National Geographic: Antarctic Wildlife Adventure (1991)

This is the most empty place
on earth
the place almost
no one goes-Antarctica.
It's the last continent discovered
by explorers,
the last place to be charted and
examined and understood,
the last place to be inhabited.
Even the wildlife here knows
this land is different,
and perhaps it is a mark of
how harsh this land can be
that there is no creature here
that cannot swim or fly away.
This is the last continent on earth
a refuge of sorts for wilderness
and for explorers.
Jerome and Sally Poncet
are explorers and naturalists
who live on a sheep farm
in the Falkland Islands.
A half-dozen times in the
last decade or so,
they've sailed 900 miles south
five days at sea,
to the islands scattered along
the famed Antarctic Penin
Other expeditions come here with
millions of dollars
and the power of governments
to support them.
Sally and Jerome sail by themselves
in a small yacht,
accompanied only by their children,
three boys
Dion-10, live... 8
and Diti-5.
They trek on remote, rocky islands
trying to learn more about this
once unknown and foreboding
continent of rock and ice
while there's still time to protect
the unique balance of
life that exists here.
As usual the Poncets are beginning
this voyage in December
high summer and vacation time
for the boys,
when some days might get as warm as
This will not last long
the Poncets know.
Winter and ice are never
very distant here.
Now development is coming too.
As the Ponects will discover anew
on this voyage,
this last frontier is changing
as never before.
The poncets have gradually come to
concentrate on the odd
and endearing birds
that are native to this place.
They're concerned now that penguins
may become threatened
because many countries and claiming
interests in the riches
that may lie here.
The Poncets will use their boat-part
research vessel,
part home-to search out
penguin colonies all along
the Antarctic Peninsula.
The peninsula reaches up some
toward south America.
The poncets goal is to survey the
size of penguin colonies,
that is, to count them
all the way to Marguerite Bay
at the bottom of the peninsula
even further if the ice
will allow them.
In earlier voyages, they've found
many colonies
no one else has ever seen.
Deception Island-near
the northern end of the peninsula,
early stop for the Poncets,
and the site of a big colony
of one of the three penguin species
dominant on the peninsula: chinstraps.
Scientists use penguins as a
key indicator species
to gauge the health of the entire
delicate Antarctic ecosystem.
To do that, though, they must know
how many penguins are actually here.
If the penguin population changes
the scientists will know something
is wrong here.
That is why the poncets sail and
climb to these remote places
to count the birds.
You can do a rough estimate by just
counting up groups of say
groups of 100.
That's a very rough estimate.
If you want to do it properly, though,
you've got to map out the area
that the colony's occupying
and then work up average density
of the colony and multiply that
...a couple of days work
to do it accurately.
But you can get a good estimate
if you take your time.
In a couple of hours, you can get
a pretty good estimate of it.
But we just compare it with colonies
we know from elsewhere,
like one in particular with 30 to
It's a lot smaller than this.
This is huge. Must be one of the
biggest chinstrap penguin colonies
down on the peninsula
I think-this one
It's gotta be, I think. It's huge.
Chinstrap penguins seldom change mates
and they prefer to return to the
same nest sites each year
to hatch the young.
The nests are rings of small stones
set just out of pecking range
of incubating neighbors.
The females usually take the
first shift sitting on the eggs,
fasting for up to 8 days.
Then, the males take over and the
females can feed again.
Some of the small, shrimp-like krill
they find at sea is regurgitated
for the penguin chicks.
Sally does not spend much time with
the colonies here on
Deception Island, though.
This time her work lies further south.
Jerome is French; Sally is Australian.
They sail aboard the 50-foot
steel hulled Damien II.
It can look like a frail ship in
amid all the ice and rock,
but the ship can take the poncets
places that others cannot go,
which helps them make a living:
They charter the boat for scientists
doing coastal surveys.
Indeed, Jerome knows his way along
this coast, intimately.
He first came here almost 20 years ago
accompanied by his friend,
Gerard Janichon,
who has rejoined him for this voyage.
It's unusual to sail in the
Antarctic now,
but it was truly extraordinary then.
Theirs was the first yacht to sail
the peninsula coast.
The adventure made them heroes
in France.
Fees from a book allowed
each of them to build bigger
and better versions of first vessel.
But new boats don't eliminate the
four hour watches throughout
this two-month journey
or the sameness of stored food,
or the confining conditions
of life at sea.
These they simply get used to.
But anyone who's lived on a yacht or
on a boat can tell you,
you get used to shifts:
four hours on, four hours off.
Or whatever you happen to do.
And it's just something
you get used to.
You can't have exactly what you want
to eat or drink
when you feel like it.
Or you can't wash every day
if you want to,
or you can't go down to the
nearest pub for a drink
just to get away from it.
You just accept that.
It just, it might look difficult
to people,
but until you... it would be far more
difficult for him to have
to get into a car every morning
and drive to work.
The Damien II averages 26 miles
a day now,
with stops along the way.
Working from cove to cove
they arrive at Cuverville Island
a breeding site for many
many Gentoo penguins.
Their pelts are sleek as fur
but like all penguins,
these are true birds.
Short, thick feathers help
insulate them from the cold,
and at the same time
lie close to the body to help
the speedy swimmers in the water.
This will be the first egg
because its dirtier,
and this is the second.
The second egg is suppose to be
a bit smaller that the first.
But they look about the same size
That one there, though-she's just
about to get off
that-you can really tell
the difference there.
The Gentoos are apt to form life-long
attachments among breeding pairs
although they are not so particular
about which nest site
they use from season to season.
On the peninsula,
it takes about five weeks
for penguin eggs to hatch.
The parents watch over them for
another month or so,
and then leave the chicks in
large groups while the parents
are off gathering good.
One or two months later the young
penguins begin to feed on their own.
What beautiful nests these ones are
well made
anyway, with the stones like that
and they all seem to be
just sitting right.
You remember the chinstraps at
all mucky, all smelly
in all directions?
These are all nice and neat...
I think these are probably the
prettiest of the birds.
By now Sally and Jerome
have witnessed this cycle of
penguin life many times
and still Antarctica fascinates them.
The first time we come...
just well, put the foot ashore.
That was an achievement
for us at least.
And we are very pleased with that.
We've been a bit scared
we've been fighting
to reach Antarctica... and after
we come back a bit more confident
and you go a bit further.
And that's what we've done
just going farther and farther
each time, knowing a bit more.
And when you start to know a place
it starts to belong to you or
you belong to this place.
And that's what's happened to us.
Often while Sally is counting penguins
the children explore for themselves.
At the shore here, they've spotted a
leopard seal coming close.
Penguins that survive to adulthood
may live for 20 years.
They're safe on land
with practically no predators.
But in sea
there is danger from seals
especially the leopard seal.
Diti is the youngest of the boys.
Live, the middle boy, finds that
this summer,
geology has captured his attention.
Dion is the oldest
a budding artist
with an interest
in mechanical things also.
Some of this Antarctic exploration
that the boys share
can look dangerous to an outsider.
But plainly, Sally and Jerome see
great benefits in bringing
the children with them.
At home in the Falklands
a traveling schoolmaster
visits for a couple of weeks every
other month or so
with lessons from Sally in between.
On board the Damien II,
the boys learn about earth science
by splashing where boiling volcanic
waters mix with the near frozen sea.
The boys bang away at rock
looking for gold
or fools gold even
and making plans to get rich and buy
firecrackers back at home.
You can just see the difference
that it's made to them.
And coming down here for three months
you can see how many people that
meet and what they're introduced
to and what they're capable
of learning
there are other ways of getting the
same education or the same facts
but this is a very good way of
getting it, you see.
At Foyn Harbor on the peninsula
the boys explore a site leftover
from one of the first significant
human impacts on the Antarctic.
It's an old whaler's anchorage
where boats once filled casks with
glacier water.
The whalers are long gone
a whaling ship lies abandoned
where it ran aground.
In the hold of the wreck
the boys find dozens of the
cone-shaped tips for harpoons
that once took tens of thousands
of whales in a season
until some species were threatened
with extinction.
At last, international protest put a
stop to commercial whaling,
and there are signs that
the animals may be recovering in
the southern oceans.
Three humpbacks approach the ship.
Their size and curiosity must have
made them easy targets for the whalers
But whale hunting was only
among the first human endeavors
to mark the Antarctic.
Near Palmer Station
an American research site,
Dion joins a party of skin divers
from the base
who are going to see what remains
of one of the biggest environmental
threats the continent has seen.
Actually, we're... the wreck today to
look for oil spills
or oil leaks they've plugged up with
wooden... and splash... last year.
The divers are protected as much as
possible by their dry suits
but the water is frigidly cold:
Early last year, an Argentine supply
ship that doubled as a
tourist boat ran aground.
Passengers used home video cameras
to take these pictures.
Within hours they were rescued
but four days later
the ship had turned on its side.
The ship's cargo of diesel oil
began to spill.
A Chilean navy ship arrived quickly
to contain the damage,
but it was a month before Argentine
and American crews managed
to seal the wreck.
It had about 250,000 gallons on board.
And they're estimating that
about half of that
It might have been worse if the ship
had carried heavy,
black crude oil instead of diesel fuel
but still scientists worry that
their research will be affected
because the once pristine area
is no longer so pure.
The wreck has gone through a
single Antarctic winter,
but the damage has been very severe.
It's kind of like a beer can
has been totally crushed.
And there use to be two
little copters there.
There's no sign of them at all now,
other than two tires,
and the highly deck is mostly crushed.
And there's no visible signs of
oil leaking out anymore.
Any cleanup operation would be
difficult here.
Indeed, all along the peninsula
it's clear that very often
no one bothers to clean the mess
that is left behind.
The penguins hardly seem to notice
but nevertheless
many environmentalists are concerned
that we may spoil the last really
large wilderness left on earth;
before we begin to understand it.
The Damien II has been at sea for
about a month,
with dozens of stops so far
for penguin surveys.
Now Jerome has set course for
Dream Island,
about half way down the peninsula.
The island has a large colony of the
third species of penguins
the Poncets are counting:
There are remarkable elephant seal
colonies here also,
and for the seals, too
the Antarctic summer is the
season of the young.
Well, it's a bit slippery in all
this muck-especially
where the penguins have been.
I don't want you to fall in that.
They've been fed by their mothers
until they're sort of round
and their mother's go off and
leave them and they have to survive
during the feeding time...
And they lie around on the
beaches in groups.
And they're really sweet...
They're very beautiful to look at
at that stage.
As they get a bit older
they're not so nice.
It doesn't look as if they're
any more chinstraps in this area.
They seem to be confined to that
area back there.
So I think I'll go back...
In the water by the beach
young male seals play at combat.
They are too young now to really
harm one another.
Later, when they develop the droopy
noses that account for the
elephant seals' name,
they will fight seriously for
groups of females.
All along the coast, the Poncets
find sites of earlier explorers,
many of them no longer in use.
This cabin was once a
research station,
but it's been deserted for a long time
Inside, there are copies of letters
and dispatches that are decades old.
...shall be returning home about
June and anticipate finding
civilization somewhat bewildering.
So would like to be considered for
service as relief warden
at a small hostile in the highlands.
It's the kind of thing, now over
and it really is the kind of thing
now you can say,
it's part of the history of this place
And it should, really should be
preserved and looked after
to keep it like this.
And all this food!
You'll never get food
like this again-these boxes.
No one eats this kind of stuff anymore
But this is how a British base
worked 30 years ago.
And it's really worthwhile keeping
and doing something about.
The men who lived and worked in
bases like these
were taking part in an extraordinary
study effort in the Antarctic
led by a dozen countries during the
International Geophysical Year, 1957.
The scientists paved the way for
governments go to on cooperating,
and eventually, there was an
Antarctic Treaty.
It's worked ever since to hold
Antarctica as a scientific reserve.
Today, tourist ships send groups
like this one from New York's
Museum of Natural History ashore
to the sites where once
only scientists went.
Antarctica's past and present
meet here,
and perhaps show the way to the
future as well.
Some environmentalists want to see
the entire continent
now made into a world park
no development or exploitation allowed
the Antarctic to remain as it is
a place for research,
and for amateur naturalists to see
the greatest unspoiled wilderness left.
Some of the old Geophysical Year
stations are still operating.
The British base Faraday,
for instance, plays a role in
researching the periodic
huge loss of ozone in the atmosphere
over the southern polar region.
Further south
another British base Rothera,
serves as a headquarters for inland
science projects that can
only be reached by plane.
The flights take off from a runway
cleared from the glacier,
with a path well marked
so the aircraft doesn't slide into
one of the nearby crevasses
that split the surface.
From the air,
an observer easily sees the extent
of one of the great treasures
and paradoxes of Antarctica
This is the driest continent.
Hardly any snow or rain ever falls.
But what does fall is frozen
in place and remains.
So Antarctica is both the continent
with the least precipitation
and the one with the most water
almost all of it locked up in ice
Some estimates are that 70 percent
of the world's freshwater is here.
The ice here on the plateau also
provides an ancient atmospheric record
that's key to studying new
such as the greenhouse effect.
These operations are just underway.
When full drilling begins
the scientists will be able to
plunge the drill bit through centuries
to see what changes have
occurred over time.
on board the Damien II again
the Antarctic summer is progressing,
although it is still
not dark after midnight.
Indeed, Jerome calls this
the planet of light.
There are only a few stops left
for the travelers,
one of them a special place
for Sally and Jerome.
More than ten years ago
on their first voyage to the
Antarctic together,
they decided to stay over in the
long darkness of winter.
They had only the Damien II
for a base
frozen in a harbor
here at Avian Island.
It was a really big surprise for us
to see just how many penguins
there were
or how many birds
there were on that island,
but really surrounded by them.
They found extraordinary life
including 70,000 Adelie penguins
on the island.
Avian is located at the top of
Marguerite Bay,
and it's the breeding ground for
much of the bird life
that lives and hunts throughout
the Bay region.
If something happened here
it could seriously affect
bird life in the entire Bay area.
Besides the Adelies's...
every single bit of that island
is covered in birds.
And you're surrounded by birds.
And you really do live
part of that cycle of the summer
season with them, completely.
But the poncets are disturbed to
learn the birds may soon be
sharing the island.
A Chilean scientist from a
nearby base if examining Avian
as a possible site for future studies.
Sally and Jerome are
beginning to worry that
the many scientists and bases
could soon overwhelm the fragile
wilderness they have come to study.
Jerome navigates the Damien II
through the mouth of a narrow passage
at Terra Firma Island.
They are very far south now
nearly at the base of the peninsula
where conditions are terribly harsh.
Some years, the sea is frozen
solid here,
the air is very cold.
Nonetheless, small patches of grass
and pearlwort flourish here,
unexceptional in any way
except that these are the southernmost
flowering plants known to exist
anywhere-the furthest outpost of green
in a world that is almost all grays
and blacks and ice white.
It was the Poncets who made this
and reported it to the
scientific world
although they now realize this, too
may draw others.
People have realize what this is
and realize how they can damage it
if they come too close,
and how they can keep away and still enjoy it.
There's a bit of a compromise
to doing it,
and you can't just ban people from
coming to certain places all over
just because they might damage it.
They've got to be taught
how not to damage it
so that they can come in and enjoy it.
Many explorers must pause to wonder
a little at what they do and
at what will be done
by those who inevitably will follow.
Not many will follow this far, however
The Damien II is entering what is
called pack ice,
a great plain that's frozen
not quite solid.
You can feel that-that you've very
far south.
And there's no one else in the pack.
And you're nothing much more than
another little bit of ice.
You can really feel it as a
living thing.
You can feel it, you can see it
moving up and down with the swell
as though it's breathing.
And you see animals... the whales
which come up to breathe
just behind the boat because there's
no other space for it, and penguins.
The steel hull of the ship allows it
to smash its way through.
The ice will get worse soon
as it gets colder,
and then it will not be possible
to get through at all.
Jerome must judge what is safe.
They have hone as far as they can;
the Damien II must turn back toward
King George Island.
From the air,
the ice floes look almost impenetrable
Once you've been through a really
bad storm
and just got out or you've had to go
through a lot of ice and
just managed to get through
then the next day,
it's beautiful weather-each time,
it's really very gratifying,
each time, and very satisfying.
And you really feel as if you've
earned what you've done.
It's the feeling of it being very
difficult here and you've managed
to wade through in spite of that.
But all along the peninsula
it is clear that as
with all frontiers
this one is developing.
In the time since they left the
British base at Rothera,
perhaps the biggest cargo ship ever
to come this far south
has arrived and begum unloading
bulldozers and rock crushers,
and housing for construction workers.
The small landing strip on the snow
field above Rothera is to be
replaced by a gravel runway,
so bigger planes can come
and go regularly.
It will mean blasting away part
of a hillside,
but the scientists say it must be done
if their work is to go on.
The Antarctic Treaty
which has worked to protect
the polar region for three decades
may be reviewed next year.
Some countries are
interested in exploring
for oil here or for minerals.
Already there is an agreement for
exploitation that the
treaty nations are considering.
Some think offshore drilling
for oil is certain,
and that that is going to mean the
greatest change yet for Antarctica.
Oh, we are next to the
first area actually where
oil will be exploited next to this...
and maybe this one will die covered
with oil, maybe not.
Or maybe he will be starving
very hungry,
because there will be no more food.
After that will be our children.
building goes ahead especially
on King George Island
the Damien II's final destination.
If you look at what's
happening at Rothera...
what's happening here.
This is the first steps in
opening the place up.
That's for sure.
To what, I don't know.
The rest of the world is still
over the horizon,
but it seems to get closer everyday.
Frontiers are wild places.
Once we thought they were all
savage and needed conquering.
This one doesn't seem
so savage anymore.
Before it's conquered
it may be worth asking what the
conquest would mean,
and perhaps we should ask too,
what will happen to the explorers
indeed to all of us,
when the frontiers are gone.