The story appears on

Page B7

December 12, 2010

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Chilling fate for penguins

IN the austral summer of 2005-06, the veteran magazine journalist Fen Montaigne traveled to Palmer Station in Antarctica to work with the highly regarded polar ecologist Bill Fraser. For nearly five months, Montaigne gamely weighed and banded Adelie penguins and their predators, attached radio tags to feathers, dodged shooting streams of gack (giant-petrel vomit), sifted through guano in search of silverfish otoliths and reveled in the sensory delights of "the most alien and beautiful place on the planet."

But this is no straightforward work of natural history with Fraser as heroic guide. It's a morality tale, in which Fraser plays an unsociable Cassandra who's entrusted his tidings to a sympathetic messenger. Luckily for readers, Montaigne has wrapped his portrait of a place on the brink of oblivion inside a penguin love fest.

Climate change is warming the poles faster than many other places on the planet, which means that polar scientists are coming to grips with these changes sooner than most. "Fraser's Penguins" warns that what's happening on the Antarctic Peninsula now is a taste of unsettling changes, elsewhere, to come.

For Fraser, the warming has a moral dimension. The Antarctic has been virtually untouched by man and it's a place where humans are entirely inconsequential. But the long carbonic reach of industrialized society is wiping out one of the toughest creatures on Earth, a species that's hard-wired to the polar desert and cannot adapt.

Montaigne is a controlled writer, offering careful and clear explanations of matters technical and lexicographic, biologically microscopic and meteorologically global. But it's his descriptive prowess, his ability to evoke lavender - and cobalt, magenta and violet - without waxing purple, that most impresses. Sounds and smells are skillfully conveyed: the flippers of two fighting Adelies sound like "the thumping of a stick on a carpet being cleaned." While some team members compare the smell of a newly hatched penguin to Doritos, Montaigne associates the aroma with "the scent of my dog's paws."

Drama-wise, the penguins put the resident biologists to shame. This reader was slightly disappointed that Montaigne only briefly discusses cocktails served over thousand-year-old ice, diving into 34-degree Celsius water and celebrating an engagement with a four-foot-long penis ice sculpture that ejaculates cheap Champagne. The birding team is "collegial and free of tension;" one Andy of Mayberry type habitually says "We're done-dee" when a field task is completed.

Instead, Montaigne lets the Adelies chew up the scenery - their epic migration, territorial squabbling, nesting-stone thievery, philandering, stoicism, indifference to squalor and enslavement to their squawking chicks.

Fraser himself remains more of an enigma, a man who's happiest spending long stretches alone in inhospitable places.

Adelie penguins, like other polar species, have always faced daunting challenges. But today, Adelies are confronting conditions for which nothing in their evolutionary history has prepared them. According to Fraser, the colonies around Palmer Station have reached a tipping point: they'll be gone within his lifetime.

Despite this sobering message, "Fraser's Penguins" leaves one feeling exhilarated - by these remarkable creatures, the landscape they inhabit and the scientists who've devoted their lives to studying both.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend