I'm very excited to begin work this coming week on a new project. I've been commissioned to write a book for the New England Aquarium, about its extensive and invaluable conservation work - on right whales, sea turtles, fisheries, coral reefs, and so many other areas - over the 50 years since its foundation. I'm immensely grateful for the opportunity to work on this project, and to work with such a fantastic team of people. It will be intense: there's a lot to be written and not a lot of time in which to write it. But it should be fun, and worthwhile.
Last week, my friend and mentor, Sidney Holt was laid to rest in the village of Paciano, Umbria, Italy. He was 93, and had passed away on December 22.
There are so many things to say about Sidney: that he was a pioneer of fisheries management, that he was one of the first scientists to urge the International Whaling Commission to drastically reduce commercial whaling, that he was a key driving force behind the 1982 IWC commercial whaling moratorium and the 1994 Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, among so many other things.
But there was so much more. Sidney was an inspiration. His intellect remained fierce, and his knowledge broad and deep, until the end, and he loved to share both - whether asked to or not. (All of us who worked with him have memories of being caught up in the dreaded Holt mass email chain, or receiving unsolicited criticism of published works that invariably began along the lines of: "Enjoyed your piece on X. But ... " and continued on for multiple paragraphs or even pages. In later life, as his vision failed him, he continued sending those correctives, except that now they were largely misspelled simply because he couldn't quite see what he was writing.)
Put simply, Sidney was a damn rock star, even to the end. He must have been about 85 when I was with him at a conference in Boston and a young grad student haltingly approached him and asked if he would sign her copy of his landmark 1957 treatise on fisheries management. A year or two later, he was holding forth in London's Fishmongers Hall on the characteristics of the sigmoid curve.
When I was a cub wannabe whale-saver in 1985, I was immensely honored when Sidney, in response to my request for information on whaling, sent me offprints of his most recent articles. In 1987, when Sean Whyte and I founded the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, his very public support was not only of immense value, it affixed to us an imprimatur of authority we would not otherwise have earned.
Sidney could be an irascible old sod, but he was at heart profoundly kind and gentle. He would dismissively refer to me as "the Irishman," (sometimes "that bloody Irishman") but with a twinkle in his eye. It always made me proud when he asked me to work with him on something, and nothing made me more so than, thanks to diligence of Patrick Ramage and Leslie Busby, helping shape his memoirs into a printed product. We were working on a new version when he passed; I deeply regret we could not finish it in time, but as Leslie says, "what matters is that we have his remarkable story to share, I think as a posthumous tribute it will be remarkable and appreciated by so many."
So, yes: scientist, conservationist, inspiration, mentor, rock star - Sidney was all these things. But to me he was one thing above all others: he was my friend. And I have never in my life been more proud to be able to say that of anybody.
Every marathon begins with a single step. Time for a new project ...
The disappearance of the Franklin Expedition shortly after it left port in search of the Northwest Passage in 1845 is one of the enduring mysteries of the Arctic. The wreck of one of the expedition's two ships, HMS Erebus, was discovered in 2015, and that of HMS Terror two years later. And two years after that, I and the passengers of Ocean Endeavour were the first visitors to either site, courtesy of Adventure Canada. But the ships' discoveries have muddied the waters as much as they have cast light on the expedition's fate. Here's a piece I wrote about it for the History Channel website.
Shortly after returning from the Arctic, I was laid up with a series of ailments and could not get to grips with the writing I had planned as a result of that voyage. But I did finally produce one big piece, for The Guardian - which, despite the misleading headline, is about the push to exploit the resources of the Northwest Passage. It's my second Guardian piece of the year, and I hope very much to write more for them in 2020.
Very pleased to have my first ever piece in print in National Geographic: a short essay for the December issue on the lure of cold places - why strange people like me visit the Arctic and Antarctic and live in places such as Alaska and Vermont. The piece took quite some time to gestate, but I'm really happy to see it in print and online.
I have written my first piece for National Geographic: a climate change report card that assesses how well (or, more often, poorly) nations are meeting their targets under the Paris Agreement. Enjoy!
For years, I have been obsessed with the Northwest Passage. I am hardly alone: literally hundreds of explorers died attempting to find this route through the Canadian Arctic Archiepelago, connecting Atlantic and Pacific, until Roald Amundsen finally succeeded in 1906. The most famous of those to perish were the members of the Franklin Expedition, who left Greenhithe in Kent in May 1845 on board HMS Erebus and Terror, were seen in Baffin Bay a couple of months later, and then were never seen alive by Europeans again.
Today, the ice-choked passage that thwarted Franklin and his men is an increasingly navigable pathway through the Arctic, open to several passenger vessels each year. In September, I was on board one of those, the Ocean Endeavour, at the invitation of Adventure Canada, fulfilling a nearly lifelong ambition. From Kugluktuk in the west, we headed east, past King William Island, through the Bellot Strait, past Devon and Ellesmere Islands and into Baffin Bay, after which we headed south along the west coast of Greenland as far as Kangerlussuaq.
The highlights were many, but for me, two stand out. One was visiting the graves of the first three expedition members to perish, on the bleak shores of Beechey Island: the only three graves ever discovered from the expedition. And the other was to stand on a barge just 5 meters above the wreck of the Erebus, which had been discovered in 2015, and to watch on a screen as a diver explored below.
i am immensely grateful to Adventure Canada for inviting me, and I will be writing about the many different elements of the journey, and about the changing Arctic, for several outlets over the coming weeks. Watch out, too, for an upcoming book announcement.
Had a strange and discomfiting experience the other day.
I had to take a last-minute day trip to Boston, to attend an event downtown. Hotels were extremely expensive for some reason, so I found an AirBnB: a room in an apartment in a very nice building near the event. The day before I left, I messaged the host, asking for info on how to get keys. No response. On the morning of departure, I texted him. No response. Landed in Boston, called him. Straight to voice mail.
Concerned that something was afoot, even though the host was AirBnB verified, I nonetheless made my way to location, feeling like I had little alternative. I walked in the front door and told the concierge I was supposed to be staying at the host's apartment, but that I hadn't been able to reach him.
The concierge 's brow furrowed, as he informed me I was not on a visitor list. He called the host's number - and, like me, found his call going straight to voice mail.I mentioned that I had had confirmation through AirBnB, which he did not seem to find reassuring. He asked me if I could take a seat and he would see what he could find out.
A few minutes later, the concierge came over to where I was sitting. He looked quite serious, even mildly distraught.
"I just spoke to the leasing office," he began. "I called them because you mentioned Air BnB, and residents aren't supposed to do that."
For a moment, I was worried I had somehow gotten the host in trouble, then wondered if this had something to do with his being uncommunicative, but it was rapidly evident that something else was afoot.
"I also found out why his phone is going to voice mail," the concierge continued. "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but given the circumstances ... Well, I just found out he's dead. He died this weekend, in a skiing accident."
I gasped involunarily. I had sensed from the beginning that something was up, but had never imagined this. The next several minutes were something of a whirl: I apologized to the concierge for the fact that he had found out in this way, but I still needed a place to stay, and he was incredibly gracious in giving me advice on location as I searched for, and ultimately found, a new AirBnb.
The next day, I entered the host's name in a search engine, and there was the story: he had been skiing on Mammoth Mountain when he had been spotted wiping out at the top of a slope. Ski Patrol got to him after he reached the bottom, and found him in full cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at hospital.
He was just 25. 25!
It took me several days to shake the strange feelings it all instilled in me. (Feelings that were, of course, as nothing compared to those who knew and loved him.) I had never met the man, didn't know him at all, and he was presumably entirely unaware of my existence. (He was dead by the time I booked his apartment.) Yet we had come so close to crossing paths, however briefly, only for his life to be cruelly and prematurely ended. For a brief period, I found myself wanting to reach out to his friends and family, to ask about this man, even to attend his funeral.
It was all very strange. And I feel so terribly sorry for this man I came so close to knowing, and his family and friends.
Earlier this year, news reports worldwide related the tale of a town in the Russian Arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya being essentially "invaded" by polar bears. At least outside of Canada, there was no such coverage the previous summer, when polar bears took the lives of Inuit villagers in two separate attacks in the Canadian province of Nunavut. But the incidents have their roots in the same problem: climate change is reducing the availability of sea ice, forcing polar bears to spend more time ashore where, relatively hungry, they are drawn toward attractants such as hunting camps and food dumps. That inevitably increases the possibility of interactions between bears and humans - interactions in which neither is likely to come off well. The controversies that arise as a result are the subject of an article I've just had published in Volume 3 of the beautiful publication Modern Huntsman, which is available for purchase and subscription here.