The Year of the Emperor Penguin

PenguinCrowd

While watching nature documentaries I had always the prevailing feeling that no matter how fascinating they were, the mantra of not interfering with nature was wrong, and that letting animals that could have been saved to die was grossly unfair. I strongly disagree with the assumption that we have the right to make vast sums of money from the documentaries, the accompanying books, talks, and merchandise but give nothing in return to the animals that have provided our bounty.

Additionally, we humans will go to any lengths to prolong our own lives, be it by transplants, all manner of medical treatments and research, vaccinations, but we insist that the rule of not intervening in the case of wild animals in need is unbreakable.

MyPenguinYearCover

LindsayMcCraeAndSon

I write about this now because I just read a recently published book ‘My Penguin Year’ by Lindsay McCrae. The author is without a doubt an exceptional man; intelligent, focused, gifted, friendly, thoughtful, eager to help and please others, in short, every mother would want to take him home to meet her daughter. Becky, his wife, is indeed a lucky woman. Let me elaborate here and explain how I have formed such an opinion.

At the age of twelve, Lindsay was the happiest spending all his spare time and evenings watching the wildlife almost on his doorstep; the badgers, the fox cubs, the birds in the trees, the swaying in the wind bluebells, and even a snail climbing a fallen log.

FoxCubs

CotonManorBluebells

He grew up in Cumbria on the edge of the Lake District National Park, surrounded by a beautiful landscape – mountains just a stone’s thrown away, woods and a lake. At fourteen he wrote to the BBC’s British wildlife programme Springwatch and gave them all the details of the wildlife he saw every day. He included a map of the location of all the wildlife he discovered and suggested that they could film the next series in Cumbria.

BadgerAndCub

BadgerBluebells

The Springwatch team, impressed by his passion for nature, decided to make a short film with Lindsay included in the programme. He was filmed in his camouflage, an old army scrim net draped around, and was shown with three badger cubs and their mother playing within just a few yards. The filming and the many complimentary messages from viewers strengthened Lindsay’s decision to be a nature filmmaker. His mother lent him the money to buy a second-hand camera and he was on his way to achieve his dream. As he kept his contacts with the Springwatch team and sent them his films, impressed by his enthusiasm, they offered him the job of a runner when he finished school. It wasn’t long before he was given a camera-assisting job and this gave him a break into the industry.

A few years later he was offered a dream job, to film a colony of emperor penguins in Antarctica for a whole year. By then, Lindsay was living in Cumbria, with his girlfriend Becky in the house they had just bought together, and with their two dogs, Willow and Ivy. The offer was of particular interest to him because since watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth in 2006, he had been dreaming of going to see and film those magnificent creatures. When he had met Becky six years previously he told her that this was his greatest wish, and she remembered this, which also says something about her selfless character because she agreed to him going for such a long time. As always, Lindsay made the right decision; he proposed, they got married and from then on it took a whole year of intense preparations for his stay in Antarctica, a place at the end of the world.

Antarctica

In preparation for his journey to Antarctica the gruelling medical procedures included removing his appendix and his wisdom teeth, plus endless blood tests and X-rays, ultrasounds, scans, dental checks, a visit to the optician, and even more tests, to ensure that it wouldn’t be necessary to be operated on during his long stay, although there was a surgeon present at the station. The BBC team included two more people who would be supportive of each other during the filming. Lindsay also discovered that it would be easier to evacuate someone from the International Space Station than from Antarctica. In case of a serious medical emergency, the likelihood of actually getting anyone out was almost nil as there were no planes. Wisely he kept this information to himself and said nothing to Becky. As Lindsay and Becky always wanted to have children they made the decision not to wait for at least two years, before his return and were overjoyed when Becky become pregnant. It meant though Becky and the dogs relocating to the Midlands to live with her parents.

Below two photos of the spectacular Aurora at Antarctica:

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AntarticaAurora2

The BBC team departed for Antarctica in December 2016 and after complex travelling, they arrived at the Novo airbase and Neumayer III research station where they were going to stay during the filming of the emperor penguin colonies, The research station is positioned on the Queen Maud Land region of Antarctica. The 2.7-million-square-kilometre area was claimed by the Norwegians in 1939 after they first set foot on it in 1930. The whole area is covered by a thick ice sheet with a few bare rocks protruding from the snow. The flat expanses of a never-ending sheet of white ice allowed one to see as far as the curvature of the Earth on the horizon. The air was pure but the blinding glow of the snow required wearing heavily tinted sunglasses that in the UK were illegal to wear for driving. The station was a state of the art model of a research centre. It incorporated 60 people of various skills and was run like a clockwork.

EmperorPenguin

On the first day of their stay, Lindsay and his colleague, Will, were given a tour of the area and some time away from the station they were shown a black line on the horizon – the penguins. Desperate to see the birds, Lindsay got off the snowmobile but before he could move forward on foot, the penguins spotted him. What followed next is quite incredible to read – two emperors began to rush over. In Lindsay’s words: ‘I’d never had a wild animal come speeding towards me like this and it felt an honour to be trusted. I dropped to my knees and sat back on my ankles, letting the two birds come as close as they felt comfortable. I didn’t dare to move in case I surprised them but as they approached almost to touching distance of their bellies, I felt maybe I should move out of their way. But just before I did, they both rose to their feet, bowed and with their signature trumpet call, introduced themselves. On my knees, I was the same height as they were at well over a metre tall, and I could see straight into their eyes. The pair were so close I could see every fibre on every feather. They seemed so relaxed standing just a few feet away  and I could feel their charming and  peaceful personas.’ The time of this first encounter with penguins was summer, the period of just over two months of twenty-four-hours daylight when the sun skims the horizon at midnight without disappearing below. At that moment it was difficult to think of the approaching horror of never-ending winter, with blizzards, darkness, snowdrifts, and temperatures of at least -40 degrees. This was the time when emperor penguins were raising their chicks.

Emperor Penguins, Antarctica

I have to digress here and mention again why I think so highly of Lindsay. At the research station, he volunteered to help with whatever needed doing, like carrying inside boxes of delivered food supplies. He felt that the time between filming could not be seen as a time of doing nothing, reading or writing, while others at the station had to work.

PenguinHeart

The following months Lindsay filmed every aspect of emperor penguins’ lives. From courtship of those who were single to the appearance of an egg, never filmed before, the exchange of the egg between the female and male, the incubating of the egg by keeping it inside a pouch above the father’s feet, and well covered for protection by feathers, the departure of females to feed somewhere unknown far away, to finally the emergence from an egg of the cutest baby. But there were times when filming in atrocious weather conditions was dangerous for Lindsay and difficult to survive for the penguins.

PenguinFamily

After months of winter, finally, spring arrived. The females came back to meet their offspring. Lindsay and his colleagues started planning their lives back home and continued filming the young chicks being introduced to the outside world. And then disaster struck. Parallel to the ice shelf, a vast narrow crack opened up. Looking down into its depths, Lindsay could see chicks desperately trying to scramble out, attempting to climb the near-vertical walls of ice. Directly below him, about five metres down  Lindsay could see that one adult lifted his head and looked him straight in the eye. On its feet was its chick. In his own words: ‘I couldn’t bear it. I had spent so long with the penguins and gone through almost every moment of their breeding season with them, and they felt like family’. After the interruption of very bad weather, Lindsay and Will went back to the gully. From the bottom of the gully, they started to dig into the slope, moving upwards. They formed a narrow but much shallower ramp that would potentially allow the adults to shuffle up with their chicks. Within minutes the first adult scrambled up. Others followed suit. Lindsay knew that without his help the penguins would have died a long and painful death from starvation and hypothermia. He just couldn’t just let it happen. Seeing them climbing to freedom gave Lindsay ‘an incredible feeling of joy and relief’. He thought that his actions would be seen as controversial, that some people would claim the averted tragedy was part of the ‘natural process’. In an article about his book, Lindsay apologised for breaking the rule. His book should be read by everyone interested in nature, and it is wonderfully well written, a riveting account of a year spent in the company of enchanting creatures – the emperor penguins.

This is the reason I wrote about my feelings of dismay about this cruel and stupid rule. My message to Lindsay would be: please don’t apologise for being a truly decent human being. On behalf of penguins that you have saved and those of us like-minded humans, thank you.

Below are some of the other creatures who live at Antarctica:

BabyWeddellSeal

SealAndPup

3 thoughts on “The Year of the Emperor Penguin

  1. I would be thrilled to spend all my time with animals. I just watched a documentary about a man who spent almost a decade living with wolves–filming them, sharing their lives. I love wolves now.

    Like

  2. I couldn’t agree more, Jacqui. And thank you for comments, as always kind. I am impressed with Lindsay because there are very few fourteen years old who not only know what they want to do in life but also how to make it happen.

    Like

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