A few wet strides to the rocky shore and I am in an amphitheatre of penguins, screeching and lollygagging about; 60,000 to be exact. To one side, ice capped peaks pierce the sky. Anchored out at sea is a Soviet surveillance ship turned Canadian cruise liner – our home for three weeks.
This is the Salisbury Plain of South Georgia Island on the sixth day of my journey to make a film about five field biologists who count penguins for a living. Their simple, golf-ball sized tallying devices are the nursery food of modern science: soothing and wonderfully basic. This year’s population counts will be added to the data they have been tracking for over twenty years, for their ongoing analysis on what climate change is doing to the penguins, the Antarctic food chain – and subsequently to oceans around the world.
Salisbury Plain is unspeakably compelling. We are mobbed by flapping penguins and blubbery fur seals who lurch upward, bare their teeth and shriek. It feels personal; am I provoking them or are they just doing their seal thing?
It’s the long wait to reach the remote penguin colonies that pre-occupies the counters who are with me. They are virtual hitchhikers through Antarctica, sailing at the good graces of shipping lines, which provide crew quarters for two, three or four months at a time. Antarctic ships support the scientists. Grant money would barely cover the cost of subsistence down here. For their keep, the penguin counters mix with tourists at meals and in the bar.
“This cruise is our surreal bus ride to work,” said Stephen, whose first choice of a profession was to be an astronaut. “It’s days and days of sailing in some of the roughest seas in the world, just to reach the penguin colonies. And when we get there, we have no idea if the weather will let it happen.” Gale force white-outs can erupt without warning, so the counters are on edge. So much so, that they barely notice that a media mob is stealing their thunder; a revision to polar history unfolds before us.
On our ship are the ashes of a polar explorer, which were found in South Africa to be buried in South Georgia Island. They are the remains of Frank Wild – the closest explorer and confidant to Sir Ernest Shackleton, who consulted Wild on everything. Though he died in 1939, Wild’s ashes will be laid to rest where he wanted them: right beside his boss, who was buried in Grytviken in 1922 after a sudden heart attack. Shepherding his remains is Wild’s biographer, Angie Butler. After seven years of research in order to set the record straight – that Frank Wild was an extraordinary explorer and not a drunkard at the end of his life – Angie’s sixth sense led her to his ashes in Johannesburg.
“We are bringing Frank Wild back to where he always wanted to be,” Angie explains. “The Heroic Age of Exploration is being looked at much closer now, and it’s Shackleton and his team who are getting the attention, even though they never reached the South Pole.”
In the past twenty years, the polar story has shifted from emphasis on the goal post, to the journey. In 1916, after watching their ship, the Endurance, sink mercilessly into the ice, Shackleton appointed Frank Wild, a Yorkshireman, to take charge of 21 men on the shores of Elephant Island. Then Shackleton and five others embarked on a torturous, eight hundred mile voyage in an open boat. For five months Wild and his men survived on seal, penguin and seaweed, until Shackleton miraculously returned to rescue them. Their story of survival in the face of repeated catastrophes has eclipsed the success once lauded on Robert F. Scott, who died with his entire team soon after reaching the South Pole in January 1912.
With all the chatter, our ship begins to feel like the National Press Club. Corridors fill with tripods, lens cases and batteries. At Angie’s heels are a BBC producer, cameraman and presenter; a BBC Radio 4 reporter; a journalist for the Sunday Observer Magazine; and Britain’s 2011 Travel Photographer of the Year. To fill their frames are the Honorable Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of Sir Ernest Shackleton; a vicar from the Falkland Islands to lead the burial service; and four Australian descendants of Frank Wild, none of whom have the slightest inclination toward exploration or adventuring.
“Nobody paid much attention to those glass plates that were stored in the garage,” said one of the Wilds, in dry reference to the photographic archive of the Endurance expedition that the family handed down. “We broke a few glass plates playing around as kids, but back then nobody seemed to mind.” Fast-forward to Britain today, and those glass plates which documented the fate of the Endurance, suddenly matter.
“What I’m most proud of is that my grandfather chose to turn back within 90 miles of the South Pole,” said Alexandra Shackleton. “And as a result of that decision, all of his men survived.”
“All this just to celebrate failure,” a journalist commented offhand. “Americans don’t do failure, but we British know how to credit failure when it’s due.” Indeed. Conspicuously absent is any reporter from the United States, but this is primarily British business. They’re celebrating what’s left over after the empire shut down and the family silver was sold.
“This is all about leadership and character,” said Alexandra Shackleton with a firm blink and a nod.
A number of passengers wished the whole media circus would disappear, to make more room in the bar. Others were delighted to be part of this historic event. The penguin counters tolerated the hubbub as an inevitable part of the job.
On the morning of Day Seven, sixty tourists dressed in waterproofs shuffled into the old Norsk chapel in Grytviken – to hear poems, prayers and remembrances of Frank Wild. He tallied five Antarctic expeditions and earned a rare Polar Medal with four bars.
Carrying the ashes of her great uncle, Frank Wild’s niece led the procession to the graveyard, passing rogue seals, loitering penguins and the massive, rust-bucket remains of what Grytviken was originally built for: an industrial whaling station. Oversized barrels, gear wheels and storehouses stand in sharp contrast to the pristine surroundings, but their presence is no less haunting. What could the sound and stench of boiled blubber and seared flesh have been like, for those who lived here year round?
At the graveyard, more words, then drops of whiskey for the reunited friends.
Shortly after, another historic moment unfolds on the ship with the appearance of the great grandson of Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole – a month ahead of Scott. Suddenly Antarctica feels less roomy. The young Norwegian is in the area to celebrate the centenary of his great grandfather’s achievement. His presence in the bar turns a cadre of tourists into a paparazzi brigade, snapping shots of this chance gathering among descendants of three great polar explorers: Shackleton, Wild and Amundsen.
Despite the hullabaloo, all this has little effect on the penguin counters. By the twelfth day, Paula’s colleagues have all boarded a fifty-foot yacht together with Ron Naveen, founder of the NGO Oceanites, which brings the counters to Antarctica every year. Weather permitting my husband Peter Getzels, together with Erik Osterholm will be able to film the counters reaching the more remote colonies over the next fourteen days, while I stay on the ship filming with Paula. Despite the seasickness Paula feels on days at sea, especially when the ship lurches and pitches across the dreaded Drake Passage; Despite the loneliness and the revolving crowds of tourists she’ll never meet again, Paula can’t shake the compulsion to return year after year.
“Welcome to the highest, driest, windiest, darkest, loneliest place on the planet,” says the cruise ship director each time the ship drops anchor in the Antarctic seas.
Compact and petite, she sludges across screefields, sinks waist-high in guano, and plods up the mountainsides in snowshoes, unphased by the biting winds.
“Something about this place gets inside you and you just want to be here as long as you can,” she says. “I can’t explain it.”
It is ten at night and Paula has been counting penguin nests for six hours. Kneeling on the floor of the Zodiac that will bring her back to the ship, her binoculars are fixed on the nearby coastline, in search of another colony. Skies are deep gray with clouds as smooth as pearls. Shards of ice glint like treasure chests. The water is uncharacteristically smooth, the icebergs tantalizing in their psychedelic shades of blue; or is it green?
The penguin counters have confirmed that the Adelie and Chinstrap colonies are in decline, while the Gentoo populations are soaring. With 300 square miles of ice breaking away to the west of here, the impact of climate change is palpable. The goal now is to figure out exactly why it’s all happening. Until then, Antarctica is one thing only; it’s all about the journey.
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