Category: Antarctica


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.



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.



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.

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