Frontier of Survival

by Lucia deLeiris, Bird Watcher's Digest, April 2000
(feature article, cover, and illustrations)

It was midnight. I stood on the sea ice making gesture drawings as the Emperor penguins waddled along single file, their breasts glistening with golden light. The parade was dominated by the active volcano, Mount Erebus, glowing orange as if on fire. The sun, having circled the entire sky, was now touching the distant Transantarctic mountains, bathing the landscape in amber hues. It was impossible to turn in.
Two hours later, the birds trailed into the distance across miles of sea ice toward the open ocean. I stared at the receding specks and turned back toward the two wooden fish huts on the ice, swinging my arms to restore warmth to numbing fingers. One small window flickered with the light of the Coleman lantern. I knew my field camp companion, Sara Wheeler, a writer, would be up late, writing about this magical night for her book, "Terra Incogntia."

We both lived and worked many weeks in those huts, which were just big enough for two wooden bunks, a table and an oil drip heater. We were there as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Artist and Writer's Program on separate missions. I was there to paint the landscape and wildlife in the spectacular low light of spring. With a daily radio call our only contact with civilization, we lived two hours from McMurdo, a station supported by NSF, which administers the US Research Program in Antarctica.
Because of our project designations, W-004 and W-006, our camp became known as "Wooville." After crossing 15 miles of barren sea ice one comes across a sign we were given, "Welcome to Wooville - population 2." We reached our camp by a small tracked vehicle we called the "Woomobile." At top speed it went a whopping 10 mph, and provided a relatively warm space from which to observe and sketch the penguins on days when the temperature was in the minus 40s and 50s (F). The small heater struggled to bring the temperature up to the freezing point but I somehow managed to paint.

My journal reads: "The vehicle's inadequate heater offered no relief for my freezing toes. The colors in my palette grew into a starry pattern of ice and the wet brushes were little rocks, until I thawed them in a thermos cup of hot water. When I laid the palette on the heated dash, it slipped off, covering the console with frozen dots of all colors, which I had to pop off with my knife. Despite the struggle, the vignette gradually took shape. I came back frozen to the core and finished the watercolor by the heat of the oil-drip stove, my feet thawing in down slipper boots. Never did heat feel so luxurious."

When I first arrived in mid August, no life stirred in the barren icescape. Near our camp stood an empty wooden hut built in 1910 by British explorer, Robert Falcon Scott. Scott's men lived there during the pitch black winter preparing for a trip to the south pole. I sometimes stood by the hut imagining the long polar night of Antarctic winter, when the sun sets for the final time in April not to rise again until August, and gazed out toward the lifeless horizon at the edge of night. Now the sun crawled up, wheeled along the horizon for three hours then sank again, darkening the frigid sky. The vast black dome glistened with stars that shed an eerie light on the endless expanse of ice. Pure stillness reigned, the dead silence broken only by ghostly pings of cracking sea ice.

At such times I had to remind myself that this was part of the earth I knew. One such night I watched a sky of dancing light, as a transparent emerald veil rippled from one side to the other, along the way, sending waves of silky hues toward the black horizon. A tremendous power swept through the frigid air bearing me back to an ice age, when a weak sun cast no warmth on the skin, when frail rays brought forth no growth of bushes, no blossoming of trees. From the time I arrived, the only trace of green I ever saw was the cold transparent aurora wafting though the black of a desolate sky.
Soon I saw signs of the advancing season. As the sun stayed up in the sky longer each day, the temperatures warmed from the minus 50s to the minus 20s. A dark gray patch of sky began to appear near the horizon. Reflecting the unseen open ocean beyond the ice edge, this "water-sky," as it is called in Antarctic jargon, in time grew larger, indicating that the ice edge was encroaching upon Wooville. Life began to appear as Emperor penguins ambled in from the ice edge in groups, stopping now and then to stand about, tuck their heads into their feathers, or characteristically shuffle about on their heels. Pregnant Weddell seals emerged from the widening cracks in the sea ice. At night I could hear the clicks and wolf-like calls of the males swimming underneath my bunk through six feet of ice. Two weeks later, as I sat on the ice sketching the Weddell seals and their scrawny new pups, I suddenly sensed out of the corner of my eye a sweeping curve cut through the empty sky. There, on a snow bank alighted a South Polar Skua, the first of a small invasion of hungry birds appearing out of nowhere to feed on the Weddell afterbirths.

One day two scientists and I were dropped off on the sea ice by helicopter to observe a small group of Emperors that the pilot had spotted standing near the ice edge. As the helicopter hovered about 100 yards from the ice edge, the crewman slid the side door open and leaned out to guide the pilot down. "Easy down, eight feet... five feet ... three...two ... one...toe down, heel, four point. OK." I felt the runners touch the ice and the rumbling cabin was stilled. With the spinning rotor, the pilot kept the helicopter almost weightless as the roped in crewman stepped down onto the runner with a long hand drill. He cranked it into the ice. "It's at least three feet thick," he said, and the pilot let the engine die down into the silence.

No sooner had we stepped out of the warm cabin than the emperors began to amble toward us. We wandered away from the helicopter, sat down on the ice, and watched them as they surrounded us to within an arm's reach, their breasts glistening like porcelain in the light of the low sun against the deep gray water-sky beyond. They circled, almost touching me with reaching necks as if in greeting and surrounded me, some displaying in pairs, oblivious to my presence. They emitted long eerie howls, reaching their tapered heads to the sky in unison, then dipping them into a low graceful curve.

On the ice I sketched the emperors in pastel because unlike watercolor, these soft chalks would not freeze as I worked. The rich deep colors helped me capture the essence of those birds against the glistening ice surfaces. Using colored papers of peach, ochres and siennas, I would allow these warm tones to show through among the cooler blues and grays. This juxtaposition of tones helped convey the luminosity I found so characteristic of Antarctic light.

Sitting just a few feet from these stately birds. I could see each feather of their silky breasts, so tiny compared to those of flying birds. Unlike the spaced feather tracts of flying birds, these covered every inch of skin, except for the brood patch, forming a sleek waterproof coat. The flippers, so much smaller than the wings of flying birds, lie rigid next to the body. They have flattened, fused bones making them stiff paddles that can send the bird speeding torpedo-like though water to chase fish, squid, and krill. I wondered how these extreme adaptations had come about.

On a previous trip, a Polish scientist had shown me fossils that he had found on Seymour Island of one ancestor dating back 25 million years to the Miocene, the 5 1/2 ft tall Giant Penguin. Evidence suggests that it in turn had evolved from flying birds, probably sharing ancestry with albatrosses and petrels of more temperate regions. I wondered about this progression and the forces of nature that drove this particular bird south to the far reaches of the earth to breed in darkness, enduring some of the most violent, frigid gales on earth in temperatures reaching minus 70°.

It was this very question of penguin ancestry that in 1911 drove Apsley Cherry-Garrard and two of Scott's explorers across Ross Island from their hut to the Emperor rookery at Cape Crozier. In search of a few penguin eggs, they dragged sledges in temperatures that dropped to minus 65° in the black winter night, and endured hypothermia, frostbite and dysentery. At the time it was believed that the penguin was a primitive bird that linked dinosaurs with flying birds. The three explorers, knowing that the development of an embryo mimics the stages of its evolution, hoped that a study of their embryos would shed light on this hypothesis. After a long arduous trip, they eventually delivered three eggs to Cambridge for study, where results were disappointingly inconclusive.

Almost a century later I took the same trip from McMurdo Sound to Cape Crozier, though in the comfort of a helicopter and in the light of the spring season. I went in search of the Adelie rookeries where nearly two hundred thousand birds blanket the hills each season to breed. Peering through the cabin window I watched crevasse fields slide underneath me like folds in a white sheet and I imagined Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Edward Wilson and "Birdie" Bowers hauling their supplies over treacherous terrain for three weeks, a trip which was to take us a half hour. They had to cross the crevassed terrain in darkness, as Cherry wrote, "never knowing what moment will find you dropping into some bottomless pit"

We landed shortly by a hut on a hillside overlooking the expanse of frozen ocean. Charlie, the tall lanky head carpenter, a robust character named Stan, and two other workers, Rob, and Mike, had come from McMurdo Station to remove asbestos and to get the wooden one-room structure into working condition for future science parties. We threw out our gear and the three orange survival bags required on every field expedition. I followed the men out the door, running hunched over beneath the twirling blades. Charlie led the way as we dragged our bags over to the hut.

"See you in three hours" yelled the pilot as the blades spun faster. The weightless helicopter hovered like a hummingbird and then swung a graceful curve over the hill disappearing into a receding rhythmic beat. I grabbed a radio and headed off toward the frozen ocean in search of the Adelies.

After a half hour of trudging over slopes of loose pebbles and hardened snow, I heard a faint clamor in the distance. Soon the ruckus drowned out the crunching of my footsteps which sent waves of gravel down the steep hillside. There before me several thousand nesting Adelies speckled the hills as far as the eye could see. I stepped between a scattering of dead penguin carcasses, some with beaks and patches of feathers still attached. Perhaps they had succumbed a previous year to some protracted storm, to dehydration and starvation, their bodies left to the ravages of time.

I sat down at the edge of the rookery and pulled out my sketchbook. All around me Adelie pairs performed passionate territorial and courtship displays. The males would raise their beaks to the sky, puff out their chests and emit a loud shrieking call. Others would follow suit until the shrieks spread across the entire colony in a wave of excitement. Cherry-Garrard called this the "ecstatic display," a term still used a century later. I watched as each pair protected its small nest of stones, each nest barely more than pecking distance from the next. Often a bird, dodging beaks, would waddle between a few nests, steal a stone from some unsuspecting neighbor and bring it back to its mate who would arrange it among the others.

The penguins seemed to take no notice of me as I sketched their various gestures. Since they are unfamiliar with large land predators, they gave me the chance to observe every detail of their behavior, down to the changing expressions in their eyes. I remembered one time on a previous trip to the Antarctic Peninsula when I felt a tug on my day pack as I was sketching a crèche of juvenile Adelies . I turned around to find one coy penguin eyeing me, who then waddled up and repeatedly grabbed at my pencil eraser. I wondered if the wiggling pink eraser bore any resemblance to the bill of a parent returning to its hungry chicks from a feeding spree. But this bird's smug look suggested just enjoyment in a chance to pester me.

I loved watching the Adelies waddle about on their two paddle-like feet. Clad in neat little black and white feather coats, they squabbled and squawked, bickered and babbled and cooed. So familiar were their actions and postures, it was easy to forget they were birds and not little people. They provided such comic relief in an otherwise forbidding desolate world.

In what seemed like no time, I felt a chilling wind seeping through my jacket. I ignored it, too entranced by the bustling scene around me. But when the pencil kept slipping from my stiff fingers, I gave in, packed my things away, donned two layers of mittens and started back, shivering. The helicopter was due back for pick up. My pace quickened as I imagined thawing out in the heated helicopter cabin, then warming up in a hot shower and relishing a hot meal at McMurdo Station.

Once at the hut I threw down my bags in the snow. As planned, the men had removed old asbestos from the oil heater's exhaust pipe and disengaged the system. I joined them where they sat on the rocks with all our bags piled into a heap. Listening for the helicopter, we waited. We watched the distinct outlines of the snowy hills go blurry. Gusts blew up whirlwinds of snow that paled the scene before us. One by one we unzipped our bags and drew out more layers of gloves, hats, scarves. "Bit chilly, huh?" came Rob's muffled voice out of the whiteness. "Yep," grumbled Mike softly... "damn cold." The conversation grew scanty, eventually stopping. The silence was overtaken by the howling of the dreadful wind. A sinking feeling pervaded the group as the time passed endlessly. We furtively glanced at each other while our landscape disappeared into whiteness.

"Three hours have long passed" Charlie blurted out. "No pilot I know of would go up in this."

"Yeah" came a tremulous voice from under Mike's hood.

"Figures," Stan stood up, his round bearded face barely visible beneath his hood. "This is it. We have no radio contact either . If we could only call the station..." Shaking his head he picked up two duffel bags in one massive arm and dragged an orange survival bag toward the hut, trailing a deep trench in the snow.

Having seen storms last four days straight here, I tried not to think about what lay ahead. I dragged my bag toward the ramshackle hut, and into the one room just large enough for two sets of bunks and an old oil drip stove. The frigid walls vibrated. Swirling snow outside the window turned the world a blinding white.

We began to set the stove back into working order. This involved reinstalling the stove pipe through the ceiling. Stan handed Charlie tools and scraps of asbestos they had just removed two hours earlier, while Rob and Mike clung to the roof outside. The screeching wind was so deafening, I had to relay messages from Charlie to the two on the roof. I crawled out the small wooden entrance, bracing myself against the piercing wind, then rounded the building, hanging onto beams to keep from careening down the icy hill into the whiteness. I climbed up the side of the wall, clinging to the precipitous edge, then cupped my hand and pushed Mike's fur hood aside screaming, "Push it two inches... that way!" pointing a thick mitten into the gale. Then I climbed down, shielding my face with the hood against the stinging barrage of snow, and crawled into the hut's swinging entrance for the next message.

Being bundled up in all my gear restricted my motion and made it a chore to do anything. But compared to the explorers of almost a century ago, my situation was luxurious. Of dragging a sledge, Cherry wrote, "Once outside [the tent], I raised my head to look round and found I could not move it back. My clothing had frozen hard as I stood - perhaps fifteen seconds. For four hours I had to pull with my head stuck up, and from that time we all took care to bend down into a pulling position before being frozen in."

After two exhausting hours, we had the heater working, and a sigh of relief spread around the room. As the temperature rose from minus 30 or so and reached the melting point, a cold shower began throughout the room as the layer of ice crystals melted off the wooden ceiling. We had to mop the ceiling and floor with rags as the heat rose.

We unzipped the soggy survival bags. Rob pushed the hood off his disheveled auburn hair, and slid a shovelful of snow into a pot to melt for tea and for dehydrating packages of freeze dried beef stew. Staring at the window, I could see violent motion in the whiteness. From my snug position leaning on the shaking window ledge, I thought about a similar storm that Cherry and his crew encountered in 1911. The furious wind ripped their tent from its stakes and blew it away. They huddled in a makeshift igloo wondering if they could survive the night. I remembered Cherry's words: "This I know, we on this journey were already beginning to think of death as a friend."

I thought of the Adelies I had just left on their stony nests huddling against the violent gale. How could they endure such a storm?

I knew these warm blooded creatures were enveloped in a thick insulating layer of fat and another of feathers. Their round forms had no long limbs to radiate heat. I had seen them tuck their feet in and pull their heads in to make a rounded streamlined form exposing little surface to the cold. In this most southerly breeding species of the genus, Pygoscelid, the feathers grow further down their beaks than in the Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, providing more insulation. Deep in the feathers of their bellies in an incubation patch devoid of feathers, vascular skin warms the incubating eggs. I thought of how their blood is shunted away from the colder skin, conserving heat in the bird's interior.

Though I marveled at such clever adaptations, I realized that these birds are often pushed to the limits of survival. I had seen evidence of this when I wandered among the dead penguin carcasses at the edge of the rookery. Had these poorly fated Adelies attempted to breed during the previous season, had they just recently succumbed to a storm like this one, or had they been attacked by the predatory skua? Was this the fate of birds too weak to push their way past the vulnerable edges of the rookery into the fiercely guarded territories of the more protected interior?

A jolt passed through the window frame under my elbows as a blast of wind shrieked by. I climbed into the nylon cocoon of feathers in my warm bunk. As I lay snug in my goose-down bag, I remembered Cherry had written about their reindeer skin bags, "Our sleeping-bags were awful. It took me. . . an hour of pushing and thumping and cramp every night to thaw out enough of mine to get into it at all. Even that was not so bad as lying in them when we got there."

We were temporarily secure as long as our food and fuel lasted. With today's technology, hardships of many Antarctic expeditions seem most often limited to inconveniences of struggling against pervasive cold. But I could sense that inches away, past these thin shaking walls, a tremendous power reigned. The shrieking wind could swirl any of us down the steep slope, sucking out any trace of life in minutes.

Next morning, the four men and I sat hunched over on the rocks, bundled in our gear like beached whales. Humbled and silent, we watched the pale sky gradually clear, blue patches emerging, hills, slopes, and rocks taking shape like a developing photograph. Now and then we would throw expectant glances at each other. "Did you hear something?" blurted Rob, "No." said Charlie. "I guess it was my imagination then..." Rob slumped back into a ball.
We waited as the hours dragged out. I watched my faint shadow sharpening on the blanket of snow. I studied the patterns of deepening rock shadows, the mirrored rocky silhouette above, against an endless sky that reached into the cosmos. I wondered what shades of watercolor I would use to convey the mysterious harmony of this landscape, the powerful beauty that drove the explorers to push onward in torturous conditions for a few penguin eggs. I sensed a pervasive calm. . . a respite from civilization, making all the problems of society seem mere trifles.

Then I stopped breathing. "Listen!" a whisper came out of nowhere. "Hey!" "Shhhhhhh!" A long silence. . . My heart began to race. I heard the faint beating of a distant helicopter.