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January 22, 2009

Cape Royds: The Penguin Colony

It’s a short walk from Shackleton’s hut to the most southerly penguin colony in the world. Adélie penguins dot the coast for as far as the eye can see, yet the colony of around 2,100 nests is far smaller than its northern neighbors.

The size of the Royds colony varies from year to year depending on sea ice conditions. In 2000 for example, 4,000 nests populated this area until a giant iceberg calved off the Ross Ice Shelf. It grounded about 40 miles (60 km) north, preventing the sea ice from breaking up. Without access to open water, many penguins left for colonies more convenient to foraging.

The last two years have been good again at Cape Royds for proximity to open ocean and successful reproduction rates. But colony growth remains in limbo till the new Adélies start breeding between the ages of 3 and 5.

I had the pleasure here of meeting David Ainley, one of the world’s most respected ornithologists. He’s been studying penguins for over 40 years and is currently tracking the birds’ response to climate change. It’s believed that penguins’ sensitivity to environmental change offers clues to how global warming is affecting the planet.

Dr. Ainley and his team have a special interest in population dynamics. They monitor and compare movement within and between Royds and other Adélie colonies. They hope to find what determines colony locations, what the physical environment’s effects are, what accounts for differing colony sizes and their growth rates, and how competition between penguins affects colony size.

Among their tools is a Penguin Cam in operation since 2006. It’s especially useful in monitoring the birds that return to molt each year in February, by which time scientists have left Cape Royds for the winter.

On our stroll amidst volcanic hills, Dr. Ainley expressed concern about the industrial fishing industry’s impact on the penguins’ food web. I learned that the imminent depletion of the Antarctic toothfish — an upper-food-web predator popularly marketed as ‘Chilean sea bass’ — threatens to upset the entire Ross Sea’s marine ecosystem. The implications of spoiling the planet’s last such pristine waters are significant, as Dr. Ainley describes on his website penguinscience.com.

Around us, penguin mummies and skeletons abound. Freeze-dried carcasses get drilled through by relentless wind storms, eventually reducing them to bones.

The first-ever study of Adélie penguins happened right here at Cape Royds a hundred years ago by James Murray, the Nimrod expedition’s biologist. The following passage from Murray’s obituary in the Glasgow Herald in 1916 provides a wonderful snapshot of the biologist in the field:

“Like other naturalists, Murray notices the resemblance of penguins to human beings. He was convinced that the penguin had powers of speech, and he describes a palaver he witnessed when an ‘old man’ bird made a long speech in a muttering manner, short sounds following a group of four or five. Murray, to whom the speech was addressed, confesses that he did not understand a word of it, but the penguin was very patient and repeated it all over again, with no better results.

“One can imagine the great joy that must have come over Murray’s heart when he discovered that the frozen freshwater lakes at Cape Royds contained a fauna and flora akin to that which he first studied in Campsie Glen, for many lichens were found in them, a few mosses, and large numbers of infusorians, rotifers, and water bears. He also demonstrated afresh the strong resistance which rotifers have to extremes of temperature.”

The rotifers referred to — the resilient Bdelloidea — are those that James Murray describes in his essay “Life Under Difficulties” which, to bring my Cape Royds tale full circle, was his contribution to the expedition’s book Aurora Australis.


January 21, 2009

Cape Royds: Shackleton’s Hut

Today I visited Cape Royds, about 20 miles (32 km) north of McMurdo Station. The helicopter ride offered spectacular views of the rugged Ross Island coastline, McMurdo Sound, and Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano.

Royds is the site of the ‘Nimrod’ hut, Ernest Shackleton’s 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition headquarters where Aurora Australis was written, designed, printed, and bound in the course of a harsh winter a hundred years ago. It was an important destination for me — a pilgrimage even — given the book’s centrality to my project.

Here is the hut in 1908, as drawn by George Marston for Aurora Australis

…and here it is today, remarkably intact thanks to consistently sub-freezing temperatures and its designation as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area under the Antarctic Treaty System. The hut is one of four historic sites under the care of the Antarctic Heritage Trust which ensures their preservation and legacy for future study.

It didn’t take long to find the wooden Venesta cases I’d come to see. Shackleton and his men offloaded no less than 2,000 of them from their ship Nimrod, dozens of which still remain stacked in and around the hut. There were plenty of boxes for the Nimrod crew to recycle, not only as Aurora Australis book covers but also as book shelves, supply cases, shoe boxes, platforms, supports and furniture.

Stacked provision cases also served to create separate living and working areas. The since-dismantled 6×7-foot letterpress cubicle was among these, situated where the cot juts out from behind the curtain on the left. This tight space was known as ‘The Rogues’ Retreat,’ also accommodating a large sewing machine and bunks for the printers Frank Wild and Ernest Joyce.

Looking back towards the entrance, the foreground cot marks the same spot. The printing equipment was long since returned to England but unused reams of the book’s ‘Abbey Mills Greenfield’ watermarked paper remain on a dark shelf along the north wall.

The paper is among 5,000+ hut artifacts conserved as part of the Ross Sea Preservation Project led by the Antarctic Heritage Trust. This shows the bottom of a paper ream before and after treatment for acid, mold, and moisture damage.

Even in extreme instances such as this one, treatment helps slow down the deterioration process.

Much thanks to Antarctic Heritage Trust Secretary Fiona Wills for permission to reproduce these photos. More of the Trust’s preservation efforts are described in fascinating detail on the London Natural History Museum’s Antarctic conservation blog.

Food containers too are conserved as tangible relics of expeditions. The extensive variety of prepared and preserved foods circa 1907 is impressive. They include dried spinach, mint, stewed kidneys, ox tail soup, India relish, mutton cutlets in tomato sauce, Irish brawn, marrow fat, stewed rump steaks, tripe, concentrated egg powder, kippered mackerel, minced collops, and red currants to name a few. There’s also the Antarctic classic, pemmican: dried meat mixed with fat, available in varieties for men and dogs.

A medicine cabinet sits alongside the south wall; carbolic acid marked ‘poison’ differentiates it from the neighboring cases of food.

The hut is exquisite for its authenticity. Original socks still hang from clothes lines; tattered gloves lie on cots, newspapers languish where they were left.

Relics also dot the hill behind the hut, down towards the icy shore. They’re rusted through, perhaps too decayed to be saved.

Nearby, a plank photographed by my friend Holly Troy reads “Ship Nimrod Lyttleton.” Lyttleton is the New Zealand port from where the expedition was launched. Painful as it is to see these artifacts eaten by the elements, Antarctic Specially Protected Area status prevents others than conservators from disturbing them.

At expedition’s end, Shackleton wrote about his departure from Cape Royds: “We all turned out to give three cheers and to take a last look at the place where we had spent so many happy days. The hut was not exactly a palatial residence…but, on the other hand it had been our home for a year that would always live in our memories…We watched the little hut fade away in the distance with feelings almost of sadness, and there were few men aboard who did not cherish a hope that some day they would once more live strenuous days under the shadow of mighty Erebus”.

Shackleton never returned to Cape Royds in his lifetime. Afterwards is anyone’s guess. One thing for sure: if ever a place effectively evoked its former inhabitants’ ghosts, this is it.



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