Welcome

Welcome to the Web site for Fraser’s Penguins. I hope you’ll take the time to explore. Through nearly 200 photos, seven videos, a New Yorker slideshow and podcast (produced in connection with the book’s excerpt in that magazine), and other features, Web designer Kate Caprari and I have tried to give visitors a vivid sense of what the Antarctic Peninsula is like. Even with this multi-media arsenal at our disposal, it is still difficult to convey the grandeur, wildness, and beauty of this part of the world. But I am hopeful that the book and the Web site, taken together, will transport readers to a place that is the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. It’s also a region changing rapidly, with profound consequences for the Adélie penguin, the creature at the heart of this story.

The book was a long time in the making. I first traveled to Palmer Station, on the western Antarctic Peninsula, in January 2004 as I was researching an article on global warming for National Geographic magazine. I had been intrigued by reports that ecologist Bill Fraser had documented the steep decline of ice-dependent Adélie penguins in the face of soaring temperatures in the region. I spent a few weeks shadowing Fraser and his birding team as they zipped from island to island in Zodiac boats, studying the penguins, southern giant petrels, skuas, and other seabirds that nest in the environs of Palmer Station. I was hooked, and no sooner was I on my way home than I decided that I had to find a way back and write in greater depth about Fraser, his work, the remarkable Adélies, and the history of this place.

It took me nearly two years to return to Palmer, and this time I did so as a member of Fraser’s birding team. Bill and his wife, Donna Patterson, took a gamble bringing a journalist on board for the entire five-month field season. The National Science Foundation generously let me live at the tiny station as part of its Antarctic Artists and Writers program. And so, in October 2005, I arrived at Palmer Station and proceeded to spend what were among the most memorable months of my life.

After returning from Palmer Station in March 2006, I embarked on a long period of research, hoping to learn as much as possible about the natural history of the Adélies and other creatures around Palmer Station; the story of the exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula; the saga of Fraser’s 35 years in Antarctica; and the impact on the Palmer environment of temperatures that had soared over the course of 60 years.

From the beginning, I knew that in order to pull readers into this story, I had to bring the saga of the penguins — and Bill Fraser — to life, and to convey what it is like to spend months in the world’s coldest, most remote continent. Although global warming was a major element in this drama, I made the decision early on that climate change would not take center stage — not, at least, until the end of the book. Above all, I wanted to transport readers to Antarctica, to let them experience, through my eyes, what it was like, day after day, to work with these beloved penguins and these dedicated scientists, in a place whose epic beauty I never seemed quite capable of grasping. I was often overcome with an emotion described by Frank Hurley, the photographer on Ernest Shackleton’s famed Endurance expedition. “There were times,” he wrote, “when  . . . one’s very heart and soul cried out in rapture. `These things are not earthly: this is heaven.’”

Group Hunting by Killer Whales

In this remarkable video, taken by a German cameraman in Antarctic waters, a pod of killer whales, or orcas, demonstrates their sophisticated ability to hunt in a coordinated fashion. The killer whales’ quarry is a crabeater seal resting on an ice floe. As the videographer filmed, the killer whales repeatedly washed the crabeater seal off the floe by swimming in a line up to and under the floe, generating waves that swamped the floe and swept the seal off it. Remarkably, the seal managed to repeatedly crawl back onto the floe and was not eaten by the orcas. Scientists believe that this advanced, group-hunting behavior is passed down from older orcas to younger orcas.

Watch video here

Breakup of the Larsen B Ice Shelf

This time-lapse video, taken from a NASA satellite in January, February, and March 2002, shows the disintegration of the Larsen B Ice Shelf on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, just across the peninsula from Palmer Station. The opening frame shows the shelf on January 31, 2002, with dark blue melt ponds – caused by high temperatures – clearly visible on the surface of the ice shelf. Water from the melt ponds trickled down into the ice shelf, weakening it and contributing to its collapse. In the middle frames, the ice shelf begins to retreat in advance of the catastrophic collapse of the shelf on March 6th, 7th, and 8th. The final frame shows that the ice shelf – once larger than Connecticut – has disintegrated into millions of pieces of blue slush. The Larsen B Ice Shelf, which scientists believe had existed along the eastern Antarctic Peninsula for at least 11,000 years, is one of eight ice shelves that has fully or partially collapsed on the Antarctic Peninsula in the past several decades because of rapidly rising temperatures.

http://nsidc.org/news/press/larsen_B/2002_animation.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4lzpmJvcSQ