April 24, 2014
On the eve of a major global celebration by civil society of World Penguin Day and the start of the 37th annual Antarctic Treaty Commission Meeting, I am reminded of a personal experience from long ago. In January 1989, a colleague and I led a group of Environmental Defense Fund supporters on what was to be an exciting three-week exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as sub-Antarctic islands. The week began uneventfully (other than the challenge of crossing Drake Passage, among the roughest seas in the world).
The first week, while enjoying a beautiful Antarctic summer with temperatures typically over 35 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, we visited rookeries of Magellanic, Gentoo and Adelie penguins, swam in the thin band of acceptable waters by Deception Island (where freezing Antarctic seas met the simmering waters of the post-volcanic island and encountered orcas, leopard seals and sea lions as we steamed to the farthest passable waters of Lemaire Channel.
On January 28, 1989, the calm was broken by the loud, chaotic sounds of a mayday call. The Argentine polar supply ship, the Bahia Paraiso, was sinking after hitting ice pinnacles. This occurred less than a mile away from Torgersen Island, home to approximately 9,000 pairs of Adelie penguins. The disaster occurred after the vessel had brought provisions to Palmer Station, a US research station on Anvers Island near the Antarctic Peninsula.
The pictures below, though blurry, provide a sense of the proximity of Torgersen Island and the clear threat to the Adelie penguins who were in the middle of nesting season, swimming through badly polluted waters to feed their hungry chicks. The other shot provides an unsettling view of the growing oil slick and an abandoned barrel of oil (there were many) freely floating in the Southern Ocean.
The weather was beautiful so there was no risk to human life. However, our hearts were broken as oil spread towards the penguins, a pod of whales swimming nearby unknowingly and many other creatures living in what had been an almost pristine area. As environmentalists, we also understood that this was just the beginning as the Bahia Paraiso continued to sink. The vessel has remained in the Southern Ocean to this day, leaking oil and posing threats still being researched by scientists. My videotape of the events of the day was brought to the world by CNN two weeks later (remember no smart phones or easy satellite uplinks then).
I also have video (that has not been released) includes a the chief scientist at Palmers Station bitterly complaining about the Bahia Paraiso’s crew, their lack of planning and willingness to ignore clear maps marking the seas they entered as dangerous. The photos below, and more strikingly the video I hope to share later this year, shows just how threatened thousands of baby Adelie chicks were and the almost complete lack of preparation on the part of the Bahia Paraiso for an incident that should have been prevented, but also an accident that should have been prepared for by any vessel in the pristine waters of the Southern Ocean.
As the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition works with members across the world to celebrate World Penguin Day, I also hope this will activate readers to sign the AOA petition (accessible through our homepage or at www.antarcticocean.org) and get activated in the coming months as we work to protect penguins and thousands of other Antarctic species through the creation of new marine protected areas (MPAs) in East Antarctica and the Ross Sea, and finalize a Polar Code that should ensure vessels like the Bahia Paraiso are NEVER AGAIN allowed into the Southern Ocean without adequate structures and planning. The importance of penguins and fragility of the pristine wilderness of Antarctic and the Southern Ocean should be taken to heart by all the peoples of the world.
Mark S. Epstein
Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition