Just off the Antarctic Peninsula at 63°0’58” S 57°40’52” W, I encountered a tabular iceberg [an iceberg that looks like a huge tabletop]. By the position, I believe it to have been a fragment of the Larsen B Ice Shelf that broke up in 2002. But “fragment” doesn’t do justice to what I saw. Picture New York’s Central Park, made of ice, and 120 feet high.
To give you an idea of the scale, the Antarctic Petrels soaring in front of the leading edge of the berg have a wingspan of one meter! In order to take a photo of an entire side, I had to wait until our ship had steamed some miles past. The tabular iceberg that just separated from Larsen C is many orders of magnitude larger than the giant pictured here.
My 20 days of fieldwork in the Antarctic was hosted by One Ocean Expeditions.
“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.
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.
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 (WWW.OneOceanExpeditions.com) 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.
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.
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.
2520 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008
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
Mark Seth Lender’s fieldwork in the Falklands was made possible by One Ocean Expeditions, www.OneOceanExpeditions.com.
Gentoo Penguins Returning to their Nests from the Sea
I saw my first penguins in the Falklands and for the penguins, or at least some of them, that first was mutual. I was their first human being. Watching each other, we had effects on each other’s behavior.
Initially, when a penguin approached, I tried to get out of the way. This resulted in penguin panic, ending in a wide arc to get away from me. Eventually I realized that they approached out of interest. Trying to accommodate I bent low.
Crouching provoked a frisson of confusion ending in the same urgent exit.
I eventually worked out the desired response: Stand Still. And the penguins stood still also studying me, for a long time. This behavior obtained across different species but most notably the Gentoo and the King Penguins Magellanic Penguin Posing for a Close-up in his Burrow
Penguins and humans have gross similarities. Four limbs, bipedal locomotion, upright stance, and the proportions of the parts each to the other. The penguin’s interest may have been rooted in these externals. Certainly, in an encounter involving predation or conflict attention might well go to the equivalent of a threating beak or stiff, batting wings (flippers in the case of another penguin), or worst of all, towards flashing leopard seal teeth. This, just as we would be forced to glance toward a clenched fist and perhaps, a weapon in that fist. King Penguin Watching the Author over his Shoulder
In the absence of these forcing situations the attractors loose attraction. There was no compelling reason to look anywhere yet, attention went to the face which would indicate that a penguin attaches importance to the its own face, that face being the only point of reference the penguin has go on. If the penguin looks at a human face, preferentially, it is attaching import to the particular “features” that make up the face. Aside from the basic bilateral symmetry shared by all animals with faces, the face is where the eyes are and therefore the place from which a penguin sees the world. And behind the eyes, Awareness. What we have then is one Awareness locating and seeking out another Awareness.
The penguins were practicing what in humans what be called Anthropomorphization. In this case:
These days I find it harder, and harder to kill anything, or eat anything, that has the capacity to look me in the eye.
“Uncle Al? Is that you?”
Visiting the Falklands and South Georgia Island
My fieldwork in the Falkland Islands and on South Georgia Island was conducted with the support of One Ocean Expeditions (www.OneOceanExpeditions.com). One Ocean is a particularly good tour company because they made multiple landings, and we were able to spend upwards of 2 hours per landing. This was absolutely essential for wildlife observation, and both wildlife and landscape photography, and for a sense of place. Cruising by on a large boat is hardly the same as setting foot on shore. If you have particular questions, or would like more information about visiting some of the places I’ve been, send me an email: MSL (at) MarkSethLender.com