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The Lonely One

Pete Bethune
Skipper, Ady Gil

"Oh there’s a leopard seal,” yells Laurens excitedly. The crew is all on the roof of Ady Gil as we circle the most amazing iceberg.  Not that I've seen many ice bergs to compare this one with.  But this one sure looks wicked.  We spotted it at about 10 nautical miles, and have been marveling at it ever since.  In fact, for a while it looked like several icebergs, but as we got closer, it turned out to be a single chunk that has eroded into three massive towers, water gradually eating away the base.

Laurens’ seal eyes us up for a minute or so, then goes back to playing on the surface.  We circle the berg several times, coming back each time to the lone seal.  It's not a leopard seal, but what sort of seal we’re not sure.  A big one was about all we conclude in the end.

He seems quite oblivious to his situation.  And in fact many penguins and seals end up perishing in the same way.  They live on an iceberg that drifts north, eventually taking them so far from Antarctica that they can no longer get back. They continue to exist on these bergs, but as the ice melts, so does their existence.  Eventually the berg is all gone and they perish, simply becoming another part of the food chain in this harsh environment.

At the moment though this lonely seal has tons of food.  As do the many other inhabitants of this ecosystem, I suspect.  Hundreds of birds flit across the surface.  One cheekily lands two feet from the Animal Planet cameraman, who is perched on the forward hatch.  He turns his camera around and films his new friend, who seems intent to just cheep at him.  There are few predators for the birds here, and so they can become very tame.  Or unafraid at least.  Eventually the bird bores of the cameraman and flies off to join his friends.

There's suddenly a loud crack, and a massive chunk of ice breaks away from the second tower, crashing into the clear blue water, and sending spray everywhere.  Seconds later and a second chunk breaks away. We sit there marveling at the spectacle, but also all too aware of what we are seeing.  This iceberg has been part of Antarctica for thousands or possibly even millions of years.  And what we are witnessing is the blunt end of climate change. Slight rises in temperature are seeing increasing numbers of these bergs drifting north and melting.

"What do you reckon that is," says Jimmy, pointing at a dark line running through the berg.  In fact the line runs through all three towers, at about 30 degrees.

"It could be from the Aussie bush fires,” says Jason hopefully.

"Nah.  The roaring forties and fluffy fifties would never let the dust down this far bro.  Its gotta be something way bigger."

"Well how about Mount Pinatubo", he suggests.

"Oh come on bro.  Whatever did that; it was thousands of years ago.  And it would have to be massive."

"Mmmmm.  How about the Taupo eruption? Or Krakatoa?"

"Yeah now you’re talking."

We drift past the lone seal one last time.  Nature can be brutal, I think to myself, feeling suddenly quite sorry for the poor seal.



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