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Waiting to Fly: My Escapades with the Penguins of Antarctica

Waiting to Fly: My Escapades with the Penguins of Antarctica

by Ron Naveen

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A tour de force of nature writing, Ron Naveen's Waiting to Fly captures the spirit of the gentle and charming creatures called penguins while also beautifully rendering the frozen, windswept landscapes through his magical prose.In Waiting to Fly, Naveen weaves together the stories of his own experiences as a field scientist with the adventures of


A tour de force of nature writing, Ron Naveen's Waiting to Fly captures the spirit of the gentle and charming creatures called penguins while also beautifully rendering the frozen, windswept landscapes through his magical prose.In Waiting to Fly, Naveen weaves together the stories of his own experiences as a field scientist with the adventures of earlier explorers who have studied these fascinating flightless birds. He recounts tales of daring voyages in the Antarctic's dangerous seas and of the men who had to survive for months in this treacherous terrain. These stories of humans struggling to overcome the elements are paralleled with the lives of the very humanlike penguins. Naveen fell in love with penguins sixteen years ago, and ever since they have held a strong place in his mind--whether he is counting their numbers on the icy shores of the seventh continent or studying their behavior as they go through their hectic and productive lives. We see that their natural and healthy lives, unfettered by the clamor and clutter of our workaholic existence, can teach us much about ourselves. Penguins don't spend time reasoning, planning, pondering, or worrying. They're very, very busy, with lots of work to do and little time to do it. The penguins in this delightful and informative book emerge as distinctly resourceful and beguiling personalities.

While penguins amuse and intrigue us, their comically deceptive exterior belies the reality that they may have mastered survival a bit better than we have, and watching them may change our relationship with the earth--and with each other.

Editorial Reviews

Phoebe-Lou Adams
Mr. Naveen does very well indeed in describing the charm of penguins, the beauty of the Antarctic, the strange magic of the area, and the doings...of the many explorers who have worked there.
The Atlantic Monthly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Lying between latitudes 60 and 70 South, the South Shetland Islands and the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula are a "banana belt" for three species of penguin--chinstrap, Adelie and gentoo. Naveen (Wild Ice) is the project director of the Antarctica Site Inventory, which studies environmental protection. He spends austral summers counting these penguins and observing their behavior. Their lives, he reports in this captivating book, revolve around food, sex, weather and turf. To travel between field sites and research stations, teams rely on expedition ships (with tourists) and the British Navy icebreaker Endurance, which supplies helicopters. Naveen deftly weaves his experience as field scientist and expedition leader with tales of earlier explorers, such as the two young poseur-adventurers, Thomas Bagshawe, 19, and Charles Lester, 23, who in the 1920s spent a year on the icy continent and produced the first life history of chinstraps and gentoos. But the real stars here are the penguins themselves. Naveen is transparently enamored of them, and his descriptions of their habits, their play, their love of little stones form the liveliest parts of his charming, if occasionally meandering, chronicle. 16 pages of color photos not seen by PW. (Feb.)
Phoebe-Lou Adams
Mr. Naveen does very well indeed in describing the charm of penguins, the beauty of the Antarctic, the strange magic of the area, and the doings...of the many explorers who have worked there. -- The Atlantic Monthly
Kirkus Reviews
Their behavior might be comedic for us, but for penguins it translates into sex, food, and turf warfare, as explained by field researcher Naveen in this tenderhearted profile of the short-feathered denizens of the far south. What propels Naveen's newest book (after Wild Ice) is a three-cylinder engine: He wants to make the reader as envious as possible of his penguin-chasing field days on the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands; to smite the reader with the same bewitchment he feels in a gentoo or chinstrap's presence; and incidentally to present a brief history of penguin research in the Antarctic, starting informally with sealers and formally with Louis Gain and the Second French Antarctic Expedition. It's a successful formula for anyone at all interested in kneeless, tux-clad bird life. A penguin field man, Naveen is there to observe and record how they "find mates, set up shop, court, lay eggs, raise chicks, and then get out before frigid weather locks in once again." Although penguins are hardwired for predictable behavior, with little intuitive freedom, this lack of surprise is fashioned by Naveen into meaningful qualities: the penguin as messenger of environmental tidings, and the penguin as symbol of what it means to live in synch with the earth, and how we as a species fall short in comparison.

Naveen knows when to turn loose penguin facts and figures, and he knows how to rein them in. He also knows how to lightly delineate a landscape of thousands upon thousands of the black-and-white, upright, animated birds set against a green and pink mountainside on a scale so vast it steals your breath away. Then again, he closes every chapter with judderingempurpled wordplay that can thankfully be seen coming and thus avoided. Naveen knows and loves his subject-he is the first to admit that he is never happier than when mired in penguin guano-and he writes of it and its place with uncommon fluency.

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HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.99(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

All Time, Penguin Time

What a long, strange trip it's been.


This penguin addiction has curious roots.

    And leaves many footprints.

    I can't elude them. These playful, human-like creatures we call penguins. Or my recurrent visions of penguins. I sometimes rouse from sleep dreaming I'm a penguin. The physical reality may be that penguins live thousands of miles distant. But in a weird metaphysical sense, they're never quite gone from my sight, never quite removed from consciousness. Indeed, I suffer a peculiar, albeit curiously uplifting malady—and I've been thrust center stage, into many dramas and tales. Of life and death. Love and lust. Of penguins surviving the worst conditions on the planet. And of a growing number of us humans who have become utterly fascinated by these compact, upright packages of feathers, fat, and muscle.

    I see penguins everywhere.

    Imagine the crowded Leicester Square tube stop at the height of a spring morning's commuter romp. The lifts are chockablock full of furiously rushing Londoners. I savor my four inches of personal space and realize there's no quick way out. I'm resigned to an endless procession and tumult, which surely repeats itself morning after morning. The escalator's long, slow ride to the top simply must be endured. One step above, a scruffy woman carries three heavy clothing bags and annoyingly shifts them from hand to hand, and in the process keeps bumping me in thechest. A step down, an immaculately dressed businessman clutches his leather briefcase for dear life and pompously bobs from side to side, trying to find an opening to scoot on past. All of us consult wristwatches, swing elbows, huff and puff, and seemingly sweat whether we're going to make it on time, wherever we're going. Tick, tock, up and down we go like tuxedoed penguins on parade, marching to a special drumbeat. To the call of the breaking Antarctic ice. Somewhere, maybe at another tube stop, my mate also races home. Another breeding season is about to start.

    Or picture a midsummer's day in downtown Manhattan. The bright sun lures everyone to the street, swirling here, swirling there—an effervescent, almost musical flow of people in all directions. In similar traffic, Piet Mondrian envisioned colorful, fast-moving rectangles, dots, dashes, boxes, and lines. In my mind's eye, I see the traffic of 'guins chasing food for days on end, before returning home to feed their anxious, fragile chicks. Just another trip to the supermarket.

    But it also could happen on a frigid, snowy mountain peak—anywhere on the planet where it's blowing fifty knots and no one's in sight. There's a desolation of white in all directions. Winter plunges forward and penguins shiver on the beach or on the fast ice surrounding the Antarctic continent. A painful feather molt is mercifully finished and it's time to rest or frolic at sea for eight long months, sometimes meandering, but mostly feeding. Winter's important for them and a big mystery to us. We don't know precisely what they're eating during these months and how far they roam to find it. We speculate it's the same diet they pursue when we can see them firsthand—mostly krill, occasionally fish, and very rarely copepods. And no doubt, as is the game, they'll still need to avoid predators, constantly. These penguins must migrate home each spring fattened to the hilt. Without this energy to bum, penguins can't consummate the long fasts that inaugurate each breeding cycle, in which case nests will fail—and no chicks will be produced. But we don't encounter them in their winter. We're never there. It's too bloody awfully cold and dangerous. To be blunt: A successful return to breeding territories isn't assured. That contemporary, nihilistic pop adage intones that life's too short and then penguins—and we—die. But one penguin-counter isn't quite ready to check out—and won't—without some proper reflection.

    I'm affected on various and sundry levels. Superficially, I'm lured like everyone else: The penguins' upright stance and animated behavior reminds me too much of my own waddling around, sometimes unsteadily. This lure has attracted many Antarctic explorers and scientists. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the youngest member of Robert Falcon Scott's British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13 and the author of The Worst Journey in the World, writes that penguins "are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children, or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirtfronts—and rather portly withal."

    But the infection runs deeper. Consider where chinstraps, gentoos, and Adélies live: Antarctica. It's the one spot on the planet that no human rules, that no ownership possesses—a strange location where people from more than forty countries, representing 75 percent of the world's population, work together harmoniously. Antarctica is the last frontier on the planet—a mix of unspoiled beauty, heart-tugging wildlife, and history, which has been explored only within the last two or three generations, essentially within the time frame of our parents and grandparents. So in my complicated view, chinstraps, gentoos, and Adélies stand before me as research subject, as messenger, and as symbol—and they continually lure me back. They keep me on my toes, keep me thinking, and force me to wonder how it might be, if I—if all of us—had a less dominating view of the planet.

    Sixteen years of penguins provides me different antennae. Perhaps it is a gift. I see and hear differently—can understand that nothing stays the same. Take this Antarctic photograph: A chinstrap penguin colony with more than seventy-five thousand nests, in an amphitheater stretched across a green, black, and pink volcanic mountainside. On closer examination the picture continually changes, over and over, like some vibrant undulating organism. There are clues in every corner: Filthy penguins, just relieved at their nests, pompously ambling downhill toward the sea, hungry and ready to eat. Sparkling clean penguins, having just returned from feeding and preening, weaving uphill toward waiting partners. Some chinstraps are incubating eggs, a few inexperienced birds are still courting, and a fair number are blowing off snowy sheathbills who are trotting around, trying to find some eggs to peck and slurp.

    By sitting and taking a discerning look you'll notice an entire cast of characters, moment-to-moment drama, and roving clouds and weather that mutate incessantly. Because my work requires a considerable amount of Penguin-watching, I have a special opportunity. Patience allows me to see more clearly their habits and behavior, perhaps to examine something new: The purple color of a chinstrap's brood pouch. The spiny bristles lining their mouths, which allow them to hold prey tightly, aim food down their gullet. The curiosity of young gentoos, who are rather content to sit in your lap.

    A semblance of patience also helps when answers seem totally impossible and questions percolate exponentially: Why do chinstraps sometimes expel their yellow stomach linings? How do they compete with one another—as well as with other predators—for conceivably limited resources? How is their dietary staple, krill, affected by increased ultraviolet-B radiation seeping through the planet's thinned ozone layer? How do they cope with changing weather conditions—freak snowstorms and drifts, unexpected katabatics? If more icebergs are calving, does this increased freshwater cause a salinity imbalance that may affect krill and phytoplankton stocks? It's impossible to work on penguins if one's looking for easy solutions. The penguins'—indeed the planet's—mysteries don't resolve in an instant and may never be known, even in few lifetimes. The penguins help me realize that it's complicated out there and that change is inevitable—but also that change may be nurturing.

    Admittedly, examining penguins' lives with a clear lens means getting down to basics—getting one's fingernails dirty with a few inconvenient details. Many say it's a very simple ecosystem: Harm the phytoplankton and krill fails. Knock down the krill and there's theoretically less food for penguins and others higher up the food chain. And the consequences might take years to play out, until penguins presumably won't be able to find the right size of krill in the right places at the right time of year. Yet it remains entirely possible that they'll be able to switch to krill of different sizes and ages, perhaps start eating more fish and copepods. I remember summers when research trawlers couldn't find any krill swarms, but chinstraps, gentoos, and Adélies were repeatedly returning with loaded bellies. So another message is that these apparently short links may generate an abundance of myths and a paucity of facts—that natural variations can't be reduced to neat little equations. Which probably explains why we avoid grandiose matters like global climate change and decreasing Antarctic penguin populations. It's so painful to be reminded, even in seemingly elemental situations, that we don't steer the planet. By the same token, I've come to relish these complications and embrace a humility inevitably attaching to closer looks at penguins—that we can be happy, irrespective of our cosmic and not-so-cosmic concerns.

    The environs where the sealers once roamed might just as easily be called Penguin Central. They lie within my study area in the South Shetland Islands and northern Antarctic Peninsula—and I know them well, as familiarly as the buttons and levers on my cameras. It's a very seductive region, overloaded with snowcapped peaks and expansive glaciers squirming sinuously seaward. Colossal tabular icebergs bob the watery horizon like broad corks. The sensory overload includes guano fumes wafting through the air, sometimes many miles from penguin colonies. The Shetlands and the Peninsula lie more than five hundred miles below South America. There aren't any airports. So to get to work, I must suffer the infamous Drake Passage—two days rocking and rolling south, and two back.

    The Peninsula lies astride the volcanic Scotia Arc, which sits like a crooked left arm waving alluringly to the northeast, extending to the South Shetlands, South Orkneys, and South Sandwich Islands. The geological history is that the Transantarctic Mountains, the Peninsula, and these nearby island groups have long been separated from the Andes Mountains of the South American continent. The Drake fills the breach. I recall being told that if you're going to pick a research project—especially if the hours are long and the work difficult—at least pick a location that's worth the investment. The Peninsula and South Shetlands certainly fill the order. The rest of the Antarctic continent—an area the size of the United States and Mexico combined—has relatively sparse wildlife, a brutally inhospitable climate, and weeks of permanent winter darkness south of the Antarctic Circle. By contrast, the Peninsula and South Shetlands are truly paradisiacal—a Banana Belt full of penguins.

    At Yankee Harbor on the southwest end of Greenwich Island, a rusting old try-pot is the sole, vestigial artifact remaining from the region's tortured sealing history. On that sad score, the good news is that fur seals have returned, building in droves as summer progresses. Above Yankee Harbor's protected anchorage, gentoos adorn the uplifted beaches and extend well into the highlands. Save for the try-pot, there's an air of unspoiled beauty—of how it surely appeared for aeons, before its discovery. This is a common Antarctic thread—being surrounded by land and ice and glaciers that are more than 99.9 percent untouched by us. It's as if Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise has beamed me back to that special moment when continental drift forged the Peninsula's present identity and nature. Time feels blotted out. These look like the same penguins I saw in photos from the Second French Antarctic Expedition, which spent the winter in the Peninsula in 1909. They also fit the sealers' descriptions from the middle of the last century. I can't tell the difference and I have an eerie feeling of being exposed—a time traveler who's taking a special trip through history.

    But truth be told, it's been a long, strange trip for a second-generation kid, a grandchild of immigrants who settled along the banks of the Susquehanna River in the United States in the early 1900s. I grew up in a situation where my parents' fondest dream was for my and my sister's future security and ease—something they didn't come close to enjoying. Both of my parents' families were large and the general malaise was that they always were scraping to survive. The Great Depression hit hard and some mild successes were erased by the meager World War II economy. One family operated an automobile sales and repair shop, the other a neighborhood grocery store. The small plot of dirt adjoining grandfather's market was an occasional playground in my early years, but for Dad this polygon had been the full and sum total of his outside world of dreams. He often told me that his toys—his only toys—were irregularly shaped blocks of wood, which one day were trains and automobiles, the next day soldiers and warriors. My bequest was supposed to be different, but the stability my parents wished, I rudely and realistically learned, isn't the norm.

    My folks weaved dreams with a simple premise that my sister and I would "have it better" than they had managing the booming American Dream. Which clearly suggested something about college and graduate school, having an adoring spouse and 2.3 children, a very comfortable home in the suburbs, an unspecified number of household pets, a station wagon for a second car, one job forever, and an Ozzie-and-Harriet life that would be happy ever after. Mom and Dad repeated one particular metaphor about life being an open book, and how I had so many blank pages to fill. Well, of course, it didn't quite happen that way. In fact, it seems totally implausible that I wound up working in Antarctica. This was far out of my expected line, but fortunately, a few key influences greased the way.

    The gloss on my blank pages begins with Terry Baltimore, a friend who was the first bird-watcher I'd ever met. He must have been seeking a Boy Scouts badge in birds, and I tagged along out of sheer curiosity. Soon, an entirely new set of adventures opened up, far removed from the preordained notions of success my family encouraged. There was something special about these outdoors jaunts and chases, all related I'm sure to carving my own identity. I pestered Mom and Dad for a pair of six-power binoculars and soon my lifelist was full speed ahead. Actually, the term "bird-watcher" was then the height of derogation. But nobody accused Terry and me of such weirdness because, outside of our immediate families, we kept our little secret close to our vests. We were in the closet with birds. Bird-watching just wasn't in vogue. In fact, it was so far removed from vogue that even a minimal association with such aberrant activity might totally cripple our chances of relevant, 1960-stype bonding with our adolescent cronies. We lugged binos and our bible—the third edition of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to Eastern Birds—everywhere, trying at every waking moment to "one-up" the other.

    As my birding chases blossomed, so did tensions with Mom's and Dad's expectations. More and more they talked about careers and more and more I chased new ticks for my lifelist. It got to the juncture where I believed outside counsel was needed. And I could fathom no better savior than my guru, Roger Tory Peterson himself. With great nervousness, I wrote and asked for any possible guidance to foist on my unsuspecting parents. It was simple: "Mr. Peterson, they want me to go off to college, but I'm not sure. Or should I go after what I really want—birds? I mean, I take your field guide everywhere, I really like birds, and I don't see why I couldn't get along like you have—perhaps even study at Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology." My burden was in his hands. With a letter from Mr. Peterson in hand, my parents definitely would understand.

    Weeks and weeks passed. Finally the response arrived, shockingly: "Dear Ronald: What do you mean: `Go into birds'? Are you kidding? Listen to your parents. There's no money in birds!" Oh, no. Hmmm. I was stopped dead in my tracks. But in another blink, taking full advantage of more than thirty years' distance, I laugh at the irony. While editing Birding magazine, I got to know Roger and realize now, on reflection, that his advice was only half right. It was too early for him, for anyone, to realize that the burgeoning "field guide" revolution he had fostered would enable many of us to realize our wildest dreams—even to make a living at it. Not that we'd be able to make a lot of money—on that he was absolutely correct—but at least we'd manage to survive economically.

    So, somewhat reluctantly, I followed my folks' suggested path and went to college, keeping my restlessness tucked in an easy-to-reach side pocket. Then came Vietnam. I marched against the war and avoided service, first by attending law school and taking advantage of a one-year student deferment, then permanently via the blossoming Crohn's disease in my colon. This led to three years with a law firm in Florida, which confirmed in loudly blinking lights that I wasn't cut out for a lifestyle of constant time pressures and clients whose values I didn't respect. I returned to Washington for a stint with the US Environmental Protection Agency, then concluded my traditional résumé with a stint as the "marine mammal lawyer" in the US National Marine Fisheries Service, back in Washington.

    It was a heavenly job—for a while. I felt I'd revolved full circle, back to animals—to those defining moments chasing birds along the red, muddy shores of the Susquehanna River. And the birding, which had been minimal while testing fate in private legal practice, returned to my front burner. I started going offshore on the pelagic birding and whale-watching trips my friend Rich Rowlett was conducting out of Ocean City, Maryland. It was the mid-1970s and Roger Peterson's field-guide revolution now was booming: Increasing numbers of binocular-toters were chasing lifelists in more and more obscure locations, including the open ocean. Pelagic trips were operating on both coasts in North America and at a few locations in Europe. But comparatively little was known about the offshore quarry we sought. Even the newest field guides lacked adequate details. I dug for better sources and information.

    The beacon was Robert Cushman Murphy's Oceanic Birds of South America—a classic, two-volume magnum opus from 1936, written by the late curator of oceanic birds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I'd been exasperated spending so many long, rough, seasick days on the ocean, with the birds whizzing by faster than even a good field birder could keep up with correctly. The diagnostic field marks mentioned in the guides were oftentimes meaningless. The seabirds seemed too mysterious, and their lives and identification too difficult—until delving into Murphy. But Oceanic Birds was no ordinary bird book and my eyes opened to a whole new world. To Murphy, these creatures were much more than objects of our vision and commodities for cold, scientific analysis. They were fellow denizens of the planet, worthy of respectful study, not passing glances. I discovered a seabird connoisseur who was an articulate, impassioned writer. I was hooked deeply by Murphy's graceful, literary style, his descriptions such as that of an albatross "on the invisible currents of the breeze" who appears "merely to follow its pinkish bill at random." Or, describing Southern Ocean seabirds called prions: "When the air is filled with a flock of whale birds careening in the breeze, rising, falling, voplaning, twisting, sideslipping above the sea, now flashing their white breasts, now turning their almost invisible backs—they resemble the motes in a windy sunbeam."

    Murphy became a hero. I learned about El Niño warming periods that occurred sixty years ago along the western South American coasts. And I learned much about other seabirds that lived thousands of miles away from my coast. I was especially intrigued by penguins because they'd taken their flying skills underwater. I wanted to see them, too. The science seemed inexorably mixed with romantic adventures. After all, his was the era of Amundsen and Scott, when "men" still explored and sought adventure, and often turned to Antarctic waters for wealth, fame, and, of course, the last great geographical goal on this planet—crossing the great ice sheet and reaching the South Pole. Murphy's work in the Southern Ocean fit this questing pattern. Leaving his new bride, Grace, behind, the zestful, twenty-five-year-old opportunistic scientist joined the whaling brig Daisy in 1912-13 and set sail to the Roaring 40s and Furious 50s. The main objectives, both commercial and scientific, were centered at South Georgia, below the Antarctic Convergence.

    Murphy's recollections of these heady days were inspiring, full of discoveries: How do you skin a slew of chunky, forty-pound king penguins? By employing special help, of course. Murphy enticed a band of scavenging skuas—the gull-like birds who are rapacious scavengers at penguin colonies—to assist him in skinning and defatting a large number of penguin specimens. How do you study the little seabirds called storm-petrels? Well, you bring them to you. Murphy recounts the escapades of Rollo Beck, who did extensive fieldwork for the California Academy of Sciences, and who first discovered that storm-petrels could be attracted to chum lines—strings of food cast behind or alongside the boat. Beck actually discovered a new species, Hornby's storm-petrel, off Peru in this fashion.

    And how do you learn more about these penguins—the "half-formed birds"—that Fildes saw? Murphy sat and watched their routines very carefully: Gentoo penguins—Johnnies, in the parlance of the day—are a case in point. Murphy found their disposition gentle, their curiosity more than slight, and he describes playing children's games with them: "On the afternoon of this day I walked to a glacial pond on the far side of which stood a group of Johnny Penguins. As soon as they saw me, one of their number swam across under water and walked toward me. When I moved quietly it followed, and when I stopped it did likewise. Then, one by one, it was joined by the other penguins from across the pond. It was whimsical to see this troop of mimicking small brothers with no other wish than to keep me company." This sounded like the best employment in the world. If penguins were the research subjects, who could resist being a biologist?

    Oceanic Birds was my precious lodestone, a magic flare kindling dreams of days to come. Murphy spun me in a different direction. He was a terribly exacting scientist—a seabird Sherlock Holmes—and he spent laborious moments, whatever was needed, to discover the intimacies of these creatures' lives. The work was hard—all science is—but Murphy's affectionate and respectful approach made it seem so worthwhile because there was so much to savor. One favorite passage was Murphy's analysis of gentoo penguin breeding shenanigans. He describes lady gentoos awaiting gifts of pebbles or ancestral bones from suitors:

Cocks sometimes make mistakes, with dire results, by offering pebbles to other cocks. The presentation to a hen is a pantomime of bowing, accompanied by soft hissing sounds and later by either angry or joyous trumpetings, according to the outcome. The hen is the builder of the home, the cock the bearer of bricks, and acceptance of the first pebble is the symbol of success in wooing. Today a cock laid a pebble at my feet, a compliment properly followed by ceremonial bowing and, I hope, by mutual sentiments of high esteem. That, I believe, is an expression to be expected from an ambassador.

These entrées were powerful—and penguins began rising over my horizon.

    The Murphian connections were nurtured further by Tom McIntyre, who was one of my close compatriots on the Ocean City pelagic trips—and the only whaler I've ever known. In 1969 and 1970, Mac had worked in the last, US-based whaling station at Richmond, California. He was struggling to earn money for his family. When I met him, he was working out of the marine mammal office of the Fisheries Service in Washington. A number of years into this job, the Service had sent him to the Antarctic to observe whaling activities on a Japanese mothership, a floating factory. This was great fodder for discussion and we spent oodles of hours chattering through the dead time on the offshore Ocean City trips. I spun seabird stories and Mac covered the whale and dolphin side of life. I was impressed with his knowledge—in fact, he could have handled the seabirds just as well, especially the Antarctic ones. He knew Oceanic Birds inside out and kept mentioning snippets I'd missed in Murphy's text: The complex discussion of ocean currents and the movements of prey stocks. The derivations of the penguins' names. Murphy's poking holes in specious theories already cluttering the literature.

    Mac discerned my emerging dreams and took special joy niggling them forward. His kidding revolved around the notion that penguins were actually marine mammals. "After all, Navarinsky," as he'd often called me, "They don't fly—do they? And what about that blubber? They've got it too, you know. But the big thing, don't forget, is that they porpoise through the water." We had immense fun and our interests aligned like stars in a constellation. Chasing a lifelist started feeling irrelevant and nowhere near as challenging as chasing secrets: Why were these seabirds found at particular places or at particular times of the year? What were they eating? How were their lives complicated—or ended—by the vagaries of wind, weather, predators, illness, or other unforeseen calamities? I began to see complications, not clarities. "Water covers seventy percent or more of the planet," Mac intoned, "and the Antarctic drives it all—its surrounding Southern Ocean, the winds that blow unimpeded around the continent. That's where it all begins. Yeah, you should get there."

    When I ultimately joined the general counsel's Office of the Fisheries Service in 1978, Tom was ensconced right down the hall—a very fortuitous break for me. All the legalities hinged on whether the marine mammals in question were at an acceptable level of health deemed an "optimum sustainable population." Every issue—from regulations about the incidental capturing of dolphins in the tuna fishery to the then-operative fur seal treaty in the north Pacific Ocean to conflicts between salmon fishermen and Dall's porpoise—revolved around a seemingly straightforward matter: How many animals existed and would the species still be at healthy levels when the proposed taking was concluded? There were myriad texts, theories, and buzzwords permeating these matters—and Mac helped me through quite a bit of the morass. In the end, my tenure was tantamount to earning an advanced degree in biology and population dynamics.

    If I needed information on the distribution of Pacific Stenella dolphins, Mac knew which papers to consult. If the issue was Pribilof Island fur seals, Mac had many of the scientific references at his fingertips. He had this penchant for dropping manuscripts on my desk to peruse. How did he know all this stuff? Something wasn't exactly clicking. One day I took him aside and asked where he'd gotten his Ph.D. "Rrrrgh, Rrrrgh" was his unintelligible reply. "I don't have one."

    "OK, then, so where'd you get your Master's?" More harrumphs and grumphs erupted. In fact, Mac finally admitted, there was no advanced degree. He'd learned it all by getting his fingernails dirty, literally from the skin of the whales down to their guts and back out again. The Richmond whaling station was just the beginning of his hard-knocks path. I then knew little about the exploits of Antarctic explorers and researchers like Cherry-Garrard, Bagshawe, and Lester, all of whom, I'd discover, were cut from Mac's kind of cloth—self-taught, not afraid to ask questions, and willing to spend hours searching for clues. I admired this spunk and determination enormously. Another wrinkle developed: Mac took a brief sojourn to work as a lecturer on the World Discoverer, one of the expedition ships that operated in the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands each November to February. I listened intently to the details, salivating, thinking this might become my eventual route south. Mac willingly shared relevant contact numbers and addresses.

    My marine mammal days flew, accumulating more quickly than I'd realized to four and a half years. Workdays grew increasingly Stale. I'd had enough, done just about everything a staff lawyer possibly could do. And despite the overtures, I certainly didn't want to be "bumped upstairs" to some management position—to push paper and worry about budgets, hiring freezes, layoffs, and—worst of all—a new administration that would likely place a lower emphasis on the issues I'd found so fascinating.

    Leaving this chapter of my life wasn't complicated: Rich Rowlett had left the area, I'd inherited his pelagic trip business, and I thought that by adding trips to other locations—like the Galápagos—I could survive, without being a lawyer. Best of all, after years of phone calls, letters, and pleading with Mac's contacts, I was hired to work as a lecturer on the World Discoverer for a short, weeklong visit to the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula.

    They'd come, finally.

    Well past the horizon. Into the foreground.

    Now flooding my vision.

    Flying in water, waddling over ice.

    All time, my time.

    Penguin time.

Meet the Author

Ron Naveen, the founder and CEO of Oceanites, an organization dedicated to raising public awareness of the world's living marine resources, is the project director of the Antarctic Site Inventory. He is the author of Wild Ice and The Oceanites Site Guide to the Antarctic Peninsula. When he is not in Antarctica, he lives in Washington, D.C.

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