Wind was the first thing I heard in the morning, along with a door opening and closing as someone got up first and went out to use the outhouse. Sounds reached into my awareness through the fog of sleep. Then: the lighter button of the propane heater pressed, a metallic clang sounding at least twice until it caught. I heard the kettle being lit and muted footsteps on plywood. Someone was brewing coffee. The old, damp smell of socks and mold faded into the earthy scent of coffee.
The one thing that everyone did soon after emerging from his or her bunk was to check the weather display. The weather dictated the fluctuations of our lives, as we would be outside for most of the day. Any lingering doubts were cleared up by the morning dash to the outhouse, hands balled up inside a sweatshirt, bracing against the wind and squinting at the light. If I wasn’t fully awake before that, then I sure as hell was afterward. Outside, a troop of penguins would be walking by camp or skuas would be careening acrobatically over the beach, looking for carcasses. Sometimes it was snowing, sometimes it was foggy, sometimes ice would pelt my face. Almost always, it was windy.
Taking turns to make breakfast, we wove past each other like interlocking links in a chain. If there were no chores around camp, my colleague Matt and I would suit up for our commute to the penguin colonies. I grabbed the radio I carried everywhere from its overnight charger and refreshed the snack stores in my pack. Hiking out, I always had to be slightly cold because soon I would be sweating from the walk: gradually uphill to a ridge, down to Chungungo Beach, up another ridge, between rolling hills, over a last ridge, and to the skua shack. Once there, I changed into my penguin rubbers, overalls, and a jacket made of stiff waterproof rubber, along with dedicated penguin-only boots. We had a quick mug of tea if there was time and went out to attend to the penguins.
I did not miss human companionship—I was happy amid the penguins’ ecstatic energy.
I was working at an ecosystem monitoring camp called Cape Shirreff, in Antarctica, where we collected data on the seals and penguins that breed on the island and hunt krill in the waters nearby. The long-term monitoring program was initiated to measure the impact of the krill fishery, but climate change has become a key focus of the research.
The five months I spent at Cape Shirreff dovetailed with the summer breeding season of our target species: chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins, and Antarctic fur seals. Most of the methods we used were standard ecosystem-monitoring protocols developed by a committee under the Antarctic Treaty that focuses on the Southern Ocean. To monitor the penguins, we’d be documenting nest counts, adult survival, adult weight, egg weight, egg lay dates, chick hatch dates, chick growth rates, chick survival, and the composition of penguin diets. We’d attach data loggers to penguins to measure the duration of their foraging trips, how deep they had to dive to find food, and where they found it.
In the early season we waited for the nests to take shape and eggs to be laid. Once a nest was confirmed active, when eggs appeared, I banded one bird at each of the 75 plot nests I was tracking so I could discern between individuals. It was easiest to do this when the penguins were incubating because they didn’t run away. At the beginning of the banding period, Matt took me out to his colonies so he could teach me how to handle and band the birds. As gentoos had started laying first, we started with them.
When we’d worked together on St. George Island in Alaska, we’d catch a bird with a long pole with a noose at the end, maneuvering it tactically while dangling precariously at the edge of a cliff, looking down at the target kittiwakes, a species of small coastal gulls. For the larger gulls, we stood at the base of a cliff with another large pole, trying to control the wobbly tip, often while standing on a ladder. For other birds, we set traps: The least auklets, small, mottled seabirds the size of a robin, were captured by a tangle of nets tied to rocks with nooses that tightened around their ankles when they walked over them. For petrels we strung up a thin net between trees, carefully disentangling the birds’ delicate limbs when they flew into it. In my field experience to date, catching birds had always been an elaborate operation, requiring gear, preparation, and time.
Matt and I walked up to a gentoo colony, and I watched as he bent down and simply plucked a penguin from its nest and tucked it between his legs. It was a calm gentoo, and Matt had the band on its flipper in less than 30 seconds. He plunked the penguin down and stepped off to give it space to gather itself and return to its eggs. It was the simplest bird capture I’d ever witnessed.
“You can just … pick them up?” I was amazed.
During some supervised penguin banding I learned the right spot between my thighs to pincer the penguin and the right angles to bend the metal of the band so its edges were tight against each other. Satisfied that I was ready, Matt released me to band in my colonies. When the metal band was closed and secured, I plunked the penguins down again by their nest, and most settled back onto their eggs. Once, I put a chinstrap down after banding it, and instead of scurrying away, it stood there slapping my leg viciously in bitter revenge.
I found that penguins differed in their reactions to being hoisted between human legs. Some were calm, mildly befuddled at how they got a foot off the ground. Others acted as if they were possessed, squirming and slapping and biting. Penguins are beefy birds, sleek bullets of swimming muscle, torpedoes of power, and they slapped impressively hard. Their slap was powered by the same muscles in their chest that propel them through the water. A sharp stinging whack by a penguin flipper in the bitter cold could temporarily inactivate a hand.
Science was my excuse to slide down a hillside that ended in penguins.
Once all my birds were banded, my daily rounds consisted of walking around the periphery of my colonies, always in the same order; reading bands; peering at growing nests; checking my plots; noting which penguin in a pair was on the nest, banded or unbanded; and looking in the crowd for banded birds I hadn’t already recorded. I spent hours on my own with the penguins, weaving through their colonies, close enough to touch them, but far enough not to disturb them. I did not miss human companionship—I was happy amid their ecstatic energy.
My last colony was on the high ridge, which I climbed along the penguin trails, both me and the chinstraps huffing as we worked our way up the hill. On beautiful days I ended my work with the stunning view of the peninsula below me, all gently rolling hills, the distant square shapes of camp perched by the ocean, the glacier beyond it, and Livingston’s massive snowy mountains in the distance. Everywhere else was ocean—in the expanse of dark blue, swells kicked up by the wind looked small from a distance, roiling and churning. Sometimes I caught sight of a whale fluke as a humpback hunted for krill. On stormier days, which were more common, the view from the most exposed part of my rounds was simply a wall of snow or fog.
Sometimes I wondered if I was just there for the lifestyle—did I just like the way my days unfolded on a remote island, where my purpose was clear, where my life was simple, where I was directly involved with the resources that sustained me, where my connection to an ecosystem was palpable every day? Did I simply want to feel close with other species, or was I interested in the questions that the data was designed to answer: How is climate change impacting this remote species? How are the populations of seals and penguins changing? What are the vulnerabilities that emerge from their life history? Where do they forage and what is the quality of those foraging grounds?
The science was critical, but it sometimes felt distant and formless—in the field, you had to love the job itself because the job defined the texture of your life. Science was my excuse to slide down a hillside that ended in penguins. To adjust my lifestyle in the kinds of dramatic ways that globalization has diluted, in the kinds of ways that respond to a distinct geography, to a specific landscape. As a kid I moved through so many big cities that they all started to feel the same—busy streets, multistory buildings, the bustle of people, subway trains, the same transnational brands occupying city corners. I felt the resident ecology muffled under layers of concrete. A sense of place rooted in other species felt disparate and elusive. I was ever peeking at the weeds that grew from the cracks in the sidewalk, trying to catch a glimpse of the birds that flitted around in urban trees, growing cherry tomatoes in containers on cement patios.
When I started working in the field, I felt nested within a web of other species, grounded in place and biome in a way I’d always wanted to be. I longed for far-flung outposts in what I thought of as wilderness, where human impacts were absent or minimal. Hailing from sprawling capital cities, I, like many environmentalists, associated a human presence only with ecosystem destruction and degradation.
But wilderness as I understood it, rather than some kind of pure state of nature, is a complicated concept steeped in human history. “Wilderness” was glorified in the Romantic age (1800–1850) by Europeans as a counterpoint to growing industrialization. Romantic-age writers wrote of wilderness as a sublime landscape where one could encounter God. In a now-classic 1996 essay titled “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” William Cronon describes how these Romantic-age ideas of wilderness were carried to North America and combined with colonial narratives of the “unsettled frontier”—a proving ground for true manhood and the only place one could be free. Transcendentalist writers in the 1820s and 1830s were inspired by Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and elevated North American wilderness, a supposedly pure and untouched landscape, as sacred.
When I first started working on remote islands, I loved reading transcendentalist authors. I resonated with the poetry Thoreau and Emerson evoked from the earth. I carried Walden around with me for years, an old copy battered from being tucked into so many field packs.
Before a field season, I also tended to pick up books of stories, histories, and cosmologies from the Indigenous cultures that developed in the regions I was working in (Tlingit, Inupiaq, Aleut, Hawaiian).
I felt nested within a web of other species, grounded in place and biome in a way I’d always wanted to be.
Thoreau’s pretty words weren’t the only narratives swirling around in my head on St. Lazaria. In the Tlingit stories I was reading, kushtaka, shape-shifters, moved between human and otter forms, trying to capture the souls of dying people. When a storm was coming, the otters would gather on the lee of the island and tangle themselves in beds of kelp, and we’d know to bring things inside. In the calm before the storm, we’d hear the otters’ tap-tap-tapping as they opened shells with rocks. I thought of how eerily human their gestures were, fussing with shells on their bellies, gathering up their cubs for the night. I tried to imagine the texture of Tlingit life before colonization as the crew and I fished for rock cod and made fish prints on the door of the wooden hut where we lived.
When I worked on Midway Atoll, I became close with a friend and crew member who had native-Hawaiian heritage. She told me how Midway and the surrounding islands were known as the home of the ancestors of Hawaiian culture. She told me about Polynesian voyages on double-hulled canoes and how skilled navigators found their way around the vast Pacific Ocean by orienting themselves with stars, currents, seabirds, and wind. We learned the Hawaiian names for all the plants we worked with and stared up at the night sky, trying to find constellations and imagine them as a map.
Transcendentalists understood nature as an entity to be respected and worshiped, but one that existed outside human society. In Aleut, Tlingit, or Hawaiian stories, I never encountered even the concept of nature—a category for every living thing on the Earth except people. The division between man and nature simply did not exist. Reading Indigenous mythology and trying to understand Indigenous worldviews helped me interrogate this false binary. But Indigenous books and ways of knowing, so different from my own, were a testament to the survival of Indigenous communities. They could not be separated from the violent history of my own ancestors—settlers and colonizers tried their best to eliminate the Indigenous peoples, cultures, and ancestral knowledge that now gave me such insight into my own mind and into the places in which I worked.
Antarctica is often referred to as the last great wilderness, a continent where the near absence of humans elevates it to a sacred status. There have been visitors, but no culture has developed in Antarctica, no language has flourished to describe it, no person has been raised there and acquired the rootedness bestowed by local ancestors. Antarctica means “opposite to north,” and the continent has served in the popular imagination as a counterpoint to all things human and organic. Lauded as a symbol of purity, remoteness, cold, and extremity, it also has an intractable novelty: All who have ever worked or visited there remember the first time they stepped onto the continent. The vast expanses of ice and windswept hills may feel foreign, but they are far from alien. They are as much a part of our living Earth as the equatorial rain forest or a temperate grassland.
Making my home in Antarctica sometimes felt like a contradiction—what does it mean to live a domestic existence in what is often called the planet’s last or ultimate wilderness? It was surreal to wash dishes in the kitchen sink while looking at a line of penguins walking by, to call Antarctic fur seals my neighbors, to fall asleep to the roar of circumpolar wind. Before it became habitual, I reeled to make sense of it.
Eventually my cold and distant home didn’t seem complicated at all—humans are remarkably adaptable and soon I settled happily into the close coexistence of the island. On one hike back from the colonies in November, I saw whales blowing spouts in the waters past camp. They must have been just over a half mile offshore, at least four or five groups of them, feeding. Gulls hovered and swarmed over each group, hoping to snatch whatever food the whales brought to the surface. Two or three enormous mouths would lunge out of the water at exactly the same time, and the upper jaw, black and shiny, would seal the lower jaw, bulging and streaked in white. I climbed a rocky spire and watched them feed. A long, flat iceberg was some one to two miles from camp, covered in penguins. The whales were feeding on all sides of it, spouts shooting out of the water. The clouds were thick and low, sealing the horizon not far beyond the whales, making this all seem close, contained, intimate, as if we were huddled together under a fluffy gray blanket: the gulls, the whales, the penguins, and I.
Naira de Gracia grew up moving around the world with her journalist parents and sibling. After moving to California to complete her B.A. in biology, she worked as a wildlife technician for six years, on remote islands in the Hawaiian chain, the Antarctic, the Samoan archipelago, the Bering Sea, and off the coast of California. The Last Cold Place is her first book.
From The Last Cold Place: A Field Season Studying Penguins in Antarctica by Naira De Gracia. Copyright 2023 by Naira De Gracia. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Lead image: Ivan Hoermann / Shutterstock