Editor’s note: Photos from this project, published in the 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine, are used with permission and gratitude. As a National Geographic reader for more years than I care to confess (since about the time the 1959 Antarctic Treaty was signed), I learned that visuals drive NatGeo narratives, which makes the role of the writer challenging and instructional; to really appreciate this project, go to the website for the full measure of multi-media storytelling. As a reporter who was lucky to travel to Antarctica three times, this project was special to me. As an editor, it was a gift to work with a contributor like Cheryl Katz, who is passionate and knowledgeable about the Earth’s cold and beautiful places.
Crossing the Southern Ocean’s infamous Drake Passage on the way back from a reporting trip to Antarctica became four of the most miserable days of Craig Welch’s life. He and a team of National Geographic photographers and videographers – along with a taciturn captain whom Welch hoped to make his main character – had finished a month-long cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula to report the dramatic impacts of climate change on Earth’s southernmost continent. It was one of the roughest crossings the 87-foot boat had ever made. But for Welch, a Pulitzer-winner who had traveled widely and reported from every other continent, it was the route to the missing piece he needed to tell the difficult story of climate change.
“The Big Meltdown” was posted online in late October and then published in the November 2018 print issue of National Geographic Magazine. The 3,500-word story, wrapped around spectacular photographs and videos, paints a picture of change and loss – dwindling penguin colonies, vanishing ice, a dying way of life – in one of the planet’s fastest-warming regions. But it also shows distant readers the beauty and wonder of the remote reaches once marked on maps as “Terra Australis Incognita.”
Welch was the sole writer on a storytelling team that included four still photographers, two videographers and two 360-degree video photographers. In keeping with National Geographic’s emphasis on iconic visuals, the cameras ran the show. The team spent February and March of 2017 sailing around the spiny peninsula that reaches towards South America from the western side of Antarctica, which Welch describes as “the tail on a horseshoe crab.” They visit penguin colonies, dive with leopard seals, zip around icebergs in Zodiacs. And, in a highlight of his trip, Welch helps a renowned whale researcher attach suction-cup cameras to humpback whales.
But this is not a travelogue or adventure tale. Welch’s reporting centers on a half-dozen scenes ranging from whales to krill that he identified, in pre-trip research, as indicative of the big changes threatening the Antarctic Peninsula. Along the way, he weaves in judicious threads of science, and the sordid history of humans who exploited the White Continent in the not-so-distant days of unregulated seal hunting and whaling.The narrative nominally hangs on the boat’s captain, Dion Poncet, who grew up in Antarctica, where his untypical boyhood was chronicled in a 1990 National Geographic documentary. This proves to be one of the biggest challenges for Welch: Poncet was great as an illustration of the story’s theme, but he also was a man of extremely few words. Welch also dealt with seasickness. He snorkeled in freezing waters. He spent long hours waiting as photographers did their work.
It was all worth it, Welch says, to experience one of the world’s most exquisite, awe-inspiring and elemental places: “I feel like all the climate reporting I’d done before seeing Antarctica is just a tad off, because I just hadn’t seen the world as it is.”
A senior staff writer at National Geographic, Welch travels the world to report on climate change and natural resource issues. He’s written about monkeys in Ethiopia, sea turtles in the Middle East, permafrost thaw in the Russian Far East. For a story on ocean conservation, he went to Midway Island in the Pacific, where he interviewed then-President Barack Obama.
Before joining the magazine, he spent 15 years as an environment reporter at The Seattle Times, where he spearheaded a groundbreaking seven-part multimedia series on acidification. He and photographer Steve Ringman dove with scientists in Papua New Guinea, fished with Indonesia’s reef-dependent villagers and explored seafood operations from Hawaii to the Bering Sea. Welch was part of a team that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News for coverage of the deadliest landslide in U.S. history, and has won top journalism honors from the National Academy of Sciences, the Online News Association, and the Sidney Hillman Foundation, as well as international reporting awards from the Overseas Press Club and the Associated Press Media Editors. He is a three-time winner of the national Society of Environmental Journalists top prize for beat-reporting. He spent several years early in his career at newspapers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, writing about wolves and grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter. He is a 2007 Nieman Fellow.
“The natural world interests me, and I want to be out among it with people who are understanding it,” he says. “That’s the only way I know how to tell stories well.”
I talked to Welch to find out more about the challenges and wonders of reporting in Antarctica, and being the writer on a large multi-media team.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Welch’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen. We start with a few set-up questions, then dive directly into the text of the story.
Tell me about the background of the story and where the idea came from.
This is a little different than but also has echoes of, a typical National Geographic story, in that the idea was not mine. It was a photographer’s. Paul Nicklen had been going to Antarctica for a dozen years, photographing wildlife there… He’d been wanting to lead an expedition and spend quality time photograph this place that’s changing. He wanted to do it big, with video and 360-degree video and a team of photographers, and got grant money. At the last minute, I think he realized that he was so visually focused that he didn’t have a writer yet. He and I had worked on another story a year before and hit it off. So I got lucky. He called me and said, ‘Would you want to go to Antarctica in about six weeks?’ I said, “Yeah, sure.” His premise was Antarctica is changing dramatically and we need to tell a story about it. I had free reign to write about anything that showed Antarctica’s transition, but also was limited by what I would see. I spent six weeks on the phone reporting everything I could think of in the ways the peninsula was changing. Then we were there for 30-plus days. Some of what I saw was relevant. Some of it was not.
What are your thoughts on how to communicate climate change, especially when you’re going to faraway places that to most readers have little immediacy? What are some of the ways you tried to bring Antarctica home to readers, and show why they should care?
The two pieces of that story that resonated with me were Dion (Poncet) as a character, but also the leopard seal. The scene with the leopard seal (where Welch sees a group of the usually solitary animals feeding while he is snorkeling) were so bizarre. One of the things I’ve always been attracted to is weirdness – things that are a little strange. I think that’s a way to pull people through stories: Define the most unusual elements, put people in strange places. The fact that I’m neither brave nor particularly adventuresome helps: I see things not like some mountaineer in the Himalayas but like some suburban kid from Kansas City getting to see Antarctica for the first time. That’s where I’m from and it’s how I view the world. I work hard to keep that – just be a representative for Everyman, Everywoman.
What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered in reporting this story?
In order to show how Antarctica is changing, I needed to show things that are no longer there. Penguin colonies, for example. It is very difficult to talk about penguin colonies declining with a team of photographers who need to show photographs of masses of penguins in order to show people what’s being lost. So where they needed to go and what I would have preferred to see was almost 180 degrees opposite. We went to Paulet Island, which is one of the places that’s closest to the western side of the peninsula that still has massive healthy Adélie penguin colleagues. And there’s a reason that the opening of the story starts talking about penguin declines as seen from a place where there are lots of penguins. We didn’t go to any of the places where there are dramatic penguin declines because there would not have been anything visually to shoot in the style that National Geographic prefers.
The photographers ran the show and you just had to try to do what you could?
I don’t want to make it sound like that was a bad thing. I mean, there’s one of me and a range of them. All of those people had a mission that was somewhat different than mine. And worst case scenario, I could find some way later to report something. But they had one shot. So I totally understood why that was the situation, but it didn’t make it any easier at the time.
How do you see the difference between your storytelling roles?
They’re trying to show Antarctica as it should be, and the amazing way the world works. And I’m trying to talk about the Antarctica that is no more. They couldn’t be more different.
By Craig Welch
Photographs by Paul Nicklen, Cristina Mittermeier & Keith Ladzinski
National Geographic, November 2018
Dion Poncet came of age in a place almost no one calls home.Stunning opening. As spare and elegant as Antarctica itself. You can almost hear the echoes of ice crackling across the vast emptiness.
He was born on a sailboat in Leith Harbour, an abandoned whaling station on South Georgia island. His father, a French adventurer, had met his mother, an Australian zoologist, on a jetty in Tasmania while sailing his boat around the world. The couple started a family in the South Atlantic. For years they traversed the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, surveying wildlife in uncharted bays—seals, flowering plants, seabirds—with three boys in tow. Dion was the first.
The Antarctic Peninsula is an 800-mile string of mountains and volcanoes that juts north from the White Continent like the tail on a horseshoe crab. It was Poncet’s playground. Young Dion and his brothers read, drew, and played with Legos—but also chased penguins, lifted chocolate from derelict research stations, and sledded down hills that might never have seen a human footprint. Other kids face schoolyard bullies; Dion was tormented by dive-bombing skuas, which whacked his head hard enough to make him cry. Other kids star in wobbly home movies; the Poncet boys were featured in a 1990 National Geographic film about growing up in the Antarctic. Sometimes, during breaks from homeschooling, Dion’s mom had him count penguins. “It got pretty boring pretty quickly,” he says.You’re in the past until the fourth paragraph. Why did you choose that approach? This is where I have to admit the thing that writers like to admit least. I had written two versions of the story. And in the one I turned in, that was not my lead; what I turned in opened with the leopard seal scene. This is where having an editor as smart as Rob (Kunzig) was really helpful. I chose the leopard seal scene for several reasons: One, it’s dramatic; two, I’m in the scene naturally, so it allows me to have a narrative voice without having jump in a weird way, because I’m actually interacting with the animal. It seemed like the perfect scene – except something about it troubled me when I was writing it and I couldn’t figure out what it was. It was my wife who first said, ‘What if you don’t care about leopard seals?’ And when I turned it in to Rob, that’s exactly what he said: ‘This is great if you’re an animal lover, but what if you don’t care? How are you going to make people care? … I want you to go back and start with Poncet.’ So I did, starting with Poncet’s history. Rob and I actually went round and round about it a little bit because I was afraid that too much history too soon was too much, and he thought it was essential. I wanted to have that history later in the same section. Confession over.
…something about it troubled me when I was writing it and I couldn’t figure out what it was.
On a frigid evening nearly 30 years later, Poncet and I stood in the wheelhouse of his 87-foot boat, the Hans Hansson, scanning the ice for Adélie penguins. At 39, Poncet is blond, block-jawed, and quiet, with enormous hands. He has spent much of his adult life ferrying scientists and other visitors in charter boats through the waters around South Georgia and Antarctica from his base in the Falklands. Along with a team of photographers led by Paul Nicklen, I had joined him for a voyage along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. We wanted to see how things were changing in a region he’d known his whole life.How, as a writer, do you decide which scenic details to include? Is it harder when you’re working with photographers and knowing they’re going to capture everything in these astonishing images? Honestly, I don’t think so because I think you’re often after something different. I never felt like I had any chance of competing with the visuals. So just dismissing that outright, I put myself under a lot less pressure.
Here at the bottom of the world, a place all but free of human settlement, humanity is scrambling one of the ocean’s richest wildernesses. Fossil-fuel burning thousands of miles away is heating up the western peninsula faster than almost anywhere else. (Only the Arctic compares.) The warming is yanking apart the gears of a complex ecological machine, changing what animals eat, where they rest, how they raise their young, even how they interact. At the same time, the shrimplike krill upon which almost all animals here depend for food are being swept up by trawlers from distant nations. They’re being processed into dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals, and fed to salmon in Norwegian fjords and to tropical fish in aquariums.
So much here is changing so fast that scientists can’t predict where it’s all headed. “Something dramatic is under way,” says Heather Lynch, a penguin biologist at Stony Brook University. “It should bother us that we don’t really know what’s going on.”
What we can see is troubling enough. On the western peninsula, Adélie penguin populations have collapsed, some by 90 percent or more. Records of great hordes of the birds in one bay date back to 1904; today in that spot “there are only about six nests left,” Poncet says. That day in the wheelhouse, when Poncet and I spotted our first massive colony, we had left the west for the peninsula’s northeast tip.
On tiny Paulet Island, thousands of penguins were perched in rows up a rocky slope, evenly spaced, like an audience at an opera house. We could see some wandering the remains of an old stone hut built in 1903 by shipwrecked Swedish explorers, who survived a long Antarctic winter by eating penguins. On an iceberg off our starboard beam, a noisy cluster of penguins slipped and knocked about like wobbly bowling pins. When I saw one glissade down polished ice, its flippers pulled back in a skier’s tuck, then tumble into a trio of fellow birds, I laughed out loud. Poncet just nodded.How did you decide to make Poncet the main character? He seems pretty taciturn. He is a terrific guy and I really like him. But he just does not like talking. Was it hard to draw him out? What things did you find that helped open him up? It was terribly difficult. He was definitely not hostile. He’s very thoughtful and he’s got very strong opinions. He just likes to melt into the shadows. He’s not comfortable being front-and-center. He’s witnessed more change than almost any human alive, and he had to care. But it was some of the hardest interviewing I’ve ever done. It was common for us to be up in the wheelhouse and I would ask him a question and he would give me a one- or two-word answer. I’m pretty good at waiting people out; this is the first time in a long time I met somebody who’s better at it than me. I have recordings that have just endless, endless, blank spaces with silence. The amount of time I spent with him versus what I actually got was staggering. But when he did offer something, it was poignant. It’s one of those things where I wish I had lessons that I could impart. I tried everything. I tried just joking around with him. I tried being formal. I tried being informal. I tried having other people around throwing out questions. He talked when he was ready to talk.
I’m pretty good at waiting people out; this is the first time in a long time I met somebody who’s better at it than me. I have recordings that have just endless, endless, blank spaces with silence….He talked when he was ready to talk.
Antarctica is not all death and chaos: Millions of Adélies still thrive around the continent, performing their unintentional comedy. But the western peninsula’s transformation is profound, and few have seen more of it unfold than Poncet. The world he once knew is unraveling. He speaks of the loss like a farm kid who has watched suburbia gobble the family homestead.
“All the things you used to experience, the places I went when I was a child—I took it for granted then,” Poncet says. “Now you realize it’s not ever going to be possible again.”What overall mood were you going for in this story? I was trying to toggle back and forth between wonder/amazement and sorrow. Perhaps a love and loss thing. Everywhere I looked I was blown away – the crazy circling and rakish grin of the leopard seal, the icebergs appearing in every shape imaginable, the penguins stacked like theater-goers on the hillside. It was all just amazing. But then when I tried to see it through Dion’s eyes, I could feel his … disappointment. This place still holds reverence for him, which I think is impressive after that much time and for someone who is also trying to make a living off the landscape. I think it can be easy to lose sight of why he fell in love. But he had not.
Much of Antarctica is a vast plateau, a high desolate desert of blowing snow where temperatures can plunge to minus 140°F. Poncet’s Antarctica isn’t like that at all.
The Antarctic Peninsula is longer than Italy and curls north toward the temperate zone. Its climate—for Antarctica—has always been mild. Summer temperatures often rise above freezing. Isolated patches of vegetation dot exposed granite and basalt. Adélie penguins live all along the coast of Antarctica, but the peninsula also supports species the harsh mainland can’t: fur seals, elephant seals, gentoo and chinstrap penguins. Petrels and sheathbills flit about the skies. All this life relies on the sea.
On the rugged peninsula, Antarctica’s stillness is punctuated by squawking and chattering and concentrated motion. It’s a place of bizarre angles: Blue-white glaciers flow to the ocean and calve into icebergs that assume every form imaginable. Bergs the size of small towns reach into the clouds. Even dozens of miles away, you hear them crack and explode like cannons.I love this description: “place of bizarre angles.” To me that really encapsulates Antarctica. Nothing is linear. It’s just all jumbled. I wasted many hours coming up with really cool descriptions for all the crazy icebergs I saw. Like alligator jaws and elephants riding motorcycles – all these amazing things that I would take notes on because everything just looks so weird all the time. Every time I tried to write that it always felt over the top, and nobody could tell what I was talking about. In the end, I just felt it was much more valuable to be simpler.
I wasted many hours coming up with really cool descriptions for all the crazy icebergs I saw.
It looks like wilderness, and it is, but it is not untouched. People began altering life in this region decades before anyone had even seen Antarctica. Not long after Capt. James Cook first cut through Antarctic waters in the 1770s, hunters started slaughtering fur seals by the millions, mostly for hats and coats. They also killed elephant seals for oil, to be used in paint and soap. The first to set foot on the continent were probably Connecticut seal hunters who came ashore briefly on the western peninsula in 1821.
In time whalers began harpooning sei whales, blues, fins, and humpbacks. They stripped baleen, or whalebone, from their mouths to make whips, umbrella ribs, corsets, and carriage springs and used the whale oil for heat, lamps, and margarine. In the early 20th century South Georgia became a whaling mecca. Leith Harbour was the last of its stations to close, in 1966.You’ve stopped the forward momentum to take us into the past with whaling and the history of human impacts on Antarctica. Why did you think it was important to include this history, and give reminders that this isn’t an untouched place – it’s not this pristine wilderness? And why here? It’s an echo of what we’re doing now. Nobody lives in Antarctica and yet we’re still managing to mess it up. Even before we were there, we were managing to mess it up. I like the parallel. We’d been taking out fur seals before anybody actually set foot on the continent. To have some of that context early on seemed really important.
Climate change has since left an unmistakable mark. Winter air on the western peninsula has warmed more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s. Winds drive changes in ocean circulation that bring warmer deep water toward the surface, helping to reduce sea ice—the broken crust that forms when the ocean’s briny surface freezes. Sea ice now appears later and disappears faster: The ice-free season on the western peninsula lasts a full 90 days longer than in 1979. For a Northern Hemisphere equivalent, imagine summer suddenly stretching to Christmas. Nice analogy.
The winter before Poncet was born, his parents spent weeks camping and exploring frozen Marguerite Bay, hauling gear by sledge across its solid surface. “Nowadays,” Poncet says, “that’s finished. Sea ice barely even forms.”
The loss of ice exposes warm water to the cold air, increasing evaporation, which returns to the world’s driest continent as snow—even rain. On a 2016 trip to Marguerite Bay, halfway down the west coast, Poncet faced a deluge that lasted almost a week. “Thirty years ago I don’t think anyone had ever seen a drop of water fall from the sky down there,” he says.
The balmier water pulled from the deep even affects ice on land, by attacking glaciers where they meet the sea as floating shelves. At least 596 of the western peninsula’s 674 glaciers are in retreat, according to a British survey. Elsewhere in Antarctica, far larger ice shelves are thawing and crumbling, threatening a rapid rise in global sea levels. On the east coast of the peninsula itself, ice has been failing spectacularly too—a Delaware-size piece broke off the Larsen C Ice Shelf just last year. But the east coast can still be five degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the west. Prevailing winds often push sea ice from the west around the tip of the peninsula to the east, where a gyre traps it against land.I like the way you interweave science and facts with narrative so that you don’t break up the flow. I felt so lucky that I got to spend as much time there as I did because it gave me the opportunity to take the data stuff and spool it out compactly. And then air the story out more with the wildlife. The hard part is figuring out how to show the physical science accurately, because it’s so complicated. I can’t tell you how many times I would rewrite those paragraphs, and then I would call a scientist up and bounce things off them, and rewrite it again.
The hard part is figuring out how to show the physical science accurately, because it’s so complicated. I can’t tell you how many times I would rewrite those paragraphs, and then I would call a scientist up…
The western peninsula is Antarctica’s hot spot. Often depicted on maps in white, it’s now so warm that tufts of the continent’s only native flowering plants, hair grass and yellow-flowered pearlwort, are spreading. So are invasive grasses and lichens. Green moss is growing three times as fast as it did in the past. Island peaks once cloaked in snow are now wet and melting, exposing mud or yawning crevasses.
“The landscape is shriveling,” Poncet says.
Hiking recently on the south shore of Elephant Island, off the tip of the peninsula, Poncet was flabbergasted by how temperate things seemed. The weather was humid, the landscape ice free, and enough grass had sprouted that it brought to mind a meadow.
“It didn’t feel like Antarctica at all,” he says.A powerful example of the love/loss contrast you were talking about. I think the paragraph/quote, paragraph/quote, paragraph/quote and building momentum that ends with that – “It doesn’t feel like Antarctica at all.” – is the one place where I was consciously trying to hammer the love-and-loss thing home. But looking at it now, most sections do the same thing. I’m not sure that structure was conscious, but it is a sort-of showing off of the beauty and wonder of the place, and then pulling the rug out to show that what you see is actually a sign of decay ….
A heavy rain is falling as we depart the Hans Hansson one morning on black rubber rafts, bound for a pebbly shore near the Antarctic Sound, at the northern tip of the peninsula. On a rocky shelf colored like a sunset by streaks of guano, we spy several muddy Adélie penguins. One is a fledgling, whose gray, pillowy down is damp and matted.Nice scene. Are there any special challenges being a writer on a largely visual piece? Did you shape your text around the images? No. I mean, yes and no. About halfway through I saw what (the visual journalists) were going to choose. That helped me choose some of the spots that I described. I changed the location of that scene because I’d seen penguins in the rain in three or four places and I didn’t know that they actually had a really terrific photograph of a damp, muddy penguin. But I always knew that story was going to be about five or six different types of change.
Adélies are the peninsula’s only truly Antarctic penguin species. (Chinstraps also live in South America; red-beaked gentoos range from there to Africa.) They build nests of pebbles and return to the same site each year at the same time, even if it’s raining or snowing or ice is melting. They prefer dry rock or soil but now are often forced to build on light snow—only to have nests collapse when the snow melts or fill like ponds when it rains. Adélie eggs are drowning in flooded nests. Drenched and windblown chicks are freezing to death; they lack the moisture-repelling feathers that protect adults.
Adults, meanwhile, struggle with lost sea ice. Adélies molt on floes far at sea and use ice as way stations to avoid predators between hunts. They can swim for days but tend to dive only in the upper few hundred feet of sea. As waters warm, more adaptable penguins are pushing in. Gentoos—fat, tall generalists—are more flexible about when and where they build nests and are more apt to lay new eggs if nesting fails. They hunt closer to land and eat whatever is available. From 1982 to 2017, the number of breeding pairs of Adélies along the western peninsula and South Shetland Islands dropped by more than 70 percent, from 105,000 to 30,000. Gentoo pairs saw a sixfold increase, from 25,000 to 173,000.
Ice is essential to more than just Adélies. It’s as central to this region as grass is to the savanna. When it disappears, relationships can shift unpredictably. One morning near the Antarctic Sound, Nicklen, photographer Keith Ladzinski, and I zip into dry suits and go snorkeling near shore. We watch a skittish Adélie survey the waves from a crumbling raft of ice. The bird seems hesitant to plunge in—with good reason. A leopard seal is circling and occasionally nosing onto the ice.Clever transition from penguins to leopard seals.
A leopard seal can weigh half as much as a small car. Its toothy jaws open wider than a grizzly bear’s. When closed, its mouth curves in a mischievous smile. That’s how the predator looks as it corkscrews around us—rakish, impatient, the king of its domain.
Suddenly, two more leopard seals appear. They turn in lazy laps, spiraling one after the other. Soon there are two more, their eyes locked on other penguins. One by one, the birds slip into the water, and the seals give chase. Some penguins turn and scamper back to ice and safety. Others aren’t so lucky. In an area not much bigger than two suburban backyards, five seals are soon feasting on penguins, shaking and shredding their bloody prey.I love the use of mundane images (small car, suburban backyards) to orient readers and make them feel a little comfortable in such alien surroundings. It also sets up the dramatic contrast in the seals’ altered behavior. When I was in the water, there was always more than one nearby and sometimes as many as five or six. So I sent emails from the boat to two scientists who are leopard seal experts and said, ‘Is this is as unusual as I’m hoping it is because it’s fascinating.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, that’s crazy. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.’ That was a signal that backed up my reporting and the research that these guys had done. That was my happiest moment in the entire trip!
The show is mesmerizing—and “highly unusual,” Tracey Rogers, a leopard seal expert at the University of New South Wales, later tells me. Leopard seals, like grizzlies, are solitary creatures that usually stake out vast territories offshore. They need ice floes to rest on between hunts. Loss of ice from climate change is leading them to congregate near land, shifting how, where, and even what they hunt.
Leopard seals used to be rarely seen near fur seal breeding grounds. “Some sealers in the 1800s kept meticulous logs and records,” says Doug Krause, a wildlife biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “None of them reported seeing leopard seals hanging around.” Now, 60 to 80 leopard seals wriggle ashore every year at Cape Shirreff, in the South Shetlands. At the region’s largest fur-seal breeding ground, they kill more than half the newborn pups.
After commercial sealing stopped in Antarctica in the 1950s, fur seals started making a triumphant comeback. Scientists thought they would adapt well to a warming climate. Now their numbers at Cape Shirreff are declining 10 percent each year. “What we’re seeing is extraordinary,” Krause says. “No one saw this coming.”Here’s a place where you show wonder/amazement turning to sorrow. How did you think through that? You start off with this amazing scene of multiple, enormous predators circling around and doing their thing, then you find out they’re not really supposed to, then you find out they are also killing some of the wrong things, then you have this quote from Doug saying “No one saw this coming.”
No one foresaw the good news either—the boom in humpback whales.
Starting in the early 20th century, industrial whalers drove most of Antarctica’s cetaceans nearly to extinction, and many species are still struggling. Blue whales, for example, are thought to have numbered about a quarter of a million around 1900; the population today is 5 percent of that.
But Antarctic humpbacks are roaring back: Their population is rising by 7 to 10 percent a year. “They’re going bonkers!” Ari Friedlaender shouts as we dart across the water in an open skiff in the Palmer Archipelago, where we rendezvoused with him.
Friedlaender, a marine ecologist with the University of California at Santa Cruz and a National Geographic explorer, has been studying humpbacks off Antarctica since 2001, tracking how and where they move and feed. He has recorded them rolling and playing with one another and diving deeper than anyone expected. He’s seen them opening gashes in ice with their blowholes. For animals that can weigh up to 40 tons, all this requires a lot of energy—and for now, he says, climate change is making more fuel available.
Friedlaender saw his first sign of that on a cruise in May 2009. It was late fall, so he and his colleagues assumed the humpbacks would have long since left for their wintering grounds near Ecuador and Panama. Then an echo-sounder detected a blob of krill that spread for miles below the ship. “We woke the next day, and there were more whales than any of us had ever seen at any time, at any place on the planet,” says Friedlaender, who has also studied them off Alaska, California, and New England. They counted 306 humpbacks in a 10-mile stretch. “They were here because there was no ice.”
Humpbacks, he explains, used to leave Antarctica in late March or early April, when sea ice closed in. Now they have many more ice-free weeks with more open water in which to roam widely and feed on krill. Those beady-eyed, translucent creatures are the size of a child’s pinkie, but they travel in thick swarms that can stretch for miles, with 78,000 or more in a single cubic yard. Humpbacks are sticking around and fattening up on krill, and that’s fueling a population boom. Female whales are producing calves every year. Lactating mothers have so much strength they’re feeding newborns while pregnant. “That’s insane for an animal that big,” Friedlaender says.
He pulls alongside a humpback and her calf, resting in brash ice. The skiff bobs as Friedlaender, like some ponytailed modern harpooner, raises a long shaft above his head. The business end holds a waterproof camera fitted with suction cups. Friedlaender steadies his quivering weapon, takes aim, then slaps the camera on the leviathan’s back. The surprised whale makes a sound like a wet snore. Both mother and calf dive.
“Felt like a great stick!” Friedlaender yells. For a day or two, until it falls off and floats to the surface to be retrieved, the camera will record a whale’s-eye view of the sea. Humpbacks fare far and deep with few natural competitors. How well they fare now depends on us.As someone who is trying to communicate climate change, I find that one of the most challenging things is dealing with the uncertainties and the unknowns – the ambiguities and seeming contradictions of an evolving science. Something I really admire in your writing is how you handle this. Like you do here, where you talk about humpbacks roaring back while so many other aspects of Antarctica are in decline. But you end with uncertainty about their future. That’s one of the luckiest parts of working for a publication like National Geographic. I have to write things in ways that people can understand it, but there is no pressure to simplify or make things more clear than they are. They’re not afraid of ‘I don’t know.’ You still have to make ‘I don’t know’ relevant and interesting. There are a lot of complexities and there are a lot of things that seem to be counter to one another.
A few years ago, an icebreaker dragged research nets around the Palmer Archipelago, looking for Antarctic silverfish—oily, sardinelike creatures that spawn beneath sea ice. They used to be the dominant fish off the western peninsula, composing half of what some Adélie penguins ate. But the team, led by Joseph Torres of the University of South Florida, towed day and night around Anvers and Renaud Islands and never caught a single silverfish. In waters that have experienced some of the greatest sea-ice declines, the fish had all but disappeared. Meanwhile scientists noticed penguins gulping more krill—even though it can take 20 krill to match the caloric value of one silverfish.
Will there be enough krill to go around? It’s not an easy question. Penguins and humpbacks eat krill, but so do skuas, squid, fur seals, and crabeater seals. Leopard seals sometimes eat krill. A blue whale eats millions a day. Animals that don’t eat krill often feed on prey that does. Antarctica loves fatty krill. So do we.
In the 1960s, seeing a potential new seafood source, Soviet fleets began circling the continent. Today about 10 ships a year catch krill, led by Norway, South Korea, China, Chile, and Ukraine. The catch turns up in omega-3 pills and chewable krill-oil gummies and farmed salmon. In Ukraine peeled krill is sold in tins, like sardines. Sometimes krill gets processed at sea, boiled and dried into powder on huge trawlers.
After almost a month at sea we finally see one, in the Bransfield Strait, off the South Shetlands. A storm rocks the 333-foot Long Da, a Chinese mid-water factory trawler, as we pull along her stern. The boat’s net courses through the water like a gape-mouthed whale shark. As the crew haul it in, the net’s green mesh curls over itself, cocooning millions of krill.
For now, krill around Antarctica remain abundant. Trawlers net only a tiny fraction of the continent’s krill. Fishing is tightly managed by 24 countries and the European Union, organized as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). But krill populations are cyclical, and researchers can’t say how quickly or severely warming and loss of ice may affect them. “We measure krill and may think we understand it, but we don’t, really,” says Christian Reiss of NOAA Fisheries.
Many experts worry that krill boats could target and deplete krill on feeding grounds important for other wildlife. A team of U.S. government scientists in 2017 put it bluntly: “If predators and the fishery use the same population of krill, it follows that removal of krill by one group may limit the availability to the other.” Most fishing takes place where climate change has stressed animals the most—near the western peninsula. “Where is there also one of the greatest densities of predators?” Friedlaender asks. “Same place.”
In 2017 Chile and Argentina proposed that CCAMLR place thousands of square miles west and north of the peninsula off-limits to krill fishing. Just this summer, environmental groups and Norway’s AkerBioMarine, the largest krill-fishing company in the world, helped persuade most others in the krill industry to avoid fishing near penguin colonies during breeding periods next year. Starting in 2020, the companies say, they will stay at least 30 kilometers, or 19 miles, from penguin colonies year-round.
I don’t feel good unless I feel like I know everything there is to know. I will spend days collecting and reading and pulling out little tidbits.
Many scientists and wildlife advocates maintain that permanent no-fishing zones regulated by CCAMLR are the safest solution. Otherwise, says Kim Bernard, an Oregon State University oceanographer who studies krill, “things could go very badly here. That really scares me.”With so many changes going on around Antarctica, how did you pick the ones you decided to focus on? There are a few things I do the same every time I have a big story. I don’t feel good unless I feel like I know everything there is to know. I will spend days collecting and reading and pulling out little tidbits. In a story like this that’s going to cover a lot of ground. I think it gives it more weight to have just a little bit of a lot of things, in addition to a few that you go into deeply, because it just shows how universal those changes are.
One evening on the Hans Hansson, after a dinner of lamb and potatoes, Poncet traces a map in the galley, pointing out places he once chased krill with a butterfly net. It was common when he was a child to see massive swarms at the surface, he says. “Sometimes the engine would overheat because the water intakes were blocked with krill,” Poncet recalls. Today “you almost never see them” in those places.
Scientists take Poncet’s long experience seriously. “In a way, it’s traditional knowledge,” Bernard says. As Antarctica hurtles toward the unknown, scientific knowledge is still sparse.
This year Poncet abruptly sold the Hans Hansson. He says he and his companion, Juliet Hennequin—also an accomplished boat captain—were exhausted. But he also felt that too many visitors took the region’s bounty for granted, just as it was changing into a place he barely recognized. “When I take stock of the current situation, the Antarctic Peninsula I knew as a child has already largely gone,” he says. “I do wonder a lot what it will become.”The ending is kind of abrupt. Why did you choose to end it that way? I struggled with the best way to do it. I always knew that I was going to end with Poncet, and he said something to that effect a couple of different ways. There’s something I just liked about the lamb and the potatoes and the map and him talking about the past. It seemed like the only way I could end it. I agree that it kind of wraps up quickly. But anytime I tried to spool it out a little longer it felt flabby. And in some ways, it felt a little bit like Dion. I mean the abruptness is certainly reflective of his character. I guess the abruptness of coming back to Poncet – suddenly he’s had enough, he’s leaving – reminds me of the ‘tipping point’ that we hear a lot about in talking about climate change. Was that on your mind when you wrote this? No, but that’s beautiful. We’re going to go through these changes and then things can literally drop off a cliff. Everything with climate change is like that. We get gradual change, then suddenly speedy change and then potentially a flip. And that is exactly what is happening in Dion’s life.