Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica

Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica

by Fen Montaigne
Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica

Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica

by Fen Montaigne


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"Fraser's Penguins is a brilliant, beautiful, and terrifying account of what's happening at the bottom of our world."—Nathaniel Philbrick, author of The Last Stand, In the Heart of the Sea, and Sea of Glory

Called "exceptionally poignant" by Nature magazine, Fen Montaigne's sensitive and timely account of five months in Antarctica gives a taste of the global changes that will soon arrive in our own backyards. Scientist Bill Fraser has devoted three decades to Antarctica, and in that time this breathtaking region has warmed faster than any place on earth, with profound consequences for the Adélies, the classic tuxedoed penguin that is dependent on sea ice to survive. During the Antarctic spring and summer of 2005-2006, author Fen Montaigne spent five months working on Fraser's field team, and he returned with a moving tale that chronicles the beauty of the wildest place on earth, the lives of the beloved Adélies, the saga of the discovery of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the story—told through Fraser's work—of how rising temperatures are swiftly changing this part of the world. It's Montaigne's "descriptive prowess, his ability to evoke lavender—and cobalt, magenta and violet—without waxing purple, that most impresses" (New York Times Book Review) as he chronicles the penguins' plight, which is also our own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250002631
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/03/2012
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,108,205
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Fen Montaigne is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, and The Wall Street Journal. A former Moscow bureau chief of The Philadelphia Inquirer, he is the author of Reeling in Russia and has co-authored two other books. For his work on Fraser's Penguins, Montaigne was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006. He now works as senior editor of the online magazine Yale Environment 360.

Read an Excerpt


What we're looking at here is an entire ecosystem that is changing, and it's not changing in hundreds of years. It's changing in thirty to fifty years. To me this is foretelling the future across major parts of the planet. All those places we cherish are going to change.

—Bill Fraser, Torgersen Island, 2006

On a still, sunny evening in February, scores of newly fledged Adélie penguin chicks were arrayed on the cobblestone beaches of Torgersen Island, contemplating the next step in their brief lives. Only two months old yet almost fully grown, these twenty-inch-high, black-and-white seabirds milled about, some emitting the feeble, honklike call peculiar to adolescent Adélies, others standing and staring at the Southern Ocean. The temperature in this corner of the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula hovered just above freezing. The sun was making its slow descent toward the horizon, its rays casting a gentle light on the ice-draped mountains that run down the spine of the nine-hundred-mile finger of land.

I stood a few dozen feet from the beaches and gazed at the sea— frigid, remarkably clear, its surface broken by scores of icebergs— stretching before me. To my left, the peninsular mountain range—sheer black rock faces and vast fields of ice streaming to the Southern Ocean—dominated the eastern horizon. To my right, the great white dome of the Marr Ice Piedmont sloped gradually to the west. I had been in Antarctica nearly four months, but, as always, I felt incapable of grasping the scale and beauty of this place. To take it all in with a single glance, capture it in a photograph, or render it faithfully in words seemed impossible.

The tableau behind me was not quite so picturesque. Torgersen Island was then home to a rapidly diminishing rookery of 2,500 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins, and at the end of the reproductive season the penguin colonies were a scene of squalor and disarray. Not two weeks before, Torgersen had been the site of frenetic activity, with adult Adélies—the classic tuxedoed penguin and one of only two penguin species that breed exclusively in Antarctica— shuttling to and from the sea to sate the ravenous appetites of their rapidly growing offspring. Now the colonies were empty, with most of the adults at sea gorging on krill after the exhausting process of raising offspring, and the chicks piling up on the beaches. Recent rains had turned the colonies into rank swamps of guano, with trickles of red waste flowing out of the nesting areas and down to the ocean. Skuas—the main terrestrial predator of the Adélies— picked over the carcasses of penguin chicks and swarmed overhead.

Hundreds of fledged chicks had already slipped into the sea, and hundreds more were assembled along the shores of Torgersen and nearby penguin islands, summoning the courage to enter the water. Small groups of young Adélies gradually nudged their way to the ocean's edge, with the bolder among them hopping out onto rocks until they were five to ten feet from shore. Some of these chicks seemed poised to dive in, but after several minutes retreated to the beach. Others, however, displayed a greater intensity as they neared the water, eyeing the incoming waves with a certain focus. The bravest moved to the front, staring at the sea and letting the waves lap at their webbed feet. Then, suddenly, they took a step or two and dove in, prompting a dozen other chicks to follow suit. Looking half panicked and half playful, these newly fledged penguins dog-paddled in the shallows, splashed wildly with their flippers, dipped their heads underwater, and honked to their fellow swimmers. Within a minute, however, the stronger chicks began heading out to sea, diving and remaining underwater for five or ten seconds as they learned to swim.

While most of the chicks left the security of their terrestrial life in the company of other penguins, some young Adélies embarked on this new phase alone. That evening on Torgersen Island, I watched a single chick enter the water and swim into the channel between Torgersen and nearby Litchfield Island. The young bird splashed on the surface for a few seconds, dove, reappeared twenty to thirty feet out to sea, lifted its head high to get its bearings, emitted a clipped squawk, paddled awhile, and then dove again. Using my binoculars, I followed the penguin for several hundred yards as it made its way to the southwest. Soon, however, the chick was nothing more than a tiny dot on the surface of the sea. Then it dove once more, and I lost sight of the young penguin for good. As I watched the chick disappear into the expanse of ocean off Torgersen Island, I wondered how this solitary, untutored, seven-pound seabird would learn to feed itself and survive. My fears were not unfounded, for in the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula this was precisely the problem: The Adélie chicks were going to sea, but they weren't coming back.

In the austral summer of 2005-06, I spent nearly five months at Palmer Station, a scrap of civilization grafted onto a rocky spit of land in a world of ice, snow, sea, and stone. It is named for an early-nineteenth-century American seal hunter, Nathaniel B. Palmer, who at age twenty had the audacity to leave Stonington, Connecticut, in command of a forty-seven-foot sloop, the Hero, sail the length of the planet, cross the wild stretch of ocean known as the Drake Passage, and enter foggy, uncharted, iceberg-covered Antarctic waters in search of fur seals. He found them, making himself and his fellow officers from the sealing fleet wealthy men. In the process, in just five years—from 1819 through 1823—the British and American flotilla wiped out virtually the entire population of half a million fur seals in the South Shetland Islands, on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Today, Palmer is perhaps best known as the first American to have laid eyes on the Antarctic mainland.

The U.S. government research station named in Palmer's honor is a cluster of a half dozen corrugated metal buildings that, at peak operations during the austral summer, house roughly forty scientists and support staff . These days, the researchers are mainly engaged in studying how the rapid warming of Palmer's environs is cascading through this icebound world, affecting everything from the formation of sea ice, to the krill that depend on the sea ice, to the Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) that depend on the sea ice and the krill. The northwestern Antarctic Peninsula, where the station is located, has heated up faster than almost any other place on earth, with winter temperatures rising 11°F in the past sixty years and average annual temperatures increasing 5°F since 1951—five times the global average.

While at Palmer, I worked as a member of ecologist Bill Fraser's research team during the breeding season of the penguins, skuas, giant petrels, blue-eyed shags, kelp gulls, and other seabirds that nest in the region. Fraser first came to Palmer Station in 1974, as a young graduate student. In the ensuing three and a half decades, he has watched this world start to melt around him, painstakingly documenting how a changing cast of seabirds—most notably the Adélie penguin—are reacting to their warming environment. His research, which brought him back to Palmer Station year after year, has paid off, as Fraser and his colleagues have assembled one of the most detailed portraits on earth of the impacts of rising temperatures on the natural world. Their work is of more than passing academic interest, however, for as Antarctica warms and its ice sheets begin to melt, the seas along our coasts will rise, and global weather patterns will change.

One morning in early March, not long before the end of my stay at Palmer Station, I walked out of my dormitory and gazed upon a scene that never grew old: the pale blue palisades of the Marr Ice Piedmont, the enormous glacier that envelops the station; the waters of Arthur Harbor, filled this day with large rafts of brash ice shed by the Marr with thunderous rumbles; the rocky islands just offshore, dusted the night before with an inch of snow and home to a rapidly disappearing population of Adélie penguins; and the Antarctic sky, its brilliant blue hue occasionally visible through low, gray-bottomed clouds.

Striding down a short boardwalk and entering the galley, I glanced at two small calendars sitting on a shelf at the head of the serving line, their messages changing every morning. The first calendar contained the word of the day. The second displayed sayings of Buddhist sages and other enlightened souls. These aphorisms often sailed over my head, but on this morning a quote from Pythagoras, the ancient Greek mathematician and philosopher, caught my attention.

"Astonishing! Everything is intelligent!"

That day, and on many that followed, Pythagoras's declaration kept looping back through my mind. After months working in the Antarctic, spending my days among seals, whales, seabirds, and penguins, I had come to the same conclusion. How could I not? The Adélie penguins alone had exhibited an instinctual intelligence that was breathtaking. After migrating hundreds of miles from their winter feeding grounds, they marched off the ice in the austral spring and—even though their nesting territories were concealed under snow—headed to the very colonies where many were hatched or had raised chicks before. There the Adélies stood or lay patiently until the snow melted, exposing the pebbled ground underneath. If a mate from the previous season survived the winter, the pair frequently was reunited. Together they patiently constructed a cup-shaped nest of stones. They copulated. They took turns incubating two eggs, with the liberated penguin making a beeline for feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean, where it gorged on krill before returning to relieve its partner. Together, the couple guarded the chicks, and when their offspring's demand for nourishment became overwhelming, both parents took to the sea to feed. Upon their return, the parents recognized their chicks not by sight but by voice, identifying them by the slightest variations in their raspy calls.

Finally, as the chicks reached adult size, losing their down and gaining feathers, the entire raucous yet well-ordered process crescendoed. Sensing that they could no longer continue to feed full-grown chicks and keep themselves alive, the adult Adélies simply took off. The adolescent Adélies clustered in packs and contemplated the fact of their abandonment for a day or two. Then, their hunger growing, they clumsily made their way to the shoreline. They stared at the Southern Ocean for hours, perhaps days, until making the ultimate instinctual leap of faith: They dove in.

Astonishing indeed! Of course, these natural dramas are played out every day, all over the world, from suburban backyards to the poles. But never had I witnessed such elegantly instinctive behavior at such close range. Never had I spent day after day, months on end, observing wild creatures; nor had I followed this round of reproduction from start to finish. And never had I observed the natural world in so untouched a setting, a place whose beauty has beggared the descriptive powers of explorers and visitors ever since the first Europeans laid eyes on the continent nearly two centuries ago.

"It is impossible for me to render even a moderately fair description of the other-worldly beauty and perfect uniqueness of the landscape," the Norwegian businessman and explorer Henryk Johan Bull wrote of his 1895 visit to Victoria Land, on the Ross Sea. "The pinnacled mountains towering range beyond range in majestic grandeur under a coverlet of matchless white; the glittering and sparkling gold and silver of the sunshine, broken or reflected through the crystals of ice and snow . . . but perhaps more than all, the utter desolation, the awesome, unearthly silence pervading the whole landscape."

Palmer Station is lost in such an epic landscape, a place where mountains—some reaching 9,000 feet and all draped in ice caps and glaciers—tower over the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean. As spring began, the sea's surface was locked in ice that had trapped innumerable icebergs, their shapes running from massive, flat-topped tabular bergs to whimsical, castle-like structures. On especially clear days, I could stand atop the vast Marr Ice Piedmont that rose behind the station and gaze through the dust-free Antarctic atmosphere at mountain summits 120 miles away, a line of the purest ice and the blackest rock unfurling toward the South Pole. The scene was eternal and untouched, and I, like many people who have spent time in Antarctica, was overcome with an exhilarating feeling of insignificance.

"One's dear self becomes so miserably small in these mighty surroundings," said Lieutenant Kristian Prestrud, a member of Norwegian Roald Amundsen's 1910-12 expedition, the first to reach the South Pole.

To describe the power of this continent, its human interlopers inevitably have resorted to the language of the spirit. Bill Fraser is not inclined to such poetic musings, but nevertheless the beauty and grandeur of Antarctica are an important part of what has drawn him back to the continent for more than three de cades. Early in his scientific career, Fraser made a decision to get to know one place well, to fully understand the relationships among all the creatures inhabiting a single spot on the planet. Such dedication is typical of many Antarctic scientists—including the small community of penguin researchers—who spend years working on the continent, often under harsh conditions. In Fraser's case, that patience has yielded important results, for he has found himself in a position to witness something that neither Ernest Shackleton, nor Robert Falcon Scott, nor any other of the legendary Antarctic adventurers had ever seen: In just a few de cades, the Antarctic Peninsula and the seabirds and marine mammals that inhabit it have changed rapidly. Working with Fraser during just one birding season at Palmer, I, too, witnessed this transformation as colonies of Adélie penguins died out before my eyes.

It was hard to believe that anything could defeat the pugnacious Adélies, which stand no higher than a man's knee and thrive in the most inhospitable environment on earth. But the Adélie has met its match in man, for the forces we have unleashed—in the form of planet-warming greenhouse gases—have reached the world's wildest continent and begun altering it. The most deleterious effect on Adélies has been the steady disappearance of sea ice along the western Antarctic Peninsula. Like the polar bear's in the Arctic or the emperor penguin's farther south in the Antarctic, the Adélie penguin's existence is intimately intertwined with the sea ice that has long defined life at the poles. When sea ice markedly declines, so, too, do Adélies. The demise of these beloved birds in this part of Antarctica seems, at first glance, to be the work of unfathomable natural forces. But thanks to the research conducted by Fraser and his colleagues, it has become increasingly clear that humanity is every bit as responsible for the decline of Adélie penguins along the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula as Nathaniel Palmer and his mates were for the near extirpation of Antarctica's fur seals nearly two centuries ago.

Fully 2.5 million pairs of Adélie penguins still exist in Antarctica, and although they are dying out around Palmer Station, Adélies will no doubt continue to exist on the continent for the foreseeable future. Whether they will continue to thrive is another matter. Steadily rising temperatures are now nibbling at the edges of the planet's coldest continent, most notably along the Antarctic Peninsula, the crooked sliver of land that juts toward the southern tip of South America and extends farther north than any other part of Antarctica. Yet if, as expected, global temperatures continue to rise as mankind pours more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, warming won't merely be creeping across the periphery of the miles-thick dome of ice that is Antarctica. It will penetrate deeply into the continent, shrinking sea ice, shattering the great ice shelves that flow off the land and float on the Southern Ocean, and melting glaciers and ice sheets, which will lift sea levels worldwide. This melting will ultimately be bad news for Adélie and emperor penguins throughout much of Antarctica, as it will for all the continent's other ice-dependent species, such as krill and crabeater seals.

Over time, I came to see the saga of Fraser and the Adélies as a cautionary tale, a sign of what the rest of us will soon be experiencing worldwide. Fraser has worked in a particularly exotic part of the planet, but the fundamental changes he has witnessed in his Antarctic backyard will soon be coming to everybody's neighborhood. The birds that have long migrated through our regions will change, as will the species of plants, flowers, and trees. The snow that fell in the towns where we grew up will increasingly become sleet and rain. Some of these changes are already taking place. Some will occur gradually over generations. But scientists such as Bill Fraser, who work in icebound worlds, have had the opportunity to observe large-scale changes telescoped into a few decades. A gradual shift in the range of tree species is a subtle thing, but the disappearance of ice—or Adélie penguins— is hard to miss.

And so, although he had no inkling of it when he first came to Palmer Station, Bill Fraser has turned out to be a sentinel, working in a part of the planet that most of us will never visit and bearing witness to rapid changes that foreshadow our own futures. For that reason alone, I was convinced that Fraser's story was worth telling.

The Adélies around Palmer Station are already experiencing the effects of warming, and it seems that their relentless instinct and their natural intelligence can take them only so far. Today, in at least one corner of Antarctica, the continent's iconic penguin is starting to falter.

"Astonishing! Everything is intelligent!"

Well, not quite everything.

Excerpted from Fraser's Penguins by Fen Montaigne

Copyright 2010 by Fen Montaigne

Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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