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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This New York Times article outlines one of the most interesting aspects of life in Antarctica: It’s a continent owned by no one, which means that there is no rule of law for a land nearly twice the size of Australia.
Everyone working in Antarctica is subject to the rules of their home country, which means that if you work at the U.S. base McMurdo, you’re required to live by the laws of the United States. But what happens when you visit the nearby New Zealand base at Scott Station?
As this article outlines, crime is fairly rare (there’s not much to steal and nowhere to flee), but the isolation and abundance of alcohol can make for criminal activity nonetheless — and this is when things can get complicated. As the article notes:
An unsolved death. Assault with a deadly weapon. Lots of alcohol-fueled misbehavior. It’s quite a rap sheet for a continent where almost nobody lives.
Fortunately, most researchers and staff go to Antarctica in peace. And, once there, that’s most often what they find.
I’m so excited for my hometown book event in Ashland tonight at 7 p.m. at the lovely Bloomsbury Books.
It’s great fun to see My Last Continent in such good company here at the store … and with the temperatures reaching for 90+ degrees today, I’m looking forward to an evening of ice and penguins and all things Antarctic!
Antarctica is a gigantic continent — it’s about the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined, and nearly twice the size of Australia. While many think that visiting the continent means going to the South Pole, most travelers, in fact, visit the Antarctica peninsula, on the western edge of the continent — which actually quite far from the South Pole.
For those of you who are wondering about the islands visited by the characters in My Last Continent, below is a detailed map of The Cormorant‘s journey. And check out MLC’s book club kit for more about the continent, as well as to meet the penguins!
And to learn about the researchers who count penguins at the bottom of the world, check out The Penguin Counters, a documentary about these dedicated researchers and the species they study in Antarctica.
And, finally … stay tuned for My Last Continent, coming on June 21 from Scribner! In this novel, you’ll meet four species of penguins: three Antarctic species, and the Magellanic penguins of Patagonia. Check out the book club kit for a little more info, and join my mailing list for news and updates on the book.