Category: Environment


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.



Penguins & Patagonia: Exploring Península Valdés

By Midge Raymond,

The day after our rainy arrival on Península Valdés, the skies still held remnants of the rain of the day before, which only made the views more spectacular as we explored the 16 kilometers of coastline at Rincón Chico.

Estancia Rincón Chico is a privately owned parcel of about 100 square kilometers (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all of Península Valdés is privately owned), but unlike the majority of landowners here, Rincón Chico owners Agustín and María have devoted their property entirely to the wildlife. Formerly a sheep ranch, the sheep are now gone (except for a few who remain on the estancia as pets), and the land is beginning to return to its natural state, with the grasses growing taller and the wildlife returning. Rincón Chico is managed through the foundation Conservación Península Valdés (CPV), created to protect this beautiful, wild place.

The Land Rover in the photo below, with the casco and lodge in the far background, offers an idea of how vast and majestic this property is. Agustín estimated it would take the better part of a day to drive all the way around the entire property.

If you visit Rincón Chico, you’ll have the opportunity to see right whales, elephant seals, sea lions, orcas, penguins, and numerous species of birds and fish. Agustín and María have cameras set up at watering holes throughout the property to study and track what animals live and roam there. Some of the footage we saw included guanacos, armadillos, wild cats, and myriad birds.

We didn’t have to go far to see rheas, like this one who liked to hang around at the lodge eating the flowers.

More elusive were the Patagonian maras, very large rodents with cute donkey-like faces who run like jackrabbits. They were quite shy, but I did manage to get a quick photo.

I confess this place is so magical I even found the tarantulas adorable.

 

One of the highlights of our three days at Rincón Chico was spending an entire morning sitting among the elephant seals on one of the beaches. The seals’ lives are full of drama, and to sit in silence and witness their lives for several uninterrupted hours was amazing.

And, the great thing about having some rainy and windy weather is that the clouds make spectacular sunsets.

At night, Rincón Chico goes completely dark (the generator shuts off at midnight, though there are a few solar-powered lights in the lodge). The silence is complete and almost unreal. It’s incredibly peaceful.

I love this photo of John and me with our incredible hosts, Agustín and María. If you ever want to experience Rincón Chico and Península Valdés, remember that visits to the estancia support the work of Agustín and María to continue the conservation of the property, the science of learning about its creatures, and rewilding former sheep pastures. I certainly hope we’re able to return again very soon!



Penguins & Patagonia: Back at Punta Tombo

By Midge Raymond,

John and I volunteered at Punta Tombo with the University of Washington’s Penguin Project (now the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels) back in 2006. We’d always dreamed of returning to the colony, though we were also a little worried about what we might find. We know that the penguin population is down by 45 percent at Punta Tombo (sadly, it is no longer the largest Magellanic colony in the world), and that tourism is increasing (to 100,000 visitors a year).

Despite our concerns, our visit was encouraging on so many levels. First, we encountered a brand-new visitor’s center with a gift shop, cafe, and a little museum highlighting the wildlife of the region. While this may not sound like a good thing, it is: Unlike the last time we were here, all the cars and buses now park well outside of the colony, which means no more incidents of penguins being hit by cars, or being unable to return to their nests.

As we walked toward the colony, the first familiar sight was in fact not penguins but guanacos on the hillside. These beautiful llama-like animals live among the penguins and miraculously never seem to crush the penguins’ burrows despite how often they walk right past or over them.

We continued on, past the public restrooms, the older gift shop and cafe, the guardafauna station, and the cueva next to which the trailer we’d slept in used to be parked (the trailer is no longer there). And soon we could see that the tourist trail has been much improved, with new walkways and viewing areas, and it wasn’t packed with visitors as we’d anticipated. We arrived as the penguins were carefully incubating their eggs (the chicks are already starting to hatch, as I write this a week later), and as you can see in this photo, the birds are guarding the eggs carefully.

We got the chance to meet with Ginger Rebstock, one of the longtime researchers at the colony, who caught us up on all the news. Among the news we were most eager to hear: Turbo the penguin returned safely to the colony this season, though he was out at sea the day we were there. We were sorry to have missed seeing him, but are so glad to know he is safe and still returning home, though he does remain a bachelor. Ginger doesn’t believe his chances of finding a mate are good; there are far more females than males at Tombo, which means that a lot of the males will remain bachelors.

Thanks to John Yunker for this photo, below, of a penguin rearranging her nest. As you’ll see, the skin around her eyes is quite pink; this is because it was a warm day, and she’s releasing some body heat through these small, featherless patches of skin around her eyes.

Below is a photo of a little bay where we glimpsed Chubut steamer ducks, endemic to Argentina, sharing this little beach with a raft of penguins. It was a glorious clear, sunny day, ideal for penguin viewing.

 

And I absolutely love this photo that Susan took of this beautiful penguin with My Last Continent. (One thing to note about the tourist trail at the colony is that the penguins are used to humans and they will walk right up to you and will pass within inches of you if you’re standing nearby. The penguins who nest near the tourist trail are used to people; further out in the colony, they are far more skittish around humans since they don’t encounter them as often.)

We didn’t get a photo of The Tourist Trail (named after this very setting), but for a fictional read about this amazing colony, check it out here.

As ever, for more great photos of the tour, visit the Adventures by the Book Facebook page.



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.



By-the-wind sailors on the Oregon coast

By Midge Raymond,

When I talked about travel writing at library events in the lovely coastal towns of Pacific City and Manzanita last weekend, I mentioned that one doesn’t have to travel far to write about place — that, in fact, sometimes the most fascinating people, places, animals, and history are right where we are, or closer than we think.

I discovered just how true this is when I encountered a new creature I’d never seen before — the Velella velella, which are also known as by-the-wind sailors. When I first saw a mass of white on the beach, it looked to me like feathers, or maybe plastic.

When I got closer I saw that some of these creatures were also indigo blue in color, and that they were in fact little marine animals. They are about three inches long and look similar to jellyfish but are actually hydrozoan. They get their whimsical name by the little “sail” that sticks up and makes use of the wind to propel them across the water.

By-the-wind sailors live in temperate waters, and so they are common on the coasts of California and Oregon, often washing up on beaches by the masses. They wash ashore bright blue and will eventually perish, dry out, and become white, transparent, and thin as tissue paper.

They feel a bit rubbery when still holding the sea’s moisture, but when they’re dry they’re frail and papery. (I touched them only after learning their venom is not dangerous to humans, but I did avoid touching any who were still living.)

Next time you’re strolling a beach in spring, be sure to cast your eyes downward on occasion and look for these beauties. Sadly, you’ll be viewing them in their final days or hours (and evidently massive numbers of them create quite an odor, which wasn’t the case in Manzanita), but they’re breathtaking to see.



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.

 



Happy Earth Day

By Midge Raymond,

It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Earth Day, and unfortunately we’ve recently taken a lot more steps backward than forward.

Still, we humans have taken a lot of great steps forward since the 1970s. There’s a lot to celebrate about our planet, and so many ways to help it survive and thrive. I wrote My Last Continent out of a love and concern for our planet, particularly its most vulnerable places and creatures. I also co-founded Ashland Creek Press to raise environmental awareness through literature.

And of course, there are myriad ways we can help out the planet, and to make every day Earth Day in our lives.

  • Immerse yourself in environmental literature! I adore books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been — each is a stunning work of eco-lit, each in such a different way. Naturally, I also love every one of our Ashland Creek Press titles, from eco-fiction to veg lit to books about animals.
  • Watch movies. A few environmental films that are interesting, important, and well worth watching: Earthlings, Cowspiracy, What the Health, Forks Over Knives, If a Tree Falls, An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel … the list goes on, but this is a great start.
  • Take action. Clean up a beach or a park; step up your recycling; plant a new tree, bike or walk instead of driving; eat vegan for a month (or more) … there are so many small changes we can make that become regular habits and definitely make a difference.
  • Get political. Of course, don’t neglect to vote for candidates that believe in climate change and want to do something about it — but you can also write letters, sign petitions, march, and otherwise make your opinions known…every voice does matter.
  • Get kids involved. It’s clear that today’s young people are the ones who are going to change the world, and they’re realizing they need to do this for their own survival. Help them out, whether it’s by giving them books about environmental issues, spending time with them outside, volunteering with a nonprofit to clean a beach or maintain a hiking trail, or taking them to an animal sanctuary. Show them what’s at stake being out in nature.
  • Support organizations that do good work. From conservation to animal rescue to protecting the oceans, there are a lot of great organizations that need support to do what they do. Be sure to investigate nonprofits carefully to be sure your money is used wisely and that the organization is truly environmental (you might watch Cowspiracy before making donations). Here are a few organizations we support via the Ashland Creek Press Foundation.

Wishing you all a very happy Earth Day, and here’s to much more progress to celebrate in years to come!



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.



Meet the Yellow-Eyed Penguin

By Midge Raymond,

When John and I went to the southern tip of New Zealand hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare, endangered yellow-eyed penguin (the Maori name is hoiho), we would’ve been happy for even a brief glimpse. These penguins are not only among the rarest on earth — there are only an estimated 4,000 left in the world — they are also very shy.

Yet our willingness to sit quietly for hours in the cold — and, often, rain — paid off when we were able to witness these gorgeous birds coming ashore to feed their chicks.

Very unfortunately, the penguins are endangered in part because humans ignore the signs around their nesting sites and walk across the paths that the penguins take to reach their nests. If a penguin comes ashore and finds humans in its way, it will return to sea, leaving its chicks hungry.

We spoke at length to a wonderful naturalist who was there on behalf of the Department of Conservation, volunteering his time for hours every night to help ensure the penguins have a safe path to get to their chicks. Nevertheless, we witnessed several occasions on which he asked visitors not to cross the paths, explaining that to do so would endanger the lives of these very rare birds … and then watched as these people went right ahead anyway, disregarding the naturalist’s pleas to help protect the birds. It was astonishing, and more than a little depressing; it would take so little so help save these birds, but many of the tourists couldn’t be bothered.

Upon returning home, we got in touch with the Southland District Council and the South Catlins Charitable Trust to voice our concerns, and we received a warm response back, both sharing our concerns and outlining new initiatives that are being planned to help protect these penguins. Of course, the birds have other threats — among them, fishing, climate change, and ocean pollution — but the good news is that these are things we can all do something about, wherever we may live.

As you can see from these photos, all taken by John, the yellow-eyed penguins are uniquely beautiful, with their yellow eyes and the glowing yellow feathers around them, and they make their homes in the rainforesty scrubs and grasses off the shore, usually walking across tide pools and up steep rock embankments to get to their nests. We do hope to return to this area one day, and we hope to find many more yellow-eyed penguins, instead of fewer.



Happy Penguin Awareness Day!

By Midge Raymond,

January 20 is Penguin Awareness Day, and it’s more important than ever that we celebrate (and work to protect) these amazing animals.

If you’ve read My Last Continent, you’ve met the Adélie, gentoo, chinstrap, emperor, and Magellanic penguins. Last November, I was delighted to meet a new species: the Tawaki, or Fiordland-crested penguin. (Tawaki is the Māori name, meaning crested; these birds are found only on the South Island of New Zealand.)

The amazing Tawaki live in the rainforest, nesting under tree roots and bushes. They hike from the ocean across sandy beaches, over sharp rocks, and up steep banks to get to their nests. Sadly, there are only about 3,000 of these incredible penguins left on earth.

The Tawaki are endangered due to several factors, including predators on the island (non-native species such as stoats, possums, rats, and feral cats), climate change, and human disturbance (from tourists to the fishing industry). Tawaki are very shy, and it’s rare to see them — and when you do, you have to be very careful to keep your distance; if they come back to shore to feed their chicks and a human is near their path to the nest, they will get frightened and return to the ocean, leaving their chick to go hungry.

How can you help penguins like the Tawaki stay with us forever?

  • Consider giving up seafood, or even 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.
  • Be a respectful birdwatcher. Visit penguins with guides 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.
  • 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.

And keep learning! The more you know of these majestic creatures, the more inspired you’ll be to help save them. Join me in Patagonia in October to meet Magellanic penguins up close and personal at the largest colony in the world. This journey will be a small group of travelers who will meet with local researchers to learn more about their work with this colony, and with any luck, we’ll get to meet Turbo the Penguin as well (the inspiration for the Admiral Byrd character in My Last Continent). Learn more here.

Happy Penguin Awareness Day! (And thanks to John Yunker for these wonderful photographs.)