Since the summer of 2012, I've spent unusual amounts of time crossing the equator to venture back and forth between Australia and my second home in frosty Antarctica. My quests to the most desolate continent in the world have captured the attention of a curious audience, even so much as to solicit a request I write about it for The Huffington Post. Popularity considered, it made sense to share a few favourites from my collection over the years - from tabletop icebergs to adelie penguins and leopard seals - alongside some important excerpts about the continent's vulnerable conservation status at the hands of it's human shepherds.
With no Indigenous population to describe it, Antarctica is rife with curious imagination. In books from Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild, the continent is described as violent and stormy and beautiful in its flora and fauna. Their descriptions don't do the snow city justice. If it were music, Antarctica would be Mozart. After mother whales birth their young, they journey together deep into the Southern Ocean sanctuary to feed. The sun shimmers across their bellies in the summer as they roll in the seas of gray, and it twinkles across bits of broken iceberg left behind by yet another cascade. Petrels and albatross take to the skies, battling against speckles of snow and bullets of rain, searching for fish and squid to bring home to their mates-for-life. Orcas and leopard seals patrol the seas, knocking seals off ice flows and chasing stray penguins. Antarctica has a mythic weight; it resides in the unconscious of all of us. It's like outer space. It's like going to the moon.
I was the same age as Ernest Shackleton when I first braved the region, and with every visit, I'm more and more struck by the effortless beauty of the icy jungle. From the mountainous points of the west to the spouting fin whales and leaping orcas in the east, Antarctica remains the single-most resonate landscape I've encountered along my journey in conservation biology.
Antarctica is the Earth's southernmost continent and the world's fifth largest zone. It's a southern desert with temperatures that range well beyond below freezing, and is inhabited by only a few hundred people every year. The continent is governed by parties of the Antarctic Treaty (1959), a de facto condominium, prohibiting military activities, mining and the dumping of nuclear waste.
But that doesn't mean Antarctica is not vulnerable to it's own kind of human predation. From illegal whaling fleets catching minke and other whales for so-called scientific research, to Patagonian toothfish fisherman hauling controversial nets from the untouched seas, Antarctica is effected by exploitation and climate change. It is in the west, across the shrinking WAIS, that the first signs of climate change are seen. The west coasts are ice-free during the summer, clad only by mosses and lichens that have evolved to withstand the violent cold. They belong to the Marielandia Antarctic tundra, a biome, in which tree growth and expansive biodiversity is prevented by the incredibly low temperatures.
During bridge patrols and on board the anti-whaling vessel, my temperature was governed only by three layers of Patagonia cold weather gear and the warmth of my tiny shared cabin. At the base, surrounded by biodiversity, my exposed nose and cheeks stung in the cold. But time and again, it was the lure of the stunning landscapes and fields of penguins that kept me outside, braving the cold, to experience the Antarctic views. And in Antarctica, the views are spectacular.
The Antarctic sun is a magic unto itself. Unseen in winter, the sun never sleeps during an Antarctic summer. Sometimes it hides behind the rain and clouds, but though you may not see it for days, it's always there, illuminating the tips of toppled icebergs and twinkling across the silhouettes of parting rain clouds. It paints the morning skies with pinks and purples and showers the evenings with its vibrant yellows.
For a naturalist, the biodiversity is unlike any other.
The Antarctic coasts are home to soaring seabirds, noisy penguins and diving seals, including the emperor penguin, who famously breeds in the freezing and dark Antarctic winters. It was on my first expedition South that I fell in love with the black-browed albatross and gentle petrels who often took refuge from their exhausting hunts on the vessel wings. Southern fulmar, Cape petrel and the scavenging southern giant petrel also feed and breed along the coast, whilst the seals of the Antarctic Ocean, including the predatory leopard seal, the giant elephant seal and the curious Ross seal make up the visiting mammal life, bathing in the coastal shallows and open seas where they are hunted by the fierce and transient orca.
It was there in the Antarctic Southern Ocean that I spotted my first orca; a free and wild bull with a dorsal fin seen clearly from the furthest end of the 400ft vessel on which I lived. He travelled with his pod, leading females and babies across the bow and far off to the starboard side.
In the depths of the Antarctic waters, whales of all kinds pass through during their summer migration. Followed by whaling ships, spy-hopping fin whale, minke whale (or the lesser rorqual) and blue, beaked, right, sei and sperm whale lead the way for the iconic baleen humpback to cruise toward the Antarctic humpback whale nursery, where pregnant mothers birth their clever young in the summer seas.
Beside the towering icebergs and flows, transient orca feed on colossal squid and sleeping fur seals, while the breeding southern rockhopper penguin (famous for its distinctive feathers around the eyes) live amongst the king, chinstrap and gentoo penguins of the subantarctic waters.
Most species, endemic and passer-by, are part of an elaborate and naturally maintained ecosystem, relying on the autotrophic phytoplankton and krill to build upon the intricate food chain of the Antarctic pelagic environment.
In Antarctica, unregulated taking of whales and fish, such as the Patagonian toothfish and minke whale, remain a serious biological problem. Commercial whaling in Antarctica is unregulated and operated under a guise of scientific research. Whalers aboard factory ships target whales who migrate during the austral summer, harpooning mostly minke, but also fin, sei and humpback whales protected in 1982 by the International Whaling Commission's moratorium. The females killed are often pregnant.
Climate change has also reached the glacial environment. As Antarctica warms, parts of the Antarctic Peninsula have begun to shrink. In 2009, researcher Eric Steig noted that West Antarctica had warmed by more than 0.1°C per decade in the last 50 years. As a mixture of carbon dioxide emissions and inflow of warmer water from the deep ocean contribute to the melting of the continent and the continental shelf, you can feel and see the effects of unusual warmth down South.
The last discovered continent and my second home, Antarctica, is a mysterious and expansive biological mecca. The protection of the remote, hostile and intriguing environment is vital for the conservation of the Earth's climate and ocean systems. Frozen within the thick ice are the secrets to the word's climate history, and along its coast and seas are the planet's most iconic and keystone wildlife species. Though remote, human beings rely upon a healthy Antarctica for its resources and its biological information. It's protection through our stewardship is our human responsibility.