The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Photography

Bourke House: The World's Nicest Tent

While you might not notice it immediately, this family’s private summer cabin was designed to mimic a series of tents.


Perched on a hill with stunning views of New Zealand’s Buckleton Bay, the retreat’s separate sleeping areas are connected to a central space–the heart of the base camp. Here, groups can gather to cook, eat, and lounge under a soaring white roof. Tethered by red masts, this horizontal plane rises toward the sea, while the deep overhang provides shade, much like a tent’s awning.


Low-maintenance materials (concrete, wood, and glass) make the transition from inside to out. The concrete terrace wraps around the full perimeter of the house, and encircles a brick fireplace.


In the summer, residents can slide open the glass walls to let in the sea breeze and take in views of the bay.


Read More

Tracing the Steps of Lost Explorers in Miserable, Beautiful Siberia

Da, Da, there it is,” Andrey says with a smile as he idles the outboard engine. He puffs a cigarette and points at a bulge on the horizon. “Amerika Khaya—America Mountain.”

I look where Andrey is pointing, but I’m distracted by clouds of insects. In this part of the Siberian Arctic, there are only two seasons: Winter and Mosquito. Right now we’re in the middle of Mosquito. The ravening swarms work their way under our clothes, dive into our mouths, clot our eyes and nostrils. On a nearby island, a few wild reindeer try to nibble the tundra moss, but they look tormented, their hides jumping with nervous tics.

We’re 5,000 miles east of Moscow, nearly 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in the gale-smashed barrens where the great Lena River meets the Arctic Ocean. This is one of the world’s largest deltas, an estuarial snarl of river channels and silty islands that spreads out over 11,500 square miles of mostly uninhabited terrain. The Lena Delta is a federally protected zapovednik (scientific nature reserve), one of the largest in Russia, set in the most remote territory of the Sakha Republic.

It’s mid-August, and I’m traveling with Andrey Kryukov, a former Russian soldier from Irkutsk who has worked on the Lena River for 22 years. Kryukov, who is in his forties, is the second-in-command of the Puteyskiy 405, a diesel riverboat that I’ve hitched a ride on for much of the past week. To navigate some of the shallower back channels of the delta, we left the Puteyskiy 405 around midday and ventured out in a banged-up johnboat. Andrey wears a black knit cap and army fatigues, and in case we should meet wolves or bandits or a rogue polar bear, he has a rifle slung over his shoulder.

{%{"quote":"We're swallowed in desolation, not a sound but the whine of the bugs. This is a Pleistocene tundra on a fantastic scale, an ancient emptiness that seems better suited for the mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and woolly rhinos that once lived here."}%}

Amerika Khaya is a small hog-backed mountain that rises 400 feet above the Lena’s floodplain of marshes and islands. It was also the burial site of ten Americans who perished in the Lena Delta during a then famous but now little-known polar expedition in the 1880s. It’s just a large hill, really, but on extra-clear days, Amerika Khaya is visible for a hundred miles, sometimes magnified by the refractions of the Arctic atmosphere.

Now we can clearly see it, but the mountain is surrounded by labyrinths of sandbars and channels of water. When we run aground for the fourth time, Andrey kills the engine in disgust. “Hop out,” he mutters, then drags the boat onto a sandbar. “From here ve vade.”

We start splashing across the puddles and stagnant ponds, swatting mosquitoes as we go. The mud sucks at our swamp boots—and yanks one of mine off my foot. Loons call in the distance. I can see the tracks of an arctic fox stitched across the sand. The water is bone-wincingly cold—somewhere in the low forties. When it suddenly rises to our waists, Andrey hoists his rifle over his head.

It’s past midnight when we reach dry land and hike to the base of America Mountain. Everything is suffused in the weird golden light of the Arctic summer, muted and thin, like the glow of a solar eclipse. We climb for an hour, stumbling over spongy terrain matted in stunted heathers and tiny red mushrooms. Here and there, bleached reindeer antlers are strewn over the ground.

We’re swallowed in desolation, not a sound but the whine of the bugs. This is a Pleistocene tundra on a fantastic scale, an ancient emptiness that seems better suited for the mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and woolly rhinos that once lived here. No trees grow in the Lena Delta—we’re far north of the timberline—yet along the river channels are tangled graveyards of trees that have drifted a thousand miles from the dark forests of the taiga.

Seen from the air, the Lena Delta looks like the cross section of an enormous tumor that bulges far out into the Laptev Sea. Most of the year it’s covered in ice and snow, and even today, though Arctic flowers are blooming everywhere, it’s a frozen landscape: the permafrost, just below the surface, extends 2,000 feet belowground.


Throughout tsarist history, the upper Lena was known as a region where Russia banished her criminals: a prison without bars. Later, the Lena became the site of at least five Soviet gulags, the so-called River of No Reprieve. Surely this must be one of the loneliest spots on earth. Yet it’s also a land of awesome beauty—and a haunting site for a memorial to an expedition of forgotten American explorers.

I had come to the Russian Arctic to retrace a Gilded Age polar voyage that I was writing a book about. Three decades before Admiral Peary reached the top of the world, another American polar attempt, the United States Arctic Expedition of 1879, was all the rage. It was one of America’s first official efforts to reach the North Pole, sponsored by the U.S. Navy but paid for by James Gordon Bennett, the half-mad playboy publisher of the New York Herald who had sent Stanley to “find” Livingstone in Africa. The expedition, commanded by an indomitable Navy lieutenant from New York named George Washington De Long, carried the hopes of a young nation itching to make a mark on the world. The hold of De Long’s ship, the USS Jeannette, was crammed with the latest American inventions: a dynamo newly designed by Edison to generate light, as well as Bell’s telephones.

De Long, 34, planned to reach the North Pole via Alaska and the Bering Strait, a route that had never been tried before. (Up until that time, all polar attempts had concentrated on the Atlantic side, by way of Greenland or the Svalbard Islands north of Norway.) De Long actually hoped to sail to the pole. His expedition was predicated on the theories of an eminent cartography professor from Germany named August Petermann, who believed that the Kuro Siwo, a tropical current in the Pacific, swept through the Bering Strait and then softened up the ice, creating a “gateway” to a basin full of warm water—the Open Polar Sea, it was called—that many leading thinkers believed covered the earth’s dome.

Professor Petermann thought that all De Long had to do was burst through the Kuro Siwo–weakened ice pack to enjoy smooth sailing to the top of the world. De Long massively reinforced the hull of the Jeannette with thick timbers and an iron sheathing so that he could temporarily imprison her in the floes. His Ice Ark might drift for a few months, the thinking went, but eventually it would emerge from the pack and reach the tepid waters of the Open Polar Sea. If he succeeded, he would return a world hero.

Today it’s hard for us to understand how intensely curious people were in the 19th century to learn what was Up There. The polar problem loomed as a public fixation and a planetary enigma. The gallant, fur-cloaked men who ventured into the Arctic had become national idols. People couldn’t get enough of them.

Cheered by huge crowds, in July 1879, De Long and 30 carefully chosen men sailed with high hopes from San Francisco. His crew included a meteorologist, a naturalist, an ice pilot, an engineer, a few dozen seasoned seamen, and two Cantonese cooks from San Francisco’s Chinatown. “We have the right kind of stuff to dare all that man can do,” De Long wrote. Later that summer, the Jeannette passed through the Bering Strait and then on toward Siberia before aiming due north for regions mapped UNEXPLORED.


Today, De Long is one of the great forgotten heroes of American exploration. He discovered new lands, crossed a thousand miles of unexplored frozen ocean, and consigned a load of ridiculous theories—including the Open Polar Sea—to the dustbin. Though his voyage fell into spectacularly dire straits, De Long managed to avoid the three great banes of Arctic exploration: mutiny, scurvy, and cannibalism. He ably held his expedition together until the end and did all he could to ensure that his men came home.

The Jeannette was a sensation in its day, an American Shackleton story 35 years before the Endurance. It was chronicled in newspapers and was the subject of songs, poems, monuments, paintings, Congressional inquiries, and popular books. De Long’s expedition journals were bestsellers at the time. Yet most Americans today have never heard of him or the audacious voyage he undertook on behalf of his country. History, it seems, has passed him by.

I wanted to follow in the path of the Jeannette to experience something of what that epic journey was like. The end of the Cold War and the thinning of the ice brought about by climate change had made it possible to reach many of the places the Jeannette had voyaged, places that had effectively been off-limits for more than a century.

I planned to spend six weeks, taking a series of ships and boats, jets and prop planes, to trace De Long’s route from the Bering Strait to the Lena Delta. The distances and logistics were Siberian in scale. Most inconveniently, my route to the Bering Strait led not through Alaska but clear around the world. I flew to Moscow to secure an absurd number of government permits. (One official quizzed me: “By tradition, people are sent to those parts—you want to go there?”) Then I connected several flights east across eight time zones to the small port city of Anadyr, a town once governed by Roman Abramovitch, now the billionaire owner of London’s Chelsea Football Club.

In Anadyr, the icebreaker Professor Khromov awaited. It was registered as a Russian vessel but owned by Heritage Expeditions, a New Zealand adventure-travel outfit, and had a motley mix on board—scientists, eco-tourists, and a French documentary crew. The ship was bound for the Bering Strait, the Siberian coast, and a highly restricted Russian reserve set in the Chukchi Sea known as Wrangel Island.

We left Anadyr and were soon cruising past Alaska, but we couldn’t go there. Leaning over the rails, drinking a cold Baltika beer as gray whales breached in the distance, I gave a little wave to Sarah Palin and thought how ludicrous it was to have traveled 10,000 miles to look at my own country.

On his way to the Arctic, De Long had stopped at St. Michael, Alaska, where he bought furs, dogs, and other supplies—and hired two Inuits to serve as hunters and dog drivers. De Long found America’s newly purchased territory “a miserable place” with an air of decay fueled by liquor and exacerbated by the American fur and whaling industries.

Later in the day, we hopped into Zodiac rafts and sped to some cave-riddled cliffs along the Siberian shore, where we encountered hundreds of thousands of nesting birds. Puffins. Guillemots. Pelagic cormorants. Steller’s eiders. Ross’s gulls. They shrieked and chattered so loudly we had to shout to be heard. Agitated by our approach, their dive-bombing brethren nailed us with their guano. I’d never seen so much throbbing, jittery life crammed into one place.

On the faces of nearly everyone in the Zodiacs was the same look of delirious abandon. Out came the bird guides, up went the Nikons with their 800-millimeter zoom lenses. Everyone clicked away, giggling, ecstatic. “Look at the puffin! Aren’t you gorgeous!”

I hadn’t seen it coming: I would be spending the next two weeks on a ship positively infested with birders.

When the Jeannette passed along this coast, the expedition’s civilian scientist, a mousy, Smithsonian-affiliated naturalist named Raymond Newcomb, blasted one specimen of every bird species he encountered. Newcomb’s shipboard office became an abattoir, piled with decaying carcasses. “Natural History is well looked out for,” De Long wrote of his odd specimen collector. “Any bird that comes near the ship does so at the peril of its life.”

{%{"quote":"Captain Zhdanov and I stood looking at his chart of the Lena Delta. The delta was dizzyingly complex—and always changing. “Like most women I know,” he said, “The river likes to change her mind.” I could see how De Long and his contingent of men had gotten hopelessly lost here."}%}

As we passed by the Diomede Islands and through the Bering Strait, following the international date line, I felt a kind of demarcational vertigo. Left was Asia and today. Right was North America and tomorrow. Behind us lay the Pacific Ocean, but the Arctic Ocean was just ahead. Beneath the ship, on the shallow seabed, was the Bering land bridge, across which, it is widely thought, waves of paleo-humans had wandered to the new world. This strait, a mere 53 miles across, has always been one of the planet’s great mytho-strategic chokepoints—a spot where currents collide, genes migrate, epochs touch. No wonder scientists of De Long’s day believed it was the natural gateway to the pole.

In years to come, the Bering Strait may serve as a different sort of gateway: the Russian government has been touting a plan to build a 64-mile tunnel that would connect Siberia to Alaska. The gargantuan conduit could cost upwards of $50 billion and, when finished, would be twice as long as Europe’s Chunnel. Theoretically, ordinary citizens could use it, though the tunnel’s main purpose would be transporting Siberian oil, gas, and electricity to the United States and Canada. Since Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Crimea, the project seems more fantastical than ever. But regionally, at least, the will is there on both sides of the strait.

Farther up the coast lies the tiny Chukchi town of Uelen. Russia’s easternmost settlement, Uelen (pop. 740) is set just south of the Arctic Circle along a gravel spit that backs up to a cold lagoon. An Orthodox church topped with a small onion dome rises over a grid of prefab buildings and weather-scabbed shacks. It’s essentially a marooned place—no roads lead from town, so the only way to get there is by helicopter or boat.

When we arrived, on a partly sunny afternoon with temperatures in the high forties, we were swarmed by giggling children. The village was in the midst of a festival. Hunters had recently caught a gray whale and butchered it on the rocks. Now the place was full of blubbery mirth, and a good bit of alcohol had made the rounds. Drums pounded as women in calico dresses performed ancient Chukchi dances. Athletic games were in full swing along the gravel beach: pole climbing, tug-of-war contests, weight lifting, wrestling.

The mistress of the games, a Yupik woman with a bullhorn, coaxed me and some of my birder friends to form a tug-of-war team. We won a few matches but were soon destroyed by a crew of burly young Ukrainian construction workers who’d come for the summer to erect prefab homes for the locals.

On the perimeter of all this festiveness lurked an air of official menace: four Russian soldiers, clutching Kalashnikovs, kept a close watch on the crowds. We’d been told we weren’t supposed to look at them, and that if we photographed them we’d be arrested, our cameras confiscated. In 2012, Putin declared this place a closed border zone. Visitors without special permits can expect to be imprisoned, fined, or deported. The soldiers inspected our paperwork and escorted us wherever we went. We were welcome, but not really. They made sure that after a few hours we returned to our ship and went on our way.

The next morning, we woke to find a huge ice field spread before us, obstructing our path to Wrangel Island. Most of the Arctic had seen a record amount of ice melt that summer, but not here. Our Russian captain gritted his teeth and said he’d never seen it so thick this time of summer. The Professor Khromov shuddered as we smashed through it. Great jagged cracks jigsawed out in front of us. Once, we rode up onto a floe and slid back down, grinding to a halt. Off the starboard bow, a polar bear stood on its hind legs and sniffed at us, mystified by the cumbersome thing crunching through its world.

Then the fog parted and there it was: Wrangel Island, 90 miles long, with broad valleys and mountains of virgin tundra gauzed in wisps of fog. Wrangel is a federally protected reserve some 80 miles off the northeast coast of Siberia. It’s a primeval place, supporting such an astonishing abundance of wildlife that biologists have called it the Galápagos of the far north. Wrangel is the largest polar bear denning ground in the world and boasts the largest population of Pacific walrus and one of the largest snow goose nesting colonies. It’s also the last place on earth where woolly mammoths lived.


In the late 1870s, when De Long was planning his expedition, Wrangel was still terra incognita. Some geographers thought it was a polar continent connected to Greenland. De Long’s idea was to try to land on Wrangel and explore it while using its coast as a ladder to climb toward his ultimate goal. If he reached the Open Polar Sea, he could sail for the North Pole in the Jeannette. If he didn’t, he could dash overland for the pole with dogs, sleds, and small boats.

But De Long never reached Wrangel. The Jeannette got locked in fast-moving ice, and he drifted past the island. “A glorious country to learn patience in,” De Long wrote. “It would take an earthquake to get us out.”

De Long didn’t know it yet, but this was the beginning of a long imprisonment: the Jeannette would drift northwest in the pack for more than 600 miles—and for nearly two years, without any link to the outside world. “I calmly believe,” De Long wrote, that “this icy waste will go on surging to and fro until the last trump blows.” He never found the Open Polar Sea, or a warm-water current that softened the polar pack. The Jeannette had been thwarted by a fortress of ice.

As we approached it, I could understand why cartographers once thought Wrangel might be a continent. It felt as though we’d reached the end of the earth.

An American relief vessel dispatched in 1881 to look for De Long did manage to land on Wrangel; the surrounding ice was unusually spare that summer. On board this rescue ship was the young naturalist John Muir, who was then a part-time San Francisco newspaper correspondent. Muir and his party raised an American flag on the beach and claimed the island for the United States, which is why certain hawkish groups in America today insist that Wrangel is rightfully U.S. soil and should be retaken. Muir found no sign of the Jeannette but was astounded by Wrangel’s pristine grandeur. The place seemed specially made for polar bears. Everywhere Muir looked he saw them. “Very fat and prosperous,” he wrote. “They are the unrivalled master existences of this ice-bound solitude.”

We landed on Wrangel Island by Zodiacs and clambered over a rocky shore littered with the bones of walruses and whales. Anatoli Rodionov, a big Russian preserve ranger in fatigues, met us at the beach. He was one of only four people who lived here year-round, and he seemed almost desperate for fresh human contact. He kept a can of bear spray and a flare gun holstered at his side. “Privyet, and welcome to Ostrov Vrangelya!” he gushed. “Thank God you have come!”

Anatoli led us over to Ushakovskoye, an abandoned settlement from Cold War times consisting of an old bathhouse and a few decrepit cabins, some of which had been dismantled for firewood. Nearby stood an ancient radar installation and a junkyard’s worth of mystery equipment from the Khrushchev era.

We spent five days on or around Wrangel, taking overland forays into the mountains, camping in tiny huts, passing over tundra whitened by vast flocks of snow geese. Anatoli introduced me to Sergey Gorshkov, who had been coming to Wrangel for much of the past decade to photograph polar bears and other animals. Pale and soft-spoken, with a goatee, Sergey retired from the oil business in Moscow in his thirties and picked up a camera. Nowadays, he ventures to extremely remote places—Kamchatka, Botswana, but especially Wrangel—and lingers for months at a time. He has since become a renowned wilderness photographer. “My life,” Sergey said, “is divided in two—before the camera and after. Photography is my sickness. My wife is ready to kill me.”

{%{"quote":"The Jeannette was a sensation in its day, an American Shackleton story 35 years before the Endurance. De Long's expedition journals were bestsellers at the time. Yet most Americans today have never heard of him or the audacious voyage."}%}

Sergey invited me into his cabin, a ramshackle space piled with photographic equipment and canned goods he’d been living on for the past month. The windows were covered with metal grids spiked with six-inch nails to deter bears. After he showed me some of his work on an iPad, we took off on a Honda ATV, following a riverbed.

Sergey cut the engine and pointed. “There—in the river.” I splashed over to something half-submerged in the freezing ripples: a fossilized woolly mammoth tusk. “They’re everywhere on Wrangel,” Sergey said, beaming. “Wherever you go, elephant ivory!”

Sergey would be departing Wrangel with us in four days. “It’s difficult for me to leave,” he said. “I always think I may never come back, that it’s my last visit. This place gets to me.”

Nearly 600 miles northwest of Wrangel, the men of the Jeannette spent the spring and early summer of 1881 drifting in the ice pack. De Long’s men had plenty to eat and were generally healthy, though they were slowly going mad from boredom and inaction.

By then, De Long had given up on the idea of the Open Polar Sea—the whole concept, he said in his journal, was “a delusion and a snare.” But he had not given up on drifting to the North Pole. De Long discovered a group of islands and claimed them for the U.S. (They’re now known as the De Long Islands.) But in early June 1881, the Jeannette was mortally crushed by the ice. At one point, the decks bulged. At 4 a.m. on June 13, the ship plunged through the pack and sank to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.


Cast out on the ice with their dogs, three open boats, and a few essential belongings, De Long and his 32 men had only one chance at survival: to drag their boats nearly 600 miles across the ice, hoping to find open water, and then sail for the nearest landmass—the central coast of Siberia.

They had only a few months to save themselves before winter set in. They would have to hunt for their own food while slogging over impossible expanses of crust and rubble and sludge. De Long’s maps showed that there might be settlements at the mouth of the Lena. Hoping to find a native village, he and his men aimed for the delta of one of the greatest rivers in the world.

The Lena River originates nearly 3,000 miles to the south of the Arctic Ocean, in a mountain range near Lake Baikal. As the river flows through the vast solitudes of Yakutia, it picks up tributary after tributary—the Kirenga, the Vitim, the Olyokma, the Aldan, the Vilyuy. The Lena is the world’s 11th-longest river, draining a vast swath of central Siberia. Because it flows north toward the Arctic, each fall the Lena freezes first at its mouth, developing a natural barrier that forces the water to fan out in a frantic search for other paths to the sea—which helps explain why the Lena’s delta is so extravagantly intricate, with untold thousands of islands and oxbow lakes.


This was the baffling landscape De Long and his men approached in their three open boats in September 1881. His crude chart labeled the country, simply, SWAMP OVER ETERNALLY FROZEN LAND.

To retrace this part of De Long’s journey, I left the Professor Khromov in Anadyr and flew west to a very different part of Siberia, the interior capital of Yakutsk—a booming hinterlands metropolis, built on gold and diamond riches, that is said to be the coldest city on earth. Then I took an iffy Brezhnev-era prop plane 1,000 miles north over the taiga and tundra to the coastal town of Tiksi. “Town” is a charitable word for this decaying, garbage-strewn collection of Soviet military barracks and empty slab apartment complexes. Technically speaking, Tiksi is an “urban locality,” the administrative center of the Sakha Republic’s Bulunsky District. During the Cold War, this place thrived as a staging base for long-range bombers. It basically was erected for the express purpose of annihilating my country.


Now Tiksi is mostly abandoned, although there is a climate research station nearby where scientists from around the world are studying the rapidly changing conditions in the Arctic. Tiksi is so remote, and the weather so harsh, that it’s nearly impossible to maintain infrastructure. The roads had turned to rubble. Pipes snaked across the tundra. Rusty container-ship modules were stacked everywhere, between scattered heaps of snarled wire, bent rebar, and busted concrete. Drinking vodka seemed to be the main pastime—I met a group of German engineers doing contract work there who had taken to calling the place Tipsy.

“Where are we?” I asked Victor, the taxi driver who drove me around town in a fumy Russian Uazik van. He was a dour, balding hardware-store owner who wore camos and had a rheumy hacking cough.

“Where are we?” Victor replied. “We are in the past.”

I had the privilege of being stuck in this existential wasteland for nearly a week. First I was required to obtain (what else?) more permits. The military officer inspected my papers and said, “State your reason for existence.” He had actually heard of George De Long and the Jeannette—a surprisingly large number of Russians have—but he’d never met an American who’d heard of them. Come to think of it, he said, he’d never met an American here at all. “Why such interest in De Longka now?” he wondered aloud as he studied my passport. “Americans want back islands De Longka discover—hmmm? Perhaps zat is real purpose here?”

He stamped my papers anyway and said, “Veelcome to Tiksi. You vill find it appalling place.”


Months earlier, I had made an arrangement by telephone to meet the director of the Lena zapovednik, who, for an exorbitant fee, had agreed to take me deep into the delta to find America Mountain. He’d told me he was the only person authorized to guide me there. I arrived in Tiksi a day before our departure date. But he was nowhere to be found when I visited the natural history museum he runs, a musty place crowded with mammoth bones, sagging specimens of taxidermy, and a small Jeannette expedition exhibit. An underling in his office said the director had gotten an offer to lead another trip into the delta—and that he was unreachable.

How long would he be unreachable? I asked.

Vill be one month,” the man said. “Maybe two.”

I had to find an alternative, fast. That’s how I learned about the Puteyskiy 405, a commercial riverboat contracted by the government to work the delta every summer, gauging depths, removing snags, checking buoys, and generally keeping the main channels open for the big boat traffic. For a fee of a few thousand dollars, plus five cartons of cigarettes, I could hitch a ride.

The Puteyskiy 405 picked me up at an abandoned ship ten miles from Tiksi. The captain, Vitali Zhdanov, said he knew America Mountain well and had even hunted and trapped there when he was a boy. It was on the far side of the delta, he said, more than 100 miles away, and would take three days to reach.


Soon we headed out into the bay, then slipped into one of the Lena’s eastern branches, called Bykovskaya. The river was big and broad, and I felt as though I had landed in some Russian version of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. The Puteyskiy 405 was a hard-working vessel, with a crew of ten and a fat gray cat named Marx. I was expected to help with the daily chores and galley responsibilities. This I was thrilled to do—anything to get me out of Tiksi.

We ate like kings: reindeer stew, smoked sturgeon, mounds of cabbage, and fresh fish hauled from the muddy river. I slept under the twilit sky and listened to the captain and his second-in-command, Andrey, as they laughed and smoked and rambled on through the night in the bold, beautiful Russian language. The world of the Lena enveloped me—its brackish smells, its plays of light, its endless patterns of snarls and eddies. I couldn’t have been happier.

We made a stop at a village called Bykovskiy. The dock had been wrecked by the ice, so getting ashore was a little tricky, involving a cat’s cradle of ropes and boards. The village was a jumble of slatternly houses, broken-down vehicles, and bored dogs. Planks were laid across the low swampy places, and rickety boardwalks had been built atop networks of steam and gas pipes.

People from around Bykovskiy were among those who helped save some of the Jeannette survivors when they finally reached the Lena by open boat and worked their way up its complicated delta. It was a village of Yakuts—seminomadic hunter-fishermen who built their world around the reindeer. In their facial features, the Yakuts resemble the Mongols, but their language is more closely related to Turkish. They had migrated here starting in the 13th century from the forests around Lake Baikal.

The men of the Jeannette found the Yakuts to be a proud and open-hearted people. They had spent centuries perfecting techniques for thriving in extreme cold; much of their independence came from their ability to live where no one else wanted to be. In these remote parts of Siberia, the expression went, “God is high up and the Czar is far off.”

People in Bykovskiy still talk about the De Long expedition. It’s a source of pride. At the school, I met a woman named Rabella Mukhoplyova—a Yakut administrator and teacher. “We know about De Longka,” she said. “We study him in our geography lessons. It is still hard to believe Amerikanskis came all the way here on a ship!” Rabella said the Yakuts around here thought the Jeannette survivors were a race of otherworldly men who had emerged from beneath the ice.

Bykovskiy was a shadow of what it used to be, Rabella said. The villagers had all but forgotten the ways of the reindeer, the walrus, and the whale. “In the seventies, there were dogs or reindeer next to every house,” she said. “Now everybody just drives snowmobiles.”

We continued deeper into the delta, working our way toward the river’s western branches. One afternoon we landed at an international research station, where a joint Russian-German team of scientists has been studying the condition of the permafrost. The station was a thriving compound of stackable sleeping modules powered by solar panels, wind turbines, and diesel generators. I met an intense young man named Alexander Makarov, from the polar geography department at the University of St. Petersburg. Researchers based here have been drilling in the soil at multiple locations around the Lena Delta to extract permafrost samples going back tens of thousands of years. “The permafrost is like a library archive of past climates, past environments,” Makarov said.

In recent times, as more permafrost melts during summertime, increased levels of methane—a greenhouse gas—have been escaping into the atmosphere. It’s a phenomenon common all over the Arctic, one that has led many scientists to make doomsday predictions. Some have called it the methane time bomb. Makarov is more guarded on the question. “Something is definitely happening out here,” he said. “The question is whether the changes are catastrophic. My opinion is that the permafrost is more stable than some people believe. This is a process of thousands of years, not decades.”

Back aboard the Puteyskiy 405, we continued west. Up on the bridge, Captain Zhdanov and I stood looking at his chart of the delta. The delta was dizzyingly complex—and always changing. Every year the spring flooding caused the channels to assume new courses. “Like most women I know,” Zhdanov said, “the river likes to change her mind.”

I could see how De Long and his contingent of men had gotten hopelessly lost here, staggering over this bewildering landscape for weeks without seeing a soul. “Here we … seemed to be wandering in a labyrinth,” De Long had written in the journal that he hauled in his weakening arms. “One does not like to feel he is caught in a trap.” Winter was setting in, but he could find no settlements. He was forced to make a cache and bury his meticulous meteorological logbooks from the Jeannette’s two years in the ice. (These records were later recovered and are now being studied by NOAA scientists to understand the condition of the late 19th-century ice pack.)

As their circumstances deteriorated, De Long was forced to slaughter his last dog. Then one of his crewmen died of frostbite. De Long wrote: “What in God’s name is going to become of us?”

The next morning, America Mountain slid into the Puteyskiy 405’s view, dancing in vaporous waves like an Arctic vision. In the refractions of the Siberian atmosphere, it sometimes looked like a castle, or a whale emerging from the sea, or the back of some enormous prehistoric beast. The Yakuts generally stayed away from America Mountain—it was said to be inhabited by witches—but it was the most dominant feature in the northwestern delta, a place so high it would never wash away in the Lena’s seasonal floods.

We drew as near as we could in the Puteyskiy 405. Then Andrey and I put out in the dingy.

In the spectral light, Andrey and I reached the top of Amerika Khaya. The survivors of the Jeannette expedition built a marker here in the Lena Delta in 1882, not just as a memorial and a crypt lofted safely above the floods, but as a rebuke to anyone who might pass this way and entertain doubts. We Americans were here, it seemed to say. Remember us.


De Long and his 32 men had stayed together for 700 miles and nearly three months as they retreated over the ice. But when they reached open water, a gale separated them. The survivors eventually found ten of their lost comrades, frozen by a broad bend in the river 20 miles from here, having died from exposure and starvation. The survivors wrapped the bodies in scraps of tent canvas and then hauled them by dog team to the top of this mountain. From lumber they’d found scattered along the river, they built a massive coffin—7 feet wide, 22 feet long, and 22 inches deep—held together by mortise-and-tenon joints. The bodies were placed inside it, with their faces turned toward the rising sun. Then the top of the coffin was hammered into place. Next, scores of lichen-splotched rocks were piled upon the coffin until the monument had assumed a pyramidal shape. From driftwood timbers, they constructed a large cross, 20 feet high with a 12-foot crossbeam. They carved out the inscription—“In memory of the officers and men of the Arctic steamer ‘Jeannette’ who died of starvation in the Lena Delta, October, 1881.”

Their somber work was completed on April 7, 1882. In 1883, the bodies were disinterred and shipped by reindeer team, horse-drawn sleds, and train all the way to Moscow, in an elaborate funeral procession jointly orchestrated by the U.S. Navy and the Russian government. Then they were shipped to New York, where the Jeannette dead were celebrated as national heroes and “martyrs to science.”

The Jeannette monument had scarcely changed from the lithograph sketches I’d seen from the 1880s. The original cross—or perhaps a refurbished one, it was hard to tell—was still there. A tattered Russian flag snapped in the wind. Next to the cross stood a little stone obelisk that had been erected by some historically minded group from Tiksi. At the base of it was a metal box. I unclasped it and found messages from the handful of people who had visited over the decades—a few Russian and German climate experts, a Japanese polar scientist. They’d left trinkets, cheap jewelry, cigarettes, airplane bottles of liquor, and paper money that had yellowed over time. These items, it seemed, were meant not merely as offerings, but as things that might prove useful to the long-dead adventurers in their Arctic heaven.

I scribbled a note of praise to the men of the Jeannette, for their sacrifice, for their ingenuity, for their integrity. “Nil desperandum,” I said. Never despair. It was a catchphrase throughout De Long’s journals, his motto to the end. I placed the note in the box.

I stared off at the iceless Arctic Ocean to the north, which giant freighters and Maersk container ships have increasingly been using in summertime as a northeast passage. One day soon, the climatologists tell us, an Open Polar Sea may really exist. Maybe De Long wasn’t crazy after all; he was just off by 140 years.

Andrey and I were savoring the ghostly light, high above the bogs. We made a picnic of vodka, sturgeon, and reindeer jerky. At around 1 A.M., we finally decided it was time to go. As a gift to the dead, Andrey placed a shiny new bullet in the metal box and clasped it shut. “In case they’re hunting,” he said, flashing a smile of tobacco-stained teeth. “In case they’re hungry.”

Then he raised his rifle and fired three rounds into the air. The shots rang out over America Mountain and fell on the braided bends of the Lena Delta, scattering a flock of geese.

Editor at large Hampton Sides's book about De Long's expedition, In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, is published this monthy by Doubleday.

Read More

Summer Camps for Grownups

You've styled your child with an enviable lineup of outdoor camps, slotted in some action-packed adventure festivals for the whole family. Now Mama (or Papa) needs a little solo play time. Fortunately it doesn't take much to recharge. All you need for DIY adventure is 36 hours and a multisport destination a couple hours' drive from home. Or let someone else do the planning and sign on with one of summer's best new guided retreats guaranteed to recapture the sweet freedom you took for granted before the kids came along. Sign up now for mid- to late-summer adventures, and you'll still have the time—and a fresh surge of energy—to pull off that family camping trip and set your little ones loose on spontaneous backyard adventures before school's back in session.


Run Wild Retreats

July 17-20; Aspen, Colorado
If you shy away from Strava, hate wearing a heart-rate-monitor, and just want to run well and feel great doing it, then this four-day holistic trail running retreat in the wilderness outside of Aspen is for you. Blending mindfulness practice, yoga for runners, and plant-based nutrition, the camp—led by running and health coach Elinor Fish—is a stellar primer on how to run mindfully for maximum health, for life. With daily guided trail runs ranging from four to 12 miles (no prior trail experience is necessary), cooking demos on how to fuel and recover with whole foods, yoga classes, and gait assessment, you'll come away with a new vision for how running smarter can increase your energy and reduce your stress, and feel good every time. $697; two-day mini retreat, $397.



River Rites


September 15-20; Cataract Canyon, Utah
Wilderness travel is transformative, but sometimes the epiphanies you have in the backcountry lose their focus as soon you get home. This six-day raft trip through Cataract Canyon, in Canyonlands National Park, is intended to be a modern-day rite of passage to help renew your sense of purpose, empower you to action in the world, release you from stagnation and make lasting change—for both the planet and also yourself.

"Traditional wilderness rites of passage were designed to knit together generations and to prepare for transitions in life," explains Stacy Peterson, a yoga instructor and hypnotherapist, who is co-leading the trip with an eco-psychologist and a climate justice activist. "Because we don't have these opportunities to mark transitions in our lives, we no longer take the time to slow down, deeply reflect, and reset the course of where we want to go."

The expedition through one of West's most stunning, and remote—and imperiled—river corridors incorporates daily yoga and meditation practice, cleansing food, as well as that most rare and restorative perk of all: silence. Out of range from cell phones and schedules, you'll hike into the iconic sandstone spires of the Doll House, in the remote Maze district of the park, and splash down Cataract's Class IV rapids, pulling out of your own busy life and immersing yourself deep into your own true nature. $1199.


Rio Chama Photo Workshop

August 22-26; Rio Chama, New Mexico
Ever wish you could take better photographs while in the backcountry? This five-day raft and photo expedition on the Rio Chama in northern New Mexico offers an intensive dose of both photography instruction and wilderness immersion. Led by The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops—widely regarded as the best in the country, now in its 25th year—the trip launches with a three-day, 33-mile float down the Wild & Scenic Rio Chama, the old stomping grounds of Georgia O'Keefe, Ansel Adams, and Elliot Porter. Under the tutelage of veteran lensman Tony Bonanno (and boatmen from New Mexico River Expeditions) you'll spend your days floating the Class II-III rapids, hiking to hot springs and slot canyons, and photographing the thousand-foot sandstone walls, the meandering high desert river, and the stately ponderosa that line the banks. Back at the Workshop's lab in Santa Fe for the final two days, learn the ins and outs of digital processing and printing on Adobe. You'll be all but guaranteed to come home with stellar expedition photos and the know-how to capture your next trip with equal aplomb. $995.



Make Friends with Fear Workshop

August 1-3; Hammondsport, New York
Former pro skier and Zen therapist Kristen Ulmer has been running Ski to Live camps each winter in Alta, Utah, and around the West for years. What she's discovered in her experience with mindset coaching is that "whether we realize it or not, fear runs everybody's life, even if you don't feel afraid." This three-day retreat at Red-Tail Overlook B+B in the Finger Lakes region is designed to help you change your relationship with fear, to stop treating it like a hindrance and turn it into an ally to create momentum and growth in your life—whether it's in sports, parenting, business, or creativity. Instead of making you walk over hot coals or dangle from high ropes courses ("we don't do that," assures Ulmer), she'll help clients shift into the next level of consciousness while hiking the rolling, wooded trails along Keuka Lake, facilitating creative role playing, and sharing ancient wisdom stories. If it sounds a little out there, the former champion athlete is one of the most respected sports mindset coaches in the field—she's the real deal. Says Ulmer, "If you turn fear into an asset, it will set you free." From $625; two-day fear camp in Salt Lake City, July 19-20, $190. 


Read More

The Freedivers Who Eavesdrop on Whales

I’m in the passenger seat of a white van, on a dusty, potholed road somewhere along the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka. It’s 9:00 p.m. and the stars are out. “Is this the right way?” I ask our driver.

He’s a local named Bobby; that isn’t his real name, but that’s what he wants me to call him. Bobby is shaking his head and flashing me a reassuring smile. It’s the same smile he used ten minutes ago when he took a wrong turn into someone’s front yard, the same one he gave me twenty minutes before that when he brought the van to a dead stop in the middle of a two-lane freeway, stepped out into oncoming traffic, and ran across the street to ask a barefoot man on a bike for directions.

“Bobby? Is this the right way?” I repeat.

That smile.

Then Bobby suddenly pulls into a driveway. Through the headlights, it looks like we’ve just pulled into a junkyard. Twelve hours driving through steep mountain roads, jungles thick with elephants, and dusty towns filled with men in baggy slacks selling boiled peanuts and green bananas – and now this.


He pulls out of the driveway and takes a left. This road is narrower and bumpier. Bushes scrape the doors. The eyes of unknown animals glow from copses of coconut palms. A dog barks. Bats the size of rats flutter and swoop inches from the windshield.

Minutes later, we come to a stop in a barren sandlot. To the right is a creepy-looking, three-story pink-concrete building. A single, bare light bulb shines over a white plastic table on the patio, giving the scene an Edward Hopper feel. Bobby exhales, pulls the key from the ignition, and smiles. We’ve arrived at our destination, he says: the Pigeon Island View Guesthouse.

{%{"quote":"Of the twenty or so sperm whale scientists in the field, none dive, film, or interact with their subjects. Schnöller finds this inconceivable. “How do you study sperm whale behavior without seeing them behave, without seeing them communicate?”"}%}

That evening, after days of air travel from five different points of the globe, the whale search party has gathered and we are all sitting together around the patio table. On one side sits the expedition leader, Fabrice Schnöller, and Guy Gazzo, a 74-year-old freediving legend, both from Reunion Island, a French outpost located 400 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Across the table is South Africa national-record holding freediver, Hanli Prinsloo, and her aquatic he-man boyfriend, a world-champion swimmer from Los Angeles named Peter Marshall. Belgian photographer, Jean-Marie Ghislain, sits next to Prinsloo. Ghislain tells the group that he has just returned from a trip in Botswana to swim with crocodiles. The trip ended after the first day when a team member had his arm eaten off.


Thirty years ago to the week an American film crew came to this spot – Trincomalee, Sri Lanka — and captured the first footage of sperm whales in their natural habitat. The resulting film, Whales Weep Not, narrated by Jason Robards, became an international sensation and helped spark the Save the Whales movement.

Schnöller and his crew hope to have a similar impact by capturing the first 3-D footage of sperm whales and human-and-whale freediving interactions which Schnöller will use an upcoming documentary. We'll also be recording audio data for a group of researchers in France who are trying to decipher the sperm whale click language.

But for any of this to work we’ll first need to find some whales.

Schnöller, who is 45 years old and wears an uncombed swatch of short gray hair and oversize multicolored shorts, first swam with sperm whales in 2007. He was sailing with a friend from his home in Reunion to neighboring Mauritius, when a pod approached the boat. Schnöller grabbed a mask, snorkel, and fins, and jumped in. Within a half hour the pod surrounded him. Then they oriented their bodies vertically, like obelisks, and stared up with wide eyes. They began echolocating his body; Schnöller could feel their echolocation vocalizations, called clicks, penetrate his flesh and vibrate through his bones, his chest cavity. The whales stayed with him for two hours.

Six months after the encounter, Schnöller sold his lumber store and dedicated his life to trying to understand these animals. He built his own A/V equipment to record sperm whale behavior and communication. He enlisted some of the foremost marine scientists to help him crack their “hidden language.”

In the five years since he began, Schnöller and his team — none of whom have had any formal research experience or even hold scientific degrees — have collected the largest database of sperm whale behavior and vocalizations in history.


What's given them such intimate and immediate access is that they are the only researchers in the field willing to swim with whales. More specifically, they are the only researchers freediving to -40 feet and below, then swimming in whales' deep-sea turf.

“Jane Goodall didn’t study apes from a plane,” said Schnöller. “And so you can’t expect to study the ocean and its animals from a classroom. You’ve got to get in there. You’ve got to get wet.” Schnöller’s renegade band believes that the only way to crack the sperm whale language code, and to truly understand these animals, is by diving with them face-to-face.

This balls-to-the-wall approach puts traditional ocean scientists at a disadvantage. No university or institution would permit its employees to motor miles out to sea in a beat-up boat off the coast of a developing country to swim with sperm whales, which can grow up to 125,000 pounds and 60 feet in length and are the largest predators on Earth. And, freediving isn’t a course offered with most ocean-based PhD’s. Few students would want to take the course if it were. Freediving requires months to years of training to master. And if all the training is successful, it would only bring researchers within chomping distance of the four dozen seven-inch-long teeth that line the sperm whale mouth.

Not getting crushed, drowned, or eaten by sperm whales is only one of the challenges of studying them. Another is actually finding the animals. Sperm whales migrate from the north and south poles towards the warmer waters along the equator every summer. If you're lucky enough to see a pod, chances are you’ll never get close enough to dive with them. Schnöller predicts he sees sperm whales about 1 percent of the time he’s at sea looking for them; he’ll dive with them about 1 percent of the time he sees them. In other words, this is hard work with few rewards. It’s made even harder by the fact that most countries with coastlines prohibit swimming with sperm whales.

In late 2012, Schnöller heard that huge pods of sperm whales were congregating off the coast off Trincomalee, a Podunk town along the northeast coast of Sri Lanka. In fact, the whales were regulars in this spot. They've come each spring to hunt, socialize, and mate in the Trincomalee Canyon, an eight-thousand-foot-deep chasm that stretches twenty-five miles across the Indian Ocean, from the northern tip of the country into the Trincomalee harbor. They've come here each spring from around March through August for as long as anyone can remember, and probably for millions of years before that.

Best of all, researching sperm whales in these waters was easy — there are no permits required, no authorities to evade, no cruise ships, no recreational swimmers or divers, no whale-watching industry to speak of. Over the course of a few months in 2012 and 2013, Schnöller shook loose enough funding to send him and a team of expert freedivers to the Trincomalee Canyon for a ten-day expedition in March 2013. He asked if I wanted to come along.

Our first two days treading the Trincomalee Canyon are a disaster. We spend them in two tiny, shadeless fishing boats juddering around the ocean without seeing any whales. The film crew’s cameraman gets seasick the first day and refuses to go back out. Without a cameraman, and still without any usable footage, the documentary director threatens to pull the plug on the documentary.

On the evening of the second day, I meet Schnöller on the second-story patio. He’s sitting alone, haloed in mosquitoes. The blue fluorescent beam of a headlamp shines down on a table filled with half-assembled underwater-camera casings. Behind him, a waxing moon hangs low over a tinseled sea.

“This is very hard work, you see,” he says, looking up as I take a seat at the table. He’s wearing an American flag headband and knockoff Facebook sandals that he picked up at a junk store on the way here, and he looks as ridiculous as that description makes him sound. “Ocean research takes patience, lots of patience, persistence, and is very physically exhausting.”

Schnöller grew up in the west African nation of Gabon, the son of a former French army lieutenant who worked for then dictator Omar Bongo. The family’s house was located beneath a canopy of mango trees at the shoreline of an unpopulated beach, which was where Schnöller spent much of his youth. He told me earlier how he remembered watching crocodiles from a nearby river crawl up the front porch and eat food from the dog bowl. Sometimes while the family was eating dinner, giant mambas would slide in through wooden planks in the roof and drop down on the dining-room table. Schnöller’s father kept a shotgun close by, and after a few years, the roof was peppered with holes.

On weekends, Schnöller would sail along Gabon’s wild coast and make camp on unexplored islands. He learned how to navigate through the ocean’s many moods, keep cool in crises, and improvise his way out of trouble. He learned to be patient.

“There are no fast results in this research,” he says. “That’s why so few people bother doing it.”

Actually, he corrects himself, nobody is doing it.

Of the twenty or so sperm whale scientists in the field, none dive, film, or interact with their subjects. Schnöller finds this inconceivable. “How do you study sperm whale behavior without seeing them behave, without seeing them communicate?” He’s convinced that to understand sperm whales, one must first understand their communication, and to understand their communication, one needs to understand their language, which he believes is transmitted through clicks.

The idea that sperm whales and other cetaceans (dolphins, belugas, orcas, etc) share some form of sophisticated communication is not a New Age theory, and it's not as nuts as it sounds.

At 17 pounds, the sperm whale has brains that are five times the size of ours; it's the largest brain ever to have know to have existed on Earth. The sperm whale's neocortex, which governs higher-level functions in humans such as conscious thought, future planning, and language, is estimated to be about six times larger than ours. Sperm whales also have spindle cells, the long and highly developed brain structures that neurologists have long associated with speech and feelings of compassion, love, suffering, and intuition — those things that make humans human. Sperm whales not only have spindle cells, but they had them in far greater concentration than humans. Furthermore, scientific evidence suggest that they evolved them more than 15 million years before us. In the realm of brain evolution, 15 million years is a very long time.

Sperm whales are the loudest animals on earth. Their vocalizations are loud enough to be heard several hundred miles away, and possibly around the globe. At their maximum level of 236 decibels, these clicks are louder than two thousand pounds of TNT exploding two hundred feet away from you, and much louder than the space shuttle taking off from two hundred and fifty feet away. Sperm whale clicks could not only blow out human eardrums from hundreds of feet away, but vibrate a human body to pieces. The extraordinary power of clicks lets whales use them to perceive an intimately detailed view of their environment from great distances. They can detect a ten-inch-long squid at a distance of more than a thousand feet and a human from more than a mile away. Sperm whales’ echolocation is the most precise and powerful form of biosonar ever discovered.

Not only are sperm whale vocalizations extremely loud; they are also incredibly organized. They sound unremarkable to the human ear — something like the tack-tack-tack of a few dozen typewriters — but when slowed down and viewed as a sound wave on a spectrogram, clicks, which range in length from 24 o 72 milliseconds (thousands of a second), reveal an incredibly complex collection of shorter clicks woven within them. Inside one click is a series of smaller clicks, inside those smaller clicks yet even smaller clicks, and so on, each unfolding like a Russian nesting doll.

Sperm whales transmit these clicks at very specific and distinct frequencies, and can replicate them down to the exact millisecond and frequency, over and over again. They can control the millisecond-long intervals inside the clicks and reorganize them into different structures, in the same way a composer might revise a scale of notes in a piano concerto. But sperm whales can make elaborate revisions to their click patterns then play them back in the space of a few thousands of a second.

“These patterns are very structured; this is not random,” says Schnöller, taking a sip of beer. The only reason sperm whales would have such incredibly complex vocalizations, Schnöller suggests, is if they were using them in some form of communication.

Schnöller isn’t alone. Most marine biologists believe that sperm whales are in fact communicating through their clicks. They just have no idea what they’re saying. Schnöller hopes to be the first.

{%{"quote":"Sperm whale echolocation, even from miles beneath the ocean’s surface, is strong enough to vibrate five feet of wood and make an audible clicking sound. It sounds like a signal from another world, which, in a way, is precisely what it is. I get chills listening to it."}%}

“When you think about it, human language is very inefficient, it is very prone to errors,” Schnöller says. Humans use phonemes—basic units of sound, like kah, puh, ah, tee—to create words, sentences, and, ultimately, meaning. (English has about forty-two phonemes, which speakers shuffle around to create tens of thousands of words.) While we can usually convey phonemes clearly enough for others to understand them, we can never fully replicate them the same way each time we speak. The frequency, volume, and clarity of the voice shifts constantly, so that the same word uttered twice in a row by the same person will usually sound discernibly different, and will always show clear differences when viewed on a computer. Comprehension in human language is based on proximity: If you enunciate clearly enough, another speaker of the same language will understand you; if you bungle too many vowels and consonants, or even pronunciation (think of French or a tonal Asian language), then communication is lost.

Schnöller’s research suggests that sperm whales don’t have this problem. If they’re using these clicks as a form of communication, he believes, it would be less like human language and more like fax-machine transmissions, which work by sending out microsecond-length tones across a phone line to a receiving machine, which processes those tones into words and pictures. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a pod of socializing sperm whales sounds a lot like a fax transmission.)

Human language is analogue; sperm whale language may be digital.

“Why do they have such huge brains, why are these patterns so consistent and perfectly organized, if they aren’t some kind of communication?” Schnöller asks rhetorically. He mentions that sperm whales have more brain mass and brain cells controlling language than humans do. “I know, I know, this is all just theory, but still, when you think about it, it just doesn’t make sense otherwise.”


To illustrate his point, Schnöller relates an encounter he had the previous year with a pod of sperm whales. The pod whales, both adults and their young, were hanging out in the water, clicking and socializing, when Schnöller approached them with a camera attached to a bodysurfing board. A calf swam over and faced Schnöller, then took the camera in its mouth. A group of adults immediately surrounded the calf and showered it with clicks. Seconds later, the calf let the camera go, then backed up and retreated behind the adults without ever looking at them. To Schnöller, the young whale looked ashamed. “It got the message not to mess with us.” He laughs. “That’s when I knew, they had to be talking to it. There’s just no other way.”

Schnöller says he’s also witnessed, on numerous occasions, two sperm whales clicking back and forth to each other as if they were having a conversation. He’s seen other whales pass clicks and then suddenly move in the same direction. He’s watched a whale bend its head in exaggerated motions to face one whale head-on and pass one pattern of clicks, and then bend in another direction to face another whale and pass a completely different pattern. To Schnöller, it all looked like they were talking.


But neither Schnöller nor anyone else will be translating the cetacean language anytime soon. It’s too complicated, and both resources and personnel are too scarce to study it closely. The DareWin team has come here to collect data in the hope of simply proving that sperm whales use clicks as some form of communication. They’ll record as much sperm whale socializing as they can, then correlate coda clicks with specific behaviors. The crazy-looking pod at Schnöller’s feet, called a SeaX Sense 4-D, uses a underwater-camera housing with twelve minicameras and four hydrophones to document the sperm whale interactions in high-definition audio and video, in all directions at once.

Nobody has ever recorded sperm whale interactions and behaviors with such sensitive equipment before, because no such equipment had existed. And even if it had, academic and institutional scientists couldn’t get in the water to use it because none freedives with whales. Schnöller and his crew are allowed such intimate access to whales because they approach them in their natural, most unthreatening forms, by freediving with them. The whales don’t scare off, they don’t swim away, and they don’t attack. They become curious. Often, the whales welcome him and other freedivers into their pods and try to communicate with them.

At seven in the morning on the third day, the boat captains arrive and lead us back to our hired beat-up “research vessels — two decades-old pangas with wooden planks for seats.”


I’ll be on a boat with Hanli Prinsloo, Peter Marshall, and Jean-Marie Ghislain. The plan is for the two boats to head out together, several miles off the coast, to a spot in Trincomalee Canyon where the seafloor drops off to a depth of more than six thousand feet. From there, we’ll split up and look for whales. Should someone on either boat spot any, he’ll use a mobile phone to alert the other boat. We’ll then trail the whales, wait for them to slow down or stop, and then get in the water.

We pack up, squeeze in, and set off south toward the horizon, our rickety craft riding low in the water. Hours later, we're tweny miles off the coast, floating in a dead-calm sea. Still, no whales.

“There were just so many out here last year,” Prinsloo says, who had travelled here last year and had a half-dozen whale encounters. She’s curled up in a sheet wet with seawater and sweat, leaning against Peter Marshall. Both of them are wearing T-shirts around their faces, so only the lenses of their sunglasses peep through. “I don’t know,” Prinsloo laments. “I don’t know what happened.”

Ghislain, the photographer who told us the unfortunate crocodile tale earlier in the week, wipes his sweaty palms against his T-shirt. He emits an exaggerated sigh, takes a sip of water, and turns to stare into the open ocean. A minute becomes an hour; an hour becomes two. I check my dive watch: the temperature gauge reads 106. Even my fingers are sunburned.

The notion of all of us trying to arrange a peaceful encounter with whales is bit ironic, given the way humankind has treated them for centuries.

According to legend, in 1712, an American ship captained by Christopher Hussey was hunting right whales off the southern coast of Nantucket Island when a gale suddenly blew the vessel dozens of miles south, beyond sight of land, to a barren stretch of deep water in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The crew struggled to regain control of ship and were readying the mast to tack back to shore when they noticed columns of mist shooting up at odd angles from the water’s surface. Then they heard heavy, heaving exhalations. They had floated into a pod of whales. Hussey ordered the men to draw lances and harpoons and stab the whale closest to the ship. They killed it, tied it to the side of the boat, fitted the mast, and sailed back to Nantucket, then dropped the whale’s body on a south-facing beach.

This was no right whale. Hussey knew that the mouths of right whales are filled with baleen, a hairlike substance used in filtering out krill and small fish. The whale he had just caught had enormous teeth, several inches long, and a single nostril on top of its head. The bones of its flippers looked eerily like those of a human hand. Hussey and his crew cut open the whale’s head, and hundreds of gallons of thick, straw-colored oil oozed out. The oil must be sperm, they thought (wrongly); this strange whale must be carrying its “seed” within its oversize head. Hussey named it spermaceti (Greek sperma, “seed”; Latin cetus, “whale”). The English version of the name took hold: sperm whale.

From that point forward, the sperm whale was screwed.

By the mid-1700s, whale ships had flocked to Nantucket to join a thriving industry. Sperm whale oil, the straw-colored seed taken from the whale’s head, turned out to be an efficient and clean-burning fuel for everything from streetlamps to lighthouses. In its congealed form, it made top-quality candles, cosmetics, machine lubricants, and waterproofing agents. The Revolutionary War was fueled by sperm whale oil.

By the 1830s, more than 350 ships and 10,000 sailors were hunting sperm whales. Twenty years later, those numbers would double. Nantucket was processing more than five thousand sperm whale corpses a year and reaping upwards of twelve million gallons of oil. (A single whale could yield five hundred or more gallons of spermaceti; oil from boiled blubber could produce about twice that amount.)

But hunting the world’s largest predator didn’t come without dangers.

Whalers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were attacked regularly. The most famous incident occurred in 1820. The Nantucket whale ship Essex was off the coast of South America, its crew hunting whales, when they were rammed twice by a charging bull. The ship was lost. A crew of twenty men escaped in smaller boats and drifted off into the open ocean.

Nine weeks later, still drifting, the crew was close to starvation. Following maritime custom, the men drew lots to see who would be eaten. The captain’s cousin, a seventeen-year-old named Owen Coffin, was chosen. Coffin put his head on the side of the boat; another man pulled the trigger of a gun. “He was soon dispatched,” wrote the captain, “and nothing of him left.”

Ninety-five days later, the boat was rescued. There were two survivors: the captain and the man who had pulled the trigger. The harrowing tale served as the basis for Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick and, more recently, Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction bestseller In the Heart of the Sea.

As sperm whale stocks decreased in the ocean near Nantucket, and whalers had to search farther away, the cost of oil increased. Meanwhile, a Canadian geologist named Abraham Gesner invented a method of distilling kerosene from petroleum. This process produced a substance close to whale oil in quality, but much cheaper. In the 1860s, the whale-oil industry collapsed.

The discovery of petroleum sounds like a death knell for whaling, but ultimately, this new cheap fuel would hasten the sperm whale’s destruction.

In the 1920s, new diesel-powered ships could process whale bodies so quickly and easily that whaling become profitable again. Sperm whale oil became a primary ingredient in brake fluid, glue, and lubricants. It was used to make soap, margarine, and lipstick and other cosmetics. The whale’s muscles and guts were mashed up and processed into pet food and tennis-racket strings. (If you own a top-quality wooden tennis racket made between 1950 and 1970, chances are it was strung with the sinew of sperm whales.)

Whaling went global. From the 1930s to 1980s, Japan alone killed 260,000 sperm whales—about 20 percent of the total population.

By the early 1970s, an estimated 60 percent of the ocean’s sperm whale population had been hunted, and the species was nearing extinction. While the world had grown proficient at hunting sperm whales, the whales themselves were a complete mystery. No one knew how they communicated or socialized; no one even knew what they ate. They had never been filmed underwater.

The documentary Whales Weep Not, which was seen by millions of people in the 1980s, offered the public the first view of sperm whales in their natural habitat. Sperm whales seemed far from the image handed down by history and literature. They were not surly brutes munching boats and men but gentle, friendly, even welcoming. The global antiwhaling movement gained support throughout the early 1980s and eventually ended all commercial whaling by 1986.

The general increase in awareness of the sperm whale’s intelligence and human-like behavior has not deterred some countries from trying to hunt them again. As of 2010, Japan, Iceland, and Norway have been pressuring the International Whaling Commission to end its thirty-year moratorium on whaling. Schnöller and other researchers predict the moratorium could be lifted as soon as 2016, and hunting of sperm whales could again become legal.

Sperm whales have the lowest reproductive rate of any mammal; females give birth to a single calf once every four to six years. The current sperm whale population is estimated at about 360,000, down from approximately 1.2 million just two hundred years ago, where it probably hovered for tens of thousands of years before whaling began. Nobody knows for sure, but many researchers fear the population has been declining once more. Continued hunting could significantly decrease the population for generations and eventually push sperm whales back toward extinction.

Back on the boat, another hour passes. And another. I check the thermometer on my dive watch and notice the temperature has climbed to 109.

Then, suddenly, an electronic chirp blasts from the back of the boat. It’s Schnöller, calling our captain’s cell phone. The DareWin team has just spotted a pod of sperm whales near the Trincomalee harbor. Schnöller says the whales have probably been there the whole time; we just hadn’t been far enough out to spot them. They’re following slowly behind the pod, waiting for an opportunity to get in.

The captain starts the motor and we shoot south.

“You see the ploofs?” says Prinsloo, pointing east at the horizon. What look like little mushroom clouds shoot from the surface at a 45-degree angle. A sperm whale has only one external nostril, which is located on the left side of its head and causes its exhales to emerge at an angle. These distinctive blows can go about twelve feet high, and on a windless and clear day, they’re visible for a mile or more.

“They look like dandelions, don’t they!” says Prinsloo. Three hundred yards to our right, another blow erupts.

“Get your mask,” she says.

Our team has agreed to put only two people in the water at any one time, to avoid scaring off the whales. I’m on the first shift. The captain turns and pulls parallel to the pod so that we’re a few hundred feet in front of them.

“You can never chase down a whale,” Prinsloo explains as she yanks off the sheet and grabs her fins. “They always need to choose to come to you.” If we move slowly in predictable motions, just in front of the whales’ path, they can easily echolocate the boat and get comfortable with our presence. If they’re disturbed by us, they’ll take a deep breath and disappear beneath the surface. We’ll never see them again.

As the boat edges closer, the whales still haven’t dived—a good sign. Prinsloo says it’s not a full pod, just a mother and calf. Another good sign. Calves get curious around freedivers, and their mothers, in Prinsloo’s experience, encourage them to investigate.

Both whales are four hundred feet from the boat when they slow down, almost to a stop. Our captain cuts the motor. Prinsloo nods to me; I pull on my fins, mask, and snorkel, and we quietly submerge.

“Take my hand,” she says. “Now, follow.” Breathing through our snorkels with our faces just below the surface, we kick out toward the whales. Today, the visibility is mediocre, about a hundred feet. We can’t see the whales in the water, but we can certainly hear them. The blows grow louder and louder. Then the clicking begins; it sounds like a playing card stuck in the moving spokes of a bicycle. The water starts vibrating.

Prinsloo tugs my arm, trying to get me to hurry up. She pops her head above the surface for a moment and stops. I stick my head up and see a mound a hundred feet in front of us, like a black sun sinking on the horizon. The clicking grows louder. The mound pops up from the surface again, then disappears. The whales leave; we don’t see them depart. But we can hear them beneath the water, their blows softening as they drift off. The waters calm, the clicks slow like a clock winding down. And they’re gone.


Prinsloo lifts her head and faces me. “Whale,” she says. I nod, smiling, take the snorkel out of my mouth, and begin to tell her how incredible the experience was. Then she shakes her head and points behind me.

“No. Whale.”

The mother and calf have returned. They’re stopped and are facing us in the other direction, a hundred and fifty feet away. The clicking starts again. It’s louder than it was before. I instinctively kick toward the whales, but Prinsloo grabs my hand.

“Don’t swim, don’t move,” she whispers. “They’re watching us.”

The clicks now sound like jackhammers on pavement. These are echolocation clicks; the whales are scanning us inside and out. We watch from the surface as they exhale. With a kick of their flukes, they lunge toward us.

“Listen,” Prinsloo says urgently. She grabs me by the shoulder and looks directly at me. “You need to set the right intention now. They can sense your intent.” I know how dangerous human-whale interactions can be, but I strive to set my fear aside, calm myself, and think good thoughts.

Behind Prinsloo, the whales approach, hissing and blowing steam like two locomotives. “Trust this moment,” she says. The whales are a hundred feet, seventy-five feet away. Prinsloo grips my hand. “Trust this moment,” she repeats, and she pulls me a few feet beneath the surface.

A hazy black mass materializes in the distance, growing larger and darker, like a drop of ink on a paper towel. Details emerge. A fin. A gaping mouth. A patch of white. An eye, sunk low on a knotted head, peers in our direction. The mother is the size of a school bus; her calf, a short bus. They look like landmasses, submerged islands. Prinsloo squeezes my hand and I squeeze back.

The whales approach us head-on. Then, thirty feet from colliding with us, pull softly to the side and languorously veer left. The rhythm of the clicks shifts; the water fills with what sounds to me like coda clicks. I believe they are identifying themselves to us. The calf floats just in front of its mother, bobs its head slightly, and stares with an unblinking eye. Its mouth is turned up at the end, like it’s smiling. The mother wears the same expression; all sperm whales do.

They keep their gaze upon us as they pass within a dozen feet of our faces, shower us with clicks, then retreat slowly back into the shadows. The coda clicks turn to echolocation clicks, then the echolocation fades, and the ocean, once again, falls silent.

Trying to save and study sperm whales is not without dangers either.

One of my companions tells me about a freediver-whale encounter in the Azores, off the west coast of Africa. After more than an hour of friendly contact and observation, a young bull approached and apparently got jealous. The bull turned and shot the freediver with clicks that left the man with hours of debilitating pain in his stomach and chest. (Long term, he suffered no ill effects.)

Schnöller told me a similar story. He was diving with sperm whales in 2011 when a curious calf approached and started bumping him with its nose. Schnöller held out his hand to push the calf back and felt a sudden shock of heat rush up his arm. The energy from the clicks coming out of the calf’s nose was strong enough to paralyze Schnöller’s hand for the next few hours. He too recovered.

Prinsloo and Ghislain had their share of close calls in Trincomalee last year. After spending hours in the water with a pod, a bull approached Ghislain at a fast clip. Prinsloo motioned to Ghislain to get out of the way. Just then, the bull turned, raised his twelve-foot fluke above the surface, spun it, and slapped it down. If Ghislain hadn’t moved, his head would have been crushed. Prinsloo and Ghislain claimed the fluke slap was possibly a playful interaction, not meant to harm. But when you’re in the water with an animal five hundred times your weight and ten times your size, such play can be fatal.

The fact is that nobody—not Prinsloo, Schnöller, or Buyle—really knows how risky these kinds of encounters are. Up until ten years ago, Schnöller told me earlier, nobody was diving with whales.

“Everyone thought it was too dangerous,” said Schnöller. Today, only a handful of divers attempt it, and most have had their share of narrow escapes.

Few people — and no other researchers — would dare risk their careers — and lives — to dive with these animals.

Luke Rendell, a sperm whale researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told me in an e-mail that Schnöller’s research approach looked like “a pile of hokum” and was probably a “pretty flimsy scientific cover to go swimming with whales.” His team was perfectly capable of “collecting data without freediving with the animals, thank you.” To be fair, Rendell said he welcomed more researchers to the field, but he thought the DareWin’s website looked suspiciously like pseudoscience.

Schnöller brushes off the criticism as “normal scientist reaction.” And he’s finding legitimacy with partnerships with researchers at the University of Paris and other oceanographic institutions. “This will all be official, it will all be scientific,” he says.

Institutional scientists study sperm whale communication by recording clicks with a hydrophone from the deck of the boat, without ever knowing which whale is clicking and why. One of the longest-running sperm whale research programs is the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, headed by Hal Whitehead. The group studies sperm whale behavior by, among other things, following pods around and snapping photographs of flukes when the whales come up for air.

Meanwhile, last year Schnöller had a face-to-face encounter with five sperm whales that lasted three hours. The entire dive was documented in three-dimensional video and high-definition audio and is, to date, the longest and most detailed footage of sperm whales ever recorded.

Schnöller insists he’s not trying to subvert the scientific system—he wants to work within it—he is simply trying to speed up the collection of data, which, at the institutional level, happens at a glacial pace. For Schnöller, and perhaps for the whales, that pace may be too slow.

If hunters don’t eradicate sperm whales, pollution might. Since the 1920s, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), carcinogenic chemicals used in the manufacture of electronics, have slowly seeped into the world’s oceans and, in some areas, reached toxic levels. For an animal to be processed as food, it must contain less than 2 parts per million of PCBs. Any animals that contains 50 ppm of PCBs must, by law, be considered toxic waste and be disposed of in an appropriate facility.

Dr. Roger Payne, an ocean conservationist, analyzed sea life for PCBs and found that orcas had about 400 parts per million of PCBs—eight times the toxic limit. He found beluga whales with 3,200 ppm of PCBs, and bottle-nosed dolphins with 6,800 ppm. All of these animals were, according to Payne, “mobile Superfund sites.” Nobody knows how much more pollution (PCBs, mercury, and other chemicals) whales and other oceanic animals can absorb before they start dying off en masse.

Payne and other researchers point to the baiji dolphin, a freshwater native of China’s Yangtze River, as a possible portent of the sperm whale’s fate. Considered one of the most intelligent of all dolphin species, the baiji dolphin has become functionally extinct due to pollution and other manmade disturbances. (At last count, there were about three baiji dolphins left.)

For Schnöller, sperm whale research isn't recreation; he doesn't spend months away from his family, using his own money, just to go “swimming with whales.” He's in a race to understand these animals before humans wipe them off from the face of the Earth.

On the fourth day, the film crew leaves. The cameraman had been violently seasick since the first day and refused to spend another ten hours motoring around in a rickety boat. The director, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, was exhausted.

“You never told me it would be this hard,” said Vaughan-Lee when I’d talked with him the previous night. He was scratching his bald, sunburned knees beside the patio table. I had warned him, repeatedly, but the point was moot. He told me he’d decided to cut his losses and take the next flight home to San Francisco.

They left a day too soon.

That morning, the remaining team of seven, plus the hired boat hands, cram into a single boat designed for half our number. With the motor coughing and wheezing, we head south. Hours later, we’re fifteen miles from the coast and idling over the deep water of Trincomalee Canyon again. Schnöller checks his GPS, putting us near where they saw the whales yesterday.

“Turn the motor off. I listen for them,” he says. From the bow of the boat, he grabs a sawed-off broomstick with a metal pasta strainer tied to the end. He inserts a small hydrophone into the center of the strainer and drops the whole contraption into the water, then puts on a pair of ratty headphones.

This strange device, which is wired to an amplifier, works like an antenna to home in on sperm whale clicks. By spinning the strainer around, Schnöller can determine what direction they’re coming from. Frequency and volume give him an idea of how deep the whales might be.

“They sell these to institutions for fifteen hundred euro,” he says, laughing. “I make mine from junk, and it works just as good.” Click Research, a new oceanographic manufacturing company he’s now building, will offer a version that works as well as the institutional model for only $350.

Schnöller puts the headphones over my head and hands me the broomstick. “What do you hear?” he asks. I tell him I hear static. Schnöller cups the headphones tightly over my ears. “Now listen. What do you hear?

He takes the broomstick from my hands and spins the strainer slowly around below the surface. Through the static, I begin to hear a syncopated rhythm, like distant tribal drums. I tell Schnöller to stop moving the strainer. Everyone on the boat falls silent. The rhythm speeds up and grows higher in pitch, the patterns overlapping. What I’m hearing isn’t drums, of course, but the echolocation clicks of sperm whales hunting in the deep-water canyon miles beneath our boat.

Schnöller grabs the headphones and passes them around the boat. Everyone is entranced. A boat hand listens for a moment, then passes the headphones back to Schnöller. He gingerly walks to the bow and picks up a worn, wooden oar, then dips the paddle in the water and sticks the end of the handle in his ear.

He explains in stilted English that this was how Sri Lankan fishermen used to listen for whales hundreds of years ago. Sperm whale echolocation, even from miles beneath the ocean’s surface, is strong enough to vibrate five feet of wood and make an audible clicking sound. I give it a try and hear a faint tick-tick-tick. It sounds like a signal from another world, which, in a way, is precisely what it is. I get chills listening to it.

Schnöller puts the headphones on and spins the strainer dexterously. He tells us the whales will switch from making echolocation clicks to codas as they ascend. By listening to these subtle shifts in click patterns, and the volume and clarity of the clicks, he has taught himself to predict the location and moment that the whales will surface, with startling accuracy. I ask him: How accurate? Then he demonstrates.

“They are two kilometers that way,” he says, pointing west. “They are coming up. They will be here in two minutes.” We sit, staring westward. “Thirty seconds...” he says. “They are moving to the east, and... right...”

Exactly on cue, a pod of five whales surfaces about fifteen hundred feet from our boat, each exhaling a magnificent blow. He grins, obviously proud of himself, takes off the headphones, and throws the strainer and broomstick in the bow. I give him a high-five. The boat captain looks dumbfounded.

“Okay, now,” says Schnöller. “Who wants to go in?”

After dinner, Schnöller, Gazzo, and Ghislain are sitting around the patio table going over the day’s footage. The clips are hypnotizing. Each of us had short encounters with half a dozen different whales. Schnöller and Gazzo recorded the interactions in 3-D high-definition video. He says this is the first time some of these behaviors have been documented at such at close range. The most impressive footage, he says, comes from the dive that Guy Gazzo and I took at the beginning of the day.

A pod of about five whales turned and approached our boat. Schnöller told me to grab my mask and follow Gazzo, who was carrying the 3-D camera, into the water. At first the whales were moving away from the boat, but as we swam out farther they changed direction to meet us face to face. Some two hundred feet in front of us, a shadow expanded, then separated into two forms—two enormous whales, perhaps thirty-five feet long. One whale, a bull, came directly at us but then unexpectedly spun around so that its belly was facing us. We couldn’t see its eyes or the top of its head. As it approached, it dove just beneath our fins and let out a rapid burst of coda clicks so powerful that I could feel them in my chest and skull. The bull, still upside down, released a plume of black feces, like a smoke screen, and disappeared. The entire encounter lasted less than thirty seconds.

Schnöller boots up the video on his laptop and plays it back for me. This time, he turns up the volume on his laptop speakers.

“You hear that?” he says, then reverses the video again, and again. I listen closely. The clicks sound harsh and violent, like machine-gun fire. “That’s not a coda.” Schnöller laughs. He plays the clicks back again. “And he’s not talking to you.”

What Gazzo and I heard and felt was a creak—the echolocation click train that sperm whales use when they’re homing in on prey. The whale flipped on its back so it could process the echolocation clicks more easily in its upper jaw, much as a human might cock his head to focus on a sound. Schnöller plays the video again and again, laughing.

“He was looking at you to see if he could eat you!” he says. “Lucky for you, I guess you didn’t look too delicious.”

But this brings up a question I’ve had ever since we first boarded the boats. Why didn’t they eat us? We’re certainly easy prey.

Schnöller believes that, when the whales echolocate our bodies, they perceive that we have hair, big lungs, a large brain—a combination of characteristics they don’t see in the ocean. Perhaps they recognize that we’re fellow mammals, that we have the potential for intelligence. If this theory is correct, then sperm whales are smarter than us in one crucial way: they see the similarities between our two species more readily than we do.

He then brings up another file on his computer, a ten-second audio loop he recorded with the hydrophones earlier in the day. He clicks Play.

“Well?” He looks at me. I tell him the only thing I hear is distant echolocation clicks, which sound like random emanations from a drum machine. He orders me to put on his headphones, turns up the volume, and blasts me with what sounds like an enormous bomb exploding from miles away.

“I think this is something big,” he says. I ask him if the hydrophone just bumped into the side of the boat. “No, impossible,” he says. “This is something important. I promise you, this is big.”

Excerpted from James Nestor's DEEP: Freediving Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (An Eamon Dolan Book/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Available Tuesday, June 24, 2014.

On June 23, 2014, Schnöller took his sperm whale research public. He launched a crowd-funding campaign, called THINK!, to raise funds for four sperm whale research expeditions over the next year. High-level contributors to the campaign will be able to join the expeditions at research points around the globe—Oman, Sri Lanka, Guadaloupe, and more—and swim face-to-face with sperm whales as Schnöller and his crew document the encounters. All proceeds go to sperm whale research, specifically, to cracking the cetacean language code.

Read More

10 Rules to Detox Your Digital Life

Remember the dire Y2K technological apocalypse predictions? If only they had come true. Without sermonizing, here are 10 ways to disconnect the broadband flow of digitized scheiße that's drowning our souls.

#1: Smell a Book

Hey, iPad readers: Do you remember what a book smells like? Especially an old book that everyone in your family has read a few times? As an 11-year-old, I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, plus The Hobbit, and, verily, even The Silmarillion at least four times. Call me a creep, but sometimes I'd walk by, pick up one of the tattered, coverless paperbacks, and smell it.

I won't attempt to describe the aroma—it's too personal—but it made me feel good. Books are tactile and sensory. Like candlelight, they're intimate and calming. And a book won't knock your teeth out when you fall asleep reading one—if you can sleep at all after reading on an iPad. Experts say the light your iPad or phone emits is jacking with your melatonin. Not so with books.

#2: Ditch the Smartphone Alarm Clock

One of the only smart features I actually use on my phone is the alarm clock. This is a trap. Alarm clocks go next to the bed, so your phone goes next to the bed. My latest software update makes a wee light flash blue (Facebook), white (text), or green (email) every time a message arrives. What's that? Somebody tagged me? Oh, it's an irate reader calling me a douche at 11:00 p.m.

Now I'm angry, or stressed, or annoyed, or distracted, and perhaps worse, I'm looking at a bright white light (more on that later). Recently, I moved my angry alarm phone to the kitchen and replaced it with a large wall clock at my bedside. It ticks like a school clock and somehow reminds me of my late grandfather—and the heartbeats of my sleeping dogs. Studies have found that our constant connectivity affects our mental health and frequent cellphone use can lead to insomnia.

#3: Talk to Your Coworkers

We hire and train a few interns at my office each year. Important parts of the job entail checking facts, connecting with sources, and asking for photo-shoot gear. Invariably an intern—a journalism student, mind you—will enter my office and hopelessly explain that a source hasn't gotten back to them. "Did you call?" I ask. "Uh, no," they reply, shaken by the thought.

It has been reported that the generation currently in high school send upwards of 1,300 text messages a month, and they're seven times more likely to text than to call. Email and text are marvelous tools, but they work best in place of otherwise guttural vocalizations like "got it" and "on the way." Texting while you drive is a thumb stroke away from a negligent homicide charge. A poorly worded email can get you fired. Easily articulated nuances like mirth, sarcasm, facetiousness, or just the right amount of displeasure do not cross over to hastily typed digital communication. Pick up the phone. Unless you're driving. In which case, shut up.

#4: Put Down the Camera

Recent studies have shown that aggregating pixels is not the same as observing and reflecting upon the world. It's called the "photo-taking impairment effect," and although you may feel like you're documenting wondrous existence, mostly you're just operating a chintzy camera and not paying attention.

This means that unless you're carefully framing the subject and noting the light and composition of the impending image, you're not really absorbing the experience into your memory. As Socrates once wrote on a wildly popular Athenian bumper sticker (it bombed in Sparta), The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living. Your daughter's dance recital. Skiing with your son. Mountain biking with friends. Put your camera phone down and be there. Socrates didn't take selfies. #drinkinghemlock 

#5: Join the Dark Side

I interviewed a sleep-disorder specialist a few years ago. For the most common form of insomnia, his advice was stupid simple. Don't drink coffee after 3:00 p.m., and get your television, laptop, tablet, and smartphone out of your bedroom. It sounds like hippie science, but biorhythms are real. Staring at a bright box late at night tricks the body into thinking it's morning. The effect is so powerful it can make you hungry for breakfast, which is why it has been linked to obesity. Unless your insomnia is entrenched, it's probably fine to read a book made of paper by a dim light. Otherwise, the bedroom is for sleeping—and "wrestling." 

#6: Bring Back Cursive

Like art and gym class, handwriting has largely been dropped by our education system—not that adults are writing by hand much these days, either. It's a bigger loss than we thought. A series of studies have shown what we intuitively knew all along. Like creating art, the act of writing lights up the brain in ways that typing decidedly does not. There has even been conjecture that the very act of writing cursive may instill "functional specialization" (focus, control), help us compose our thoughts, and even treat dyslexia. We aren't going to stop typing anytime soon, but when paired with just the right fedora and skinny jeans, perhaps bringing a journal on vacation and a legal pad to a meeting might pass as hip.

#7: Turn Off Your Alerts

The end of the world is coming. Check this box if you'd like to be notified by email or text message. Last winter, I downloaded an NFL app, thinking—as advertised—I would be able to watch a playoff game as I flew to Utah. Naturally, it didn't work. But then, many months later, during the far-superior hockey playoffs, my phone alerted me no less than 20 times about the endlessly fascinating and life-affirming results of the NFL draft, an event that now competes with the birth of a British royal for pure idiotic spectacle.

With the exception of reverse 911 updates, turn off all your phone notifications. Yes, including Facebook. And adjust your computer settings. Do you really need the little pop-up and accompanying chime when an email arrives? Has instant messaging ever benefited you? They seem petty when isolated, but systemic distractions are a big deal. NASA big. There's even a field of research devoted to it called "interruption science." For the humans among us, no matter what kind of work you do, true creativity or even just workaday focus comes in brief bursts. The masterful novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once told the Paris Review that, at his best, he could write a worthy paragraph in a six-hour workday—and most of the time he'd tear up those lines the next morning. The breaking news that Johnny Football went to the Browns might have completely derailed him.

#8: Unplug from the Data

I wear a brilliant GPS watch in the backcountry. My mountain bike is kitted out with a touch-screen computer that tells me my location, route, speed, heart rate, and pedaling cadence. My Strava-connected road-cycling friends speak the strange language of power meters. For them, riding isn't about mileage but wattage.

I enjoy my outdoorsy gadgets: The watch once saved me from a night wandering the high country in search of my tent. The bike computer lets me gauge my effort so I don't blow up before the final climb. Power meters have taken the guessing out of training regimens. But sometimes we rely upon tech too much. A map or even just a look around tells me that if I follow the creek, I'll hit the pond. And there are times when you should listen to your body instead of your power meter.

"Athletes sometimes have to separate themselves from their data analysis," says Jason Hilimire, director of coaching at FasCat Coaching in Boulder, Colorado. "As coaches, we can spot it in their written comments. 'I'm tired. I'm hungry. I can't sleep.' They're cooked from training or their jobs or their family life. We tell them to unplug and ride with no prescribed goals. Hit the mental reset. Have fun."

#9: Forget About Facebook

Unless it's to notify you that their 27-year-old dog died, nobody goes on Facebook and tells the world about their downfalls: Can't afford new snow tires. The kid has lice! Dead-end job. Drinking too much lately! No, those aren't good posts. Facebook is about gloating and pretense, not the harsh realities of life that actual friends help with. The showing off is especially prevalent with outdoorsy types—and I'm as culpable as anyone. Nothing but sunshine, gleaming choppers, and powder on my page. Nobody's life is that perfect. One small study hinted that the more participants interacted with Facebook, the unhappier they became. Sometimes, when I'm feeling alienated from society and nauseated by being, Facebook makes me feel a whole lot worse. For those days, what we need is a social media site composed of morose French existentialists chain-smoking Gauloises. "We refuse to like your post," they would say. "At the most, we'll recognize that behind the veil of your public presence, you too also suffer."

#10: Share the Music

In Empire of the Summer Moon, author S.C. Gwyne spends a few lines telling the reader how Comanche would wake up singing. That passage resonated with me. And then, last night, my 12-year-old son said he didn't listen to as much music as his peers who spend their days isolated in their private soundtracks. He seemed almost dejected. Music is part of our family life, but earphones and portable music are not. In the car or at home, we listen to music together. We share music, just as I did with my parents and teenage friends. And when we wake up, we wake up singing.

Read More

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Outside GOOur hottest adventure-travel tips and trips. Sent occasionally.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

to Outside
Save Over

Magazine Cover

iPad Outside+ App Access Now Included!







Previous Posts




Blog Roll

Current Issue Outside Magazine

Subscribe and get a great deal! Two free Buyer's Guides plus a free GoLite Sport Bottle. Monthly delivery of Outside—your ultimate resource for today's active lifestyle. All that and big savings!

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Gear of the Day The latest products, reviews, and editors' picks. Coming soon.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

Ask a Question

Our gear experts await your outdoor-gear-related questions. Go ahead, ask them anything.

* We might edit your question for length or clarity. If it's not about gear, we'll just ignore it.