Scoop Review of Books

Antarctic Anthology

Dispatches from Continent Seven: an anthology of Antarctic science
compiled by Rebecca Priestly (Awa Press, $55)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Antarctica Priestley--001Rebecca Priestley’s latest anthology, ‘Dispatches from Continent Seven’, presents a fascinating collection of writing from some 50 Antarctic scientists, explorers and visitors, ranging from Captain James Cook up to the present day. Initially this solid volume seemed rather daunting, but once underway I was hooked and read it right through over a weekend.

For me, one of the unexpected pleasures of this book was to bring back memories of my own Antarctic experiences, exactly fifty years ago, as a young geologist for a New Zealand exploring party in north Victoria land. The Antarctic community was a primitive and male-dominated world then, with much less emphasis on safety and environmental protection than there is today. Different sections of the book were evocative of long-forgotten experiences for me – like dealing with an ever dripping nose in a freezing wind, and my revulsion at the smell of pemmican-dominated meals.

The anthology includes over forty pieces about Antarctic exploration and scientific investigation, arranged chronologically. The strength of this book is the skilful selection of writers and topics, illustrating the wide variety of research undertaken in Antarctica, and some of the difficulties of living and working in this cold and hostile environment. Although written in English, non-British scientists are well represented, emphasising the truly international nature of Antarctic science. The writing is clear and non-technical, with brief introductory notes to each article by Rebecca Priestley.

Inevitably some articles are better recalled than others, but is likely that few readers will forget ‘The hooligan cocks of Cape Adare”, a short account of some of the bizarre sexual habits of unattached male Adelie penguins. For many years this short article by G.M. Levick was considered too offensive for publication, and was omitted from his 1914-15 monographs on penguin behaviour, and only recently rediscovered.

Edgeworth David’s story of the search for the south magnetic pole – a meandering, difficult journey across the polar plateau when there was nothing to see except the inclination of a compass needle – is perhaps typical of some expeditions that might seem pointless to the non-scientist. Having finally established the location of the magnetic pole in the middle of a white wasteland, the party then solemnly raised the Union Jack and took possession of the surrounding land for the British Empire.

I had previously read Cherry-Garrard’s book, ‘The worst journey in the World’ when he and two others set off in mid-winter darkness to collect eggs from emperor penguins at Cape Crozier. Re-read in this compilation, it seemed an ill-advised adventure to break the boredom of the Antarctic winter, and the participants were lucky to return alive. Cherry-Garrard later described his fury at the uninterested response he got when he finally delivered the eggs to the British Museum.

There was a surge in Antarctic science during and after the International Geophysical Year in 1956-57, and this continues to the present day. The exploration phase was largely complete, and scientific work is focused mainly on specific problems. The second half of the book deals with this later period, covering an amazing range of topics including katabatic winds, collecting meteorites, seals, krill, frozen Antarctic lakes, fieldwork in a cold climate, and microfossils. Several of the later articles discuss Antarctica as a global barometer of climate change. Most of the articles are only 5 or 6 pages long, so it is a chance to get an overview of the variety of science being undertaken in Antarctica.

Those of us who have had the chance to live and work in Antarctica realise that we are greatly privileged. This fascinating anthology allows a much wider group to share that experience.