A new era of Antarctic travel

By Midge Raymond,

As the characters and circumstances highlight in My Last Continent, tourism in Antarctica is a tricky thing. On one hand, the Antarctic peninsula — where most travelers visit — is a fragile place, and the fewer humans who set foot on this region, the better. On the other hand, for many who visit Antarctica, it’s a life-changing experience that causes them to rethink everything, especially their commitment to the planet — this was its effect on me — I came home, wrote a story and eventually a novel, and have committed to major life changes in order to do my own part in protecting the planet and its animals.

For the narrator of My Last Continent, Deb Gardner, doing her research means supporting an industry that causes her great worry; she needs the tourist expedition boats to ferry her to the islands where she studies penguins. She encounters travelers who learn to appreciate the continent and who want to help protect it; she also encounters those who care little for its landscape or creatures and who simply want to check it off their bucket lists before it disappears.

A recent study from North Carolina State University (“Tourists’ motivations, learning and trip satisfaction facilitate pro-environmental outcomes of the Antarctic tourist experience,” published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism) reveals that, in fact, a significant reason that many people travel to Antarctica is to socialize or celebrate with an exotic backdrop — not due to an interest in the landscape or its wildlife. Many were there for the same reason people visit the Arctic or the Great Barrier Reef — a chance to see one of the world’s wonders before it disappears.

This is discouraging, to say the least. If travelers don’t care about the wildlife, how can we inspire them to protect the penguins, the whales, the seals? If they only want to see it before it melts rather than keep it from melting, how can they be convinced that exactly this type of climate change will soon be in their own backyards?

And yet there is some hope: Researchers in this study looked at tourist groups (divided by motivation, i.e., whether they traveled to Antarctica for education, social bonding, adventure, or “to take a trip of a lifetime”), and what they learned, as well as what they felt they learned. Travelers in the education and “trip of a lifetime” group had a high perception of learning, which bodes well for teaching future visitors about conservation and the environment.

The study’s lead author, Daniela Cajiao, said, “If you feel you got something from the learning experience, then it will more likely change you and what you do after the trip. That has important implications for educators, communicators and tour operators.”

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO)’s most recent visitor figures are for the 2019-2020 season (the same season researched in the study mentioned above); IAATO reports that 74,401 visitors traveled to Antarctica between October 2019 and April 2020 — this is double the number of five years earlier, and nearly four times the number of visitors who went to Antarctica back when I did, in 2004. Post-pandemic, the numbers are likely to climb again. And while in the 2019-2020 season, 18,506 travelers did not set foot on the continent, an increasing number of visitors are going deep into the continent, as air travel becomes increasingly available and as tour companies offer such opportunities as overnighting on the ice. All of this has a serious impact on the continent, its resources, and its wildlife.

Meanwhile, the ice continues to melt at an alarming rate, the ice shelves continue to collapse, and the temperatures continue to soar — this past winter, temperatures reached levels 104 degrees higher than normal. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that melting ice sheets from Antarctica — as well as other places — will force millions from their homes as global sea level rises.

With all this in mind, it’s important to consider why we travel, especially in this era of massive climate chaos. It’s not enough to visit a place before it disappears; we need to consider how we can help conserve these precious landscapes. Those visiting Antarctica need to realize it’s not a theme park but a wild, incredibly dynamic place that needs our protection if we want to continue to share our planet with endangered creatures like penguins and whales. We should absolutely travel to be with friends and family, to celebrate milestones — but we should also travel to educate ourselves, and to return home inspired to do a bit better for our planet.



World Vegan Travel

By Midge Raymond,

I absolutely loved talking with Brighde Reed of World Vegan Travel about a few of my favorite things: writing, penguins, creativity, travel, and food. Check out her wonderful podcast here, where you’ll meet travelers, chefs, and many more fascinating and compassionate people.

Click here to listen to our chat, and if you’re ready to travel the world again (it’s been way too long!), don’t miss the upcoming trips with World Vegan Travel … from Japan to Thailand to South Africa to France to Italy, these trips look amazing!



To a happy new year of writing

By Midge Raymond,

It’s not a secret that many of us writers have had a hard time being creative during the troubling times of the past few years.

And, as I was preparing this post, I realized I have not even glanced at my List of Works since 2019. Granted, 2019 was the last “normal” year before the pandemic changed the world, so I could use this as a handy excuse — but not forever. Even though the world remains changed and the pandemic remains with us, we writers have to get back to our writing, if we haven’t already.

And the good news? Many of us have. In looking at my List of Works, I realized that while I haven’t been tracking my projects, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. Updating my list of works has reminded me that though I haven’t felt very creative, I’ve actually been making some creative progress: I’ve been working on three separate book projects (which now, finally, appear in my List of Works), and I’ve somehow managed to publish three short stories during the pandemic.

And this is why I highly recommend keeping a List of Works (learn the how and why in this post), which I began doing a dozen years ago. Having a list like this reminds us writers of the ways in which we are moving forward (even when we think we aren’t).

So, while the past two years have apparently been too distracting to attend to my List of Works, I’m finally getting back on track. (Maybe this means 2022 will be different, and better!) But at the very least, it will remind me that even if I can’t control what goes on in the world, I can control my own tiny piece of it — and being creative is the best way to move forward with optimism during such crazy times.

I cannot recommend a List of Works — or whatever your organizational strategy may be — enough. Even if you’re not an organizer or a list-maker, give it a try. And even if you ignore your list for years at a time, that’s okay — it’s always fun to pick up where you left off, whether you learn you’ve been writing more than you think you have, or whether it helps you realize it’s time to get back to it already.

However you may decide to track your work, don’t neglect to set writing goals and to check in with yourself (or a writing buddy) to keep track of how you’re going.

And for a few inspirational writing tips, check out this wonderful advice from a few successful and prolific Ashland Creek Press authors.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, hopeful new year of writing!



Should we travel to Antarctica?

By Midge Raymond,

Those who read My Last Continent usually have a strong reaction to the idea of traveling to Antarctica — they either can’t wait to go, or they decide they will never visit, in order to protect the continent.

This is a frequent question I receive at readings and events. My answer, so far, to the question of whether we should travel to Antarctica has been to point out that the animals, especially the penguins, currently face far bigger problems than tourists: climate change is disrupting their food supply and ability to breed, and the fishing industry is decimating the krill and other fishes that Antarctic creatures rely on. I tell people that not eating seafood and helping work toward climate action may be even better for Antarctica than forgoing a visit, especially if you travel there, return, and become an ambassador for the continent. The more people learn about the perils facing Antarctica and the potential losses we could witness there — from melting ice to endangered penguins, and far beyond — the more we can do here up north to help save it.

But this article should make us all reconsider traveling to the last continent. The article notes that in 2014, routine biosecurity surveillance detected non-native invertebrates at an Australian Antarctic station. These creatures have been eradicated, but it highlights the vulnerability of the continent to invasive species. This isn’t a one-time occurrence.

And climate change in Antarctica, as all over the world, is exacerbating all of the issues facing the continent:

As glaciers melt, new areas are exposed, which allows non-Antarctic species greater opportunity to establish and possibly outcompete locals for resources, such as nutrients and precious, ice-free space.

The Conversation

As this article points out, we’ve been lucky so far — before the pandemic, the continent was seeing around 40,000 tourists a year, which is double the number back in the early 2000s. While this is a very high number, and I hope it doesn’t continue to grow, I also hear from a lot of people who say they want to “see the penguins before they disappear.” And this is a very sad reason to travel, especially if the very act of doing so hastens the demise of the species we’re traveling to see.

Scientists will have to deal with the possibility of non-native species in Antarctica no matter how many visitors the continent sees. But all of us who’d love to visit Antarctica should consider staying home for the sake of keeping it safe … or, if we do visit, we should make it a mission to return home to educate and inspire others with all of its beauty, so we can continue to learn how to preserve this beautiful, icy continent and its amazing animals.



Antarctica in the time of COVID-19

By Midge Raymond,

For most of 2020, I was hopeful that COVID-19 wouldn’t reach Antarctica. But in December, it became the last continent to report an outbreak, at a Chilean research base.

There are few better places to contain an outbreak than Antarctica (though the isolation means it’s not a place where anyone wants to be sick). Still, the greater worry about the coronavirus and Antarctica is its wildlife. As this article notes, “while there is currently less risk for humans in Antarctica, the potential for the Covid-19 virus to jump to Antarctica’s unique and already vulnerable wildlife has scientists extremely concerned.” Click here to read on.

With travel to Antarctica still uncertain for 2021 (last year, visitors could see the continent via a 12-hour flyby on Qantas), this will help keep the virus at bay there. But research, of course will go on — and this is quite fortunate in that this continent needs protecting now more than ever. Among the many creatures that need monitoring and protecting are krill, the food of whales, penguins, and so many more. Yet overfishing has been threatening their existence, which in turns threatens that of the Antarctic animals who are more familiar. Click here for a wonderful interactive article about krill.

Though Antarctica may have been less affected by the pandemic than any other continent on the planet, it is being affected by climate change more than any other. So even when we’re allowed to travel again, we have to consider what it means to go to the world’s more vulnerable places.

Check out this piece posted on the Climate Fiction Writers League, a wonderful resource for all who are interested in climate change. What I love about fiction is how much you can learn about a place or a species by reading a good story, whether a YA novel or a thriller. You can subscribe to the blog here, and get updates on new books and the science and passion behind them.



An interview with Janée J. Baugher on ekphrastic writing

By Midge Raymond,

Poet and teacher Janée J. Baugher is the author of two collections of poetry, The Body’s Physics and The Coordinates of Yes, and her new book, The Ekphrastic Writer, is an amazing text filled with art, poetry, prose, and inspiration for all writers. I’m thrilled to have had this email chat with Janée about her new book.

Q: With so many museums being closed due to the pandemic, are there any virtual spaces you’d recommend for ekphrastic writing inspiration?

A: I have a friend who lives in Chicago, and when he told me that on July 31st the Art Institute of Chicago was opening I raged with envy. I immediately opened that museum’s website and beheld an incredible article called, “Protecting Art in An Empty Museum.” Isn’t it curious to know that while many of us are jobless, distanced from our family and friends, and spending too many hours before the newsreel that fuels worry and fear, there are countless numbers of tireless museum stewards working around the globe to ensure that works of art remain safe? If you cannot experience art firsthand, museum websites are the best option. So, to answer your question, here are some resources:

  1. This website allows you to click on the world map, which brings up a list of museum website links for that particular region.
  2. The Smithsonian Art Museum, though still closed, recognizes that people remain hungry for art-viewing experiences. Since COVID-19, the organization has revamped its homepage—“Experience American Art from Home.”
  3. The Getty Center is also still closed, but their internet presence is just stellar. Visit the website and you’ll see information on art conservation, research, education, and, of course, you’ll be able to enjoy tens of thousands of images from their collection.
  4. Technology has certainly allowed for an easier way to weather the pestilence, and museums have embraced groundbreaking methods for virtual art engagement. You can search “virtual tours” and “art museums” on the internet, or you can simply visit your favorite museum’s website and see if those types of features exist. Are you lamenting your canceled trip to Paris? Now’s your opportunity to visit the Louvre virtually. What’s the good word from St. Petersburg, Russia? The Hermitage Museum is open! Can’t get there? Yes, you can.

Q: You recently participated in an art project for the City of Shoreline in which you wrote poems in response to scenes in the city’s parks. A lot of people are spending time outdoors during the pandemic. Can you talk about the possibilities within nature and ekphrasis?

A: Years ago I had a revelation about the similarity between writing on nature and writing ekphrastically. With both categories (objects in nature and objects d’art), the journey begins with aesthetics, reverie, and mystery. In my book I write, “Writers write concretely of the things they see, feel, and can name. Art of any type can be an extension of reflections on what you are looking at and how you are processing what you are seeing” (page 46). The possibilities within nature as it pertains to ekphrasis are infinite! While you’re spending time outdoors, keep in mind that public art is always open, and many museums boast sculpture gardens as part of their collection—most of which are still accessible for viewing and experiencing. Here’s an article that was highly informative to my chapter on nature writing: D. W. Meinig’s “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene,” which is available online. Read this article and then venture out into a landscape and you’ll see it through an entirely different lens, which can be a stellar start to ekphrastic writing.

Q: In your book, you wrote that you first “committed ekphrasis” in 1995. How much of your own body of work is based in ekphrasis? What is it about ekphrasis that captured you and continues to inspire you?

A: One summer during graduate school while I was drowning under the pressure of writing a book, I went to Europe in the hopes that I could find the poems there. Within two days of arriving I found myself in a Berlin museum swooning over a little Dutch painting. I opened my notebook on the spot and out poured a ekphrastic poem. The process was systematic—the poems, I discovered, were at museums, so I visited a new one every other day for six weeks. And the approach to writing was easy—if I just freewrote while in the presence of art, the poems composed themselves. By the time I returned home, I had 100 poems, half of which were ekphrastic. Ultimately, that trip resulted in my first collection of poems. Most of what I write now is ekphrastic. My current work-in-progress is dedicated to a single artist, Andrew Wyeth, which is a new challenge for me in that it’s an opportunity to deep-dive into one artist’s complete oeuvre and to see what connections can be made among his many paintings and drawings. My original impetus for turning to the visual arts is the motivation that holds true for me today: I seek to extinguish the personality. Ruminating on an artwork is, for me, a mode of transcending the quotidian experience. In other words, in the spirit of writing imaginatively, the approach I take to squelch the ego is meditating on an object of beauty.

Q: Which of the twenty-six types of ekphrastic writing from the first chapter of your book—from personifying the artwork to addressing the artist to considering historical context—do you most often employ?

A: In compiling a list of conventions for this book, I studied scholarly articles, as well as read hundreds of ekphrastic prose pieces and poems, including analyzing my own work. Some of those conventions include #3, narrating the artwork; #17, writing the absent; #19, adopting the artist’s artistic style; and #26, transcending description. Unless it were an assignment, I don’t suppose that any of us is truly conscious of what convention we employ as we’re in the drafting stage of writing. It would be a worthwhile exercise for a student of ekphrasis to take one artwork and attempt all twenty-six conventions. For me, the desires I have for my poems take a backseat to the desire of the muse. It’s only during the revision process that I look closely at whatever convention is at play and then work towards consistency therein. For my third collection of poems (on Andrew Wyeth), I write in the first-person point of view, giving voice to Wyeth’s thought process as he paints and draws. That is to say that I’m currently using convention #8, giving voice to the artist.

Q: If you could make one recommendation to a beginning ekphrastic writer, what would it be?

A: The best ekphrastic writing is born from a writer whose aim and delight is to look deeply and for whom there’s some feeling associated with the artwork they’re engaging with. In other words, writing to an artwork for which you’re apathetic will result in a piece of writing that’s dead. Additionally, if you’re too close to a work of art (you’re the artist, for example, or your lover is the photographer), you might be unable to plumb the depths of its mysteries. To rephrase, if you gravitate towards an artwork for which you feel something, and it’s an artwork that you’re willing to scrutinize deeply and well, and through which there’s space for your imagination, then perhaps you’re on the journey to making an ekphrastic writing of literary quality. Even if you have no literary aspirations, writing freely to any type of art is a blast.

Q: And lastly: Would you be willing to choose a writing invitation from the book to offer to readers?

A: Yes, there are 200 writing invitations in the book, but here’s a new one—Since most of us can’t currently access museums and galleries, let’s take this opportunity to start ekphrastic writing at home. What art exists in your home? For example: original art hanging on the walls, posters, postcards, or images of beloved art in a book? Select one piece and place it on a table. Cover the entire artwork with a sheet of paper. While the artwork is cloaked, spend a few minutes remembering its details. What’s the medium? Who created it? What mood does it evoke? What do you most recall about the piece? Next, move that sheet of paper (on the horizontal or the vertical) centimeter by centimeter thereby slowly revealing the image. Take notice of the lines, brushstrokes, hues, shapes, forms, and negative space. Once you’ve truly looked deeply at the artwork, perform a 10-minute freewrite. Afterwards, spend 5 more minutes writing about why that artwork exists in your home. How did you acquire it and from whom? What are your personal associations with it? What’s its significance? Lastly, involving family members in this exercise can be an interesting way to explore others’ relationship to the art that you share.

Janée and Midge at the Northwind Arts Center in Port Townsend, Washington.

For more information on Janée and her work, visit her website. Also, be sure to check out this interview in Boulevard Magazine, and her upcoming classes in October and November.



Pandemic Writing

By Midge Raymond,

Even as I wrote the title of this post, I confess I found the notion of “pandemic writing” to be an oxymoron. As I’ve heard from many other writers, it’s difficult to be creative when life is so very stressful. For some of us, it feels indulgent or frivolous, in light of all the suffering in the world; for others, it’s simply hard to focus when so much of life is scary, out of our control, and unpredictable for the foreseeable future.

I’ve found great solace in reading, and it’s in part thanks to the many wonderful books that have given me respite from the stress of current life — or have illuminated aspects of current life — that I’m finally feeling inspired to jump-start my own writing again. Reading is a wonderful reminder that we cannot exist without books — without art in general — and this means that each of us must do what we can to contribute to a world that needs art more than ever.

I was delighted to rediscover this article by Janée Baugher, author of the poetry books The Body’s Physics and The Coordinates of Yes, and, most recently, the writing book The Ekphrastic Writer. In this thoughtful piece, Janée challenges us to find fifteen minutes to spend on our art, whether it’s playing piano or writing. (When I re-read this article, I had only five minutes between reading the last sentence and leaving for an appointment, and I was so inspired that I spent those five minutes writing. And you know what? It was worth it, and helped me get back into a long-neglected project.) You can read the article here.

At a recent virtual reading by the Writers Guild at Bloomington’s Spoken Word Series, I was inspired not only by the music and prose and poetry readings but by reader Katy Yocom’s advice to find an “accountability buddy” with whom to check in daily to keep each other accountable for the day’s writing. As the author of the award-winning novel Three Ways to Disappear and associate director of the low-residency graduate writing programs of the School of Creative and Professional Writing at Spalding University, Katy practices what she teaches. Learn more about Katy here, where you can find Three Ways to Disappear, see her upcoming virtual events, and sign up for her e-mail updates.

One of the best ways I’ve found to say inspired is to do one literary thing per week. This may be attending an online reading or event (in addition to seeing what your local bookstores are doing and finding your favorite authors online, check out LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel for a list of virtual events, or Book Riot’s list of reading series now being held online), or listening to a bookish podcast like Books Are My People (Book Riot also has a great list). You might attend a writing practice (such as San Diego Writers Ink’s Brown Bag, Pen to Paper, and Thursday Writers meetings, now online and offering critique-free free-writing sessions led by instructors; sessions are one hour, with a $5 donation for Brown Bag and Thursday Writers). And don’t forget that buying a book from your local bookseller or from a small press will not only enrich your literary life but will help support the literary arts during these tough economic times.

In the spirit of starting to write (or continuing your established writing practice), below are a few writing prompts from Everyday Writing, the book I wrote when I realized I would never have the time to write every single day but could still be a productive writer. (You can check out an excerpt of the book here.) In addition to writing tips I’ve gathered together (from my own experiences as well as those of my brilliant writer friends), the book includes prompts for just about any amount of time you may have, whether it’s five minutes or a week-long writing retreat.

The prompts below are for those who are short on time (which most of us are, these days); they may seem totally random at a glance, but sometimes that’s the idea. Don’t question; just write.

I hope you enjoy them and that they inspire you to be creative during those strange times we’re all living through. Happy writing!

Five-minute writing prompts

  • Write about what you’re wearing on your feet (if anything). Use as many details as time allows.
  • Describe your best friend as a two-year-old.
  • Write about forgetting something at the store.

Fifteen-minute writing prompts

  • Write about a time you guessed wrong about something, whether it was who might be calling, whom your daughter would marry, or how the polenta would turn out.
  • Write about a lie someone told you. Include everything, from how and when you knew it was a lie to what might have been different if you’d been told the truth.




It’s World Penguin Day

By Midge Raymond,

I loved researching penguins for My Last Continent, but World Penguin Day is as special to me as it is bittersweet because every year, the world is a little harsher for penguins: fishing, climate change, and warming oceans are endangering a great many species.

There are many ways we can learn more about penguins and how to protect them, and many ways to help them directly, even if we’re (very) far from where they live.

For example, since most of us are currently staying home during the pandemic, one great way to help scientists (and to glimpse these amazing creatures in their natural habitat) is to join this citizen science project, Penguin Watch, which allows you to count penguins from your computer screen.

And here are a few ways to help penguins every day, all year:

  • Re-think your consumption of seafood. Overfishing is one of the biggest causes of penguin death, whether it’s because humans are eating their food (such as krill) or because they get killed by fishing nets and longlines. Even “sustainable” seafood has an impact on the oceans and wildlife.
  • Be a thoughtful traveler and a respectful birdwatcher. If you must travel to see penguins (and it’s pretty irresistible), choose places that can handle your human footprints — and always go with eco-friendly tour companies. Once there, always pay close attention to guides and naturalists who know how to keep a safe distance. If you’re traveling without a group or guide, be sure to study up; learn about the birds’ habitat so you can be sure to stay out of their way.
  • Do all that you can to combat climate change (see the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips).
  • Support such conservation efforts as the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.




How safe are cruise ships?

By Midge Raymond,

One of the reasons it took me a decade to write My Last Continent is that at the center of a story is a massive shipwreck; since they are very uncommon I wasn’t sure how credible my narrative would be — in fact, cruise ships are actually very safe (a study by G.P. Wild referenced in this article noted that while cruise-ship capacity increased 55 percent over the last decade, the number of “operational incidents” declined 37 percent, and man-overboard incidents dropped 35 percent).

Still, as I learned during my research, anything can go wrong on a cruise ship — and often does. It was when the Costa Concordia sank in 2012 that I finally realized my fictional Antarctic shipwreck was not only plausible but all too possible. And so I (finally) finished the novel.

As this article reminded me, while cruises are generally safe, it’s wise to take precautions and to consider such things as not only where your muster station is but how to find your kids, your partner; what to do if you can’t get there. It’s nothing anyone wants to think about when starting a vacation — but it could make all the difference.

When I was in Antarctica on a small ship many years ago, I was struck by the onboard naturalists’ worry about the much larger cruise ships making the journey. These massive ships were far too large for search-and-rescue operations, should anything go wrong — after all, at the bottom of the earth, how can several thousand people be rescued when there aren’t enough humans (or boats) for miles? when you are separated from civilization by the wildest seas on earth?

This is great material for fiction, of course, but it’s also a reality that everyone traveling to Antarctica should consider. In 2007, a tourist expedition ship, the MV Explorer, did sink in Antarctica — but thanks to having only about a hundred passengers, as well as having another ship nearby to take them on, all were safe. But if the weather conditions had not been favorable, if the Norwegian ship had not been nearby to take on the stranded passengers — or if the ship carried thousands of passengers, as the fictional Australis does in My Last Continent, this incident could’ve looked a lot more like the disaster in the novel.

This is not to say no one should visit Antarctica; the dangers are real, but this is part of what makes the journey a life-changing trip. Most important, I think, is to travel in the most eco-friendly way possible, especially when it comes to fragile places. Visit IAATO (International Association for Antarctic Tour Operators) for more on Antarctic tourism and for how to be an educated, environmentally conscious traveler.



Happy World Penguin Day!

By Midge Raymond,

Happy World Penguin Day — not that I ever need a reason to celebrate these amazing little creatures, but it’s great to have a designated day on which everyone thinks about these birds and how they’re faring in such a rapidly changing world.

Tawaki, or Fiordland-crested penguins, photographed in New Zealand by John Yunker.

So, how exactly are the penguins doing? According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, of the eighteen species of penguins listed, four are stable (the Royal, Snare, Gentoo, and Little penguins), two are increasing in numbers (the Adélies and the Kings), and the status of the Emperors is classified as unknown. This means that, when it comes to the rest of the penguins of the world, their numbers are decreasing — and in some cases, they are decreasingly alarmingly fast.

King penguins on South Georgia Island.

The penguins in the most danger of becoming extinct are three species I’ve been very fortunate to meet: the Galápagos penguin (with an estimated 1,200 individuals left), the Yellow-eyed penguin (with fewer than 3,500 left), and New Zealand’s Fiordland-crested penguin, also known by its Māori name, Tawaki, meaning crested, which the IUCN lists at between 2,500 and 9,999 individuals (yet when I visited in 2017, local researchers’ estimates were only 3,000 individuals).

These are pretty scary numbers — and the fact is, the lives of each of these species make them very hard to accurately count, which means that while there could be more than we think, it’s likely that there could be far fewer than we realize.

So what can we do on World Penguin Day to help make the world a better place for them? Here are a few ideas to start.

  • Re-think your consumption of seafood. Overfishing is one of the biggest causes of penguin death, whether it’s because humans are eating their food (such as krill) or because they get killed by fishing nets and longlines. Even “sustainable” seafood has an impact on the oceans and wildlife.
  • Be a thoughtful traveler and a respectful birdwatcher. If you must travel to see penguins (and it’s pretty irresistible), choose places that can handle your human footprints — and always go with eco-friendly tour companies. Once there, always pay close attention to guides and naturalists who know how to keep a safe distance. If you’re traveling without a group or guide, be sure to study up; learn about the birds’ habitat so you can be sure to stay out of their way.
  • Do all that you can to combat climate change (see the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips).
  • Support such conservation efforts as the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.

 

Yellow-eyed (Tawaki) penguin, photographed in New Zealand by John Yunker.



Bookstore Geek: Boutique del Libro in Puerto Madryn, Argentina

By Midge Raymond,

Strolling around Puerto Madryn during our Penguins & Patagonia tour, we almost missed this lovely bookstore, Boutique del Libro, which is on the first floor of a shopping mall on the main street through town (“first floor” in Argentina is what we Americans think of as the second floor). This is the view from the street:

Boutique del Libro has a robust online store and branches throughout Argentina, including Ushuaia, Calafate, and several in the greater Buenos Aires region.

Once inside this Puerto Madryn location, this small bookstore revealed an abundance of books, from local and regional authors to international bestsellers — with an ocean view as a backdrop.

It’s a very quaint store with a lot of gift items as well as books — a wonderful place to browse, even if you aren’t a fluent reader in Spanish.

It has an especially sweet Patagonia section, with art books, calendars, journals, prints, and so much more that highlight the flora and fauna of the region.

If you’re in Puerto Madryn looking for gifts (or Spanish-language books, of course!), don’t miss this lovely bookstore on the first floor of Puerto Madryn’s main street.



Bookstore Geek: The Antique Book Shop, Buenos Aires

By Midge Raymond,

One afternoon on our recent Penguins & Patagonia Adventure, we walked through the glamorous Buenos Aires neighborhood of Recoleta, an area with an abundance of beautiful boutiques and shops. Bookstore geeks that we are, we couldn’t resist stopping into this beautiful antique bookstore.

There’s something so appealing about old books, and this store is no exception; it even has a wonderful old-book smell, like that of a vast library. The store offers myriad old and rare books, all in Spanish, most of them about Argentina, with a great many about Patagonia.

It’s a nice place to browse, but for security reasons you have to be buzzed in, and because the books are so old and some are so fragile, it’s a better place to look than to touch. But that was just as much fun for us.

The Antique Book Shop also has maps and illustrated books; we visited twice, enchanted by a nearly 100-year-old map of Chubut Province, a copy of which was also hanging in the living room at Rincon Chico. The map was made in 1928 and outlines the parcels of land that makes up the Peninsula Valdes. Because the peninsula is all privately owned, the map has the family names of all the landowners, the vast majority of whom pass down the land from generation to generation.

If you’re in interested in the history of Argentina — from literary to geopolitical to natural history — this bookstore is a must-stop on your visit to Buenos Aires. The store owner and employees are very helpful and speak both Spanish and English.



Bookstore Geek: El Ateneo’s Florida Street branches

By Midge Raymond,

When I first visited El Ateneo, I had no idea this amazing bookstore had two additional locations. But then, this shouldn’t have been a surprise: Buenos Aires has more bookstores per person than any other city in the world, according to a study by World Cities Culture Forum. And while the large former theater that is now El Ateneo Grand Splendid on Avenida Santa Fe is perhaps the most famous, a short walk from there are two more branches, both on the pedestrian avenue Florida.

We decided to visit both, in part because we wanted to see more of El Ateneo (who wouldn’t?) and also because we were looking for a book on birds of Argentina that was in both English and Spanish.

El Ateneo, originally founded as a publishing house and bookstore, recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, and it’s heartening to see the bookstore thriving in not just one but in all three locations.

The two smaller El Ateneo bookstores are located with a few minutes’ walk of each other — it’s hard to imagine a city in the States with so many bookstores, so close together, all doing well. (If the stores look empty in these photos, it’s because we were there in the early evening, which is quite early by Argentinian standards: In Argentina, people go out for dinner at 8 or 9 p.m., then shop afterwards. Shops are usually open until at least midnight.)

While neither of the two smaller stores have the grand decor of the El Ateneo Grand Spendid on Avenida Santa Fe, this larger branch has several stories, beautiful columns throughout the store, and a lovely marble staircase.

All branches have a large selection of books in dozens of genres, and even if the books aren’t in your native language, it’s still a joy to browse, and even to buy; I found several coloring books that were perfect for my little niece.



Bookstore Geek: El Ateneo, again

By Midge Raymond,

When I was in Buenos Aires for the Penguins & Patagonia Adventure with Adventures by the Book, it was my third visit to the glorious El Ateneo bookstore (known as El Ateneo Grand Spendid; there are two other, smaller branches of El Ateneo in Buenos Aires). And it was just as magical a place as it’s always been.

I’m not alone in my admiration of this store: more than a million customers visit it each year, and while many are tourists (on one visit I could barely walk around for all the visitors taking photos), on this last visit everyone in the store seemed to be local; they were browsing, reading, and buying.

The English-language section shrank from two sections to just one, and the selection comprises mostly thrillers and romance. The cafe, while quiet on the day we visited, is still open where the stage used to be.

Perhaps the cafe wasn’t crowded with readers because the former theater balconies make such great reading spots; we found an empty one and decided to get a group photo with My Last Continent.

If you ever find yourself in Buenos Aires, make sure you set aside some time for this bookstore. It’s not only a gorgeous place to visit, but even if you don’t read in Spanish, there are a lot of gift items as well as books, so it’s a fun place for souvenirs as well.



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.