Two years ago on the Antarctic Peninsula we stopped off at a Chilean science base on a wet, muddy afternoon. We stopped purposely searching for an all-white penguin we’d heard about from scientists on King George Island. It took a couple hours, but we found it. Devoid of pigmentation, something like an albino, the penguin was rare though the soldiers stationed at the base for the summer months told us there were three of them scattered around the island. Now comes a report, by National Geographic reporter Andrew Evans, of an all-black penguin. He spotted and photographed the even more unusual King penguin at Fortuna Bay on the subantarctic island of South Georgia. When Nat Geo reached out to Toronto-based ornithologist Dr. Allan Baker for an explanation of the big bird, his professorial response was something along the lines of “Wow. That’s so bizarre I can’t even believe it. Wow.”
South Georgia All-Black
The all-white bird we spied at the Gonzalez-Videla base was leucistic, meaning without pigment. Where most penguins are black, it was all white. The bird photographed on South Georgia was apparently suffering from an overdose of melanin, turning its feathers all-black, extremely rare in penguins. (Thanks to a pair of friends – Naked Jim and Hollis B. – for the sighting!)
Antartic Peninsula All-White
I found myself mingling with kids and their parents, a smattering of friends and one six-foot-tall penguin at the American Museum of Natural History last Saturday. I showed clips from our new, high-def Antarctica film (“Terra Antarctica, Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent”) most of which we shot a year ago, during the course of three months traveling along the Peninsula by sea kayak, sailboat, foot and small plane. It was the first time I’d shown the clips in public and I snuck to the back of the room myself to see them on the big screen. So far … so good. The hour-long film will be finished next month, will start showing at festivals around the world soon after and on television hopefully in the fall.
During the course of AMNH’s “Polar Weekend” I learned a lot myself, particularly about the Polar Palooza project. Supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Science Mission, with money from Apple, ASTC and science and natural history museum’s across the country it’s the hippest way I’ve seen yet to try and educate people, particularly kids, about the cold regions.
Dependent on ice researchers, geologists, oceanographers, climate scientists, biologists and Arctic residents the goal – via pod casts, blogs, vlogs and more – is to provide the simplest info about the poles (“Why do penguins live down South and polar bears only up North?”) for a wide audience. It’s even got it’s own rap song about climate change, which has to be a first.
As for the six-foot-tall penguin, I buddied up to him enough to query whether he was Adelie or Gentoo and all I got was a shoulder shrug, not a squawk out of him … very unusual for a penguin of any species.
Photo, Anne Sparkman
When we left Elephant Island midday yesterday we formally left Antarctica behind. I’ve been to Antarctica many times since 1989 and every time I leave it in my trail, whether by C-130 cargo plane, small sailing boat or expedition ship it is with no small regret. It is a spectacular corner of the world that gets in your blood like no other I’ve experienced. Remote and foreboding it can also be intimate and fragile. The only good thing about leaving is that I am already looking forward to my next return.
We have endured a remarkable stretch of good weather these past six weeks, and the luck continues. Strong winds were expected during the night, which never arrived. As a result, the Scotia Sea – lying just east of the Drake Passage, sharing a similar reputation for wind and storm – is rolling but not rough.
We are now following directly in the traces of Shackleton’s sail for freedom in the twenty-three-and-a-half foot long “James Caird” and I stand on the aft deck for a long time this morning trying to imagine being out here in such a small craft. The eight hundred miles took the six men in the wooden lifeboat cum sailboat sixteen days; we’ll do it in about two. They had no idea what they’d find when they arrived, though they knew there was an active whaling station at Stromness and that the prevailing winds would (hopefully) be at their back. We know pretty much where we are headed and what we’ll find.
They had sailed due north from Elephant Island in hopes of quickly finding warmer temperatures, which did not work so well, though the winds out of the southwest did push them at a sixty to seventy mile a day pace. But the cold continued. “The sprays froze upon the boat and gave bows, sides, and decking a heavy coat of mail,” Shackleton wrote about what he described as “the boat journey.” “This accumulation of ice reduced the buoyancy of the boat, and to that extent was an added peril … we could not allow the load of ice to grow beyond a certain point and in turns we crawled about the decking forward, chipping and picking at it with the available tools … the weight of the ice that had formed in her and upon her was having its effect and she was becoming more like a log than a boat.”
Fifteen days after leaving Elephant Island, they sighted South Georgia. Reduced to straining the last of their fresh water through gauze to clear it of hair from their caribou sleeping bags, they spent one last night just offshore, unable to land due to giant seas. When they finally did land, in a cove that ultimately did not give them access to the rest of the island, they crawled into a cave and slept … though Shackleton stayed awake as long as he could that first night to watch over the “James Caird,” still their lifeline, as it bobbed in the surf just off the rocks.
Just as Elephant Island lives large in history due Shackleton link, South Georgia – for all its magical allure of big animals and grand landscape – is part and parcel of “the Boss’s” myth. I’m sure while we are here these next five or six days we’ll catch sight of his ghost on several occasions.
Photos, Fiona Stewart