Unexpected Antarctica

Far from being a wasteland of ice and snow, the world’s most remote region is alive with history, color and life

Rosemarie Keough almost died taking a penguin's picture. Camped on Antarctic sea ice with a small expedition of adventurers and photographers, she loaded film into three cameras and hiked half a mile in a snowstorm to capture a colony of emperor penguins. Then everything around her turned the same flat, featureless shade of white—the sky, the ground and the driving snow in front of her eyes. The line of red flags she needed to guide her back to the expedition's tents had vanished. "A total whiteout," she recalls. The 45-year-old photographer faced a stark choice: "Do you head out to where the pole line should be, knowing if you miss it you'll wander until you freeze to death? Or do you stay put and hope someone comes to get you?" She chose the comfort of another living being, crouching next to the nearest penguin for several hours until the expedition leader finally rescued her.

That was just one of the risks that she and her husband, Pat Keough, 59, who is also a photographer, willingly shouldered to capture the raw beauty of that mysterious land and its hardy creatures. From 1999 to 2001, they traveled to Antarctica for two austral summers—between November and March, when the South Pole gets constant sunlight and warms to a balmy -30 to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Their pictures, collected in Antarctica (Nahanni Productions Inc), a hand-bound, limited-edition art book, are a counterintuitive vision: far from being a massive, sterile ice cube, the continent and its shores and seas are remarkably colorful. "Sunsets and sunrises seem to go on forever, icebergs turn every color in the rainbow," Pat Keough says. "Snow algae will turn a whole ice cap watermelon pink for hundreds of acres."

Photography within the Antarctic Circle is a challenge. "It's easy taking photos when the temperature isn't below -30 and the wind isn't above 15 knots," Rosemarie Keough says. "But in blizzard conditions, you can't change film or lenses. Snow an inch and a half thick gets encrusted on the camera, and apertures can freeze." The couple, who have been nature and travel photographers for 20 years and live in Salt Spring Island, Canada, were doused by frigid waves while shooting from the decks of storm-tossed icebreakers; they used their tripods to fend off angry skua birds on island beaches; and they sometimes spent long hours on sea ice crouched in total stillness to photograph brooding penguins.

Though professional photographers have recorded Antarctic scenes since the days of Robert Scott's failed 1910-13 expedition, the Keoughs' book, with 345 plates showing scenes from subantarctic islands to the heart of the continent, stands out for its breadth. The Keoughs and their book have collected 21 awards for photography and craftsmanship.

Antarctica has attracted adventurers since 1773, when British explorer James Cook became the first human to venture inside the polar circle. The place has also lured the entrepreneurial. Just a few years after Cook's voyage, whalers and sealers sailed south. Expeditions harvested the Antarctic fur seals that crowded onto island beaches to mate each summer. With no experience of humans or any other land-based predator, the seals were easy targets for hunters with clubs. Within half a century of Cook's voyage, seal hunters killed more than a million fur seals, at a rate of about 250,000 a year when hunting peaked around 1822.

With the seals gone, massive whaling operations began in 1904. Land stations, shipped south piece by piece at enormous expense, fueled and supplied factory ships capable of killing and processing tens of thousands of whales in a year. The massive mammals were slaughtered for their blubber, which was rendered into oil and used to make products as mundane as margarine. Within a few decades, whaling drove the humpback, blue and fin whales to the brink of extinction. Today, fewer than 3,000 humpbacks remain in Antarctica, down from more than 100,000 a century ago. "There are so few it's not profitable to exploit them," says Paul Arthur Berkman, author of the 2002 book Science into Policy: Global Lessons from Antarctica. "The whaling industry made itself commercially extinct."

Not all of Antarctica's lessons have been negative. The Antarctic Treaty, signed by 12 nations in 1959, established the continent as a rare model of cooperation. Signatories, which included the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States, agreed to demilitarize the continent, share scientific information from studies there and set aside territorial claims. "The most valuable thing Antarctica can give us is a demonstration of how mankind can preserve an entire region for peaceful purposes," says Berkman. Indeed, the 1959 agreement would serve as a model for later treaties governing outer space and the high seas. Another landmark treaty, in 1964, established protected areas and species. As a result, Antarctica's wildlife is recovering.

Nowadays, the very remoteness of the continent, long elegized as the planet's last untouched place, raises a new threat: tourism. According to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), planes that land on the continent, as well as cruise ships that ply the polar waters, carried nearly 20,000 people to Antarctica in the 2003-2004 season—more than twice as many as a decade ago.

Among the attractions are the huts built by the earliest explorers, legends such as Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton. World Monuments Fund president Bonnie Burnham says about 1,000 people tramp through the huts annually. Accidental time capsules whose contents are preserved almost perfectly by the cold, the century-old buildings are nonetheless being damaged by the harsh environment and increased traffic. Burnham and others are struggling to find a way to protect and preserve the structures, a job made complex by the fact that no single authority governs Antarctica. And though organizations like IAATO are working to responsibly manage tourism's impact, membership in the organization is voluntary.

The old rendering plants are also still standing, monuments to an ambition no less fierce than the explorers'. "You can't help but be moved by the scale of industry and what it meant," Pat Keough says. Ironically, the abandoned slaughterhouses are occupied again—by fur seals. "If they have a choice, they'll move indoors," Keough says. "They're wedged into buildings side by side, leaping out at you from under beds or sinks." Not that the seals' return to Antarctica was entirely planned; the population began to recover only after hunters turned their attention to whaling. The depletion of whale populations increased the availability of krill, shrimplike organisms eaten by seals, which explains why there are probably more fur seals in Antarctica today than before humans first arrived.

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