March 8, 2017:
We are finally here. We arrived in the South Shetland islands, which are just slightly removed from the Antarctic Peninsula, landing on the shore and exploring the islands and its animal inhabitants. Technically, this was not yet continental Antarctica, but the notion of stepping foot further south than I have ever been before was exhilarating. After 36 hours of sailing the Drake Passage, with not a single landform to be seen in any direction, we were ready for our first excursion.
Perhaps there is no more fitting way to start our expedition but by visiting the ubiquitous creatures that have become icons of the seventh continent — penguins. Our ship, the Ocean Endeavor, dropped its anchor and unloaded zodiacs, our local method of travel, into the water. Zodiacs are inflated, motorized crafts, that are made of reinforced rubber, and seat 8-10 people. Much to our surprise, these crafts are incredibly robust, able to drive over sea ice and plow through small icebergs, providing us incredible access to wildlife and physical formations. Each zodiac was manned by an expedition guide, most of whom were scientists in a variety of fields, including marine biology, glaciology, and ornithology. They were sources of a wealth of information as we experienced the wonders of Antarctica firsthand.
As we set foot onto the rocky beach of the Half Moon Island, we found ourselves merely feet from a colony of hundreds of Chinstrap penguins, a smaller species that is known for a characteristic black band of feather underneath their chin. March is the end of summer in Antarctica, so by this time all of the baby penguins had hatched and were in the midst of a molting process. When molting, penguins lose their coat of gray baby feathers and gain the iconic “tuxedo” coat that is waterproof and will help them survive the brutal Antarctic winter. Adults also molt annually, as new feathers push out the old coat. The molting process is taxing for penguins, so they stand fairly still or lay down in an attempt to conserve energy. However, their personalities not to be inhibited, many of the penguins were crooning and waddling around in their classic clumsy manner.
If you ever wondered why more people don’t keep penguins as pets (obvious reasons aside), a big consideration is that you can smell a penguin from about a mile a way. Their excrement, known as “guano,” is incredibly potent (which makes sense when you consider their diet of krill and fish). So you can imagine the aroma that greets you when you are walking through a colony of thousands of these birds.
While the penguins looked clumsy on land, I was particularly impressed by their ability to walk uphill. Hundreds of the birds had marched to higher ground from the beach — at least 100 to 200 feet. It’s quite a sight to see the little guys hopping their way up the slope, aided by hardened tail feathers that act as a third leg that provides extra stability. Of course, these birds are known particularly for their agility in the water, and are able to swim extremely long distances.
Along the shoreline, there were a number of fur seals bobbing in and out of the water, swimming like torpedoes in the water, but then inching along like slugs on land. A few of these seals were playing on the beach, tusselling and bashing their heads at each other.
You could spot penguin carcasses strewn around the beach, the byproduct of seals eating stragglers they had caught. The bodies were subsequently picked clean by scavenging birds (namely the Skua). As gross as it sounds, the carcasses were pretty incredible. If you looked closely, you could see the skeleton and feathers completely intact, but not a single ounce of flesh remaining. Considering a seal’s method of catching a penguin includes a lot of thrashing to flip the body inside out, it was a marvel that it had been eaten so cleanly. Yet another reminder of how inefficiently humans tend to consume, compared to the rest of the animal kingdom…
Our first brush with wildlife was our first tangible taste of the untamed frontier that is Antarctica. With every movement you spot came a certain burst of excitement, not knowing what unique creature you were about to encounter. It was a feeling that I could most closely equate with going on a safari in Botswana — being guests of nature and experiencing wildlife in its natural, unadulterated state. While humans have positioned ourselves at the top of the food chain, this was a subtle reminder of how the animal kingdom functions and flourishes in the absence of human intervention.
Antarctica and the Arctic are quite different. While the Arctic is completely ice in the absence of land, Antarctica is actually a land-based continent that is covered with ice. Millions of years ago, Antarctica was part of Pangea, the unitary landmass that subsequently broke apart and drifted to create the geographic layout we now see on our maps. When it reached its present location, Antarctica began to accumulate snow, which over millions of years turned into the ice sheets and glaciers we know of today.
When you hear about global warming and the oceans rising, ice sheets will often be cited as the primary concern. There is a reason for this. Consider that there are three ice sheets in the world:
- West Antarctic ice sheet — volume equals 4.8 meters of sea level rising
- Greenland ice sheet (in the Arctic) — volume equals 7.2 meters of sea level rising
- East Antarctic ice sheet — volume equals 56 meters of rise in sea level
So perhaps in the short-term we hear reports that sea levels have risen by a few centimeters. But consider the potential long-term effects if those three ice sheets were to melt completely — an aggregate volume equivalent to a 68 meter rise in global sea levels.
These figures are not meant to frighten, but can help to conceptualize the gravity of the task at hand. It follows quite logically that if climate change is indeed happening (whether of human reasons or not), some kind of change is required to head off a large-scale environmental dislocation. The key here is that we can continue to argue what the sources of climate change are, as our political response has until this point fundamentally revolved around. But at the end of the day, the focus needs to shift to the innovation and ingenuity we are going to invoke to chart our own course for the future.
Two characteristics fundamentally distinguish humans from all other creatures — our abilities to solve complex problems and develop tools to multiply our capabilities. Perhaps altering a quickly unraveling environmental equilibrium will be the issue that will define our lifetimes. The question is: will we rise to challenge or will we allow the world to turn upside down?