Category Archives: Antarctica

Seeds in Seams

With gray Antarctic seas rocking our ship, I hunkered down with a dental pick and got to work on the Velcro. The Akademik Ioffe was pulling up to our first landing on the glorious island of South Georgia, just north of the Antarctic Circle, and our expedition leaders had cranked up biosecurity measures.

2013-1-2_0059-South Georgia profile-©Trileigh Tucker

Approaching South Georgia

South Georgia, for all the rocky strength of its mountains and the sweeping power of its massive glaciers, is fragile. Although restrictions on hunting of whales and fur seals have allowed those species to rebound—we regularly had to dodge grumpy fur seals draped across beaches, the most harrowing part of my Antarctic experience—the island’s ecosystem is now threatened by two subtler menaces: climate change and the introduction of invasive species.

On site, we couldn’t do much about climate change, and the island’s British government has, incredibly, just succeeded in vanquishing the land’s rodent problem. But we could help prevent the colonization of the South Georgia lowlands by non-native plant species.

Which is why I was sitting in the ship’s cold mudroom, surrounded by muck boots, life jackets, and an enormous, mysterious piston-like device supposedly used for sonar “investigations” in the ship’s past life as a Russian research vessel, picking almost-invisible seeds out of the worn seams of my bright red rain jacket. That’s what Velcro is designed for, after all: catching and holding tiny things. You’d be amazed how much plant material is hidden in the folds and pockets and other in-between places in our cuffs and zippers.

2018-1-7-3483-Velcro seeds-Trileigh Tucker

Seeds and vegetation in Velcro in sleeve cuff, paperclip for scale. Note not just the “big” seeds, but the tiny little specks. All of this had to be removed before landing on South Georgia.

Finally clean and seedless, our group loaded into Zodiacs and sped toward the shore. Like Shackleton, our first stop was at King Haakon Bay, where in 1916 he had landed a small crew in hopes of crossing the forbidding mountain range to find salvation on the other side of the island at Stromness. Unlike Shackleton, we were armed with cameras and binoculars, with the assurance of a plentiful meal and fresh-baked chocolate dessert at the end of the day. We set out to get to know this realm of remote beauty.

1_0014-King Haakon Bay, South Georgia-©Trileigh Tucker

King Haakon Bay, South Georgia

The dramatic sightings of South Georgia, of course, were the hundreds of thousands of penguins who filled the glacial valleys around the island.

King Penguin colony, St Andrews Bay-Trileigh Tucker

King Penguin colony St Andrews Bay, South Georgia

More modest but just as inspiring was a South Georgia Pipit.

2013-1-3_7096-South Georgia Pipit-©Trileigh Tucker

South Georgia Pipit. Larsen Harbour, South Georgia

This unassuming-looking little bird is part of the island’s success story, rescued from almost certain extinction by disciplined international efforts to remove its predators, rats, from the entire place. Global warming could still melt glaciers enough to provide increased rat habitat, with consequences for the little pipit, but for now, he and his community are doing fine. They can find healthy food in the form of native plants—with our help in de-seeding invasives from our Velcro.

* * * * *

I’ve long been unexpectedly attracted to the seams in our places, the in-between nooks, the overlooked vacant lots.

Vacant_Lot_of_Osaka_Rinko_Line (Wikimedia Commons)

Vacant lot, Osaka Rinko Line. By 暇・投稿 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 I love walking through neighborhoods as I go on errands, noticing where the wild things live. When I lived in the urban core of Seattle’s Central Area, my walking route often took me past an overgrown lot that had somehow escaped development. It was a narrow slot between houses, a standard 3000-square-foot city lot—but it supported big trees and thickets of blackberry plants where hidden birds chittered. Trails wound through the brambles, paths worn by kids’ sneakers as they explored this urban micro-wild. I hoped that somehow it could be preserved to provide a much-needed island of nature, a green refuge in a gray block.


A temporary meadow in a vacant lot on Harvard Ave E in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Photo by Joe Mabel; caption provided by photographer. Used by CC BY-SA 2.0. File available here.

One day I saw a big white square glaring on freshly-installed posts: the inevitable Notice of Proposed Land Use Action. It didn’t take long for a graffito protest to appear: “Neighbors – how can we stop this?” Another responded: “Let’s meet,” with a proposed date. But a couple of months later, as I approached the block, I could see a bright gap in the sky where trees had provided cooling shadows. Construction had begun. I stopped to chat with one of the workers, who told me, “Yeah, a Microsoft guy bought it. Planning to build one of those mega-mansions, fill up the entire lot with a big fancy house. Kind of a shame. But that’s always the way it goes, isn’t it?”

Robert Michael Pyle writes in his marvelous essay Eden in a Vacant Lot, “…nothing is less empty to a curious, exploring child”—and I would add, to spunky wildlife trying to make its way in a challenging urban setting—”than a vacant lot, nothing less wasted than waste ground, nothing more richly simmered in promise than raw ground.” Seeds of a child’s love of nature, seeds of nature itself, are planted in these wild seams.

* * * * *

We’re now beginning to see that these urban seams may provide some of the seeds for wildlife recovery. A recent article in Yale 360, Habitat on the Edges: Making Room for Wildlife in an Urbanized World, outlines the ways in which undeveloped space in cities can act as refuges for species squeezed out of areas denser with people. Even areas as narrow as 25 yards wide can significantly help to increase biodiversity, notes author Richard Conniff. He describes a British effort in which conservation-commercial cooperation is generating new attention to the ragged land along rail lines as wildlife habitat: not just nature-by-accident, but purposeful enhancement of unexpected natural spaces. While Conniff acknowledges that much more habitat is needed for true species preservation, these neglected spaces offer small islands of hope.


Weeds and wilderness: The Haddington Branch. Caption from Wikimedia Commons: When the North British Railway decided to miss out Haddington, this did not go down well in the county town. A short branch line was built linking Haddington and Edinburgh via a junction at Longniddry. The railway was closed to passengers in 1949, but there is quite a strong campaign to reopen it. The seed rich embankment is a useful resource for the finches now that winter sown crops are becoming more popular here. (Link to file and attribution is here.)

Seeds in the seams are sources of wildness: sometimes a threat, sometimes a treasure. But unless we learn to pay attention—to consider the overlooked, the in-between, the generative gaps—we won’t be able to tell the difference.

2013-10-6_0016-Thistle seeds-©Trileigh Tucker

Thistle seeds


Frozen Eden

Temporarily overheated in four layers and insulated muck boots, juggling my two cameras, I made my way down the gangway to the Zodiac bobbing at the ship’s side. I carefully coordinated my last step with the rocking waves, plopped into the boat, and took a seat on the big rubber tube while disentangling myself from backpack and camera straps. Loaded and launched, we raced toward our planned landing at St. Andrew’s Bay on the northern side of South Georgia Island, the wind whipping salt spray onto my cheeks.

Expedition stops on South Georgia; St. Andrew's Bay is #8 on NE coast. Map from Cheesemans' Ecology Safaris.

Expedition stops on South Georgia; St. Andrew’s Bay is #8 on NE coast. Map from Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris.

Wading ashore to the cobble beach, I dodged the occasional grumpy, growling Fur Seal and walked by piles of calmly snoozing Elephant Seals. Our ornithological expert, Jim Danzenbaker, who had landed in the early boat along with the rest of our guides, was way ahead of me, heading west to the crest of a moraine. On my right, the massive Cook Glacier was creeping creakily yet somehow gracefully between craggy dark mountain ranges; to my left, the dazzling Antarctic sun glinted off the iceberg-studded bay. Panting with the weight of all my gear as I tried to catch up with Jim, I could hear the muted cacophony becoming louder as I finally made it up the moraine.

King Penguin colony, St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

King Penguin colony, St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia; Cook Glacier in background

The sight took my (remaining) breath and my words away. At least one hundred thousand King Penguins stood and walked and swam and argued and copulated and divorced and raised children in the broad valley below my feet. I was on the fringe of a penguin megalopolis, complete with urban villages and suburbs and traffic and peevish neighbors. Teenagers, known as Oakum Boys, waddled around me, picking at their thick itchy brown coats and occasionally at our bags, chasing their parents around, squeaking persuasively that they needed a krill injection now.

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy begging for parent to regurgitate krill

Oakum Boy begging for parent to regurgitate krill

Our month-long expedition to South Georgia, Antarctica, and nearby islands was sponsored by the Geological Society of America and organized by the fantastic Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris (highly recommended), whose ambition was to get us on the ground over as much of the region as possible while keeping us safe and extremely well fed (red velvet cake after your wilderness exploration, anyone?). We’d been out for a week by this time, and I was now used to Zodiac rides, muck boots, and spending my days entangled in multiple camera and backpack straps.

But you don’t get used to 100,000 King Penguins.

As in all communities, private stories become more public the longer you watch. Trumpeting contests broke out here and there in the colony as the occasional late-returning penguin spouse came up from the sea, only to find that in its extended absence its mate had taken up with a new partner. (Penguins are a lot like humans in many ways, the frequency of trumpeting-accompanied divorce being just one example.)

King Penguins in divorce confrontation

King Penguins in divorce confrontation

In happier reunions, a freshly washed penguin walked from the shore through a gantlet of pecking neighbors, greeting its nestbound mate—stained with krill and neighbor poop from weeks perched in the same place—as both stretched their necks, swayed in parallel, groomed each other.

King Penguins grooming-St Andrew's Bay

King Penguins grooming, St Andrew’s Bay

A half-hour of keeping my eyes riveted on an affectionately greeting couple paid off when, after presumably 5-6 hours of such rituals, the sitting parent and the incoming parent finally faced each other closely (and, miraculously, perpendicular to my camera) and with the greatest care, ever so gently shifted the precious egg from the black webbed feet of the first parent onto the toes of the second one.

King Penguin egg swap, St Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

King Penguin egg swap, St Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

Barely a minute later, five feet away, two penguins mated under the watchful eye of a curious Oakum Boy, who apparently got a followup lecture shortly afterwards.

King Penguins mating as Oakum Boy watches

King Penguins mating as Oakum Boy watches

Mated King Penguins scolding juvenile observer

Mated King Penguins scolding juvenile observer

At the other end of the life-cycle pendulum, I walked by skua-scrubbed penguin skulls, made my way around discarded penguin feet probably left by a leopard seal and the rest of its cleanup crew, studied the anatomy of penguin skeletons still mostly articulated.

It was hot during that few-day stretch, perhaps 35-40°. Several days later, further south at Cape Lookout on Elephant Island, we saw penguins draped over rocks here and there, trying to cool themselves.

Chinstrap Penguin chick trying to cool off

Chinstrap Penguin chick trying to cool off

Like all life here at the end of the Earth, they’re finely tuned to their home’s temperature and other conditions—unlike we humans, who need basically a moon rocket’s worth of technology and supplies to keep us alive in the Antarctic region. From St. Andrew’s Bay, the nearest permanent human settlement of more than 20 is the town of Stanley on the Falkland Islands, 860 miles away as the albatross flies. To reach a human city of more than 2000, your albatross has to fly all the way to Ushuaia, Argentina, 1200 miles from here. (Fortunately, since albatrosses’ huge wingspans of up to 9 feet allow them to travel 300 or more miles per day, it wouldn’t take him that long. If he wanted to go.) We really don’t belong here, although due to the absence of land-based predators, the penguins don’t seem to mind us too much.

Yet through not-belonging, in the Antarctic region I felt more a part of the Earth than I have in a long time. The profound, primordial Earth, throbbing with squeaking, growling, trumpeting vitality (click for sound effects!) at the edge of habitability. Here I was one species among many, allowed to witness the magnificent hugeness of polar coastline, knowing that there was no significant human presence along its entire 11,000-mile length, that raw nature is spinning out its stories in its own way, on its own scale, rather than sneaking between the cracks of human domination.

But I also experienced another far-too-rare sensation: I was proud of us.

Yes, we’re melting the glaciers and thus threatening the thin line between exuberance and extinction—but we’ve now also managed to stay away from this area, to cease killing its whale and seal and other community members, and not only that, to commit to protecting it forever. “Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes,” states the Antarctic Treaty that’s been signed by nations representing two-thirds of the Earth’s human population.

When was the last time you read a line like that?

I can’t wait to get back there. That may well never happen, so I’m carving a new room in my memory palace, a boisterously loud, exquisitely glacier-sculpted, breathtakingly gorgeous, and slightly chilly chamber called Antarctica. I hope you’ll come take a look.

Juvenile King Penguin with last bits of immature fur

Juvenile King Penguin with last bits of immature down

(Click here to visit my Flickr collection of more Antarctic photos!)