Category: Antarctica


When being a naturalist (or a filmmaker) means letting nature take its course

By Midge Raymond,

I am not a scientist, but I play one on the page. Because my own background is so very not scientific, I needed a lot of research and experiences in order to write (authentically) the character of Deb Gardner in My Last Continent, including traveling to Antarctica and witnessing the continent through the eyes of the many naturalists on our expedition, and also spending time volunteering with penguin researchers at the Punta Tombo colony in Argentina. One of the first — and most interesting, important, and devastating — things I learned is that we humans do not intervene when we see wildlife in trouble. It is, after all, the wild.

This is true whether you’re a filmmaker, a naturalist guide, or a researcher: Whatever you observe, you have to simply observe, no matter how heartbreaking it is. But sometimes people find it impossible not to intervene, like these BBC documentary filmmakers who decided to help save emperor penguin chicks as several penguin parents and their chicks became separated when the chicks couldn’t follow them up a steep slope. The crew “‘opted to intervene passively,’ said the show’s director, Will Lawson.” They created a ramp in the ice that the chicks ended up using to climb up to safety.

Was it appropriate or ethical — or both, or neither? As for myself, I don’t think I could stand to watch baby penguin chicks die if I had a chance to save them … which is one of many reasons I’m not a scientist or a documentary filmmaker — because that is precisely what they are supposed to do. To do otherwise is dangerous to both the humans as well as to the animals, often in ways that may not be immediately evident. While in this particular case, penguins’ lives were saved with no apparent harm, the public opinion is divided on whether taking action was appropriate: This article highlights the positive reaction to the film crew’s rescue efforts, while this headline reads, “Filmmakers Criticised For Intervening with Trapped Penguins in Antarctica.”

As a traveler, I’ve seen things in nature that aren’t fun to watch but that are, in fact, natural (one animal devouring another, for example); certainly it’s unethical to get in the way of someone’s meal, no matter how brutal it is to witness. Likewise, scientists and naturalists have to witness such incidents, and many others, without interfering. It is a hard concept to get around, even in fiction. In a chapter of My Last Continent, the character Keller describes having to witness a terrible scene involving an animal in Antarctica. He tells Deb, when he recounts the episode, “I’m still getting used to not intervening.” Her reply: “I’m not sure that feeling ever leaves you.”

As for the BBC film crew, I can’t fault them one bit for saving these penguins (in fact, this video is wonderful to see). However, the fact that they did sets a precedent that could be very dangerous if others decide that intervening is okay, especially if it’s in different, more direct ways. The wild is wild for a reason, and there is still so much we don’t understand. We’ve already interfered with so much in nature, creating so much imbalance, that having this last respect for wildlife, as hard as it is, needs to remain in place.



Surviving Antarctica the modern way

By Midge Raymond,

The stories of the twentieth-century explorers of Antarctica are harrowing — Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance being eaten by the ice-choked Weddell Sea; Robert Falcon Scott reaching the South Pole after Norwegian Roald Amundsen and then losing his life and his entire party to the elements upon their return.

And yet, despite history’s harsh lessons — the most recent being the fate of Henry Worsley, who died in 2016 during his attempt to complete the first solo, unassisted crossing of Antarctica — twenty-first century explorers continue to set out on their own expeditions.

Yet the new explorers do have one advantage: modern science. And this article in Outside magazine is fascinating for its look at the energy needed to navigate the vast frozen continent (thanks so much to Susie Dana Stangland for sending this to me!). As the article notes — and as anyone who’s spent time in Antarctica knows well — it’s not just the cold but also the wind, the altitude, and the extreme dryness (Antarctica is the biggest desert in the world) that contributes to energy consumption when trekking across the ice.

Robert Scott, for example, brought along rations that added up to between 4,200 and 4,600 calories per day. However, the Outside article notes:

No one really knew how many calories a polar expedition like this burns until Mike Stroud and Ranulph Fiennes made a two-person unsupported 1,600-mile crossing of Antarctica in 1992 and 1993. Careful measurements of energy consumption using isotope-labeled water showed that they were burning an astounding 7,000 calories a day for 96 days. During one ten-day period while they ascended the plateau, they averaged 11,000 calories a day.

Given that the average person is advised to eat about 2,000 calories a day, this number is staggering. The question then becomes: How do you get enough calories to make an expedition while not weighing yourself down with the vast amount of food you’ll need to stay alive?

Colin O’Brady, one of two men currently attempting solo crossings of Antarctica, will be taking along specially created energy bars to give him the 8,000 calories per day he’ll need to make his solo journey across the continent. Click here to read more about the science behind the fuel for this trip.



An eerie and wonderful soundtrack: Ice in Antarctica

By Midge Raymond,

Antarctica is sometimes misunderstood as a plain, vast, white place — which, of course, it is — but it’s also a continent brimming with amazing colors (among them: sunsets, the aurora australis, algae, and the myriad shades of blue and white that make up icebergs), and its sounds are just as vibrant. Scientists have recently recorded the wonderfully eerie sound of wind whipping across the Ross Ice Shelf, which creates an otherworldly humming noise.

These recordings were gathered by scientists who spent two years recording the “singing” of the ice via 34 seismic sensors. They realized the winds caused the vibrations on the ice, creating a constant hum that will help researchers study changes in the ice shelf, such as melting, cracking, and breaking.

One of the most extraordinary things about Antarctica is its lack of human noise: Nearly every single sound is natural, whether it’s the wind, the rush of the sea, the calving of icebergs, or the sounds of penguins. There are very (very) few places on the planet that are as free of human sounds.

Not everyone can manage a visit to Antarctica, but if you take the time to listen to these spooky-beautiful sounds of wind across the ice shelf, you’ll feel transported there for a few amazing moments.



Happy World Penguin Day!

By Midge Raymond,

So far 2018 has been a good year for penguins — a “supercolony” of 1.5 million Adélie penguins was discovered in the Danger Islands, thanks to a drone that was able to find them. This is fantastic news for Adélies, whose populations have been in serious decline on the western Antarctic peninsula, but it doesn’t mean we can breathe easily and assume they’ll be okay. Adélies need ice to survive, and they eat mostly krill — two things that are in danger of disappearing due to climate change and overfishing.

Yet the Adélie penguins, whose total population is about 4 million pairs, are certainly doing well compared to other species. The yellow-eyed penguin population is estimated to be only 2,000 pairs, and numbers for the Fiordland-crested penguins are only 1,500 pairs. Both of these species live in New Zealand.

According to one study, the king penguins — who are widespread, from the Indian Ocean to the South Atlantic — are being forced to travel farther for food, which means that their chicks will be left on shore to starve (penguin chicks have thick, downy fluff until they fledge, preventing them from foraging for themselves until their waterproof feathers come in).

What can we all do to help penguins?

  • Give up eating seafood, or at least try cutting back. You’ll save more fish for the birds, and you’ll help ensure that penguins and other creatures don’t get killed by fishing nets and longlines. Even “sustainable” seafood has an impact on the oceans and wildlife.
  • Do all that you can to combat climate change (see the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips).
  • Support conservation efforts like the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.
  • Be a respectful birdwatcher. Visit penguins with guides and naturalists who know how to keep a safe distance, or learn about their habitat so that you can be sure to stay out of harm’s way.

 



Meet the King Penguin

By Midge Raymond,

It was a big thrill to meet the majestic king penguins on a recent trip to South Georgia Island. The second-largest penguin in the world, kings are even more colorful and striking than the emperors, and they are social and curious. (None of these photos was taken with a zoom lens. If you sit on the beach, they will walk right past you, and sometimes even come up to check you out.)

The colonies we visited ranged from 7,000 breeding pairs to 50,000 — and due to horrific weather, we didn’t get a chance to see the biggest colony on South Georgia. But seeing thousands of penguins at sunrise was pretty spectacular. The chicks were huddled in the middle of the rookery, but many curious adults came over to visit.

As you’ll see in the video below, kings (who have no predators on land) are unafraid of humans. Visitors are not allowed to approach or touch them, of course, but if you sit quietly you’ll receive many visitors, one after another. (And hearing their trilling call is an amazing experience, as you’ll hear in this video.)

 

 

The total population of kings is 1.6 million, but as this article outlines, like all penguins, they are vulnerable to climate change and could lose as much as 70 percent or more of their current numbers in the years to come.

Despite this romantic picture, king penguins actually don’t have high fidelity rates — which is likely due to their very long breeding cycles (nearly 15 months from courtship to when the chicks fledge) and the fact that while they return to the same colony, they don’t molt at the same time.

Like the emperors, the king penguins do not build nests but carry their eggs around in a little pouch above their feet. They are now in the IUCN category of “least concern,” which is a good thing … but climate change and the fishing industry are bound to change this status if both continue moving forward at the current rates.



Why elephant seals are awesome

By Midge Raymond,

I adore elephant seals. They are among the most interesting creatures on the planet to watch (and I’ve traveled to a lot of continents to watch a lot of creatures).

For one, they really know how to enjoy life, as you can see in the video I took of this happy girl on a beach on South Georgia Island.

They are also hilariously disgusting, and visiting elephant seals during their molt is an extremely good time to see them at their most appalling. They lie on the beach — gigantic, lazy, grunting beasts who are tumbling all over each other, sometimes fighting, and always bellowing —and you can smell them long before you catch sight of them. Here’s a video of a male calling out to all those near and far…and by the way, the males piled up in this video weigh up to 8,000 pounds and reach 7 feet tall when they rise up to fight one another.

And perhaps my favorite image from my visit to Gold Harbour on South Georgia Island was this one — a skinny, post-molt gentoo penguin appearing to flee the wrath of this elephant seal. (The gentoo was in reality doing no such thing — he was only making his way to the beach — but when it comes to wildlife photography, timing is everything.)

For all of you who are now convinced you must meet these incredible creatures yourself, join me and Adventures by the Book on our Penguins & Patagonia journey this October! We will be meeting the Magellanic penguins featured in My Last Continent (and there’s an optional excursion to Antarctica if you’d also like to meet the gentoos, chinstraps, and Adélies), and we will also have a chance to spend quality time with elephant seals during their mating season. (You can imagine how entertaining that will be.) Click here to learn more about this upcoming adventure.



Meet the Rockhopper Penguin

By Midge Raymond,

After meeting the Fiordland-crested penguin last year in New Zealand, I couldn’t wait to meet more of these crested birds, who are so different from the “classic-looking” Antarctic penguins I first fell in love with and who populate the pages of My Last Continent.

The southern rockhoppers can be found in many places, among them the Falkland Islands, which is where I met them a few weeks ago. And I feel very fortunate to have been able to see them, as their populations have declined more than 30 percent over the past four decades, particularly in the Falklands.

You can see in the photo below how they get their name — these rockhoppers share a colony with the black-browed albatross (whose fluffy chicks you can see in the foreground), and as you can see this colony is very (very) high up from the water where penguins spend most of their time.

Yet the rockhoppers have little trouble navigating this terrain — as you’ll see in the video below, they are actually pretty good at climbing.

Rockhopper penguins nest amid the tussock grass, and their albatross friends offer a lot of help when it comes to shooing away the predatory skuas. Unfortunately, these gorgeous creatures are categorized with the IUCN as “threatened,” with the major threats being global warming and the fishing industry. If you’re a fan of penguins, do what you can to combat climate change, and skip the fish at mealtimes … the more of us who help, the better the chance they’ll have to survive.



The penguins of Patagonia

By Midge Raymond,

So often when people think of penguins, they picture the icy landscape of Antarctica. Yet only four of seventeen penguin species come ashore in Antarctica — while all live in the Southern Hemisphere, most do their breeding in non-icy places, from the little penguins of Australia to the tropical Galápagos penguins, to the Magellanic penguins of South America, who can also be found in the Falklands, like this little guy I saw on Saunders Island this winter (he’s not nearly as agile on the rocks as the local, and very aptly named, rockhopper penguins!).

There are many wonderful places in the world to see penguins, but one of the most breathtaking is in the Chubut Province of Argentina, which features the largest Magellanic colony in the world, with more than 200,000 breeding pairs. These penguins come ashore at Punta Tombo every autumn to build nests, meet or reunite with their mates, and raise their chicks.

Studying and protecting these birds is important for so many reasons — for one, the more we know about penguins, the more we know about the state of our oceans, and the better job we can do taking care of the planet and all its wildlife.

Visit the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels to learn more about the penguins of Patagonia and to support its conservation work. And of course, if you want to visit this colony and see it up close and personal, join me and Adventures by the Book in Argentina in October of 2018!



The yeti crab and other Antarctic discoveries

By Midge Raymond,

I loved this moment in Ann Patchett’s novel Run in which a young girl, upon learning that new species of fish are still being discovered, says, “I thought it was done.”

Among the many amazing things about our planet is that species are still being discovered. And this is part of what made immersing myself in all things Antarctic so much fun while writing My Last Continent. So much is still being discovered there.

I can relate to Patchett’s young character — “It unnerved her, the thought that things weren’t settled, that life itself hadn’t been completely pinned down to a corkboard and labeled” — but on the other hand, there’s also a comfort about it, the idea that our planet contains so much more than we know (and that perhaps, despite all that we humans are doing to it, it might be able to save itself from us in the end).

One of the fun things I discovered while doing revisions for My Last Continent was the yeti crab, which thrives in the hot thermal waters under Antarctica and was described for the first time by scientists when I was in this revision phase of my novel. The yeti crab wasn’t the only discovery: scientists also described a seven-pronged starfish and a mysterious pale octopus among a community of other previously undiscovered life forms on the ocean floor near Antarctica.

I decided to work this hairy new yeti crab into the novel (I couldn’t resist), and even though the book is published and the research is over, I love keeping track of what goes on in Antarctica (50-million-year-old fossilized sperm is yet another recent discovery, as well as the fact that penguins feast on jellyfish). Due to its inaccessibility, Antarctica is most travelers’ last continent, the final frontier. And yet when it comes to science, in many ways, it’s a brand-new world.

 



Join me in Patagonia in October 2018!

By Midge Raymond,

Save the dates: October 29 to November 6, 2018!

Join me and Adventures by the Book on a journey through the majestic land of Patagonia and immerse yourself in the setting that helped inspire My Last Continent.

When I volunteered at the Punta Tombo penguin colony in Argentina, helping with a penguin census of the largest Magellanic colony in the world, my experience with the land, penguins, and dedicated scientists was a big inspiration for My Last Continent. Join us to see this spectacular colony firsthand, learn about its incredible history, and find out how to help conservation efforts in this extraordinary part of the world.

In addition to meeting hundreds of penguins, you’ll also have the opportunity to see and experience wildlife in ways you never imagined as we travel from Buenos Aires to Punta Tombo to the UNESCO World Heritage site Peninsula Valdes, where penguins, rheas, guanacos, foxes, sea lions, elephant seals, orcas, and many more stunning creatures reside. We’ll have a uniquely intimate experience with nature based at the private estancia Rincon Chico, accompanied all the way by a team of experienced local guides.

And if you’re up for a further adventure into the icy places of My Last Continent, there is an optional add-on excursion to Antarctica!

This literary & wildlife adventure includes…

  • Welcome dinner & tour in arrival city Buenos Aires
  • Penguin & wildlife excursions, including whale watching, with local guides
  • Signed copy of My Last Continent
  • …and so, so, so much more!

Reserve your spot before January 31, 2018, for a $300 discount — reservations are limited as this will be an intimate, exclusive tour. Learn more here, and feel free to contact me or Susan McBeth (susan@adventuresbythebook.com) with any questions you have.



Win a signed copy of MY LAST CONTINENT!

By Midge Raymond,

Enter to win a signed paperback copy of MY LAST CONTINENT on Goodreads! The giveaway is open until October 2. 2017.

 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond

My Last Continent

by Midge Raymond

Giveaway ends October 02, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway



Antarctic tourism in the 2016-2017 season

By Midge Raymond,

The International Association of Antarctic Tour operators (IAATO) has released its data for the last Antarctic travel season, and the numbers are what most expected — which is still to say they are quite staggering, when you think about the sheer number of visitors to this fragile and isolated place.

The total number of visitors reached 44,367 in 2016-2017, an increase of 15% over the previous season, and IAATO’s estimate for next season, 2017-2018, increases by another 5% to 46,385. If Antarctica sees this number next season, it will pass the largest number of visitors the continent has ever seen (which was 46,265, reported by IAATO in 2007-2008).

A few other tidbits: Americans still represent the largest number of Antarctic tourists, with the Chinese in second place. Australian, German, and British travelers represent the third, fourth, and fifth highest numbers, respectively.

The good news is that 98% of travelers take ships from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, and the majority of these vessels  carry fewer than 500 passengers. As many familiar with the Antarctic know — including readers of My Last Continent! — it’s the gigantic ships carrying thousands of passengers that are most at risk in the Southern Ocean. Fortunately, as IAATO reports, this type of “cruise-only” tourism (i.e., larger vessels with more than 500 passengers who do not go ashore), declined by 8%.

IAATO is a force for good in Antarctica, and I’m so glad the organization not only tracks such numbers but that it works so hard to keep tourism safe and sustainable, even as the desire to see Antarctica keeps growing. As Bob Simpson, Chair of IAATO’s Executive Committee, says, “Visiting Antarctica is a great privilege for anyone. Our goal is to provide our guests with a safe, enriching experience while leaving no discernible evidence of our visit.” This will be ever more important in the years to come.

 



My seventh species: the little penguin

By Midge Raymond,

Happy World Penguin Day!

One thing I’m celebrating today is having met my seventh species of penguin: the little penguin. Ever since meeting four species of penguins in Antarctica, I’ve become a little obsessed: Next I went to Argentina to volunteer with the University of Washington’s Penguin Sentinels, counting the Magellanic penguins of Punto Tombo. On more recent visit to the Galápagos Islands, I was able to see the elusive and endangered Galápagos penguin. And last year, one of the best things about visiting Australia as part of the My Last Continent tour was meeting my seventh species.

The little penguin is also called the “fairy penguin” in Australia, and in New Zealand it’s known as the “blue penguin” or “white-flippered penguin.”

All names fit this little bird, as it is no more than a foot tall, and its feathers are a lovely bluish-gray and white. These penguins appear in several places in Australia, one of them being Manly, where you can see signs like this on the sidewalks, alongside indicators for bikes and pedestrians:

little-penguin

The little penguins forage at sea all day and come ashore when darkness falls. One of the best places to see them is the (terribly touristy) Penguin Parade on Phillip Island, which is a two-hour journey from Melbourne and completely worth it, especially if you can ignore the other tourists (some of whom are respectful, far too many of whom are noisy, take photos (which aren’t allowed), and otherwise flaunt the rules of the park and disturb the birds).

Once it gets dark, no photos or videos are allowed, but on a daylight walk we glimpsed this little penguin, near the natural and man-made burrows created to provide nesting opportunities for them.

Years ago, the little penguins’ numbers here on Phillip Island decreased dramatically when a bridge was built and humans began inhabiting and vacationing on the island, bringing foxes, dogs, and other predators, including traffic; even now, many penguins are run over by cars. Foxes have now been eliminated, and while the birds’ numbers are still down in Australia, we can hope the conservation efforts pay off. One effort is the building of nests for them; below, you can just barely see a little penguin inside one of these man-made burrows.

The little penguins are adorable to watch. After the sun sets, they come in from the water in “rafts” — groups from five to ten penguins to dozens — because there is safety in numbers, and they shake off the water and waddle up the sand to the scrubby brush where they have their nests. Perhaps because they’re so small, they always look as though they’re walking in a huge hurry, as if being chased; it’s particularly cute to watch, as they’ll often take a tumble or bump into one another in their rush. Fortunately, being so small, they don’t have far to fall. If you focus your eyes on the burrows, you’ll see dirt and sand flying out as the penguins dig out their nests.

Sometimes the penguins will stop or turn back to pick up pebbles and seashells for their nests. (If you do visit Phillip Island, sit tight and wait until the crowds disperse and until the rangers tell you at least three times that it’s time to go. This is when it gets quiet and peaceful, and you can hear nothing but the sounds of the penguins scuttling to their nests and calling to their mates. The rangers will, eventually, escort you off the premises; they turn off the lights at the same time every day to give the penguins consistency and peace. Even as you leave, you’ll be able to hear the birds’ “ecstatic cries” from the darkness as they reunite with their mates.) The next day around dawn, they will head out to sea again, then return home for the same nightly ritual.

Another place to see the little penguins is much closer to Melbourne is the breakwater at St. Kilda, where the penguins come to shore every night after sunset. Guides are there to enforce similar rules (no photography, no approaching the penguins), and it’s about a half-hour away from downtown Melbourne by bus or light rail.

To celebrate World Penguin Day, here are a few links where you can learn more and support conservation efforts for penguins around the world:

UW Penguin Sentinels

Oceanites

The Penguin Counters

Wishing you a very happy World Penguin Day!



Why is Japan still killing whales in Antarctica?

By Midge Raymond,

In My Last Continent, when the fictional tourist ship Cormorant arrives at Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island in Antarctica, Deb observes …

 

…a shantytown of enormous oil containers and abandoned buildings—relics of the Antarctic whaling industry—so old and suffused with rust that they blend into the lava-blackened cliffs behind them. This reminder of whaling’s gruesome past makes me shudder: the whalers removing the blubber on the ships, then bringing the remainder of the bodies to shore, where they’d boil them down to get every last bit of oil. And the whaling industry isn’t even history—though the International Whaling Commission banned whaling in 1986, the Japanese have continued hunting in the Southern Ocean, killing minke and fin and even endangered sei whales under the guise of “research,” even though they haven’t published a paper in years and continue to sell the whale meat commercially.

 

It’s true that whaling has been banned by the International Whaling Commission since 1986 — and it’s also true that Japan is still killing whales in Antarctica. That’s because there is indeed an exception for “research” — but the slaughter of hundreds of whales a year by Japanese whalers can hardly be considered research.

In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s whaling program did not meet the research qualifications, and Japan was ordered to stop whaling. But this only lasted one year — and, as this NPR story reports, Japan just returned from its 2016-2017 season with more than three hundred whales, all needlessly slaughtered.

It’s not enough that the whales are vital to the ecosystem in the Southern Ocean and should not be taken at all — but the methods are barbaric. Whaling vessels go after the calves, because they know the mothers (the real target) will not leave their babies. A member of Sea Shepherd Australia describes the way the whales are killed: They are “hit with an explosive harpoon that goes straight into their body; hooks come out, and shrapnel is sent through their body; it’s a terrible, bloody death… these whales can take up to 30 or 40 minutes to die.”

As Humane Society International Executive Vice President Kitty Block tells NPR, “It is an obscene cruelty in the name of science that must end.”

Visit the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to learn more about how this organization helps protect the oceans, especially from those who violate international law.



The scandalous sex lives of penguins

By Midge Raymond,

My friend Judy sent me this article on the “scandalous” sex lives of penguins, which mentions many of the penguin stories we’ve heard over the years, from the two male chinstrap penguins who raised a baby chick, to a nasty fight between two Magellanic penguins competing for a female. And indeed, the love lives of penguins are really so similar to our own: there is love, there is marriage for life, there is the raising of children; there is also divorce and cheating and all sorts of other drama.

The article references the observations from a scientist more than hundred years ago, buried because it was so scandalous at the time: George Murray Levick documented acts among penguins including necrophilia and group sex. Back in the early 1900s, editors cut the graphic descriptions of penguins’ behavior from Levick’s published work. As the article notes:

It took until 2012 for ornithologists at London’s Natural History Museum to finally dig up Levick’s “Sexual Habits of the Adelie Penguin”—by which point scientific inquiry had matured enough that they were able to publish it.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that penguins (or any animals) have such varied sex lives, or that their love lives mirror our own in so many ways. Humans often forget that we, too, are animals. We all just want to find love and share our nests with that special penguin, or person … and maybe raise a chick or two.