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AUGUST-SEPTEMBER 2013.  FRANZ JOSEF LAND, RUSSIAN ARCTIC

 

     (This post was written for the National Geographic website and can be found here.  At the same site, you can also read other posts from the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.)

 

            Five weeks is a long time to spend on a boat, even if it happens to be a vessel as comfortable as the Polaris, amid company as fascinating, various, congenial, and purposeful as the members of the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.  Don’t remind me, please, that Charles Darwin was out for four years, nine months, and five days with the Beagle voyage, and that he slept on a hammock in a shared cabin so tiny he had to pull out a bureau drawer each night to make room for his feet.  Don’t tell me about the intrepid survivors of the whaling ship Essex, or the Bounty mutineers making their way to Tahiti, or that guy who soloed around the world in the Gypsy Moth.  Don’t tell me about Shackleton and the Endurance because, inspirational as it may be, that’s a South Pole story, half a world away from us up here in the far North.  Just trust me: Thirty-five days gets to be a longish time, bobbing around on the Arctic Ocean, especially after the wireless internet goes down, the freshwater rationing begins, and the vodka runs out.

 

The survey ship Polaris on the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.

 

           So we have devised some ways of coping.  We drink a lot of coffee and tea.  We share an endless supply of stories from previous adventures.  We edit photographs, by the hour, on our computers and phones.  We pose head-breaking riddles to the group, like that one about walking south a mile, east a mile, then north a mile and ending up exactly where you started.  (It works from the North Pole, yes, but where else?)  We take picnic lunches ashore, in the form of salami and cheese and brown bread, of which there seems to be no shortage, and eat them cheerily amid the rocks and the ice during pauses from the day’s walking and work.  When unable to go ashore, in desperation for exercise, we resort to the “Fittnes Center,” a cabin thus labeled on the lowest deck, containing one treadmill machine and a set of barbells.  We have a meeting each morning to discuss what we’re going to do and another each evening to recap what we’ve done.

After the evening confab, we take turns giving programs: Forest Rohwer on viruses, Alan Friedlander on fishes, Sergey Grebelny on benthic invertebrates, Andy Mann playing guitar, Maria Gavrilo on the history of meteorological research in Franz Josef Land, Cory Richards showing a selection of his stunning photos and making everyone laugh with his goofy self-deprecating humor.  We are a floating Chautauqua.

            On the nights without live programs, we watch movies and cable shows, sometimes together, more often on laptops in the privacy of our cabins.  (Personal disclosure: I’m carrying Season 1 of “Justified” and also early episodes of “The Sopranos,” which I’d never seen.)  But the movie-watching together, in the ship’s lounge, is more festive.  One night we screen “The Life Aquatic, with Steve Zissou” and feel that its evocation of idiotic shipboard camaraderie speaks very specially to us.  In place of the orange hats and blue shirts of Team Zissou, we have blue hats and orange jackets, part of complete kits of Arctic clothing supplied to us generously by Patagonia.  In lieu of Steve Zissou we have Enric Sala, a dapper Spaniard with a pony tail and a deep commitment to marine conservation, as our expedition leader.  Enric is a visionary young marine ecologist, founder of Pristine Seas and an Explorer in Residence of the National Geographic Society.  On this voyage he plays many important leadership roles, such as deciding (in consultation with the captain and with Maria Gavrilo, scientific co-leader) on the route of the ship, drawing pictures of our position on the whiteboard, breaking the news as we run short of water, and remonstrating when the American and Spanish expedition members drink up an undue portion of the evening beer, leaving an insufficiency for the Russians.  Enric bears little resemblance to Bill Murray, but by stretching our imaginations while watching “The Life Aquatic,” we can begin to see him in that role.

 

Cory Richards and Paul Rose enjoy tea-time ashore.

 

            And of course, being serious people, we read.  Reading helps the hours and days on ship to fly by.  Charles Darwin, aboard the Beagle, had volume 2 of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a revolutionary new work (in 1834) that catalyzed his early thinking about evolution.  We enjoy the postmodern luxury of carrying many more options than Mr. Darwin did, thanks to our various electronic devices, and though we don’t put our reading time to such profoundly good use as he, still the flipping of electronic pages eases our journey.  On my own Kindle, for instance, I’ve been reading Cullen Murphy’s excellent book on the Inquisition, God’s Jury, and Tom Hornbein’s classic account of his Everest climb in 1963, The West Ridge, and H. L. Mencken’s lively selection of his own work, A Mencken Chrestomathy, as well as David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman.  As backup on the Kindle I have Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all six volumes, as well as War and Peace and Emma for rereading, in case our ship becomes trapped in the Arctic pack ice and we’re forced to ride it out through the winter, as Fridtjof Nansen did.  But I’m hoping that won’t become necessary.

            Beyond our own personal libraries, electronic or otherwise, there’s a ship’s library downstairs, assembled for this voyage, mainly by Enric, with a rich selection of practical and historical works: The Norwegian North Pole Expedition 1893-1896: Scientific Results, in six volumes, edited by Nansen; New Lands within the Arctic, an account by Julius Payer, co-leader of the Austro-Hungarian expedition of 1872-1874 that discovered Franz Josef Land and named it for the Hapsburg emperor; A Thousand Days in the Arctic, by Frederick G. Jackson, another of the earlier Arctic pioneers; Polar Microbiology, a tome supplied for our diversion by Forest Rohwer; A Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife, by Richard Sale; and quite a few other guidebooks, monographs, and expeditionary sagas in both English and Russian.  I’ve had a dip into the Payer book myself and found some interesting bits about how this place appeared in 1874.  It was even colder and icier then—although, notwithstanding the presumptive impacts of climate change, which we see in the form of retreating glaciers, and which we discuss and ponder continually, it’s pretty cold and icy now too.

Whether it’s still cold and icy enough to keep the entire ecosystem from turning upside down, like the iceberg that cracked suddenly a few days ago and nearly clobbered several of our divers, including Forest: That’s the question.

 

Mike Fay, a long way from Central African forests.

 

          I wouldn’t want to give the impression that our only use of energy and wit on this journey is finding ways to kill time.  On the contrary, most of our hours and days are industriously spent.  Making dive after dive in the freezing water, Alan Friedlander has identified 10 species of shallow-zone Arctic fishes and begun pondering the reasons why diversity here seems to be low.  Kike Ballesteros, likewise spending his days in a dry suit, with numbed fingers and reddened cheeks, has made a thorough inventory of the marine algae, something never before done.  Maria and her team have censused and banded kittiwakes, guillemots, skuas, little auks, eider ducks, and glaucous gulls.  Forest and his graduate student, Steve Quistad, have captured billions of viruses, from a variety of hospitable media such as beach slime and bird shit, and will learn interesting things from their DNA.  Mike Fay has collected thirty-some species of flowering plants, using both classic methods (pressing specimens in newspaper) and new ones (GPS-referenced photographs).  And even this list does not exhaust the science that’s being done.

The 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition will take the measure of Franz Josef Land—at this moment in time, for purposes of comparison against the past and the future—in ways and to a degree such as it has never before been measured.  Cory Richards and I, for our part, will do our best to give some sense of this heroic effort to readers of National Geographic Magazine.  Others are working to perform a parallel function with video and sound.

            As for the leftover hours, once our shore hikes and our dives are completed, or if especially bad weather prevents us from diving, or hungry polar bears on the prowl make it inadvisable to go ashore, or as the days and the weeks seem lengthened inordinately by the fact that the sun never sets—we have our ways of coping, as I said.  When all else fails, we write blogs.

 

 

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  • ENDURING AND REMEMBERING

    JANUARY 16, 2021

         Did I say holy goodness? Holy crap. What a year. I've got scant appetite for describing what it's been like for me, because chances are it was worse for you, and I honor that. Difficult for everybody, but my family and most of my friends have been lucky and blessed so far, and for that I'm grateful. Also, for any of those of us who make our living in part from explaining viruses, it 23354 330has been very busy. So busy, I've neglected this blog, saying what I've been able to say in other contexts, journalistic (see the links to the left) and Twitteroid. Now I'm starting to get caught up and perhaps I can resume making the occasional post here, on what I've been learning—by sedulous reading of scientific articles, interviewing scientists, and on the wind—about Covid-19 and the nefariously complex, agile virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2.

         There are other things that bear commenting on also. My friends Bill Kittredge, Brian Persha, and Barry Lopez all died within recent months, and those losses leave gaps. I will comment on them, as I have opportunity, elsewhere. Barry was like a brother to me, an elder brother—and if that were the case, I guess Peter Matthiessen, gone also these few years, felt like my uncle. I should be so lucky. But when I think of it: If Barry had been my elder brother, I probably could never have become a writer—it would have been too daunting, following in his steps. I would have had to turn aside into one of the only other plausible careers for which I was suited: a circus clown or a herpetologist.

         I miss them, all three.  You should read Bill, read Barry. And if you ever have a chance to lay hold of some of Brian's artistic pottery, do. You'll know it by his profund appreciation of the shades of blue.

         

     

  • THE BIG ONE

    MAY 1, 2020

    So here we are, amid a global pandemic of a disease called COVID-19, caused by a virus known as SARS-CoV-2. It’s terrible, and many people are suffering—suffering the disease, and suffering economic and social hardships related to the shutdowns necessitated by the disease. I’m relatively lucky: self-isolated with my wife, our two dogs, our cat, and our python, and all six of us are accustomed to working from home.

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    Many journalists, and some of my friends, have been asking me: “Were you surprised when this began?” I wasn’t surprised. Others have asked: “How does it feel to be prescient?” (My first thought: I'd rather be wrong.") Anyway, I wasn’t prescient; I merely listened carefully to a select group of disease scientists, ten years ago, while I was researching my book Spillover (W.W. Norton, 2012), and I reported their well-informed predictions about the prospects of a “Next Big One,” a punishing global pandemic. What they told me back then, if you assemble their bits of wisdom and foresight into a single consensual summary (as I tried to do, over the course of the book), was this: Yes, there will be a Next Big One. It will be caused by a virus. That virus will be new to humans, coming out of a wild animal. What kind of animal? Very possibly a bat. What kind of virus? Very possibly an influenza virus or a coronavirus. Under what circumstances would the virus get into humans? Some situation of close, disruptive contact between humans and wild animals—such as in or around a wet market in, oh, for instance, China.

    In early January of this year I was making plans to depart for Tasmania, Australia’s island state, for three weeks of research on Tasmanian devils and a strange form of contagious cancer that has been killing them wholesale in recent decades. This research was for a book that I’m writing about cancer as an evolutionary phenomenon. As I readied for the trip, I must have missed the earliest emails from ProMED, an infectious-disease reporting system to which I subscribe, about “an unidentified outbreak of viral pneumonia” in the city of Wuhan, China.

    The first of the ProMED messages that did catch my attention, I think, came on January 13, quoting a World Health Organization statement about a “novel coronavirus” linked to the peculiar pneumonia and confirmed in a female Chinese tourist who had traveled from Wuhan to Thailand. The woman was hospitalized in an isolation ward and recovering well. Detecting and treating her, according to the Minister of Public Health, showed “the efficiency and effectiveness” of health care in Thailand. It was not a dramatic story. The word “coronavirus” caught my attention enough to prevent me from deleting that email. But I didn’t realize then that a very consequential new virus, later be called SARS-CoV-2, had made what seems to have been its first international move.

    Reports continued and attention grew. I was busy revising an unrelated magazine story until, on January 21, an email arrived from an editor at The New York Times, asking whether I might care to write an Op-Ed about “the Wuhan virus.” I agreed, wrote the piece quickly, and it was published on January 28. (You’ll find a link to it on the left of this.) A week later, I departed for Tasmania. By then the virus story had spread just enough concern that I put two surgical masks in my briefcase, on the off chance—which I considered remote—that I might be required to wear one, three weeks later, on the planes coming home. I didn’t. Flying home on March 2, I saw only a few people in the airports wearing masks.

    But by then the virus had spread, the story was getting bigger, and the disease toll more severe, not just in China, not just in Italy and Iran, but in the U.S. too, of course. This is where you all have your own stories to tell. As for me, my last day of going to the gym was March 10; since then it’s been home workouts and dog-walks. I haven’t been inside a building other than our own house in six weeks. Almost every day, for me, has been a day of being an interviewee for media around the world, because of Spillover, while trying to steal some time to continue being a writer as well. My book publisher, Simon & Schuster, has asked me to set aside, for now, the book on cancer and evolution, and write one about this pandemic. I’m quite aware that there will be a gaggle of COVID-19 books, and in ordinary times I do my best to stay distant from literary gaggles . . . but this seems like a responsibility, not an opportunity. So I’m now at work on a book about COVID-19.

    In the stolen evening hours of some busy days, I’ve also been doing something else— online events, virtual bookstore discussions, with my wife Betsy Gaines Quammen, whose own book, American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God, and Public Lands in the West, was published on March 24 by Torrey House Press. We talk about both of our books, and the overlap between them, in the zone of public alarm and conspiratorial paranoia. If you care to see a rerun of any of those sessions (we call them the Betsy & Dave Show, but we don’t claim to be Ready for Prime Time), you can find them on Facebook, at the David Quammen and Betsy Gaines Quammen events page:
    https://www.facebook.com/davidquammenauthor/

    Meanwhile, stay safe, people. Stay sane, be well, keep smiling, listen to the music. Ask for evidence when someone tells you the latest hot rumor about SARS-CoV-2. Shake hands with friends using your feet, toast your neighbors from across the street on Fridays, and eventually we will reach the other side of this river of ecological challenge.

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EBOLA: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus

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SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

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THE CHIMP AND THE RIVER: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest