Author Archives: Mark

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). Finally, age can also affect the effects of the drug. The effects of generic Viagra occur between one and two hours after ingestion and last between four and six hours. 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

The Oakum Boys

Molting Adults-3137
Molting Adult King Penguins, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island (54′ 03″ S 37′ 01″W)

Field Note:
King penguins are large birds. The adults are almost a meter in height and my guess is that they are somewhat nearsighted, because when they come over to look at you they don’t stop until well inside your comfort zone. They “Penguinamorphise” us at least as much as we Anthropomorphise them.

That nearsightedness is likely a functional choice. It is very difficult to design an eye that sees as well underwater as it does above water. And the majority of the time, penguins are in and under, water. Between breeding cycles they are at sea continuously for at least 4 months, and even when on land to mate and to hatch and rear their chicks, they return to the sea in long shifts to feed.

Near (sighted)-5965

To survive the rigors of total immersion in the Antarctic Ocean at – 3o C (28o F) penguins rely on three things: A heavy layer of fat, plenty of fat-rich food to provide the tremendous number of calories needed for homeostasis, and extremely dense, tough feathers. Those feathers need to be nearly perfect. Shafts must be straight so that individual feathers lay down tight forming an effectively waterproof coat; they must trap just the right amount of air for added insulation; they must be well-oiled and perfectly smooth to minimize drag. Feathers that are frayed and worn cannot accomplish these things and once a year they must be replaced.

Adult at the end of the molt, surrounded by feathers-3061
Adult King Penguin at the End of the Molt (Note feathers littering the ground!)

An Oakum Boy's First Molt (into adult plumage)-4425
An Oakum Boy’s First Molt (into adult plumage)

King Penguins undergo a catastrophic molt, which means they loose all their old feathers at once and it takes about a month for the new ones to completely grow back. During that time penguin chicks are not fed because parents cannot enter the water to fish. They would freeze to death if they did. Even once the molt is complete and parents can swim and feed again, they need a significant portion of the calories they consume to restore their own body weight. And the chicks go hungry.

Chic Begging -5007
Chick Begging, Adamantly

During this time the begging of the chicks is still rewarded but not as often as the chicks would like. When the parents think the chick has had enough – or they themselves have “had enough” – they lean away, or stand tall, and when all else fails they gently tap the young ones on their heads. That we can read and understand these gestures clearly for what they are, is no trivial thing. Maybe the penguins are right to approach us they way they do, and our critique of Penguinomorphisation is misplaced.


A Head Tap gets the Point Across-4971
A Head-Tap Gets the Point Across: No more 

Some writers complain about penguins, that they have a nasty disposition, that the odor of their colonies is overwhelming. Not true. King Penguin voices are symphonic (especially the whirring calls of the adults which express several dissonant yet melodious tones simultaneously), their demeanor is curious and intelligent, and no colony I’ve ever visited is nearly as bad as a men’s locker room.

This story takes place at Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island. I made several landfalls on South Georgia from the Akademic Ioffe, a large ice-hulled research vessel, while on tour with One Ocean Expeditions ( There were no human footprints anywhere in the Antarctic where we made landing. I saw not a single ship besides our own in 20 days at sea. I am offered all kinds of opportunities for travel these days, and everyone prefaces their offer with “It’s the Trip of Lifetime.” This was. You should go. For advice on when, where, and how to get there, contact me. I’ll be glad to help ()