Who doesn’t like penguins? Their waddling gait is fun to watch. They have little fear of humans so it’s easy to get next to them. Penguin movies such as Happy Feet and The Penguins of Madagascar are box office hits.
World Penguin Day on April 25 focuses attention on these loveable flightless fowl. Some people dress up in black and white clothing. Many read books about penguins or watch penguin movies.
I was fortunate to get up close and personal to thousands of penguins during a trip to Antarctica. As our ship neared the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula—the closest point to the southern tip of South America which had been our departure point—we marveled at how effortlessly they skimmed through the water beside us. Soon we marveled at another characteristic. We were at least two or three miles offshore when the harsh odor of the poop generated by all those penguins wafted over the ship.
We relished the opportunity to go ashore and wander through their rookeries. There were lots of juveniles, covered with gray fuzz that would eventually fall off and be replaced by their characteristic black and white plumage. None of them seemed to mind our presence.
But we had several harsh reminders that we weren’t in a zoo. Several century-old stone huts provided shelter for explorers who slaughtered hundreds of penguins to eat during the long, harsh Antarctic winters. Skuas, nasty predatory birds, routinely feed on penguin chicks. We saw the discarded remains of several skua meals. Danger can also come from the depths. A couple of times we observed large seals relaxing on ice floes with bright red stains next to them.
The saddest sight came one afternoon when we took a Zodiac inflatable boat to shore. A penguin stood forlornly on top of a small ice floe, a leopard seal thrashing the water next to it. We asked our guide if we could rescue the doomed bird. He shook his head. “The water is too rough,” he said. “Too much chance of falling in if anyone tried to step out onto the floe. And you don’t want to be anywhere near an angry half-ton leopard seal that feels his dinner is being taken away from him.”
On our way back to the ship, there was no sign of the lone penguin. We had to accept that we couldn’t interfere in the natural course of things.
All images ©Jen Goode
Jim Whiting has written more than 100 titles and edited another 150 or so, with subjects ranging from authors to zoologists and including classical musicians and contemporary pop icons, saints and scientists, emperors and explorers. Many of his books have received glowing reviews.
He's also ventured into a number of classrooms and served as a presenter at writers' conferences, conveying the enthusiasm for writing and for a good story that still animates him. Check out his work here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "World Penguin Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Apr.
Nonfiction is the new black
In the early 1900s, becoming the first to reach the South Pole was a huge source of individual and national pride. English explorer Ernest Shackleton came within 97 miles of that goal in 1909 before being forced to turn back.
Fellow Englishman Robert Scott made well-publicized plans to succeed where Shackleton had failed. He was therefore dismayed to learn that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had his own secret plan to reach the Pole. Amundsen hadn’t even told his crew members where they were going until they were at sea.
The two expeditions landed in Antarctica at roughly the same time and spent months preparing for their respective treks. Amundsen departed on October 18, 1911. He was fortunate to encounter relatively good weather. On December 7, he passed the southernmost point Shackleton had reached. One week later, on December 14, he and his four men stood on the South Pole. Each man grasped the Norwegian flag. They celebrated in the evening with seal meat and cigars. Before returning, they erected a tent and put letters for Scott and Norwegian King Haakon inside. Amundsen and his men arrived back at their starting point in late January and sailed to Tasmania, where Amundsen sent a cable trumpeting his accomplishment. Even though the response was mostly favorable, some people in England thought Amundsen had played a dirty trick by being so secretive about his plans.
Meanwhile, Scott and his four men left from their base three weeks after Amundsen. They encountered some of the worst weather Antarctica could throw at them. Several times they had to stay in their tents for extended periods, eating valuable food. They finally arrived at the Pole on January 17, only to have their triumph replaced with bitter disappointment. They found Amundsen’s letters and knew they were five weeks too late.
Their difficulties worsened on the way back. Two men died from cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Scott and the two others made what proved to be their final camp on March 19, confined to their tent by horrific weather. They were about 10 miles from a food depot that would have ensured their survival, but couldn’t reach it. Searchers found their frozen bodies eight months later.
Amundsen died in 1928 in a plane crash during a rescue mission in the Arctic Ocean. Shortly before his death, he told a journalist, “If only you knew how splendid it is up here, that’s where I want to die.”
Aristotle discovered Antarctica nearly 2,500 years ago, though no one set foot on the continent until the 1800s. Exploration went into high gear several decades later during the Heroic Age. The peak came in 1911 when Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the Pole, followed soon afterward by the tragic deaths of Englishman Robert Scott and four companions. This is one of many of Jim Whiting's books.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "To the Ends of the Earth." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18
Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
The NONFICTION MINUTE is a division of iNK THINK TANK INC.
a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit corporation.