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


"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.

Editorial Reviews

Elizabeth Royte
Montaigne is a controlled writer, offering careful and clear explanations of matters technical and lexicographic, biologically microscopic and meteorologically global. But it's his descriptive prowess, his ability to evoke lavender—and cobalt, magenta and violet—without waxing purple, that most impresses…Despite [the] sobering message, Fraser's Penguins leaves one feeling exhilarated…by these remarkable creatures, the landscape they inhabit and the scientists who've devoted their lives to studying both.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Montaigne (Reeling in Russia), a journalist and travel writer, spent five months tracking penguins through the breeding season on the northwestern Antarctica peninsula with the scientist Bill Fraser, and his book is a bittersweet account of the stark beauty of the continent and the climate change that threatens its delicate ecosystem. Fraser first came to Antarctica in 1974, and his research on the peninsula, one of the fastest-warming places on the planet, with an 11°F winter heat rise in the past 60 years, has made him a pivotal figure in the study of how global warming disrupts not just individual species but creates an ecological cascade. As diminishing sea ice reduces the krill and silver fish that feed the Adélie penguins, who have thrived in this region for thousands of years, they are now dwindling alarmingly; consequently, brown skua birds, predators of the Adélies, are also having trouble breeding, and gentoo penguins, who thrive in warmer conditions, are becoming the dominant species. Montaigne poetically portrays the daunting Antarctic landscape and gives readers an intimate perspective on its rugged, audacious, and charming penguin and human inhabitants. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"Montaigne is a controlled writer, offering careful and clear explanations of matters technical and lexicographic, biologically microscopic and meteorologically global. But it’s his descriptive prowess, his ability to evoke lavender—and cobalt, magenta and violet—without waxing purple, that most impresses ....  Sometimes telling less reveals more. At other times, Montaigne gives thrilling, blow-by-blow accounts of bird battles and breakups .... Fraser’s Penguins leaves one feeling exhilarated—by these remarkable creatures, the landscape they inhabit and the scientists who’ve devoted their lives to studying both."—Elizabeth Royte, The New York Times Book Review


"Exceptionally poignant. [Montaigne] voices the emotions that inundate everyone who works in this vast wilderness. And he captures details such as the fantastic scenery as the boat picks its way through broken sea ice dotted with resting seals and groups of penguins squint-eyed under a dazzling light."—Yvon Le Maho, Nature


"In this sympathetic firsthand report, Montaigne describes the lives of both the researchers who brave the harsh weather and the penguins whose habitat is quickly becoming inhospitable to their reproduction. Montaigne’s compelling account is a clear and impassioned call for environmental action before the consequences of global warming turn catastrophic worldwide."—Rick Roche, Booklist


"A bittersweet account of the stark beauty of the continent and the climate change that threatens its delicate ecosystem .... Montaigne poetically portrays the daunting Antarctic landscape and gives readers an intimate perspective on its rugged, audacious, and charming penguin and human inhabitants."—PW


"Sobering, fact-based cautionary treatise on the quiet storm of climate change."—Kirkus

"A glimpse into the blood-and-guano facts of penguin existence. . . . Montaigne fills Fraser's Penguins with research, both journalistic and scientific, presented in clear, well-wrought sentences."—B.T. Shaw, The Oregonian

"The best books about far-off places make the exotic relatable, make the unimaginable plausible. In Fraser's Penguins, journalist and travel writer Fen Montaigne does both. He puts us up on deck as life-ending stormy waters roil off the coast of Antarctica; puts us on the ice as he's attacked (and describes attacks) by some of the world's most mysterious creatures; bundles us in warmth as we tumble out into an otherworldly, snowy, icy, chilling, breathtaking expanse."—Karen Gaudette, The Seattle Times


"Encompassing geology, biology, chunks of Antarctic history, descriptions of living and working in a bleak and beautiful environment, and personality profiles of those who like being there, Montaigne's book is a fine work of natural history to tell us of the penguins' plight, which is also our own. . . . Montaigne produces wonderful descriptions of life on a penguin colony and on the alien, beautiful frozen desert where he worked that summer. His descriptions of human life in the research station are just as interesting."—Rob Hardy, The Dispatch

"Moving effortlessly and seamlessly from poetic description to scientific discussion, Montaigne is able to weave a narrative that is both poignant and informative."—Todd Mayville, Elephant Journal


"Richly observed and keenly affecting, Fraser's Penguins is a portrait of a world in the process of disappearing. Fen Montaigne has written an evocative and important book."—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe


"Fraser’s Penguins is a book overflowing with four-story icebergs and half-ton leopard seals, a book smeared with krill-red penguin excrement, a book that makes you want to strap on your wool-lined rain-pants, jump into the nearest Zodiac, and motor head-on into ice-cold 25-mile-per-hour winds."Jake de Grazia, ZocaloPublicSquare.org


"By focusing on the plight of the Adélie penguin, Fen Montaigne has found a way to transform the concept of global warming into a moving and irrefutable truth. 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

Kirkus Reviews

An online magazine writer witnesses the incremental damage of global warming firsthand.

In 2005-'06, Yale Environment 360 senior editor Montaigne (Reeling In Russia: An American Angler In Russia, 1998) spent five months at Palmer Station, the only U.S. research station north of the Antarctic Circle. As a member of an environmental-science research team under ecologist Bill Fraser, the author tracked the breeding seasons of the "simultaneously gregarious and irascible" knee-high Adélie penguin, along with varieties ofnative seabirds.Montaigne's findings only confirmed what Fraser and his team discovered in their time spent at the station since 1974: Antarctica's ice sheets are melting,bloating sea levels, which has a direct impact on global weather patterns. The author was consistently in awe of the breathtaking panorama surrounding him, and this remote, larger-than-life locale triggered an "exhilarating feeling of insignificance." Hewrites that though there are 2.5 million pairs of Adélies in Antarctica, those on and aroundrocky Torgersen Island are dying, and the "ecological upheaval" of global warming continues.The ramificationsextend to the penguins' food web as well,diminishing the once-abundant populace of Southern Ocean krill, a penguin staple. Fun and fascinating penguin traits leaven the bad news:their much-studied "love-triangle brawls," unique mating rituals (often while entombed in snow squalls), egg-laying facts and a peculiar penchant toward "pebble larceny," when neighboring birds steal warming stones from adjacent nests. Less heartwarming is the decimationof newborn penguin chicks bypredators. The unifying narrative thread is Fraser's justified concerns about the "incredible changes" happening to Earth's natural ecosystems and how we, asvulnerable humans, "need these systems to survive."

Sobering, fact-based cautionary treatiseon the quiet storm of climate change.

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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.

Meet 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.

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