Enter to win a signed paperback copy of MY LAST CONTINENT on Goodreads! The giveaway is open until October 2. 2017.
Enter to win a signed paperback copy of MY LAST CONTINENT on Goodreads! The giveaway is open until October 2. 2017.
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.
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:
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:
Wishing you a very happy World Penguin Day!
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.
I was delighted to discover this project from the British Antarctic Survey.
Data as Art shows sea ice, krill (seen below), the ozone hole, and other scientific data as works of art.
In keeping with the British Antarctic Survey‘s mission to “engage a wide range of people in science through a variety of methods,” these works of art — which use real Antarctic data sets that explain important scientific research — are wonderful to look at. Even more important are the stories they tell about this continent and how important it is to fight climate change and increase conservation.
“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Elizabeth Bishop asks in her poem “Questions of Travel”—the same question I asked myself upon learning, when I was in the Galapagos Islands last year, that more than 200,000 tourists visit this small archipelago every year. These islands, virtually undiscovered until the sixteenth century, are now bursting at the seams.
For all who venture to the Galapagos, it’s the trip of a lifetime—yet it’s also resource-intensive: I had taken 10 flights in 8 days to reach a place that is among our world’s most affected by climate change. And right now another travel season is wrapping up in Antarctica, another remote and increasingly popular travel destination. Antarctica, which 20 years ago saw fewer than 10,000 tourists, will likely have counted upwards of 40,000 this season, more than 90 percent of whom travel on ships.
According to the World Tourism Organization, international travel increased in 2015 for the sixth year in a row, to a record 1.2 billion tourists, with 1.8 billion forecast for 2030. Only a week after a long-awaited marine protected area was established in Antarctica, the United States elected a president who has called climate change a hoax and seems intent on dismantling the EPA. Can the planet’s most vulnerable places handle much more? Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves whether should do our part for the planet and leave a few of our bucket-list destinations in the bucket.
Instead of traveling to Antarctica—which can be as extreme financially as it is environmentally—perhaps we can get glimpses in other ways. Web-based citizen science programs like Zooniverse offer virtual experiences—a chance to count penguins and identify individual humpback whales in Antarctica, in addition to myriad other adventures. From our computers, we can “travel” the world, see incredible sights and creatures, and contribute to ongoing research efforts.
And even if we do travel to these fragile environments, we can help the oceans by playing a role in conservation and research. The website iGalapagos.org depends on travelers’ photos of the elusive and endangered Galapagos penguins to further their research toward protecting this species. And those of us who love the oceans can reconsider the role of seafood in our diets, as nearly 90 percent of the oceans’ stocks are extinct or depleted.
Not all travel is inherently bad, of course, and if you’re like me and you can far more easily give up seafood than a trip, how we travel can make a big difference in minimizing the impact of our presence—by choosing green hotels, using public transportation, buying local. Even the little things, like packing a reusable water bottle and shopping bag to minimize plastic, help a lot. Those traveling on ships can check out Friends of the Earth’s Cruise Ship Report Card before booking a trip (in its latest report, in 2014, no major cruise line earned a grade higher than a C; most grades were Ds and Fs).
Sometimes it takes visiting a place to fall in love with it and become inspired to help save it—and this may well justify our carbon footprints in the end. Which brings me back to the question: Should we stay home? There is no easy answer. But those of us who have the luxury of asking the question might consider that, for the sake of the planet, the oceans, and for future generations, the road less traveled—or not traveled at all—does make all the difference.
Among the most amazing things about Antarctica (and there are so many) are the sounds. You can listen to the sounds of icebergs rubbing together here. It sounds a bit like furniture breaking apart, and then a little like a penguin colony from far away, and finally it becomes something completely otherworldly.
This wonderful article from Huffington Post offers a few sounds as well — including the voices of an Adélie penguin colony and the wind sweeping across the ice — as well as gorgeous photos and a glimpse of what life is like as a researcher on the continent.
These Antarctic sounds are incredible, but perhaps what’s most remarkable about Antarctica is the silence. The sounds of no human presence at all. It’s impossible to capture in a video or audio, but I did try to capture the feeling in My Last Continent:
” … we listen to the whistling of the wind across the ice and the cries of the birds. I savor the utter silence under those sounds; there is nothing else to hear—none of the usual white noise of life on other continents, no human sounds at all… “
With the Antarctic travel season upon us — the austral summer, from November to February, is the only time the sea ice allows tourist vessel access — the increasing numbers of travelers to this region raise many questions. How many tourists are too many before the region is compromised?
Antarctic tourism began in 1966 with fifty-seven travelers. Now, upwards of 40,000 tourists visit the continent every year. Most tourism is, in fact, concentrated in a two-square-kilometer region on the Antarctic peninsula — which means a lot of feet on the ground for such a fragile environment.
And Antarctic tourism shows no signs of slowing down — quite the opposite, in fact. Beginning in 2018, Argentina will offer commercial flights to Antarctica. And while the U.S. and Australia comprise the majority of Antarctic visitors, Chinese tourists are now visiting Antarctica in large and growing numbers.
Most travelers to Antarctica travel by ship, and thanks to IAATO (the International Association for Antarctica Tour Operators), tourism in Antarctica is well managed — for now. But tour operators are clearly adapting to the demands of travelers and will likely continue to do so. IAATO expects the number of visitors to jump 14 percent this season, with increasing numbers of landings on the islands; last year, cruises that included landings increased by more than 10 percent.
With IAATO being a voluntary membership organization, there is reason for concern — Antarctic tourism needs to be managed well, and already Antarctic treaty members have raised concerns and called for more regulation. Just yesterday, the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division announced that Princess Cruise Lines will plead guilty to deliberately dumping oil-contaminated waste into the ocean and covering it up in incidents dating back to 2005, resulting in seven felony charges and a $40 million penalty, the biggest fine yet in the history of criminal cases involving vessel pollution. While these ships were not in Antarctica, this is alarming given the increase and expansion of ship travel, as Reuters notes: “Cruise ship travel has generated concern among environmental groups and governments over water contamination and waste as the industry adds passengers, routes and larger ships.”
I’m often asked how many times I’ve been to Antarctica (once) and for how long (less than two weeks) and whether I will ever return. Even though it’s my favorite landscape on earth, I’m not sure I belong there, especially having already had the privilege of going once. In her poem “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop asks: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” When it comes to Antarctica, I lean toward yes.
When I was fortunate enough to be invited to Sunriver Books & Music for a My Last Continent reading, I discovered an absolute gem. This was my first visit to Sunriver, Oregon, and I couldn’t have had a better introduction to this lovely community.
This gorgeous bookstore is located in the charming Sunriver Village, a collection of shops, cafes, and restaurants, and the bookstore is clearly a beloved part of the Sunriver community. The reading included wine, snacks, and a raffle — and owner Deon Stonehouse greeted most of her customers by name when they arrived.
Before the event, the staff was busy with a steady stream of customers, and as I browsed around, I noticed that most of the titles at Sunriver Books are shelved cover out, which makes browsing not only easier but makes great books far more discoverable. And it’s clear that, listening to Deon engage with customers, she’s read everything on the shelves and is able to help customers find exactly what they want, as well as recommend what they might enjoy.
There is a sweet and accessible children’s section …
…and cozy little nooks for browsing and reading …
…and an airy loft upstairs has the store’s collection of travel books and local author titles.
Sunriver Books also has a variety of literary items, from luxury pens to note cards, but most of all it’s a book lover’s paradise. Deon, co-owner Rich Stonehouse, and the rest of the staff have a great love for books and are passionate about putting the books they love into the hands of their customers. Next time you find yourself in the middle part of Oregon, do not miss this fabulous bookstore — in fact, it’s well worth a trip from wherever in Oregon you may be.
Among the most amazing things about Antarctica — and there are so many — is that it is a place of peace. And this refers not only to its quiet, unspoiled beauty but to its lack of human activity for any purposes other than good.
No one owns or governs Antarctica. It is one of the few places in the world that has never seen war — or any military activity, for that matter. It is a place whose only permanent inhabitants are wild animals (penguins, seabirds, seals, and whales among them) and whose human inhabitants are scientists and those who support their work.
The Antarctic Treaty, entered into force in 1961, stipulates that the continent be used for peaceful and scientific purposes only. Currently, mining, drilling, and any military activity is banned on the continent. Yet with the treaty up for review in 2048, there is concern that this may change.
China is stepping up its presence in Antarctica, with four research stations, a new air squadron, and plans to build another station, raising concerns about its intentions in Antarctica for exploiting natural resources, which include fish, oil, minerals, and perhaps even diamonds. As this article notes, “Beijing has made it ‘loud and clear to domestic audiences’ that these natural resources are its main interest in the region.” China is already fishing for krill, as are South Korea and Russia, countries that also have their eyes on securing their stakes on the continent. And the Japanese have long conducted illegal whaling hunts in the Southern Ocean under the guise of research.
Currently in Hobart, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is meeting in hopes of establishing a marine protected areas in the Antarctic’s Southern Ocean. Russia is the one nation that, after blocking conservation attempts five times in the past, delegates hope will come on board this year. If CCAMLR can establish the three marine protected areas it hopes to this year (in the Weddell Sea, the Ross Sea, and East Antarctica), this will limit commercial fishing and help protect the entire ecosystem.
Antarctica is one of the few places on earth where animals can roam without any human predators, and where everyone works together for the common good. Unfortunately, the continent cannot fully escape what goes on in the rest of the world — the entire region is suffering the effects of climate change, and the Antarctic peninsula is among the fastest-warming places on earth — but right now, Antarctica the only place on earth where peace reigns. And we need to make sure it stays this way forever.
One of the best parts of this summer’s My Last Continent book tour was catching up with friends along the way. Admiral Byrd, of course, made an appearance at every event…and at every post-event cocktail gathering as well. Here we are in Boston…
and in New York…
and Portland, Oregon…
and in Seattle.
I’m fortunate to have such good friends in so many fun cities…great thanks to all for their hospitality and for making the book tour so festive!
As the ice melts in the Arctic, tour companies are taking advantage of the ability to bring tourists to the region like never before. As I noted in this article for The Daily Beast, “despite all our technological advances, a ship is only as safe as her captain—and the capricious nature of ice and polar weather means even an experienced captain isn’t immune from human error.”
And due to these new opportunities, tour companies like the one that owns the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity, are taking advantage. Yet when it comes to polar cruises, bigger is most certainly not better. This article in The Guardian (titled “A new Titanic?”) made the point very clearly: “If something were to go wrong it would be very, very bad.”
And another article, in the Telegraph (titled “The world’s most dangerous cruise?”) reported: “In 2010 it took a Canadian icebreaker 40 hours to evacuate just 120 passengers from the 330ft Clipper Adventurer when it ran aground on an underwater cliff. At times, Serenity will be 1,000 miles and at least 11 hours’ response time from coast guard assistance.”
In other words, this cruise was extremely risky — and while its voyage was successful, the risks will increase if this type of tourism becomes a trend.
In the last 15 years, cruise-ship tourism in Norway has grown from 200,000 to almost 700,000 visitors. Canada’s fleet of passenger vessels was 11 in 2005 and rose to 40 in 2015. Iceland’s foreign tourists have more than tripled since the year 2000, to nearly a million visitors a year—about three times Iceland’s population. And in Antarctica, the number of visitors this season is expected to be upwards of 40,000—more than double what it was in 2004.
Can the planet’s most vulnerable places handle much more tourism?
As the Antarctic tour season begins next month, the concerns are similar to those of cruises in the Arctic; it’s an unpredictable place where there are not enough resources to rescue large numbers of passengers and crew were something to happen. Last year, a small tourist vessel was damaged by ice and, while all on board were safe, the company had to cancel its next voyage. It’s worth noting that this happened in the South Shetland Islands, which is pretty far north on an Antarctic cruise; in other words, ice is unpredictable even farther north and can wreak havoc on ships anytime and anywhere.
While Antarctic travel is considered safe (unlike these new uncharted voyages in the Arctic; as this Guardian article notes, “even before the Crystal Serenity began planning its voyage, the coast guard and local communities were raising concerns that the Arctic was not ready for the sharp rise in traffic through the Bering Strait”), all travelers should carefully vet their tour operators, most of which follow the guidelines of IAATO, and choose a company with vast experience in ice-filled waters. The Southern Ocean is highly unpredictable, and an experienced captain, crew, and staff makes all the difference — not only for the safety of passengers but for wildlife as well.
I was absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to go to Australia to promote My Last Continent … it was a whirlwind trip of work and play, with plenty of both. (And with Admiral Byrd along, I’m thinking he needs his own credit card to earn some airline miles.)
We began in Adelaide, where I did an interview with Cath Kenneally of Arts Breakfast on Radio Adelaide the morning after arriving in the country. You can listen to the interview here (I was a teeny bit jet-lagged; it took me a couple of seconds to realize we were on the air…).
Post-interview was a great day for wandering around town. Adelaide is a beautiful city, a university town with two gorgeous museums near the University of Adelaide. We saw this bust of Antarctica explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, as well as an exhibit about his adventures in the South Australian Museum.
The next day, John and I taught a marketing workshop at the SA Writers Centre, an all-day affair with writers from myriad genres. Adelaide has a great many pubs and restaurants, so that was a perfect way to end the day.
Onward to Melbourne, where John, Admiral Byrd, and I spent several days enjoying the city, signing books, and meeting fabulous people, including my wonderful publishing team at Text Publishing and the lovely and talented writers Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist.
Graeme’s new novel, The Best of Adam Sharp, has just launched in Australia, and Anne’s second psychological thriller, Dangerous to Know, was released earlier this year. Anne and Graeme are currently writing a novel together: Left Right, a romantic comedy set on the Camino de Santiago, is forthcoming from Text Publishing in 2017.
Then it was onward to Brisbane for the Brisbane Writers Festival, where I had the chance to chat with Lionel Shriver at the opening reception just before she launched us into the festival with a presentation that turned out to be the talk of not only the festival but the literary world. (You can read Shriver’s full speech here. She also wrote an op-ed for the New York Times.)
The festival was nonstop busy for most of us writers, but it was wonderful to get to meet and talk with so many at various events, as well as in the green room, which featured a fabulous spread of books. (My luggage was significantly heavier on the way home.)
After three events onsite at the magnificent State Library of Queensland, my last event in Brisbane was BWF in the ‘Burbs, a conversation about My Last Continent at the Garden City Library about twenty minutes outside the city.
It was the perfect place to soft-launch Among Animals 2, and best of all we got to meet Sascha, AA2 contributor and university professor, who read from her haunting story “Roo,” which appears in the anthology. Learn more about Among Animals 2 here at Ashland Creek Press.
And of course, the trip wasn’t all work … John and I got a chance to explore a bit of all four cities and loved them all, for their wildlife, botanical gardens, museums, and incredible beauty. We also ate twice our weight in delicious vegan food (not to mention Australian wines and beer). I’m already looking forward our return …
I’m delighted to have a short essay appearing in the brand-new issue of Zoomorphic, a beautiful online magazine dedicated to writing that deepens our connection with wildlife and the more-than-human world. A brief preview: the story involves penguins.
Check out the new issue here, and you can also explore previous issues for more essays, poetry, and art about the animals we share our planet with.
I am delighted to be reading tonight at Warwick’s in La Jolla, at 7:30 p.m.
To pre-order a copy of MY LAST CONTINENT and to reserve a seat at the reading, please call 858-454-0347, or visit Warwick’s online for more information.
I look forward to seeing you there!