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    Global Warming as Seen Through the Glorious Life Work of a Singular Man

    Ron Naveen has spent 30 years charting the decline of penguins of Antarctica and sees only one cause.

    The first time I met Ron Naveen was in the dining room of an Antarctic cruise vessel. Most passengers on the Akademik Ioffe were dressed for the South Pole; two or three base layers, lots of high-quality goosedown. Naveen 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 afterthoughts hair and warm eyes, he must have been in his mid-70s. He looked, frankly, like a bum.

    Over the next few days, I watched Naveen in penguin colonies throughout the Antarctica peninsula. All the time, he talked to camera about the different breeds and the survival issues that 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 Adélies 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 we hadn’t reminded him, he probably would have worn the sandals too.

    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 has 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 scientific terra incognita.

    Unsurprisingly, his profession is not a crowded one. In fact, since penguins can now be counted from space, Naveen and his colleagues pretty much hold the worldwide monopoly on manual nest-clicking. Over a 30-year period, he calculates that he has probably spent more time in Antarctic than almost anyone else, 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? Ton’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 stock or an increase in sea temperatures, 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 (Adélie, Chinstrap) are in steep decline.

    The thing with seeing things the way Naveen sees them is that it’s all very stark. More or fewer penguins means more or less climate change, means more or less time for us and everything else on Earth. And the penguins may be cute, but as far as Naveen is concerned, the rise and fall of their population numbers is a warning. He can’t force the hand of governments, he can only offer up 20 years of hard-earned scientific knowledge and let it tell its own tale.

    Naveen’s style of campaigning is very persuasive. Partly because he doesn’t do it with threats, he does it with evidence and a baseball cap: the 21st century Ancient Mariner, out in the pack ice.

    So far, Naveen has done 23 seasons in the Antarctic. Which in turn means he’s made the trip across Drake Passage more times than he can count. Every year in November, he escorts several box-loads of unwieldy scientific kit on to a plane from Washington to the port of Ushuaia at the bottom of Argentina, loads it on to whichever cruise ship has agreed to take him and spends three weeks in the company of passengers laughing at jokes about elephants seals he has heard countless time before.

    Eventually, he reaches a small, hostile speck of land at the end of the world, loads all his stuff on to a smaller and more uncomfortable boats, spends a further two weeks standing in a blizzard with a notebook and a one-two-three clicker counting penguins. Or else he stares out of a steamed up porthole at weather so filthy he can’t go on deck, let alone on shore, before then getting back on the same ship for another week of seasickness and bad jokes.

    It’s a hard job both physically and mentally since all the penguin 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 the 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, Naveen 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, Adélies 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 Adélies 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 is pushed back and back to the Antarctic by swelling sense of urgency. Partly because he is aware that at some time in the future he will have to stop. Partly because all the data he has collected so far seems to point towards global warming on a catastrophic scale.

    “People keep asking me if I’m going to retire. And I say 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.”

    Source: Bella Bathurst – The Observer

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