For me as a writer, place is essential to character. Every setting, whether an American city or an icy continent, has a personality, and where a character lives, or is from, is so vital to me in understanding that character. So I always begin a story not only with a character but with a sense of place.
In writing My Last Continent, Antarctica itself became a character of sorts—in the novel, the continent becomes part of a love triangle between Deb and Keller, who are both so strongly connected to Antarctica in their own ways, for their own reasons. For Deb, Antarctica is part of who she is, and there is no place else she can imagine being.
Visiting and researching Antarctica taught me so much about those who spend their time at the bottom of the earth—and most intriguing to me, I think, are the non-humans who live in Antarctica: whales, seals, seabirds, and particularly penguins. It’s hard not to love such adorable creatures, but what I love most about penguins is that they are among the most persistent animals in the world, striving every season to raise a new generation as they face a world that is less and less hospitable to them.
Antarctica is experiencing climate change more rapidly than nearly any other place on earth, and yet there is still great hope for the continent and its creatures—as long as we all realize that despite its location at the end of the earth, we are all very closely connected to this faraway place, and we need to do all we can to protect it.
“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Elizabeth Bishop asks in her poem “Questions of Travel”—the same question I am asked often when I talk to readers about My Last Continent. Would it be better for Antarctica if we all stayed at home?
Antarctica is not a country and has no permanent human residents. Yet in the twenty-first century, it is becoming a hot spot for travel.
The first 57 citizen-explorers visited Antarctica in 1966, and by the time I visited in 2004, the continent was seeing about 20,000 visitors a year. According to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), by 2012, Antarctic tourism increased to nearly 27,000, and it was around 40,000 in 2019—down from the busiest season the continent has ever seen, which was 46,265 in 2007-2008). Now, the global pandemic has given the continent a break—but when travel resumes around the world, should we be going to Antarctica at all?
While My Last Continent is about a catastrophic shipwreck, travel to the Antarctic is historically quite safe; however, this does not mean it is without danger. Despite such technological advances that make polar travel easier and more comfortable, a ship is only as safe as her captain—and due to the capricious nature of ice and polar weather, even an experienced captain isn’t immune from human error or the whims of the wild seas that surround Antarctica.
And, as the story of My Last Continent makes clear, when it comes to polar cruises, bigger is most certainly not better. This article in The Guardian (titled “A new Titanic?”) made the point very clearly: “If something were to go wrong it would be very, very bad.”
Another issue with big ships is their environmental impact. All travelers should carefully vet their tour operators, making sure they follow the guidelines of IAATO, and choose a company with vast experience in ice-filled waters. The Southern Ocean is highly unpredictable, and an experienced captain, crew, and staff makes all the difference—not only for the safety of passengers but for wildlife as well. Check out Friends of the Earth’s Cruise Ship Report Card before booking a trip (in its 2020 report, no major cruise line earned a grade higher than a B-minus; most grades were Ds and Fs).
Better yet, enjoy the last continent from afar. Web-based citizen science programs like Zooniverse offer virtual experiences—for example, a chance to count penguins and identify individual humpback whales in Antarctica. From our computers, we can “travel” the world, see incredible sights and creatures, and contribute to ongoing research efforts.
Sometimes it takes visiting a place to fall in love with it and become inspired to help save it—and this may well justify our carbon footprints in the end. Which brings me back to the question: Should we stay home? There is no easy answer. But those of us who have the luxury of asking the question might consider that, for the sake of the planet, the oceans, and for future generations, the road less traveled—or not traveled at all—does make all the difference.
Antarctica is sometimes misunderstood as a plain, vast, white place—which, of course, it is—but it’s also a continent brimming with amazing colors (among them: the reds, oranges, and violets of its sunsets; the bright greens of the aurora australis; the reds and greens and browns of its algae; and the myriad shades of blue and white that comprise icebergs).
Also among the most amazing—and the most overlooked—aspects of Antarctica are its sounds. For example, listen to the sounds of icebergs rubbing together here. It sounds a bit like furniture breaking apart, and then a little like a penguin colony from far away, and finally it becomes something completely otherworldly.
And scientists have recorded the wonderfully eerie sound of wind whipping across the Ross Ice Shelf, which creates an unearthly humming noise. These recordings were gathered by scientists who spent two years recording the “singing” of the ice via 34 seismic sensors. They realized the winds caused the vibrations on the ice, creating a constant hum that will help researchers study changes in the ice shelf, such as melting, cracking, and breaking.
What I found most remarkable about Antarctica is the silence—that is, the sounds of spaces with no human presence at all. It’s impossible to capture in a video or audio, but I did try to capture the feeling in My Last Continent: “…we listen to the whistling of the wind across the ice and the cries of the birds. I savor the utter silence under those sounds; there is nothing else to hear—none of the usual white noise of life on other continents, no human sounds at all…”
There are very (very) few places on the planet that are as free of human sounds. Nearly every single sound is natural, whether it’s the wind, the rush of the sea, the calving of icebergs, or the sounds of penguins.
Much like the character of Deb in My Last Continent, I’m concerned with how the penguins are faring in a world of chaos (including climate change and, until the pandemic, increasing tourism). So, how exactly are the penguins doing?
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, of the eighteen species of penguins listed, four are stable (the Royal, Snares, Gentoo, and Little penguins), two are increasing in numbers (the Adélies—in 2018, a “supercolony” of 1.5 million Adélie penguins was discovered in the Danger Islands—and the Kings, who are widespread, from the Indian Ocean to the South Atlantic, and yet, according to one study, are being forced to travel farther for food, which means that their chicks will be left on shore to starve). The status of the Emperors is classified as unknown, and when it comes to the remaining penguin species of the world, their numbers are all decreasing—and in some cases, they are decreasingly alarmingly fast.
The penguins in the most danger of becoming extinct are the Galápagos penguin (with an estimated 1,200 individuals left), the Yellow-eyed penguin (with fewer than 3,500 left), and New Zealand’s Fiordland-crested penguin, also known by its Māori name, Tawaki, meaning crested, which the IUCN lists at between 2,500 and 9,999 individuals (yet local researchers’ estimates are of only 3,000 individuals).
These are pretty scary numbers—and the itinerant lives of each of these endangered species make them very hard to accurately count, which means that while there could be more than we think, it’s likely that there could be far fewer than we realize.
So, what can we humans do for penguins to help make the world a better place for them? Here are a few ideas to start.
- Re-think our consumption of seafood—especially krill (and health supplements containing krill) and farmed fish, who are fed krill. Overfishing is one of the biggest causes of penguin death, whether it’s because humans are eating their food (krill numbers have declined 80 percent in the last 50 years) or because they are killed by fishing nets and longlines. Even “sustainable” seafood has an impact on the oceans and wildlife.
- Be a thoughtful traveler and a respectful birdwatcher. If you must travel to see penguins (and it’s pretty irresistible), choose places that can handle your human footprints—and always go with eco-friendly tour companies. Once there, always pay close attention to guides and naturalists who know how to keep a safe distance. If you’re traveling without a group or guide, be sure to study up; learn about the birds’ habitat so you can be sure to stay out of their way.
- Do all that you can to combat climate change. (See the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips.) Over the last six decades, scientists have observed an average increase of 2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade on the Antarctic peninsula. For the penguins especially, climate change isn’t an abstract, faraway notion: It’s happening before our eyes, chick by chick.
- Learn more by visiting such organizations as Oceanites, and support such organizations as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which protects all oceans and creatures, and such conservation efforts as the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.
- Become a citizen scientist. Penguin Watch is a completely addictive website that uses citizen science to help study penguins. Be warned — you may lose hours to penguin counting! But at least you’re doing it for science.
You can find out more about My Last Continent here.
Midge Raymond is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short-story collection Forgetting English. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Poets & Writers, and many other publications.
Midge worked in publishing in New York before moving to Boston, where she taught communication writing at Boston University for six years. She has taught creative writing at Boston’s Grub Street Writers, Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, and San Diego Writers, Ink. She has also published two books for writers, Everyday Writing and Everyday Book Marketing.
Midge lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is co-founder of the boutique publisher Ashland Creek Press.
Climate Change in the News
The Biggest Climate Wins of 2020 [Gizmodo]
How to Defeat the Fossil Fuel Industry [The Nation]
Paris climate agreement: 54 cities on track to meet targets [The Guardian]
UNEARTHED – essay by League member James Bradley [Meanjin]
League member Kate Kelly’s top eco-adventure story writing tips [The Guardian]