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.
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.
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.
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.)
I loved this moment in Ann Patchett’s novel Run in which a young girl, upon learning that new species of fish are still being discovered, says, “I thought it was done.”
Among the many amazing things about our planet is that species are still being discovered. And this is part of what made immersing myself in all things Antarctic so much fun while writing My Last Continent. So much is still being discovered there.
I can relate to Patchett’s young character — “It unnerved her, the thought that things weren’t settled, that life itself hadn’t been completely pinned down to a corkboard and labeled” — but on the other hand, there’s also a comfort about it, the idea that our planet contains so much more than we know (and that perhaps, despite all that we humans are doing to it, it might be able to save itself from us in the end).
One of the fun things I discovered while doing revisions for My Last Continent was the yeti crab, which thrives in the hot thermal waters under Antarctica and was described for the first time by scientists when I was in this revision phase of my novel. The yeti crab wasn’t the only discovery: scientists also described a seven-pronged starfish and a mysterious pale octopus among a community of other previously undiscovered life forms on the ocean floor near Antarctica.
I decided to work this hairy new yeti crab into the novel (I couldn’t resist), and even though the book is published and the research is over, I love keeping track of what goes on in Antarctica (50-million-year-old fossilized sperm is yet another recent discovery, as well as the fact that penguins feast on jellyfish). Due to its inaccessibility, Antarctica is most travelers’ last continent, the final frontier. And yet when it comes to science, in many ways, it’s a brand-new world.
In My Last Continent, when the fictional tourist ship Cormorant arrives at Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island in Antarctica, Deb observes …
…a shantytown of enormous oil containers and abandoned buildings—relics of the Antarctic whaling industry—so old and suffused with rust that they blend into the lava-blackened cliffs behind them. This reminder of whaling’s gruesome past makes me shudder: the whalers removing the blubber on the ships, then bringing the remainder of the bodies to shore, where they’d boil them down to get every last bit of oil. And the whaling industry isn’t even history—though the International Whaling Commission banned whaling in 1986, the Japanese have continued hunting in the Southern Ocean, killing minke and fin and even endangered sei whales under the guise of “research,” even though they haven’t published a paper in years and continue to sell the whale meat commercially.
It’s true that whaling has been banned by the International Whaling Commission since 1986 — and it’s also true that Japan is still killing whales in Antarctica. That’s because there is indeed an exception for “research” — but the slaughter of hundreds of whales a year by Japanese whalers can hardly be considered research.
In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s whaling program did not meet the research qualifications, and Japan was ordered to stop whaling. But this only lasted one year — and, as this NPR story reports, Japan just returned from its 2016-2017 season with more than three hundred whales, all needlessly slaughtered.
It’s not enough that the whales are vital to the ecosystem in the Southern Ocean and should not be taken at all — but the methods are barbaric. Whaling vessels go after the calves, because they know the mothers (the real target) will not leave their babies. A member of Sea Shepherd Australia describes the way the whales are killed: They are “hit with an explosive harpoon that goes straight into their body; hooks come out, and shrapnel is sent through their body; it’s a terrible, bloody death… these whales can take up to 30 or 40 minutes to die.”
As Humane Society International Executive Vice President Kitty Block tells NPR, “It is an obscene cruelty in the name of science that must end.”
Data as Art shows sea ice, krill (seen below), the ozone hole, and other scientific data as works of art.
In keeping with the British Antarctic Survey‘s mission to “engage a wide range of people in science through a variety of methods,” these works of art — which use real Antarctic data sets that explain important scientific research — are wonderful to look at. Even more important are the stories they tell about this continent and how important it is to fight climate change and increase conservation.
Among the most amazing things about Antarctica (and there are so many) are the sounds. You can listen to the sounds of icebergs rubbing together here. It sounds a bit like furniture breaking apart, and then a little like a penguin colony from far away, and finally it becomes something completely otherworldly.
This wonderful article from Huffington Post offers a few sounds as well — including the voices of an Adélie penguin colony and the wind sweeping across the ice — as well as gorgeous photos and a glimpse of what life is like as a researcher on the continent.
These Antarctic sounds are incredible, but perhaps what’s most remarkable about Antarctica is the silence. The sounds of no human presence at all. It’s impossible to capture in a video or audio, but I did try to capture the feeling in My Last Continent:
” … we listen to the whistling of the wind across the ice and the cries of the birds. I savor the utter silence under those sounds; there is nothing else to hear—none of the usual white noise of life on other continents, no human sounds at all… “
With the Antarctic travel season upon us — the austral summer, from November to February, is the only time the sea ice allows tourist vessel access — the increasing numbers of travelers to this region raise many questions. How many tourists are too many before the region is compromised?
Antarctic tourism began in 1966 with fifty-seven travelers. Now, upwards of 40,000 tourists visit the continent every year. Most tourism is, in fact, concentrated in a two-square-kilometer region on the Antarctic peninsula — which means a lot of feet on the ground for such a fragile environment.
Most travelers to Antarctica travel by ship, and thanks to IAATO (the International Association for Antarctica Tour Operators), tourism in Antarctica is well managed — for now. But tour operators are clearly adapting to the demands of travelers and will likely continue to do so. IAATO expects the number of visitors to jump 14 percent this season, with increasing numbers of landings on the islands; last year, cruises that included landings increased by more than 10 percent.
With IAATO being a voluntary membership organization, there is reason for concern — Antarctic tourism needs to be managed well, and already Antarctic treaty members have raised concerns and called for more regulation. Just yesterday, the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division announced that Princess Cruise Lines will plead guilty to deliberately dumping oil-contaminated waste into the ocean and covering it up in incidents dating back to 2005, resulting in seven felony charges and a $40 million penalty, the biggest fine yet in the history of criminal cases involving vessel pollution. While these ships were not in Antarctica, this is alarming given the increase and expansion of ship travel, as Reuters notes: “Cruise ship travel has generated concern among environmental groups and governments over water contamination and waste as the industry adds passengers, routes and larger ships.”
I’m often asked how many times I’ve been to Antarctica (once) and for how long (less than two weeks) and whether I will ever return. Even though it’s my favorite landscape on earth, I’m not sure I belong there, especially having already had the privilege of going once. In her poem “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop asks: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” When it comes to Antarctica, I lean toward yes.
Among the most amazing things about Antarctica — and there are so many — is that it is a place of peace. And this refers not only to its quiet, unspoiled beauty but to its lack of human activity for any purposes other than good.
No one owns or governs Antarctica. It is one of the few places in the world that has never seen war — or any military activity, for that matter. It is a place whose only permanent inhabitants are wild animals (penguins, seabirds, seals, and whales among them) and whose human inhabitants are scientists and those who support their work.
The Antarctic Treaty, entered into force in 1961, stipulates that the continent be used for peaceful and scientific purposes only. Currently, mining, drilling, and any military activity is banned on the continent. Yet with the treaty up for review in 2048, there is concern that this may change.
Currently in Hobart, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is meeting in hopes of establishing a marine protected areas in the Antarctic’s Southern Ocean. Russia is the one nation that, after blocking conservation attempts five times in the past, delegates hope will come on board this year. If CCAMLR can establish the three marine protected areas it hopes to this year (in the Weddell Sea, the Ross Sea, and East Antarctica), this will limit commercial fishing and help protect the entire ecosystem.
Antarctica is one of the few places on earth where animals can roam without any human predators, and where everyone works together for the common good. Unfortunately, the continent cannot fully escape what goes on in the rest of the world — the entire region is suffering the effects of climate change, and the Antarctic peninsula is among the fastest-warming places on earth — but right now, Antarctica the only place on earth where peace reigns. And we need to make sure it stays this way forever.
This New York Times article outlines one of the most interesting aspects of life in Antarctica: It’s a continent owned by no one, which means that there is no rule of law for a land nearly twice the size of Australia.
Everyone working in Antarctica is subject to the rules of their home country, which means that if you work at the U.S. base McMurdo, you’re required to live by the laws of the United States. But what happens when you visit the nearby New Zealand base at Scott Station?
As this article outlines, crime is fairly rare (there’s not much to steal and nowhere to flee), but the isolation and abundance of alcohol can make for criminal activity nonetheless — and this is when things can get complicated. As the article notes:
An unsolved death. Assault with a deadly weapon. Lots of alcohol-fueled misbehavior. It’s quite a rap sheet for a continent where almost nobody lives.
Fortunately, most researchers and staff go to Antarctica in peace. And, once there, that’s most often what they find.