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  • Writer's pictureCristina Mittermeier

It’s a Muddy Mess!

Watching a baby penguin die is never easy. This chick is not likely to survive. It is soaked from the incessant rain and coated in thick mud that it could not preen off.

My first expedition as one of the lead photographers on a National Geographic expedition was when SeaLegacy partnered with Nat Geo in 2017. The team of photographers sent to the white continent included asdasd and me. Our mission was to capture the beauty and splendour of a place in desperate need of protection.

While Antarctica was as beautiful as we expected, it was bittersweet to realize that even here, in one of the most remote places on our planet, humanity has had an impact. I had been to Antarctica before as a tourist and although my first visit had been brief, I could see that even after a few short years, things had already changed.

I was so excited about this expedition. My focus was on making beautiful images, but over the course of the month in Antarctica, as we dived deeper into our story, I began noticing things that initially didn’t strike me as a problem. As the days went on, the hard reality of what was happening here became clear.

A leopard seal patrols a huddle of penguins, patiently waiting for one of them to risk jumping into the water.

The Danger of Rain

It had been raining steadily for many days. In a place where the norm is to see snow flurries, instead, rivers of guano-laden mud ran into the ocean. Snorkelling near a penguin colony, I was puzzled when the visibility in the waters abruptly became clouded. Later I realized it had started raining, and the murky water was a product of the sudden influx of muck from the land. When I got back on the boat and looked out towards the penguin colony, I could see the rivers of red guano flowing out to sea.

It was clear I had been swimming in penguin poo.

I became more alarmed when later that day I went on land to visit this colony of Adélie penguins. I noticed several of the chicks, which were moulting their baby feathers for their adult waterproof coat, were covered in mud. Whereas baby penguins can preen themselves when they are covered in snow, becoming caked in clay or mud is a different story. Adult penguins can clean themselves when they go out to sea, but chicks are too young to swim, so instead, they sit on land and when the temperatures drop down at night, hypothermia can kill them because they are unable to preen and the mud freezes onto them. It is not just the change in weather patterns that is a threat; it is the unpredictability of these changes. I was devastated to realize that these beautiful creatures simply cannot adapt to this harsh new environment with its rapidly changing weather patterns.

To the casual tourist, changes may not be apparent, but to the animals that live here, the changes are a matter of life and death. Just a few decades ago, in the 1970s, sea ice covered the ocean around the peninsula for a full three months longer than it does today. For species such as leopard seals, strict ice-obligate animals, it is a big deal because when females are ready to give birth, they must find pack ice to haul out to and nurse their pups.

As the conditions of sea ice are changing, so is the predictability of weather patterns, which in turn changes the abundance and distribution of krill and penguins. That means leopard seals must also change their habits.

New scientific observations show that leopard seals are now moving into places where fur seals have started to recover after decades of exploitation. The leopard seals wait for the young fur seal pups to enter the water, and their efficiency as predators is wreaking havoc on these newly recovered populations.

A King Penguin looks down at a lone krill, the foundation of the ecosystem with every creature from birds to whales depending on healthy krill populations for survival.

It’s Not What Shakelton Saw

When it was time to leave, we headed back across the Drake Passage, back towards the Falkland Islands. We approached the southern beaches of Elephant Island, which is only 245 km from the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Even though we were almost 61 degrees south, we looked out at what appeared to be a green meadow on an island with a reputation for being the stark outpost where Shakelton famously left his men after his ship, The Endurance, was trapped in the sea ice and sank. While Shakelton and a six-man crew sailed 1,300 km on board the James Caird, one of the small rescue vessels from the sunken ship, to South Georgia, the other 22 survivors, were left to fend for themselves on the rugged northern coast of Elephant Island. In their memoirs, they speak of a land devoid of life, a rocky outpost in the middle of nowhere, so exposed to the beating of the frigid wind and sea that nothing could grow.

Now, as we stood there wearing only t-shirts on this balmy austral summer day, I could not help but cringe at the massive changes this place has experienced.

Warming Temperatures

Mosses and lichens were happily growing on the rocks where nothing could grow a few decades ago. When you look at the increase in temperatures, however, it starts making sense. Annual temperatures have increased by up to 0.56 degrees Celsius per decade in the Antarctic Peninsula and sub-Antarctic islands since the 1950s; that is a full three degrees! When the temperatures were still consistently below zero degrees Celsius, a change of one or two degrees didn’t matter much to plants because all the water was still locked away as ice. As soon as temperatures started to rise above zero degrees Celsius for several hours a day, then all of a sudden, there was a lot more melted water available for growth. Mosses, which are very adaptable, take advantage and begin to proliferate.

Nowhere on Earth are ecosystems changing more rapidly than in the Antarctic and Sub Antarctic islands, where even a small change in temperature has brought really big changes.

The lush carpet of green mosses we were looking at on Stinker Point was a testament of this change.

We may not realize it yet, but as Antarctica goes, so does the rest of the world. In 2020, a year that has witnessed a global pandemic and the rise of a global social and racial justice movement, the world is also coming together to finally protect the vast wilderness that is the great southern ocean


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