Stepping Stones of the Atlantic: Perspectives From Our Leaders

Stepping Stones: An Introduction

by Mike Messick, July 2003

In February 2004 we embark on a far-ranging expedition: Stepping Stones of the Atlantic. Not only a first for us, this two-part voyage from the Falklands to Iberia encompasses a greater variety of ecosystems and wildlife than any of our other programs.

Beginning in the southern polar region, we head across the Atlantic ridge. The islands on this part of the journey -- St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, and Ascension -- are some of the least-visited places on earth, nearly impossible to get to other than by ship. I have been all over the world, yet I have never landed on any of these shores. The prospect of finally doing so makes this the most exciting part of the itinerary for me.

The length of our expeditions ensures comprehensive explorations of the locations we visit. During our days at sea, our lecturers will present a series of wide-ranging presentations, adding to our knowledge and placing our travels in the proper historical perspective. We'll also feature our popular Digital Photo & Video Workshop.

The rest of the expedition team is as enthusiastic as I am about these departures. In the following articles, a few of them touch on the voyages' aspects that intrigue them.

Two hemispheres, six thousand miles, hundreds of years of history, unmatchable wildlife -- please join me and a stellar assemblage of naturalists and lecturers next year for a true odyssey across the Stepping Stones of the Atlantic.

Birds of the Atlantic

by Peter Harrison, July 2003

Stepping Stones is an expedition that we at Zegrahm have wanted to run for years, and the founders vied spiritedly to be aboard our premiere voyage. As a birder, I could not pass up the opportunity to participate in this hemispheres-spanning journey.

Each destination on our itinerary holds its own unique allure, beginning with the thousands of king penguins and albatross on South Georgia. In the mid-Atlantic are such rare endemics as the Wilkins's finches and the spectacled petrels of Tristan da Cunha. Only a few thousand of the latter are left. Other must-see species include St. Helena plovers, known locally as wirebirds, and Ascension Island frigatebirds. To spy any one of these birds would be worth the trip; the chance to see them all is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

We arrive in Africa at the perfect time of year. Millions of birds will be migrating north, and The Gambia and Morocco are two of the continent's best birding locations. I'm hopeful of seeing Egyptian plovers and vultures, African pied hornbills, and gray-headed bristlebills, among the many hundreds of species in West Africa. Trekking into Morocco's Atlas Mountains brings us into proximity to imperial eagles and lammergeiers, powerful, bone-crushing vultures. On the Canary Islands' Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Lanzarote we go in search of 200 species, among them Cory's shearwaters and Eleanora's falcons.

King penguins to flamingoes, giant petrels to migrating white storks, Cape Verde shearwaters, rarely seen ocean endemics -- it's impossible to overstate the extravagant numbers and varieties of birds, and other wildlife, that make this voyage a naturalist's dream.

The Canaries and Cape Verde: Way Stations of Explorers

by Jack S. Grove, July 2003

In June of 1976, fresh out of college, I made my first trans-Atlantic crossing as a deck hand on a 52-foot sailboat. With my first oceanography courses under my belt, it was exciting to ponder over the nautical charts of the Atlantic while actually sailing across it. The practical maritime experience provided a much better insight of ocean currents and trade winds. With the salt air in my face, my textbook education on whale migrations and the crossings of mariners during the age of sail had much more meaning.

Foremost in my mind were Christopher Columbus and Charles Darwin. Both of these men made landfall on islands along the spine of the Atlantic before setting out on their epic voyages -- Columbus on Gomera in the Canaries, and Darwin on an island in the Cape Verde group.

In her definitive Darwin biography, Charles Darwin Voyaging, Janet Browne describes the importance of Darwin's landfall: "For Darwin... St. Jago was the first place he disembarked -- the first foreign soil he stepped on as a natural history explorer -- and the island carried a special light in his affections for that reason. More than this, it was the place where he began pulling together all his diverse early natural history experiences and took a deliberate step into the world of investigative science. It always glowed in his memory as the site of a philosophical and personal initiation."

During the second leg of Stepping Stones, I will explore with you the islands that played pivotal roles in the history of exploration and our understanding of the natural world.

Exploration and Adventure

by Richard Fagen, July 2003

Although many are reluctant to admit it, the great age of terrestrial exploration is over. No more search for the great southern continent, no more treks into lands where "the white man has not gone before." The airplane, the snowmobile, and GPS now take us where, 100 years ago, men and women walked, mushed dogs, and found their way by sun and stars.

But adventure is alive and well. Now we craft voyages that challenge our minds and bodies by hiking, climbing, swimming, and diving, not because we must, but because our lives are made richer by encounters with lands and peoples very different from those we know.

The relentless search for adventure in our time has generated a thousand stories, true and imaginary: Huck Finn drifting down the Mississippi; Richard Halliburton swimming the Hellespont (shades of Lord Byron!) in 1925; Ben Carlin crossing the Atlantic in an amphibious Jeep in 1950; Peter Jenkins walking 4,800 miles across the United States in the 1970s; and hundreds of amateur climbers attempting Everest in the 1990s.

I've crafted a series of lectures to explore with you our love affair with adventure. It is a story shot through with ambition, greed, craziness, and courage. All our vices and virtues are on parade as, like Huck, we leave behind life's everyday routines in search of the thrills that lie around the next bend in the river.

Islands of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

by Kevin Clement, July 2003

If the earth has a backbone, surely it is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This chain of undersea mountains snakes its way thousands of miles down the centerline of the ocean. Here and there tectonic action and volcanism have heaved up an island. These have been explored, colonized, studied, and wondered at by a variety of cultures. Geology unites, but history divides, the islands of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

We investigate these islands, beginning in the Falklands, known for a vicious war, but also harboring remarkable fauna. From there we cross to South Georgia, its wildlife concentrations unsurpassed anywhere.

In more temperate waters, we visit Gough Island, inhabited only by huge numbers of rare birds and a minuscule number of meteorologists. (Relatively) nearby Tristan da Cunha is perhaps the most isolated inhabited spot on earth. Its 290 people share among them only eight surnames.

St. Helena, Napoleon's final place of exile, is a large island with varied topography, endemic flora, and great scenic beauty. Seven hundred miles north lies Ascension, barren and dry around its base, green and verdant at its volcanic summit. The Cape Verde Islands share Ascension's volcanic origin but not its culture -- this African nation has a world-renowned musical heritage. The Canaries, known for their beach resorts, owe their name to a now-extinct wild dog.

No journey offers more diversity than these along the spine of the world. We savor each island's unique character before sailing to the next isolated outpost in the Atlantic Ocean.