Photo Journal: Whalebone and Old Stones at Jougla Point, Antarctica

At first glance, Jougla Point is low rocky peninsula indented with small coves on the southern edge of the natural harbour at Port Lockroy, on the edge of Weinke Island. A colony of gentoo penguins occupy the peninsula during the breeding season, sharing space with blue-eyed shags and their prehistoric looking offspring, and on the ridge behind, rising steeply to the blue ice of Harbour Glacier, nest Antarctic skuas and kelp gulls.

The buildings on Goudier Island, including historic Base A and the accommodation hut used by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust staff during the summer season.
Jabet Peak and the Harbour Glacier viewed from Jougla Point.

Most visitors spend some time at Jougla Point in conjunction with their visit to Goudier Island, site of historic Base A, the first permanent British base on the Antarctic Peninsula, and home to the world-famous Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy. And just like it’s near neighbour, a visit to Jougla Point reveals an insight into the history of human activity in Antarctica, though a glimpse of a darker, more industrial past.

The rocky ridge of Jougla Point, with the tips of Mount Luigi and the Seven Sisters range peeping over the rise.
Moulting penguins and fledging chicks milling around in the remains of several broken barrels.

As the tourist season progresses, snowmelt reveals a jumbled collection of weathered old whale bones among the granite stones. Rusted chains and shackles that once moored a large ship. A vast skeleton, a composite mainly constructed from the bones of fin whales is laid out in a cove. Further from the water’s edge, the rocks are covered with the scattered staves of old wooden barrels, and crumbling concrete footings show where buildings once stood.

Fragments of brashy ice washed up in a cove on Jougla Point.
A moulting penguin stands guard over the composite skeleton of a fin whale. During the moult penguins lose their waterproofing and remain ashore until their new feathers grow through.

The Antarctic Whaling Industry

From the early 1900s, the majority of ships operating in Antarctic waters were part of the whaling fleet, or scientific survey vessels associated with the industry. Most had sailed from western Norway and eastern Scotland, signing crews from Dundee, Bergen, Leith, Sandefjord,  Tórshavn, Larvik, and Lerwick.

The jumbled collection of bones at the top of the cove, just a fraction of the numbers that were processed in the natural harbour by floating factory vessel moored in the bay.

The unknown qualities of Antarctica and the notoriously challenging conditions of the Southern Ocean were considered worth exploring, as traditional whaling grounds in the northern hemisphere had been exhausted. Bases were established on South Georgia and in the Falkland Islands to take advantage of the untapped resources of the South, though the human costs were high.

Guides on some of the first tourist vessels in the area created the skeleton from bones left on the shore as a tangible artifact of the impact of the whaling industry to show to visitors.

Floating factory ships soon ousted the need to transport whales to shore for processing, working alongside a small fleet of fast, agile whale catcher boats, which would chase down whales and harpoon them for factory ships to collect. The harpoons were explosive, lodging in the whale’s body before detonating a few seconds later, guaranteeing a kill.

The whalers charted large sections of the Antarctic Peninsula and the coast of Queen Maud Land (Dronning Maud Land), making their contribution to the knowledge of the continent, and often provided a safety net for expedition vessels on voyages of exploration early in the Heroic Age of Antarctica. But the intensity of their activity left an indelible impact on the ecosystem they exploited.

Giant vertebra arranged to show the sheer size of the whales once out of the water.

The Antarctic summer of 1930-31 was unprecedented, with the greatest number of whaling vessels operating in the Southern Ocean concurrently; 232 whale catcher ships taking their catches to 32 pelagic factory ships, nine floating factories moored in harbours like Port Lockroy, and six shore-based whaling stations. These were serviced by a fleet of supply ships, regularly bringing in food and fuel for the crews, and taking away processed whale oil for the global market.

In that season alone, records show that 29,410 blue whales were killed in the Antarctic, setting an all-time record for the exploitation of the species. Just over 30 years later, in the 1964-65 season, only 20 blue whales were killed, all that the hunters had observed.

Textures of old weathered bone.

The End of the Whaling Industry in Antarctica

More than 1.5 million whales were slaughtered in Antarctic waters before the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling was enforced in 1986.

The skull and long jawbones of a rorqual whale.

By this time the industry was already in terminal decline, the result of over-exploitation of the whale stocks and increased regulation by the IWC reducing profitability. Companies faced the paradox that further hunting at existing levels would hasten the end of their industry, but there was no reward for showing restraint, and many of the key players diverted their interests into shipping freight or pelagic fishing.

The end of the whaling industry did not come from a position of nature conservation or animal welfare, but rather the loss of economic profitability from the sector.

The Return of the Whales

The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was established in 1994. Covering an area of 50 million km2, including waters below latitude 60° South governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, it protects waters that provide summer feeding for an estimated 85% of all the world’s whales. The aim of the sanctuary is to enable the recovery of whale populations, not just in terms of absolute numbers, but also in the balance of sexes, age structures, and genetic diversity.

Yacht Ocean Tramp moored off Goudier Island, and offered the opportunity for UKAHT staff to take a trip across to Jougla Point after their visit to Port Lockroy.

In early 2020, the British Antarctic Survey reported on the results of several years of expedition studies in the waters around South Georgia, suggesting that the long, slow road to recovery was now starting to show results. The observers recorded 55 different blue whales over 36 sightings in 2020, up from just one confirmed sighting in 2018.

Ocean Tramp sails from Ushuaia in Argentina and Stanley in the Falkland Islands to explore the Antarctic Peninsula.

Visitors to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands can contribute photographs and details of any whale sightings they have on their voyage to the citizen science project Happy Whale and help be part of the efforts to monitor the return of the whales to Antarctic waters.

Slate-grey water hiding sleek leopard seasl, and silvery granite archipelagos under leaden skies in Port Lockroy.
Have you visited Port Lockroy and Jougla Point?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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Armchair Travel: 10 Films about the Ocean

I’ve compiled a selection of inspiring ocean-themed films, including Hollywood blockbusters, all-time classic films, and inspiring documentaries. 

This edition of Armchair Travel is returning to the seas for a selection of my favourite films with an oceanic flavour.  Many of these films are documentaries or dramas based on true events, though there are a few tales of thrilling adventure and suspense. 

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18 interesting facts about the Arctic

A selection of facts about the Arctic you’ll find rather interesting.

While researching ahead of my time in Antarctica, I was continually side-tracked by snippets of information relating to the Arctic, and articles making comparisons between the two polar regions of our globe.  Stories from the rich history of the people who make the region their home, and the explorers seeking new discoveries about the region; the unique ecosystems and wildlife; fascinating geographical phenomena and the spectacular natural beauty of a landscape carved from rock and ice, dark and light.

I’ve long been fascinated by the polar regions, and have travelled widely in the European Arctic.  I accidentally booked a bargain ski break to Finnish Lapland at the end of the polar night*; road-tripped from Tromsø to Kautokeino, Kirkenes, and Nordkapp in the never-setting sun; and sailed southwards from the Norwegian Arctic (ending up in the Algarve), crossing the circle on the way down.  I’ve explored the north coast of Iceland, and the southern tip of Greenland, though whether those constitute the actual Arctic depends on the definition you prefer (see below).

*where I taught myself to ski Nordic-style and discovered the magic of saunas and salmiakki. 

In the process, I’ve uncovered several interesting facts on which to hang my own experience and understanding, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

Continue reading “18 interesting facts about the Arctic”

15 interesting facts about Antarctica

A series of interesting facts about Antarctica that I uncovered during my research.

Earth’s southernmost continent held us in its thrall long before it was first sighted in January 1820, still just a blank space on the map.  The limitless solitude and silence, the vastness of scale, occupying mythical space in our imagination.  Even now, with the possibility to visit the continent as a tourist, we are drawn by the idea of blankness, the purity of a landscape without the cultural associations of our own, where we can make our own connections and add new pins to the map.

I’ve done a large amount of research recently to familiarise myself with Antarctica: the short human history and tales of exploration; ecosystems and wildlife; the rock and the ice; the striking natural beauty of the continent.  In the process, I’ve uncovered more than a few interesting facts on which to hang my own understanding and experience, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the Ocean

I’ve put together a selection of my favourite books with an ocean theme, including nature writing, biography, and childhood favourites. 

I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent almost all of the spring and summer of 2019 working as a deckhand and wildlife guide on board Irene of Bridgewater, a traditional gaff ketch with over a hundred years of history, exploring the stunning coastline and islands around the British and Irish Isles, with occasional trips to the other side of the channel too.

I know I’ve already presented you with a selection of sailing adventures in this Armchair Travel series, but I just can’t stay out of the ocean.  So here are some of the books that have excited and inspired me about the sea.

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Simple ways to reduce plastic use as you travel

Plastic. It seems that’s all we’re talking about right now, thanks to eye-opening documentaries like A Plastic Ocean and Blue Planet II. Specifically plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Single-use plastics. Things that become waste products within minutes, sometimes even seconds after we lay our hands on them.

Plastic isn’t inherently bad. It’s cheap, lightweight, hygienic, versatile, and virtually indestructible. But as a society we’ve become overly dependent on it, manufacturing more than 300 million tonnes a year, and generating far more waste than the planet can handle. Not enough is recycled, landfill is filling up, and invariably some plastic waste ends up in rivers and seas. And it’s virtually indestructible.

We have become addicted to plastic.  We have transformed the nature of the ocean.  Without the ocean, life on Earth could not exist – including us.

Dr. Sylvia Earle

According to recent research, there is now no corner of the earth which is completely free from plastic contamination, from the polar seas to the deep ocean. And the problem is multi-stranded: large, free-floating items pose a risk of entanglement or choking; medium to small items are ingested, filling stomachs without providing nutrition; and tiny fragments of degraded plastic floating in surface water accumulate toxins, poisoning through the food chain. Marine ecosystems face catastrophic damage.

Whilst various governments, NGOs and businesses have recognised the scale of the problem and made commitments to future change, how long til the effects percolate down into our everyday life? I think it falls to us to take our own steps, and force change from bottom up.

Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity – and indeed all life on Earth – now depends on us.

Sir David Attenborough

There are several ways we can reduce our reliance on plastics, especially single-use items, take responsibility for what we consume, and use plastics only when there’s no better alternative. And the good news is that many of these measures are simple and can be incorporated into our everyday lives, at home and on the road.

These are just a few of the tips I’ve picked up from my work in conservation and on my travels, and some of the bits and pieces I’ve invested in to help make it easier to avoid unnecessary single-use plastics. I hope it gives a few practical and affordable solutions you can use on your travels, and at home too.

Carry Canvas Bags

The nations of the UK, along with many other countries in Europe, introduced small levy charges on single-use plastic carrier bags as a prompt to encourage people to think about their reliance on them. A success, the amount of bags distributed has been cut by up to 90% in some countries, and the proportion of plastic waste made up from bags found in marine surveys has dropped significantly.

Other countries, particularly across Africa and South Asia, have gone further and outlawed the use of plastic bags completely. I always have a canvas bag or two in my handbag or daypack while I’m on the move, and I store others in my car and office desk drawer so I always have one handy for shopping. You can pick up canvas bags almost everywhere, and sometimes promotional bags are available for free.

Bring your own bottle

I always carry a refillable water bottle with me, a habit from many years of working outdoors and in remote areas. Using a refillable bottle also has the added benefit of saving you money in the long term. Bottled water is an unnecessary expense in most locations, and more and more places are now providing water fountains or free refills to help tackle plastic use. Just be sure to empty your bottle before going through airport security.

Just say no to straws, spoons, and stirrers

Until recently most of us rarely gave straws a second thought. Then we all saw that footage of the turtle, and realised these small, single-use items sum-up our throw-away relationship with plastic. Cheap and convenient, but rarely essential, most of us can easily do without them.

However straws help some drink independently, make it easy for small children to avoid spills, and make cocktails feel, well, fancy. So if you can’t do without, pick up a pack of paper straws instead, or invest in a reusable bamboo or metal alternative (which usually come with their own cleaning kit), and channel that old fella drinking maté you saw in Buenos Aires.

Take a reusable cup to the coffee shop

Takeaway drink cups are usually lined with polyethylene to stop leaks, and in the UK alone more than 7 million of these “disposable” cups are given out every day. This adds up to an astonishing 2.5 billion a year, and due to the mixed materials in their composition only around 1% are ever recycled. The remainder will end up as litter or in landfill.

Many cafés and coffeehouses, both chains and independent stores, offer a discount for customers bringing their own cups. I keep my reusable cup, by ecoffee, in my car for an occasional takeaway drink, others are available including collapsible cups to pack for travelling.

Find My Plastic Reduction Packing List Here

I’ve gathered together a few things I’d recommend for a plastic reduction packing list; click on the link to find out more or buy the items.

Change your Coffee Culture

Takeaway coffee is not that common in many countries. In the Scandinavian countries, the world’s largest coffee consumers, most people will sit down in a café, with or without friends, and savour their brew in a glass or ceramic cup. Even Italians stop for espresso in a dainty demitasse at the bar rather than grab something to go.

So next time you fancy a coffee, think about taking the time to sit in and savour your drink. It’s one of the nicest and most affordable experiences when you travel, and cuts the need for single-use drinks cups at the source whether you’re home or away.

Take your own eating tools

A spork is a simple, small thing that you can stick in a daypack or handbag to cut out the need for single-use plastic cutlery with your takeaway lunch, street food snack, or budget hotel breakfast. It’s an essential for hiking and camping trips too.

If I’m travelling anywhere for more than a few days, I might also stick a lunchbox, a clip-top tupperware tub, into my bags. It lets me prepare my own lunches, and save leftovers, and cuts down on the amount of waste I create from buying pre-packaged salads, sandwiches, and pasta. To minimise the space it takes up in my bag, I stuff my toiletries inside, reducing the likelihood of liquids leaking into my clothes too.

In winter, I have a food flask I use to take hot meals or soup with me while I’m off exploring the outdoors.

I realise there’s likely to be times where I don’t always follow my own advice, but I hope that I’ve made you question your reliance on plastics, and given you some suggestions that can be easily incorporated into your routine. They’re just small steps, but if more of us make them, and keep raising awareness of the issue, we become part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem.

How do you cut out single-use plastics on your travels? Share your tips in the comments below.
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