First published in the Observer, 14th June 2015
Counting Penguins and Commuting to Antarctica: Global warming as seen through the life of a singular man.
I first met Ron Naveen in the dining room of an Antarctic cruise vessel. We were queueing for food, though since we’d reached the half-way point in one of the world’s most bad-tempered stretches of sea, and since the plates of ham and salad kept sloping 20 degrees to the right, the queue wasn’t particularly long. Beside me, a few other passengers lurched uneasily, bracing themselves with one hand and offering their plate with the other. I was staring at a basket of white buns and wondering if food tasted different if you were diagonal when you ate it when the man beside me turned, introduced himself and began talking animatedly about the early life of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Most of the other passengers on the Akademik Ioffe were dressed for the South Pole; two or three base layers, lots of high-quality outerwear. The man talking was wearing a very old pair of jeans, a baseball cap emblazoned with images of hairy penguins, a disintegrating t-shirt and a pair of sandals. I reckoned, with his afterthought hair and his warm eyes, he must be in his mid-seventies. He looked like a bum.
Over the next few days, I watched Harriet and Peter Getzels filming Ron Naveen in penguin colonies throughout the Antarctic peninsula. All the time, he talked to camera about the different breeds and the survival issues they faced. He talked about corners of the Antarctic continent where few people had ever been, the challenges posed by increased tourism and the temperamental life-cycle of the penguins’ main food source, krill. He talked about adelies and gentoos, he talked about chinstraps and emperors. He talked without ever losing enthusiasm or reaching the edge of his knowledge. All the time, he wore those jeans and that baseball cap with the hairy penguins beneath his parka. If the Getzels hadn’t reminded him, he probably would have worn the sandals too.
Ron Naveen counts penguins for a living. He and his colleagues spend a significant chunk of each year reaching difficult bits of the Antarctic and walking round with manual clickers, ticking off nests, one by one. He’s spent the last 30 years compiling a definitive record of the geological, botanical, and oceanographic features on 40 islands surrounding the Peninsula, and without him, this place would most probably have remained as scientific terra incognita.
…to have this little animal come running up and wanting to bite chunks out of your leg – you know, ‘gimme your passport, tell me who you are’
Unsurprisingly, his profession is not a crowded one. In fact, since penguins can now be counted from space, Ron and his colleagues pretty much hold the worldwide monopoly on manual nest-clicking. Over a 30 year period, he calculates that he’s probably spent more time in the Antarctic than almost anyone else alive, about five years in total. Partly because of that, he’s become the man who provides the data on which governments rely.
Why? What’s he doing this for? He was born in 1945, the only child of conservative Jewish parents in Pennyslvannia, and aged 14 discovered that an interest in birds was a great way to get out of the house. After twelve years of corporate law, he left, joined the US Fisheries Service and started a sideline in whale-and bird-watching from Ocean City in Maryland. And then in 1982 he went to the Antarctic for the first time. On Deception Island, ‘I came face to face with a chinstrap penguin, and it was like my life changed. I mean, Deception Island is a pretty dramatic place, but to have this little animal come running up and wanting to bite chunks out of your leg – you know, ‘gimme your passport, tell me who you are’, I was just totally into it. ‘
For three years he became a Polar expedition leader, hosting tables on the cruise ships.
For three years he became a Polar expedition leader, hosting tables on the cruise ships. He got seasick, he had people fall ill on him, and he once had to perform the Heimlich Manoeuvre on a passenger who choked on some lettuce. ‘I was a total wreck, but the guy survived.’ And then in 1991 when the Antarctic Treaty countries signed up to environmental impact statements, he realised that if visitor numbers to a continent without bureaucrats were going to increase, what those countries needed was data – facts about the Peninsula and its non-human inhabitants, environmental assessments and, more recently, information on climate change.
Ron’s belief – borne out by the data – is that penguins are the canaries of global warming. Since their populations are unusually sensitive to changes in the natural world, whether it be a decline in krill stocks or an increase in sea temperature, rises or falls in the numbers of penguins within one or other colony can give us clues to changes further down the line. Some breeds of penguin (Gentoo) seem to be thriving under the altered conditions, some (Adelie, chinstrap) are in steep decline.
You see the best and worst of humankind, and you see the best and worst of the weather
So far, Ron has done 23* seasons in the Antarctic. Which in turn means he’s made the trip across the Drake Passage more times than he can count. Every year in November, he escorts several box-loads of unwieldy scientific kit onto a plane from Washington to the port of Ushuaia at the bottom of Argentina, loads it onto whichever cruise ship has agreed to take him, spends three weeks in the company of passengers laughing at jokes about elephant seals he has heard countless times before, reaches a small hostile speck of land at the end of the world, loads all his stuff onto a smaller and more uncomfortable boat, spends a further two weeks standing in a blizzard with a notebook and a one-two-three clicker counting penguins or staring out of a steamed-up porthole at weather so filthy he can’t go on deck let alone onshore before then getting back on the same ship for another week’s worth of seasickness and bad jokes.
It’s a hard job both physically and mentally since all the counters have to remain hyper-aware of changes in temperature or pressure. When the weather changes, it changes fast. ‘It’s a dangerous place, the Antarctic. You see the best and worst of humankind, and you see the best and worst of the weather – storms, gales, howling winds. But you also have these quiet moments on the beach when a gentoo penguin crawls into your lap.’
Over the years, Ron has spent enough time there to see the variations between penguin breeds. ‘It’s anthropomorphic, but I believe there are differences. Chinstraps are very noisy, adelies will bite your leg off – I’ve grown to like them, and I’ve especially grown to like gentoos. They’re very gentle, curious. I’ve had them run up and sit down in my lap. The adelies will just attack you and the chinstraps just make a lot of noise. They’re like all bluster but no fight.’
Year after year, he’s pushed back and back to the Antarctic by a swelling sense of urgency. Partly because all the data he’s collected so far seems to point towards global warming on a catastrophic scale, but partly because he is aware that at some time in the future he will have to stop. ‘People keep asking me if I’m going to retire. No, I’m not going to retire. I’m not ready to let go.’ Of what? ‘Of the Antarctic. It charges up my batteries and keeps me thinking I’m on the right track. The best thing about it is that you’re totally on your own – no radio, no TV, no politicians, no noise, just you and the environment and the animals. You can feel your own heart beating through your parka. It gives you a chance to think a little more expansively about who you are, what your place might be in the scheme of things.’
Isn’t it lonely though? Doesn’t he miss his wife Ellen, working as a psychotherapist back in DC? She would come if she could, but the three or four weeks required to get to and from the Peninsula are too long away from work.
‘We’re both pretty much independent contractors – I love that I have the space and she has the space to do whatever we want to do, and then we get together and share the agonies and joys of it all, and it all works out pretty well.’
And if the Antarctic was taken out of his life, what would be missing? ‘I think I’d be kind of miserable. I would really really miss that guano smell.’ So it’s the smell of penguin poo in the morning that really does it for him? He laughs. ‘I’m not going to bottle it or anything, it is pretty gross, but there is something about that freshness which reminds you that you’re in the wild.’
‘And there’s something about the aloneness too. Those five years camping at Petermann, just three of us on this mile-long island, that ranks high as among the most special things I’ve ever done. We all had radios so we could keep in contact with each other, but I would get a jug of hot chocolate and walk down to the southern side of the island sitting among gentoo penguins and watching the sun set due south at 65 degrees latitude, and it was just special – something that very few people have seen. I’m an incredibly privileged person to have gone once, but to have had the opportunity nineteen times … I’m still watching birds, I’ve never stopped watching birds, and despite all these turns and iterations, I always keep coming back to birds.’