Author Archives: Mark

Field Note: Nursing Elephant Seals

Wallering Baby Elephant Seal-7695

“Baby face! You’ve got the cutest little baby face!”

How do we know that the young of other animals are young? There is a quality of voice, which tends to be higher pitched and less well articulated. Ungainliness is another characteristic (think about kittens on their first exploratory walk). Some research suggest that softened, rounded features are a major clue which, if we think about it, is or less confirmed by our own individual observations and experience.

None of this explains our sympathy.

Elephant Seal Family-4189

We are categorical unsympathetic to the young of insects, even those we regard as beneficial or beautiful. Many who would welcome a monarch butterfly landing on their hand would be reluctant to grant a monarch caterpillar those same privileges. Unless taught (or in the rare case where we directly observe) there is nothing about the caterpillar that tells us who or what it will become. Or even that it will “become,” as opposed to going through life, like an earthworm, exactly as it is in the instant – a caterpillar. There is above all, an innate lack of feeling on our part as opposed to our relationship to baby mammals. The majority of us love to see wild birds. But even so, newborn birds with their bulging eyes and reptilian necks don’t make us feel warm and cuddly.

And yet the when it comes to mammals the inverse is almost always true.

Bull Elephant Seal-4234

There is little to commend an adult male elephant seal in the way of aesthetics. Jabba the Hutt comes to mind, or perhaps some Kleptoparasitic politician. And yet the newborn of the species strike us in an entirely different way. We sympathize.


How to get to there:

South Georgia Island is nothing if not remote. Be forewarned: That makes the trip expensive. You can go to the Canadian Arctic or even Africa twice for the price of one good trip to the Southern Ocean. But the rewards are extraordinary.

Several tour companies can get you there. Before you choose one, get some idea of how many landings they intend to make, and how long they allow you to stay on shore. For most sites, you want 2 hours at a minimum, and as many landings are possible. Be forewarned: the big cruise ships lean towards a twenty minute drive-by in a Zodiac or the view from a mile off shore. Not the way to go. As a rule of thumb, you don’t want a ship with a complement of passengers much over 120 people.

I was hosted in the Southern Ocean by One Ocean Expeditions ( and I highly recommend them. It was indeed the trip of a lifetime.

The broadcast of my prose essay that accompanies this post can be heard on Living on Earth.






Field Note: Weddell Seal


Antarctic Peninsula from Astrolabe Island

The seal has not been out drinking. His seemingly bloodshot eyes are not the result of excess. Like us, all seals must hold their breath when they dive. Because they dive so much deeper and longer than us, they have to supersaturate their blood with oxygen and it is that oxygen that reddens the blood and in turn reddens the eyes. Color tells you nothing of this animal’s emotional state or level of stress.


The Ol’ Red Eye

We tend to look for gross cues from wildlife. If they growl, we get it: “Too many, too close, or both – go back the way you came!” Except by then it is usually too late. In the case of this particular seal, his still and direct stare was his “growl.” To the seal this was as loud and clear as he needed to be, a sign in 3 foot letters.


Wendell Seal Takes A Backwards Look

It’s not just that we ignore the cues. We want to get too close. Why? Because we are so much alone here. And the soft thick fur and cat-like face of the seal only add to the force of attraction. It is not a trivial need. Companion animals even lower our blood pressure. Imagine then, the state of human well-being in a world without wild animals. It will be a state of perpetual aloneness of a kind we may not be able to endure.


Antarctic Shag, a variety of cormorant, on their roost, Astrolabe

How to get there:

I found the weddell seals in these photographs on Astrolabe, a small island off the Antarctic Peninsula. My fieldwork there and throughout the Antarctic was made possible by One Ocean Expeditions. They can get you there, and back.

For more on seal hematology:

See the excellent article (focusing on harbor seals) by Amber Thomas and Kathryn Ono: Diving Related Changes in Blood Oxygen Stores…

My essay, “Let Sleeping Seals Lie,” can be heard on: Living on Earth (Public Radio International)

Mark Seth Lender
Explorer in Residence
Living on Earth (PRI)

Field Note: Rockhopper Penguins & Black-browed Albatross

Black-browed Albatross

West Point is a small island at the tip of the West Falklands. There, upon the high cliffs that rise like insurmountable steps, and inland among the rolling hills of tussock grass strange bedfellows nest. The cliffs are in the possession of a colony of Black-browed Albatross. No one else can get there.

The Place where only Wings will carry

In the tussock grass is where Rockhopper Penguins nest, the slope down to the sea at an angle just low enough that they can just barely, hop and scramble their way up several hundred vertical feet to build their nests and breed, and daily, hop back down again to feed. But wings will take you where feet cannot and in among the penguins pockets of the albatross. Because there is nothing to stop them.

Rockhopper Penguins and Black-browed Albatross on the slope

Neither species much cares for this arrangement. The greatest fliers and the greatest swimmers here argue over space and the mud and straw with which they build their cup-shaped nests. Loudly. Incessantly. They lock bills.

Albatross Arguing with a passing Rockhopper

They cry out.

Rockhopper Penguin Vocalizing

The sense of desperation conveyed is real. Both species are in decline. Fishing nets entangle the great wings of Black-browed Albatross. Fishermen steal the food on which Rockhopper Penguins depend. The climate itself is changing, and this also works against the birds. Faced with an ever warming ocean, the fish are moving south in search of cooler water. And at the base of the food chain, the krill are in serious decline. Many species of penguin depend directly on the krill, but now, so do men. Among others, Norway and Japan are already harvesting krill in quantity, and the Chinese are about to launch the largest krill processing boat in the world, crushing the source of life at its source.

Hard times ahead for everyone.


What you can do:

Call, email, write or visit the embassies of the countries with the largest take of krill, namely, Japan, South Korea, China, and Norway (contact information below).   Ask them to please reconsider the harvesting of krill. Go to your local health food store and urge them to stop carrying fish oil products made from krill. While your there, find out who produces krill-based fish oil and call them too. And please let me know how it went, MSL(at)MarkSethLender(dot)com.

Japanese Embassy
2520 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008
Tel: 202-238-6700
Fax: 202-328-2187
Email: None listed

Royal Norwegian Embassy
2720 34th Street NW
Washington, DC 20008
Tel: (202) 333-6000
Fax: (202) 469-3990

Chinese Embassy Chancery
3505 International Place, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
Tel: (202) 495-2266
Fax: (202) 495-2138

Embassy of the Republic of Korea
2450 Massachusetts Avenue N.W. Washington, D.C. 20008
Tel: 202-939-5600
Fax: 202-797-0595

Mark Seth Lender’s fieldwork in the Falklands was made possible by One Ocean Expeditions,

The original broadcast of this recording can be heard on Living on Earth:  Albatross are the yodeling,laughing cry heard and the beginning and towards the end of the above recoding. The rapid high-pitched calls are Rockhoppers.

Field Note: See One, Teach One, Do One

Reticulated Giraffe Lying Down

A herd of giraffe consists of a group of adult females and their offspring, or a group of males in a bachelor herds of their own. Individual males are only occasional visitors to the female herds. anti acidity. Although a herd of impala might run to 30 individuals or more, the largest herd of giraffe I’ve ever seen had 11 members with 5 to 7 animals being closer to the norm. There are many reasons for this but one stands out. When acacia trees (the giraffe’s preferred food) are over-grazed they produce toxins in their sap that are distributed by the capillaries into the leaves. Worse, a tree under attack somehow messages the other trees in the vicinity, so that if one acacia in a stand goes “sour” the others will follow suit. Exactly how this is accomplished is not known but giraffe are well aware of it. They nibble only a little, and move on. Obviously, the larger the herd the more impractical this strategy becomes. Too much browsing and palatability will set a limit much before the total number of trees and leaves. Another contribution to small herd size is the long gestation period of giraffe. They just don’t reproduce that fast. Plus, unlike most ungulates, newborn giraffe are slow to gain independence. There is just too much to learn. Namely, how to feed, where and how to drink and when it is safe to do so, and – for the young males – how to compete for females.

Giraffe defend against predators by kicking. You do not want to be kicked by a giraffe. Neither would another giraffe, so keep from killing each other they engage in what is called “Necking,” in which they swing their heads and slam each other with their ossicones, the horn-like structures on their heads. Pushing against each other is another form of competition and applies much the same logic as Necking: Weight wins.

Elder Brother & Little Man

What then to make of the two young giraffe I call Little Man and Elder Brother? The mismatch in size is obvious and therefore, the outcome of any contest a forgone conclusion. Why go through the exercise? The simplest and therefore the most likely interpretation is that this was a Teaching Moment

In the wild, weight and physical size matter almost more than anything. The biggest male lions are the masters of both their prides and the hunting territories those prides control, just as the heaviest elk is the one most likely to prevail in a clash of antlers. In a catfight between cats of different species (cheetah versus lion for example) a cheetah has a stark choice: Run or Die. Some of that is jaw strength, and there is also age and experience to consider; in all, weight is the trump card. Personality of the individual can inflect the outcome, but cannot conquer size.

Elder Brother as well as weighing half again as much as Little Man was also three heads taller, creating a substantive advantage in reach and leverage as well as throw-weight. Little Man not only lacked impact, he could not deliver his blows to the right places, especially when striking across the back of Elder Brother because his neck was not long enough to get there. This was a contest of No Contest. Yet Elder Brother showed great restraint and perseverance. Every move Elder Brother made was repeated many times by Little Man and there was no reason other than a desire to show him “how” for Elder Brother to allow it. He may have had a degree of benefit from what you might call “target practice,” but this alone does not and cannot account for the space and time Elder Brother gave Little Man to try. Elder Brother’s perseverance becomes a de facto transfer of knowledge and experience.

Getting there:
I flew to Kenya on KLM from JFK via Amsterdam to Nairobi. Donald Young Safaris picks its clients up at the airport (which is a huge help). They then either drive you to your destination or you can fly directly from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The flights are short, and comparatively cheap, about $250 per person each way. The drive is about four hours to the areas where the company has a large and elegant house (at El Karama) or luxury tents (in the northern Maasai Mara). If you want to see the towns (and I would recommend it at least one way) the drive is worth the trouble. One word of caution, in that it can be a dusty ride and if that is a concern you are probably better off flying. The experience at the end of the road or just off the airstrip as the case may be will be life-changing. A trip of 5 days duration plus a day each way for travel is the minimum I would recommend. In that time, with two game drives a day, you can see an amazing amount of wildlife. All-inclusive, trips are about $850/day plus airfare. Booking well in advance I was able to find a flight with KLM, JFK to Nairobi via Amsterdam, for about $1000 a round-trip. Don’t let the low fare dissuade you, my three favorite airlines by the way are Iceland Air, Norwegian, and KLM.

Donald Young and Newland, Tarlton & Co.
The giraffe in this story live in 15,000 acres of private reserve in Kenya, called El Karama. I was the guest there of Don Young, at Kiota House. Don also served as my host throughout the Maasai Mara. Every place he took me, over the two weeks I spent with him, was replete with wildlife. He freely shared his bottomless knowledge of Africa (people, places, animals) and if that were not enough he is a raconteur of African stories in the grand tradition. Don also has a great crew. Traditional Maasai, they are well-paid and treated with great respect (something that is not always the case in Africa), and their familiarity with terrain and an impeccable eye mean that very little wildlife is missed. They are a pleasure to be around.

If there is only going to be one wildlife expedition in your life, do this one. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Donald Young’s safari company, Newland & Tarlton, can be reached through their Colorado office at (303) 439-8462, or online at

Listen to my prose essay, See One Do One Teach One, on Living on Earth at LOE.Org

Field Notes: Svalbard Coal

Working a 3-foot Seam

The Svalbard Archipelago hosts the northernmost coal mines in the world. For now, only enough coal is being extracted to run the aging power plant in the largest settlement in the archipelago, Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitzbergen. The others have been closed – but not out of climate concerns. abandoned-coal-car-cableway
Coal Car Cableway (Temporarily?) Shut Down

Rather, it is the dwindling economics of coal that pushed the closure. That the mine owners claim that closure to be temporary only drives the point home. Even 800 miles above the Arctic Circle, in the most fragile climate on the planet, money trumps common sense.
Glacier in Rapid Retreat

Of late, I’ve been including, in both my Arctic and Antarctic Tweets, the hash tag #NoIceNoUs.

No joke.

Alkefjellet Cliffs

Ivory Gull on Blue Ice, Brepollen

Female Polar Bear, in the pack ice, 81.36 North Latitude

thick-billed-murre-alkefjellet-20160717_031128_87502016Thick-billed Murre

It is worth seeing for yourself. And it is worth saving. To hear my prose essay on Svalbard coal and see more photographs, layer-up, slip into your kayak, and paddle over to Living on Earth

My fieldwork in Svalbard was supported by One Ocean Expeditions, and I highly recommend them.

Mark Seth Lender
Living on Earth
Member: Explorers Club