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The five explorers of the future

I've spent a lot of time in recent years pondering the future of exploration. As we creep into the 21st century, what exactly is the definition of exploring? New lands have essentially all been discovered, we're no longer out looking to plant flags on new territory. These days we are spending more time attempting to discover new energy sources over new finds of gold, silver or silk. Ending disease is today a far more prominent search than trying to discover what's just over the horizon.

Some direction to my big question was provided recently at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society. I had the privilege of sitting in on its annual, two-day Explorer's Symposium and hearing from some of its newly-appointed class of "Emerging Explorers." The emphasis among the bulk of the 14 young explorers was definitely science, focused more on agroecologists and molecular biologists than hard-bodied climbers eyeing new peaks simply because they are there.

The program goes back eight years – its first "class" was anointed in 2004 -- and focuses on recognizing and supporting "uniquely gifted and inspiring young adventurers, scientists, photographers and storytellers, explorers who are already making a difference early in their careers." Each gets a stipend of $10,000, an introduction to the extensive depths of the Society's in-house media connections and access to the more veteran Explorers-in-Residence and Fellows it supports.

Several of the new class are already atop their fields and have gotten some good press. Sasha Kramer's non-profit SOIL (Sustainable Organic Livelihoods) has been building toilets and trying to transform Haiti's waste into valuable resources since 2006. Norwegian paleontologist Jorn Hurum has been digging for fossils for several decades and has unearthed the bones of 50-foot long, sea-loving cousins he's dubbed "Predator X." Nairobi-based Paula Kahumbu is capitalizing on the Internet to help preserve wildlife in Africa, Asia and South America, as executive director of both WildlifeDirect and the Kenya Land Conservation Trust, which allows interested parties (donors, scientists, the general public) to observe real wildlife problems in real time using blogs, online videos and fundraising tools.

Certainly each of the emerging explorers is already having an impact in their chosen fields, whether as educators or in-the-field scientists. Five to keep your eyes on:

Chasing leopard seals in Antarctica

Though everyone would agree that ice is king in Antarctica, the most powerful of natural elements, when it comes to the animal world the Leopard seal – 1,000 pounds of lightning fast muscle armed with a mouthful of sharp incisors – is the top of the food chain. While confident due to their size and position, they have been known to drag the occasional diver to the bottom of the ocean and not playfully.

So anyone who dives in the Southern Ocean is constantly attuned for who, or what, is swimming nearby. When my friend Kelvin Murray, who splits his underwater time between two cold water destinations (the North Atlantic and Antarctica), sent this photo of himself being followed/observed/stalked by a big Leopard seal I had to know what he was thinking:

"Let's face it; diving in Antarctica is not for everyone. Many people ask me what is it like to roll out of the boat into zero-degree water. First question is always, Doesn't your face freeze? Well yes, but it goes numb so quickly I don't feel anything. Is the equipment heavy? Yes, but I'm 'weightless' in the water. Is there anything to see?
Yes, lots...

Jellyfish return to the nation's coasts

They're back!

And we're not talking hurricanes, though that season is officially underway.

And, no, this is not about sharks, since Discovery's dubious Shark Week doesn't start until the end of July.
No, it's time for the increasingly unpopular annual return of swarms of jellyfish to beaches around the world. Last year they made much of the western Mediterranean unswimmable. A couple of weekend's ago – the official start of summer -- thousands of nasty, golf-ball sized jellyfish washed ashore on a 10-mile stretch of Florida's east coast, stinging a reported 1,800 swimmers. Red warning flags were posted on beaches from Cocoa Beach to Cape Canaveral.

In large part thanks to the overfishing of big predator fish and warmer ocean waters, jellies are showing up sooner, in bigger numbers and far beyond home territories. In Florida they clogged the shallows and took over the wet sand of the beach. Lifeguard stands stocked up with vinegar-and-water solutions to help try and diffuse the itching, burning and rashes, which I guess beats urinating on them, though its proven that Benadryl cream helps alleviate itching and swelling. Despite air temps in the 90s and water temperature of 79, wetsuits were very popular. Innocent kids picked them up and tossed them at each other, only to be stung. Tough guys waded into the shallows attempting to shrug them off but were quickly running towards the lifeguard stands and that vinegar solution. At least two jelly victims were hospitalized.

Maldives meltdown

As political unrest swept through the Muslim nations of North Africa, even the remote island-nation of the Maldives was caught up in its own Arab Spring in the form of political protest and street clashes.
One major difference: Efforts in the Maldives were focused on pushing out a young, democratically elected president and replacing him with an aging despot.

President Mohammed Nasheed, 44, has gained accolades around the globe for his commitment to preparing the Maldives for the coming impacts of climate change on an island nation and simultaneously attempting to turn the country carbon neutral. Since the first of May intermittent protests have wracked the streets of the tiny island capitol of Male – just two square miles and home to 100,000 – with some calling for Nasheed's resignation; the irony, of course, is that he is the country's very first democratically elected leader.

As many as 5,000 protestors have been shouting not about green issues, but about homegrown concerns, including a sour economy and increases in crime and inflation.

They have also complained about Nasheed's alleged "westernization" of the traditional Islamic culture and allowing the economy to crumble. One report has his popularity rating at just 18 percent. The military has dispersed youthful crowds with high-pressure hoses and batons.

Waiting in the wings? None other than Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 74, whose 30-year dictatorship was ended in 2008 with Nasheed's election. Nasheed has no love loss for the former president, who still lives in the Maldives. A former journalist, activist and political prisoner, Nasheed was tortured while in prison during Gayoom's presidency.

Many attribute the economic mess of today to the 30-year long Gayoom administration. It's no big surprise that it is the former president and his representatives who are working behind the scenes to fan the current protests.

Nasheed spokesman Mohamed Zuhair suggested to the BBC that the former president is encouraging violence in the streets. "In the Middle East, you have democrats on the streets bringing down dictatorships. Ironically in the Maldives, the remnants of the former dictatorship are trying to bring down a democratically elected government."

It doesn't help that oil prices are going through the roof, since everything in the Maldives is imported and it spends one quarter of its GDP on oil. Tourism, which accounts for 70 percent of the Maldives economy, has been negatively impacted by the unrest.

On May 25 the government proposed an agreement with representatives of the International Monetary Fund that would raise import duties, lower capital spending, freeze public sector wages, taxes on goods and services and tourist taxes as a way to help fix some of its economic woes.

Nasheed is well known internationally for his outspoked-ness regarding the fate of all island nations as sea levels rise. Among his first pronouncements after he was elected in 2008 was that he would set aside money from tourism to help buy land to move Maldivians as sea levels rose (to India or Pakistan, maybe Australia). To draw attention to the very real impact of climate change on a nation that is barely more than six feet above sea level he held the first "underwater" cabinet meeting, which garnered more than a billion global media impressions.

[Flickr image via Ula Ahmed]

Rescue crews rush to aid naked Irish solo adventurer

The headline was too horrid on so many fronts to pass up.

It turns out 29-year-old Irishman Keith Whelan, attempting to become the first of his nation to row solo across the Indian Ocean – despite as far as I can glean having little rowing experience, just naked ambition and a Twitter account – had been slapped by a big wave 128 miles off the coast of Australia, cracked his head on a protruding bolt and called for help. A cargo ship, the Fujisuka -- having nothing better to do -- diverted course, picked him up and delivered him back to shore at Bunbury, where he held ... drum roll ... a press conference.

How do we know all this? Thanks to his constant tweeting and blogging and the 24/7 reach of the global media.

Before we go any further with the story of this faux adventure, why oh why did he opt to row naked? According to his website it was "to avoid painful chafing from salt encrusted clothing." ("Having gotten into a rowing boat for the first time only a year or so beforehand, he will spend 110 days alone at sea, facing 50 foot swells, hurricane force winds and unrelenting sunshine ... and he'll be naked.")

Not to mention the attention the word naked still garners in headlines, Twitter feeds and Google searches.
I'm not suggesting the guy shouldn't be able to 'define' adventure in his own terms. With most corners of the world already explored in a variety of fashions, those who seek adventure are forced after a fashion to find new ways of doing them. People have walked up Everest on behalf of every imaginable disease, attempted long walks, long rows, long sails, etc., going forwards, backwards, sideways and upside down to try and draw attention to their pursuit. Whelan is hardly the first. (His charity is Keep A Child Alive, for which to-date he's raised about $700 ... out of a hoped-for $15,000).

Sushi Wars

The question arises with more and more frequency these days: To sushi or not to sushi?

There is a growing contingent of conscientious mariners and travelers out there who refuse to eat all seafood, arguing that sea life has been so injudiciously hammered in the past five decades that if it's going to survive we need to give it a true break. That path, of course, puts at risk the livelihoods of 30 million-plus global fishermen and the related industry they support.

Others, attempting to choose wisely, attempt to navigate by choosing so-called sustainable seafood, which leads away from the big-name predators (tuna, salmon, swordfish, mahi-mahi) towards smaller, less-popular thus still prolific species.

But in the booming sushi trade, opting for that admittedly delicious tuna and other at-risk fish can prompt lively pre-dinner brawls, even among the most enlightened carrying smart phones armed with apps to help steer them towards the "safest" fish on the menu.

With bluefin season heating up in the Mediterranean the question is ever more relevant. Several weeks ago Sea Shepherd's "Operation Blue Rage" sent two of its boats, the Steve Irwin and Brigitte Bardot, to the coast of Libya to help monitor and take direct action if it observes illegal tuna-ing.

Bonnaroo goes green

It's possible that some of the biggest applause heard at last weekend's Bonnaroo extravaganza was not for Lil' Wayne or Mumford and Sons, Eminem or Dr. John, but for the phalanx of silver tankers that arrived once or twice a day slopping over with cool, fresh water to resupply the fest's communal fountain/shower.

Each time a line of the half-dozen shiny trucks entered through the campgrounds, their big rolling tires generating even more dust, the crowds parted reverently to allow them access.

Even more than microbrews and vegetable samosas, drum circles and pot, umbrellas and sun block, fresh, clean water is the key to keeping the festival alive.

During its ten-year run, the mid-summer fest – this year's version hosted 120 bands and more than 80,000 – has experienced all weathers, from downpour to heat wave. This year's was the latter. Other than a few drops and some distant lightning near the onset of Buffalo Springfield's reunion show late on Saturday night, the skies were clear and pale, dry and hot. Which meant those 160,000 feet scuffling around the 700-acre compound very quickly turned the place into a dust bowl. The stages were often masked by a fine scree of brown Tennessee dust hovering in the air 30 feet above ground.

Creating a sizable city, even if for just four days, requires massive logistics on top of selling and delivering all those computer-coded wristbands and organizing the arrival and departure of fleets of band-bearing tour buses. Most of life's essentials – particularly water – have to be brought in from elsewhere. (Two deaths were reported over the weekend; heat exhaustion may have been in part responsible, though so could have overdose, genetics or freak accident. That number brings the total to have taken their last breaths at Bonnaroo at 10 in 10 years.)

Overfishing and the future generation's catch

The biggest debate in the ocean world today continues to be, Will we run out of fish, and when?

An intense squabble has been going on for nearly twenty years, since the global catch of seafood peaked in 1994. Predictions since have warned that we've taken 90 percent of the fish from the sea and that by 2050 or so all of the fish we currently know would be gone, that jellyfish will rule the seas.

Which is very true ... in some places. Globally, despite growing international awareness, fisheries are still being abused, particularly the big fish we most love to eat, including marlins, bluefin tuna, cod and snapper.

But highly-placed members of the U.S. government have been making the rounds in recent months very publicly saying that our fisheries are actually doing quite well, thank you, due largely to laws that are working and a grumbling-but-dutiful bunch of fishermen who are obeying them.

A couple weeks ago Eric Schwaab, administrator of the National Fisheries Service, a branch of NOAA, told a crowd at the Boston Seafood Show that overfishing in the U.S. was in many respects and for the moment ... over.

He bolstered his argument with statistics suggesting that the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which imposed strict annual catch limits in U.S. waters, is working, that the 528 different fish species it monitors are doing okay. He called it an "enormous milestone."

How big an area are we talking? Just how big is the U.S. fishing zone? 3.4 million square miles paralleling 90,000 miles of coastline.

Exploring Richard Branson's Virgin Oceanic

The first time I met Richard Branson we were in the kitchen of a small bed and breakfast in the high-Arctic Inuit village of Clyde River. Taller and blonder than I expected, he was dressed in full cold-weather gear and had just flown in by private plane to join a dogsled expedition. Slightly bemused, he was struggling to figure out how to microwave a cup of tea.

I think of that scene whenever he announces he's setting off on a new adventure – whether by hot air balloon, cigarette boat or, as of this month, one-man submarine. While exceedingly bold, maybe even brave, I'm not convinced technology is his strong suit ... which makes me a bit worried when he announces he intends to go deeper below the surface of the ocean than any man or woman before, to explore the bottoms of the five oceans.

His $10 million "Virgin Oceanic" is the continuation of a project begun by Branson's friend and former ballooning partner Steve Fossett (whose small plane mysteriously disappeared over the Nevada desert in 2007). The goal is to take the ultra-lightweight sub to the deepest, least-explored parts of the planet ... perhaps simultaneous to the date sometime later this year when his "Virgin Galactic" rockets its first paying passengers ($200,000 per seat) into space.

Habits and a new path towards sustainable fishing

Old habits die hard, especially when it comes to fishermen and their daily catch. With many species of fish around the globe hammered by overfishing, laws are being written and enforced to protect them, which sometimes means convincing indigenous fishermen to alter centuries-old traditions.

But changing fishing patterns that go back multiple generations can be a hard sell when it is the legends and skills of a great-grandfather, for example, that still drive traditional hunts for green turtles or whales, dolphins, manta rays, sharks and other now-threatened species.

Sometimes, of course, it's not family tradition that propels the illegal hunting by indigenous fishermen, but greed and willful ignorance of modern-day laws.

A recent story in the New York Times highlights the dilemma of pink river dolphins in Brazil's Amazon River. The subject of legend (it is thought they are magical creatures that can turn into men and impregnate women), they are also endangered. But that's not stopping locals from hunting them and using them as bait for catfish (attracted by the strong smell of dolphin meat) or simply killing them to eliminate them as competitors for catches. From the river fishermen's perspective there are too many dolphins, they're a nuisance and hardly need protection.

"We don't like him; we are his enemy," one fisherman told the Times. "I killed one when I was waiting for the fish to bite. He kept coming closer and the fish were leaving, so I harpooned the dolphin. I couldn't stand it anymore."

Experts in the region suggest thousands are killed every year – out of a population of just 30,000 – though they are supposed to be protected by law.

Though they risk prison sentences, fishermen know enforcers are spread thin around the vast Brazilian Amazon. Evidence of the hunt is hardly hidden, with the genitals of river dolphins sold at open-air markets as aphrodisiacs, alongside oil from anacondas and crocodiles.

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