I was prepared for the cold, the heavy desserts, and the stinging smell of penguin guano, but, as a newly hired staff ornithologist on three cruises to Antarctica this season with One Ocean Expeditions, one fact caught me unexpectedly off guard: Hardly any passengers on today’s Antarctic itineraries are birders.
Don’t get me wrong; there are always a few. Each boatload of about 90 passengers on my three trips included several birders serious enough to maintain a life list. A couple of hardcore types were usually lurking around the ship, and those few invariably spent their time hanging out in a tight group on the panoramic top deck, eyes glued to albatrosses and penguins in one drawn-out fit of ecstasy—yes, Antarctica is a mind-altering destination as a birder. (My advice: Just go. It will change your life.)
But most of the people on board weren’t birders at all, which surprised me. Some of them weren’t particularly concerned with any of Antarctica’s wildlife, at least in the beginning. One woman actually told me at the start of her trip: “I don’t care about penguins. I just want to see ice.”
Fair enough, but such words made me shiver—and not just from the cold. How could anyone not get excited about penguins?
When I mentioned this to a fellow crewmate, he didn’t seem concerned. “All the serious birders came to Antarctica 20 years ago,” he said. “They checked it off their lists. Seen one penguin, seen ’em all.” He’d spent time with other expedition companies down south, and it was always the same story: These days, Antarctic cruises are populated more by general tourists than wildlife enthusiasts.
Maybe Antarctica isn’t what it used to be, I reflected. Since the 1960s, the number of tourists visiting Antarctica has grown from a few hundred annually to nearly 30,000; more than 80 different outfitters now run trips to the ice. In some ways, the destination no longer lives up to its hostile reputation. You can book a basic Antarctic cruise for less than a comparable trip to, say, Venezuela, and, for the first time in history, Antarctic voyagers can expect to gain weight on their journey. This December, the temperature on the Antarctica Peninsula was warmer than at my house in western Oregon.
It’s possible that all the serious birders are now patrolling remote fringes of the ABA Area and third-world jungles, having already ticked their Antarctic lifers as my crewmate suggested. But the paucity of birders in Antarctica probably simply reflects our own small numbers compared to the exploding popularity of Antarctic travel in general. My ship was packed with curious software engineers, diplomats, photographers, business owners, and travel buddies, overall one of the most diverse and interesting groups of people I’ve ever encountered. Very few Americans (another surprise); they came instead from all corners of the planet, with by far the largest groups from Australia and Great Britain.
The thing that brought the group together was travel. I talked to more than one person who had visited at least 100 countries, and a 14-year-old who had visited 50. When a speaker asked how many people were checking off their seventh continent, about a third of the hands in the dining room went up.
And adventure, plenty of adventure. This season, I hiked with one of the first women to cross Antarctica on foot; dug a hole in the snow and slept by penguins; flew a kite in the middle of the Drake Passage; drove a Zodiac through a field of moving pack ice; got covered in Humpback Whale snot; drank a glass of whisky chemically recreated from Shackleton’s personal stores with half-million-year-old glacier ice—and toasted Shackleton’s grave; stripped down to boxers and swam with icebergs; and got formally married to a penguin in front of a hundred people (what happens in Antarctica…). Every day on the ice is all out.
So, birds are often a bit of an afterthought in Antarctica—which is funny, because Antarctic bird colonies are one of the most awesome natural spectacles on Earth.
I thus made it my mission to interpret Antarctica’s birds to everyone, not just the few diehard birders. “I want you to all become bird appreciaters,” I began my first seabird talk. “All I ask is that you spend enough time on deck to learn to identify a Wandering Albatross. And, when we get into a penguin colony, go ahead and take 5,000 photos—but then put the camera down, sit quietly, and spend half an hour just watching them.”
At first, I couldn’t tell whether anyone was paying attention. My on-board bird presentations competed with polar photography groups, historical visits, bar talks, movies, Pictionary games, and endless five-course meals.
But after the first couple of shore landings at penguin colonies on South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, even the most urban voyagers snapped into bird mode. The diplomats started asking questions about seabird identification. The engineers couldn’t stop showing off their photos of penguin chicks. Evening bar conversation trended from where-have-you-been to what-did-you-see-today discussions, often centered on birds.
The great thing about Antarctica’s birdlife is that anyone can become a quick expert. With practice and coaching, it’s possible to learn all 30 regular Antarctic birds by the end of a week in the field—even with no prior birding experience. I couldn’t stop smiling when an Israeli woman approached me on the bridge one morning and asked, in halting English, “Is that a Southern Giant-Petrel?”
The other great thing about Antartica’s birds, of course, is how incredibly awesome they are. Just before Christmas, I watched a grown man cry while watching two adult Emperor Penguins on an ice floe. Big, real tears welled up in his eyes. How many times do birds get that reaction?
I can’t claim credit for converting new birders on these trips; the birds themselves ignite that mysterious spark. But I can say this: Having spent a prior field season in a remote research camp on the other side of Antarctica with only two other researchers for company, it was a different experience to be able to spread my own knowledge to so many fresh ears. It’s fun to see penguins, but it’s almost as fun to see other people see penguins for the first time.
Back home, I received an email this week from one of the season’s most enthusiastic birding converts, a student from a university in Michigan.
“In the real world, as it turns out, there are more birds than simply a dozen large, easily distinguishable flying creatures,” she lamented, having returned to the States with a new, birdy mindset. “I’ve been reduced to pointing helplessly and exclaiming, ‘Look! A bird… of some sort.’”
Aye, that’s the spirit!