I’m thrilled to see My Last Continent officially out in the world today!
Check out my Facebook page today for a #FacebookFirstReads live event, during which I’ll read from My Last Continent and chat about a scene from the book (at the location in Boston in which it is set).
And, if you’re in Boston, join me in person! I’m also excited to have the opportunity to talk about all things High Seas with Mark Beauregard and Rachel Richardson tonight at Papercuts J.P. in Boston. I loved their two books and am looking forward to a fun and lively chat.
Today is World Penguin Day!
Not that we need an excuse to celebrate these magnificent birds … but it’s still fun to see them getting a little extra attention.
After all, they need the exposure: penguins are facing threats from multiple fronts, from climate change to overfishing. I love this post from One Green Planet, which offers five ways you can help penguins.
To discover the very latest in what’s new with Magellanic and Galapagos penguins, visit the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels. And if you follow Penguin Sentinels on Facebook, you’ll be treated to wonderful penguin videos.
And to learn about the researchers who count penguins at the bottom of the world, check out The Penguin Counters, a documentary about these dedicated researchers and the species they study in Antarctica.
And, finally … stay tuned for My Last Continent, coming on June 21 from Scribner! In this novel, you’ll meet four species of penguins: three Antarctic species, and the Magellanic penguins of Patagonia. Check out the book club kit for a little more info, and join my mailing list for news and updates on the book.
Happy World Penguin Day!
I loved this article about pigeons, in which author Brandon Keim writes about an avian romance blooming in his Brooklyn neighborhood. This excellent essay reminded me of a pair of pigeons that attempted to roost and raise babies in the eaves of my own back porch a few years ago (which inspired a short story, “Nesting”). My husband and I loved watching them build their nest, and we shooed away the neighborhood cats who kept harassing them, hoping the birds would stay —yet their attempt to start a family was unsuccessful, and they left us.
It never occurred to us not to see these two pigeons as a pair in love—but then, we’re strange that way, at least according to some people. This is among the reasons I so enjoyed Keim’s essay, in which he writes, “Perhaps love is not what defines us as human but is something we happen to share with other species, including the humble pigeon.”
I’m a writer, not a scientist, so it’s not unpardonable for me to anthropomorphize in my fiction—but what’s remarkable is how many scientists are now talking and writing about animal consciousness in such books as Animal Wise, How Animals Grieve, and Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.
As both a writer and small-press publisher, I love hearing from animals in well-written fiction, too. Among our Ashland Creek Press titles is Gwyn Hyman Rubio’s Love and Ordinary Creatures; steeped in extensive research, this novel tells the haunting story of a parrot who, stuck in captivity without a mate, bonds with his human caregiver—a beautiful and heart-rending story of unrequited love.
Sometimes, as Keim’s article points out, “love’s ultimate measure is the presence of its converse, grief.” Keim offers several examples from the world of birds, and many of us have likely seen it ourselves among other animals—for example, when one of our pets loses a sibling. I felt as though I witnessed penguin love firsthand, while in Patagonia for a Magellanic penguin census, when I saw paired-up birds lying together in the sun or huddled together in their burrows.
It’s easy to say that we humans are simply projecting, that our own capacity for love makes us believe we’re seeing this in other creatures. But even if this is true, is it such a bad thing? Keim writes, “Ubiquitous and unappreciated, typically ignored or regarded as dirty, annoying pests, pigeons mean something else to me now…Each one is a reminder that love is all around us.”
And the more of us who can see love in the creatures around us, the better we’ll all become at protecting them and the habitats they live in.
Click here for details…the giveaway ends at midnight.
As soon as I met my first penguins (chinstraps, Adélies, and gentoos) in Antarctica more than twelve years ago, I fell in love with these incredible animals. Two years later, when I had the opportunity to help the University of Washington’s Dee Boersma with a Magellanic penguin census in Patagonia two years later, I (along with my husband) pounced on the opportunity — not only to help with the amazing research Dee is doing but to learn about, and spend time with, another species of penguin; Dee has been studying the Magellanic penguins since 1982.
And when, a decade after our Patagonia penguin adventure, we learned that Dee would be a naturalist on board an expedition to the Galápagos Islands — home of the rare and endangered Galápagos penguin — we jumped again at the chance to meet yet another species with the world’s leading penguin expert.
Even Darwin didn’t see penguins on his visit to the Galápagos Islands, and to this day no one knows how many penguins now exist there (the estimate is between 1,500 and 4,700 — about half the numbers that existed when Dee began studying these birds in the 1970s).
When we arrived in the Galápagos, Dee advised us that we would have one chance to see Galápagos penguins on this journey, around the waters of Floreana Island. At first we were discouraged by the crystal clear (albeit gorgeous) waters, which are not ideal for the penguins’ fishing. We didn’t see a single penguin during an hour-long panga ride — but then, as we swam and snorkeled off Post Office Bay, a penguin popped its head above water to take a breath before diving back under to continue hunting.
At first, as I was snorkeling, I saw only one penguin, diving for fish, swimming under and all around me (while they are comically slow and awkward on land, penguins are utterly graceful underwater), and then I saw another, about twenty feet below me, trying to snatch food from the other’s beak. Every time a school of fish changed direction and sped away, one of these two penguins was in close pursuit.
A short time later, back in our panga, we saw several more penguins, this time fishing in a group of four. Galápagos penguins look similar to Magellanic penguins, with the dark band around their white chests, but they are much smaller (though their beaks are roughly the same size, making this species look a bit big-nosed).
As we watched the penguins, they began to fish with blue-footed boobies. In the photo below, you’ll see the boobies in the background; they dive for fish from high in the air, while the penguins work underwater.
We observed this animated feeding frenzy for about forty-five minutes before the birds began to disperse, looking quite well fed. While we’d have been thrilled to get merely a glimpse of the Galápagos penguins, it was an extraordinary experience to see so many of them (about five or six, the naturalists believe, in all) swimming and porpoising and diving all around us.
Our expedition group left Dee in Ecuador, where she was next headed to Isabela and Fernandina Islands to check on the nests she and other researchers have built to help the penguins’ breeding efforts.
And, shortly after we returned home, the University of Washington, where Dee holds the Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science, announced that Dee is one of six finalists for the prestigious Indianapolis Prize for conservation — the highest honor for animal conservationists, which has been awarded every other year since 2006. The winner will be announced in the spring of this year; click here to learn more about the work that has earned Dee this honor.
I’m looking forward to news from Dee’s time on the other Galápagos islands. To learn more about Dee’s work, visit Penguin Sentinels — and to see more of the elusive Galápagos penguins, visit www.iGalápagos.org.
January 20 is Penguin Awareness Day. Why celebrate a day of penguin awareness, you may be wondering — and how?
There are 17 species of penguins throughout the world, and penguin awareness is important because these incredible birds face increasing threats every day, worldwide, from pollution to overfishing to climate change. Click here to learn about the most pressing threats to penguins and how you can help.
Another way to help penguins is through citizen science — visit Penguin Watch, and you can take part in ongoing Antarctic penguin research. You can help researchers by annotating images, without ever leaving your desk (though these amazing photos will make you feel as though you’ve traveled around the world).
Check out the Penguin Sentinels organization, a collaboration between the University of Washington, Global Penguin Society, Province of Chubut, and the La Regina family of Punta Tombo, Argentina, and is dedicated to research, conservation, and education. In addition to working at the Punta Tombo colony for more than 30 years, this group also does great work in the Galápagos Islands.
Learn about another penguin program at The Penguin Counters, which follows researchers on their Antarctic penguin-counting journeys.
And, if you’re crazy about penguins, check out the book Penguins: Natural History and Conservation, which offers an in-depth look at all 17 species of penguins and the challenges they face…and help ensure they’re around for generations to come.
This video, with gorgeous images of Adélie penguins and their chicks on the Antarctic peninsula, is one of the best calls to action I’ve seen for a planet in peril due to climate change.
Excerpted from James McClintock’s Lost Antarctica and narrated by Harrison Ford (member of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation (EOWBF) Board of Advisors), this brief video shows how the amazing Adélie penguin is being threatened by real-time environmental changes.
Over the last six decades, scientists have observed an average increase of 2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade in the Antarctic peninsula. These warming temperatures lead to increasing humidity, which leads to unseasonable snow. This video shows Adélies trying to keep their eggs incubated despite being buried in snow.
What sort of a world will future generations of Antarctic scientists find when they come to this remarkable place? When they gaze over this landscape, will they be reminded how this place, this peninsula, these ecosystems, served as a wake-up call…?
Climate change isn’t an abstract, faraway notion. It’s happening before our eyes, chick by chick.
Learn more, and help, by visiting such organizations as Oceanites and the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels, which look at our changing planet through the animals that are showing us the effects of climate change.
This New York Times story about the threat to Antarctica’s krill is quite alarming. Laboratory research is showing that krill eggs can’t survive increases in carbon dioxide, a condition that mimics the acidification of the ocean due to global warming. Dr. So Kawaguchi has been studying krill for 25 years, and as the Times notes, his “recent research has led to dire predictions about how global carbon emissions will significantly reduce the hatch rates of Antarctic krill over the next 100 years.”
In fact, Kawaguchi told the Times: “If we continue with business as usual, and we don’t act on reducing carbon emissions, in that case, there could be a 20 to 70 percent reduction in Antarctic krill by 2100…By 2300, the Southern Ocean might not be suitable for krill reproduction.”
Krill are already being vacuumed from the sea by commercial fishing trawlers and used to feed farmed fish as well as for oil supplements for humans. And these activities take food from the mouths of those who need krill the most: whales and penguins, sea birds and squid.
For the fifth year in a row, the Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is discussing the creation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Antarctic. At 1.25 million square kilometers, it would be the biggest MPA in the world.
Meanwhile, we can all do our part — by avoiding farmed seafood that depletes the Antarctic krill (and if you need further inspiration to give up farmed fish, this post on the conditions in which farmed fish are raised should do it), and also by choosing plant-based supplements, which helps protect all creatures, which in turn helps protect us. As Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson is known for saying, “If the oceans die, we die.” And he is right.
Of all that Antarctica is known for, who knew it was once a publishing hub? (Well, sort of.)
I’ve been reading about the Aurora Australis — the first book ever written, printed, illustrated, and bound in Antarctica — soon to be offered at auction by Sotheby’s and expected to bring in £70,000.
Aurora Australis was produced during Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition of 1908–09, at Cape Royds on Ross Island in the McMurdo Sound. It was one of many activities Shackleton encouraged of his team so that “the spectre known as ‘polar ennui’ never made its appearance.”
What’s interesting is that by the time this book was created, publishing was not a new thing in the polar regions. Already explorers were publishing articles and newspapers detailing their expeditions — from Edward Parry’s 1819 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage to the South Polar Times, published during Robert Scott’s Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions. And now, of course, you can go online to read the news of what’s happening in Antarctica — for example, The Antarctic Sun, published by the U.S. Antarctic Program; and blog posts from the British Antarctic Survey.
Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition was sponsored by a printing firm, and Shackleton received training and traveled south with a printing press and paper. (Click here to learn more about the challenges of printing in the extreme temperatures of the Antarctic.)
Aurora Australis, which will be auctioned in London on September 30, is 120 pages long and contains poems, stories, essays, and illustrations by ten members of the expedition. Horse harnesses were recycled to create the leather spines, and the covers of the copy up for auction were made from a tea chest. Only eighty copies of the book were printed.
One of the great joys of volunteering with the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels to help count Magellanic penguins was meeting Turbo.
He’s a unique bird in so many ways, and beloved even by those who have never met him. He got his name the year he decided to nest under a Ford Turbo instead of in a burrow or under a bush like most of his species. And while most penguins will scurry away at the sight of humans, Turbo would walk right up to you, and he even liked being patted on the head (which made the neighbor cats a little jealous).
Each year, I eagerly await news from the penguin program about what’s new the colony, but especially for news of Turbo. There’s a lot going on with the Magellanic colony where he lives — the colony is in decline due to such factors as oil pollution, overfishing, and climate change — but hearing news of Turbo each season gives me hope that these magnificent birds will make it in the end.
Researchers believe that Turbo is now about 11 years old. This season, he found himself a wonderful nest in a big molle bush, and we’re all hoping this will help him find a mate. (Yes, he’s still single after all these years.)
When I visited Antarctica more than 10 years ago, I met researchers from Oceanites, a nonprofit foundation founded in 1987 whose main focus is its Antarctic Site Inventory, which has been collecting and compiling data on penguins and their habitat in the Antarctic peninsula for the past two decades. When I wrote the short story “The Ecstatic Cry” and later MY LAST CONTINENT, I had a similar fictional organization in mind for the researchers in these stories.
These penguin counters do amazing work; their data offers important insights into climate change, the state of the oceans, the effects of tourism, and how best to conserve one of the most important areas of the world. For example, this article, “What Are the Penguins Telling Us?” by Steve Forrest, outlines the affects of climate change on the penguins: “the ice-loving Adélies of Petermann [Island] now number fewer than 300 nesting pairs, while the gentoos have risen to 2,400.” This is happening, he writes, at hundreds of sites in the Western Antarctic Peninsula, where the average temperature has risen several degrees centigrade in the past two decades: “Adélies are disappearing from their rookeries while the open-water loving Gentoos prosper.”
This video shows how irresistible these birds are…
…and it goes without saying we need to protect their habitat by taking better care of our planet and the oceans that sustain them.
I just read this recent article by Amanda Biederman — a scientist stationed at the U.S.’s Palmer Station, located on the Antarctic peninsula — who writes about being at once removed from the media’s coverage of climate change, yet also being at ground zero at the same time.
Biederman writes about the scary news from NASA about the imminent disappearance of the Larsen B ice shelf, as well as the fact that on the other side of the continent, in East Antarctica, while there had been increases in ice shelf volume between 1994 and 2003, this part of the continent is also experiencing ice shelf loss at the rate of 56 cubic kilometers per year.
Climate changes threatens not only the wildlife in Antarctica, as well as the ability to continue research there — it will change entire map of the world as we know it. Biederman writes:
If the entire Antarctic ice sheet melted, global sea levels would rise by 60 meters. Much of the U.S. East Coast — including about one-third of Maryland and the entire state of Delaware — would be underwater. Denmark and the Netherlands would disappear. Large portions of other countries, including the U.K., China and Brazil, would be destroyed as well.
It’s so easy to think of Antarctica as a faraway place, where what happens there doesn’t affect the way we live. But it does…and it will even more over time.
“This is not an issue that will be resolved on its own,” Biederman concludes, “and the time for making the environmental protection a priority is long past due.”
While these days, I can only count penguins via Penguin Watch, several years ago I was fortunate to have been able to help count penguins at Punta Tombo, in the Chubut Province of Argentina (one of the settings in MY LAST CONTINENT) with the University of Washington’s Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels.
This was in 2006, and back then it had been about 15 years since the previous census. A small group of volunteers, we counted all the penguins in 731 circles (in teams of two, we counted all the nests, birds, and eggs within five-meter circles spaced about twenty meters apart) and discovered that there were 155,000 nesting pairs at Punta Tombo.
This colony has been studied for about 30 years, and unfortunately, the number of active nests at Punta Tombo has decreased by about 1 percent each year. Reproduction was better than average this past season, but there were fewer active nests, which means fewer chicks fledged than in most years. The main cause of chick death was, as usual, starvation — due to overfishing, penguins have trouble finding food close to the colony, and when they have to go farther for food, it’s more likely they won’t make it back in time to feed their hungry chicks. Climate change has also affected the penguins — one rainstorm this season killed 3% of the chicks from a 100-nest area.
Like these two lovebirds nesting above, many penguins mate for life — and the research being done will help us figure out how best to help them survive on the long term.
Learn more — and find out how to help keep this important research going — at the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels.
When I was writing MY LAST CONTINENT, I did a lot of research on penguins and those who study them.
Then, a couple of months ago, I discovered Penguin Watch, which is a completely addictive website that uses citizen science to help study penguins. What this means is that we can all take part in the research and conservation of these amazing animals.
How does it all work? The short of it is that the Penguin Lifelines project at the University of Oxford has set up a camera-monitoring program of 50 cameras set up throughout the Southern Ocean and along the Antarctic Peninsula. These cameras snap images of the areas overlooking colonies of gentoo, chinstrap, Adélie, and king penguins year-round, and they need volunteers to help annotate the hundreds of thousands of images being produced. For more info, click here — and sign up!
To coincide with World Penguin Day, the project has recently released half a million images and is offering the possibility of great rewards to volunteers: From now until May 25, for each day you count the penguins, you’ll be entered to win a trip to Antarctica with Quark Expeditions. (Learn more about Quark here.)
Penguin colonies are difficult to access during breeding season, but thanks to time-lapse cameras and online volunteers, the Penguin Watch program hopes to make big strides in conservation and protection.
Visit Penguin Watch and become a citizen scientist. It’s tons of fun, but be warned — you’ll lose hours to penguin counting! But at least you can say you’re doing it for science.