ones. Till then, zai jian!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Getting to Ushuaia

OK, I am on the edge of delirium for not having slept for two days, but before I head back to the hostel and to bed, I want to explain exactly what it took to get here to Ushuaia, Argentina -- the port of embarkation for Antarctica and almost the farthest point on earth from Seattle.

I left my apartment on Friday morning at 3am, with Shuttle Express to SeaTac. (My friend Shawn Fowler gets a prize for getting up at 3am to send me a bon voyage text!) At 6am, my flight left SeaTac for Dallas.

Because I booked these flights almost a year ago, all the flight times had changed, leaving me with just 40 minutes in Dallas to make my connection to Miami. Which would have been fine, except the pilot missed our approach to the runway, and we had to fly around for a while and get back in line, which meant by the time we actually landed, I had just 20 minutes to get from one end of ginormous Dallas Fort Worth airport to the other. Two other people were also connecting to the Miami flight, and together we sprinted through the airport, arriving as they were just closing the doors, sweating profusely.

Then we sat on the plane for two and a half hours, because first they found blue toilet water leaking from the side of the plane, and then coffee. This was mysterious, so they ended up shutting down the entire water system and importing bottled water and moist towelettes for the comfort of passengers en route. Except there were two different supplies for bottled water and moist towelettes at Dallas Fort Worth airport, so we had to negotiate with both and wait a long time. I seized this opportunity to poke my head into the cockpit and smile at the pilots, who invited me in and offered me a jumpseat. We spent a lovely half hour together, and they showed me all the dials and knobs that they use to fly the plane.

Finally, we took off and flew to Miami, where I boarded a magnificent brand new Boeing 777 for my overnight flight to Buenos Aires. Normally I am an Economy flier just like the rest of the 99%, but this time I had a luxurious Business Class seat. I believe I had more square footage than my last two apartments in Seattle combined, along with a seat that transformed into a bed, a down duvet, personal giant screen television, champagne, gourmet food, and a personal amenity kit that probably cost more than my rent. I watched Cowboys and Aliens from my bed and felt very glad and like I was glimpsing the lifestyle of the 1%.

In Buenos Aires, I deplaned, changed money for whatever it is they use here in Argentina - I am so tired I have not even figured out the word for the currency yet - and took a one hour shuttle ride across Buenos Aires to the domestic airport, Jorge Newbury. I saw as much of Buenos Aires as I could along the way - cattle ranches, high rise apartment buildings, cobblestone streets with Paris-esque balconies, and many plazas with revolutionary statues. The Argentines are also all phenomenally good looking and appear to have unique intellectual pursuits - among many other places of higher education, I saw (if my translations were correct) an Academy for Perfectionism and Experimentation, and an Institute for Courage and Creativity. Interesting place, Buenos Aires. Hopefully I can go back there one day and take a closer look.

Jorge Newbury afforded the most interesting sight of all, as it was right across the street from an ocean promenade. I took a walk along the seafront and marveled at the sight of totally opaque, brown waves in every direction as far as my eye could see. I had never seen such a thing before in my life. It looked exactly like chocolate milk, and I am not even saying that because of my own relationship with chocolate. It did not even smell of the sea. But no one seemed to mind, and early rising Argentines were out running along the promenade and sailing on the disgusting, disturbing brown sea, and even fishing in it, I guess for blocks of mud or chocolate fish.

Then it was a five hour wait for my flight to Ushuaia, and three hours to get here, and here I am, at the end of the world. Tomorrow I trek in the National Park and see the Beagle Channel. Now I go back to the hostel and to bed, because I think I can no longer form words without some sleep. Next post, more coherent!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The seventh continent

All has been quiet on the chocolate front since the Seattle festival, but it is time now to complete another goal: to eat chocolate on all seven continents. I've already got North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Tomorrow begins the quest for Latin America and Antarctica.

At 3am, I start a two-day journey to the bottom of the world: the Antarctic continent. To prepare for this - certainly my longest single journey, and quite possibly my shortest trip abroad ever - I have been reading about Antarctica for the past few weeks. My favorite book so far has been Antarctica: A Guide to the Wildlife. It's a slim guide. The chapter called "Terrestrial Plants and Insects" is just one page long, documenting several lichen and some mites. The next chapter is about a single krill. The first page has a sketch of the krill; the next, a different sketch of the same krill, only cooked.

I'm pretty sure that the krill is about to become the most captivating creature in my world. As the crux of the very short Antarctic food chain - plankton --> krill --> whale - it forms the link between the world's tiniest animal, and its largest mammal. Right now the krill are in season, so the waters are teeming with life.

Mostly, though, I think the main tourist attraction in Antarctica is ice. This isn't ice as we know it, like ice cubes, or iced tea, or even Snowcones. Antarctic ice appears to be a different breed entirely, powerful in a way that we of the temperate latitudes probably will never understand. Here is a short video to illustrate what I cannot adequately capture in words, mainly because I have to leave at 3am for the airport: wondrous Antarctic brinicle.

See what I mean?? Antarctic ice is awesome and terrifying, especially for the poor starfish.

Anyhow, I'm bringing some chocolate with me, so I can eat it in South America and then on the Antarctic continent itself. I have a nice bar packed in my backpack. I will hope that it does not go out of temper on the journey. More to come from the road, assuming I can find some computers along the way.