Antarctica Notes

Antarctica Notes

Most of the works which formed the Antarctica – A Fragile Eden exhibition were inspired by a visit to the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula in March 2011 aboard a Chilean Vessel The Antarctic Dream. A few however, were based on The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition [SNAE] of 1902-04


Antarctica Global Science from a Frozen continent                         Edited by David W H Walton

‘No longer a remote continent at the end of the world of little significance, Antarctica in the 21st century is now recognized as a key part of the global jigsaw, a driver for the models of our likely future climate and a continuing test bed for the success of international political collaboration and cooperation. Its future matters to everyone.’             Professor David Walton

Approaching the Chilean station:      The Chilean Air Force Base – Base Antarctica Gabriel González Videla – is situated at Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula.

 At the edge of the sea ice:     While reading about Antarctica I came across the sentence ‘in most of Antarctica life clings to the edge’. Around the coast a contradictory circulation operates created by the interaction between the East Wind Drift moving in one direction and the West Wind Drift in the other. Associated with the current driven by the West Wind Drift is the Antarctic Convergence which is the result of cold Antarctic waters meeting the warmer waters of the sub-Antarctic. This gives rise to an upwelling of nutrients. These foster high levels of phytoplankton with associated small crustaceans and krill, the bedrock of the food-chain that supports fish, penguins, seals, whales and birds.

Thomas Griffith Taylor who was the geologist on the Terra Nova – Scott’s 1910 British Antarctic Expedition – put it succinctly in this small ditty:

Big floes have little floes all around about ‘em

And all the yellow diatoms couldn’t do without ‘em

Forty million shrimplets feed upon the latter

And they make the penguins and the seals and the whales

Much fatter.

 Beautiful vagabonds:     John Burroughs, an American naturalist and author wrote:

‘A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life… The beautiful vagabonds endowed with every grace, masters of all climes and knowing no bounds…’

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  John Burroughs(1837-1921)

I don’t think any bird more truly fits this description than an albatross. Beautiful they most certainly are, as anyone who has watched them gliding effortlessly on an updraft of air, wings motionless, can verify. Vagabonds too, they circumnavigate the Southern Ocean coming ashore only in alternate years to breed.  Declining numbers of albatross mean that they are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as an endangered species. They are threatened today by pollution and commercial fishing, in particular where long line fishing techniques are used – it has been estimated that 100,000 albatross are killed each year in this fashion.

Many whales and birds innumerable:     The title of this painting comes from a notation on an Admiralty Map of the Southern Ocean published in March 1866.

The most exciting outing for me was the afternoon we spent in the zodiacs on the Gerlache Strait. As we sailed around looking at calving ice and seals on high ice floes, humpback whales suddenly arrived. We had seen them from the ship but never at such close quarters.  It was wonderful to watch them breach and dive.  They dive with such elegance, the tips of their tails as they subside gently from sight resembling butterflies. At one point one came so close to our zodiac that I could have reached out and touched him. The next moment he dived and time became suspended as everyone in the boat sat utterly still. When the bubbles came up on the opposite side the relief was palpable and we knew that we were not going to end the afternoon in the middle of the Southern Ocean. To have been so close to such large but gentle creatures left me feeling a huge sense of privilege which has stayed with me ever since.

Calving:     The term used when chunks of melting ice break off from the edge of the ice mass and which is occurring with greater frequency as global temperatures rise. The threats posed by climate change are massive. Studies warn that the rate of ice loss in west Antarctica is so great that it could lead to rises in global sea levels of 1-3 metres. This would put many major cities at risk of flooding and may result in huge waves of migration. In order to avoid a dangerous degree of climate change the Paris Climate Agreement commits to limiting the rise in global temperatures to well below 2°C – and ideally to 1.5°C -compared with pre-industrial levels.

Diamond Dust and Diamond Day:     These two paintings were inspired by a passage from the book Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis, an Edinburgh doctor who spent a year as medical officer on the British Antarctic Survey base at Halley

‘When I reach to unload the skidoos I stop suddenly as if called, noticing the fine grains of snow that swirl in eddies around me. They are ‘diamond dust’; tiny, almost weightless fragments of ice that do not sink, but float. Like mirrors they catch the light, animating the air.’

And from the same book:

Sunset:     ‘In high latitudes the sun seems reluctant to set, lingering over its elision with the frozen earth. It glides so gently that its dying colours bleed skywards for hours after it has dipped below the horizon …. I have never lived so far from plants and this autumn my mind turns instead to botanical comparisons – the rainbow seep of chlorophylls. The reds are anthocyanins, the oil-rich crimson of autumn maple. The solar penumbra is carotene, the brushed gold of fallen cherry leaves.’


Nocturne:        ‘The darkroom was one way of being alone; going out to stay at the caboose beyond the Halley perimeter was another …. nine drums from the Simpson platform and you had reached the perimeter. At the ninth drum turn left, to the north, and count eleven drums more. From the eleventh drum, the caboose lay to the north-east, at a distance of about fifty metres …. Standing on the roof and looking back the base could be seen about a kilometre off, its halogen lamps like prison searchlights.’

Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins is published by Vintage Books.

Antarctica in colour:     The underwater world is a vibrant carousel of colour and form whirling around the edge of Antarctica – a huge contrast to the landscape above it with its delicate shades of blue, violet, indigo, white and all the subtle hues that arise from the light on snow and ice.

Docking at Ushuaia:     Pronounced oosh-wya it is the capital city of Tierra del Fuego and lies at the southernmost tip of South America. Most departures for Antarctica take place from here as it takes only a couple of day’s journey across Drakes Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship in the painting is based on the Antarctic Dream which took me to Antarctica. It is small compared to the large cruise liners as it only carries 80 passengers and 20 crew. Once in Antarctica the rigid inflatable boats known as Zodiacs were used to take us on expeditions.  Ushuaia reminded me of a frontier town, such as those depicted in films about the Gold Rush, and I was told that the Argentinean Government paid a supplement to people willing to settle there. I am the proud possessor of a large white penguin jug, the penguin’s beak forming the spout, bought in a Café Bar on the waterfront in Ushuaia.

Drifting shards:     This arose from a sensation rather than a concrete idea. I began to wonder about what it would be like to look up through the water towards the light on the surface. Then slivers of ice began to drift down through the water catching and reflecting light over their surface as they fell.

Endurance and Fortitude:     Along with the Emperor penguin Adelies ‘true birds of the sea ice’ are the only authentic Antarctic penguin. They breed further south than any other penguin enduring the coldest Antarctic conditions and the shortest summers. This means that they cannot waste time and will breed quickly with any available female, rather than delay by waiting for last year’s mate.  The chicks have to fend for themselves at around 7 weeks although they remain in the pack for several years.  Over the past 30 years, the Adélie population on the peninsula, northeast of the Ross Sea, has fallen by almost 90 percent resulting in a migration southwards. The intrusion of warmer sea water has been shortening the winter season. Adelies are being regarded as an indicator of climate change. The mean winter air temperature of the Western Antarctic Peninsula, one of the most rapidly warming areas on the planet, has risen 10.8°F in the past half-century

Sleeping fur seal-‘Happy to pillow my head on the rock ’:     Blissfully asleep, head cushioned in the confluence between 2 rocks this little chap captured my imagination and made me think of the lines from the Taoist poet han shan:

Men don’t come this far into the mountains

Where white clouds gather and billow

Dry grass makes a comfortable mattress

The blue sky is a fine quilt

Happy to pillow my head on the rock

I leave heaven and earth to endless change.

Cold Mountain Transcendental Poetry:

Under the Ice Dome:     Having learned to scuba dive I was fascinated by the idea of the world that must lie under the ice in Antarctica. It is an activity that isn’t for the faint-hearted. I can’t imagine diving in an environment where the surface of the sea is covered by a sheet of ice, knowing that because of the magnetic pole a compass is unworkable. I believe that some divers from the scientific stations who do this job don’t even use trace lines to help guide them back to the access hole.

I read this passage in the Biogeographic Atlas of the Southern Ocean published in 2015:

The Southern Ocean is not monotonously blank but a shining diving world of anemone and albatross, jelly and whale…

In Under the Ice Dome I have tried to catch something of the spirit of this.

In the Ice Caves:     The seals in this painting are Weddell seals, reputedly the gentlest of all the Antarctic seals (Leopard, Crabeater, Elephant and Ross). They have small faces on a large body and the corners of their mouths turn upwards giving them a smiling appearance. They live on shore-fast ice below 78° South – free floating pack ice renders them vulnerable to attack from killer whales. When diving they can stay underwater for up to 80 minutes.  One day the image of a small seal, face peering out from an arch of ice floated into my mind. This painting is the result.

The Interloper:     The seals in this work look uneasily at the looming red shape moving inexorably towards them, as well they might do; the history of mankind’s relationship with them has not always been a benevolent one. Sealing began in the late 18th century and continued for over a hundred years peaking around 1820. There were no regulations to limit what was done and nothing of scientific value was published because the sole purpose of sealing was a commercial one.


Watcher on the shore:     Unlike sealing and whaling there was no mercantile value in large-scale penguin hunting. However penguins – and wildlife in general – had their eggs stolen in vast quantities, were caught, kept in captivity, killed, skinned and dissected all in the name of science.  Primarily because the Antarctic environment is relatively free of human beings I think that there is still a sense of invasion, or at least of being guests in an environment alien to us when we visit the seventh continent.

The following excerpt from The Quiet Land by Frank Debenham eloquently summarises this:

Men are not old here

Only the rocks are old, and the sheathing ice.

Only the restless sea, chafing the frozen land.

Ever moving, matched by the ceaselessly-circling sun

Wild birds go wandering over the face of the snow;

Bright, swift, harsh-crying, strange and heedless.

Transient in time over the mountains,

As we are transient, strangers in an old land.

Man is not old here

Creeping upon the white, brilliant brow of the world.

Less than the birds, impeded and muffled by the snow.

Unheeded by the sun, rejected by the sea.

And stunned and stunted by the silence.

Lone sentinel:     Spotted high up on a rocky point and silhouetted against the cobalt-cerulean hues of the ice this gentoo penguin looked for all the world like he was on sentry duty, scanning the sea for signs of impending invasion.

 Madonna of the rocks: Penguin chick feeding: Gentoo chick and  Gentoo with chick:      Gentoo parents share incubation taking turn about to sit on the nest. The chicks remain in the nests for about one month before forming crèches and go out to sea when they are two and a half to three months. Gentoos live mainly on crustaceans such as krill with fish making up only about 15% of the diet.  The pair bond in gentoos is strong and they usually mate with the partner of the previous season.

Penguin huddle (stone lithograph):     These are male Emperor Penguins who spend the winter months standing on ice when they go up to 120 days without food. They incubate their egg by placing it on top of their feet and fluffing their feathers over it to keep the cold out. They keep warm by huddling together, rotating so that the penguins on the outside move to the middle and vice versa. They move almost imperceptibly 2cm at a time, one penguin’s movement causing the ripple of a Mexican wave throughout the group.

Antarctic circles (stone lithograph):     The Antarctic circle is situated at 66° of latitude south of the equator and is the northernmost latitude in the Southern hemisphere where the sun remains continuously above or below the horizon, meaning that all areas south of this have at least one day a year when the sun doesn’t rise and another when it doesn’t set.  Thinking about this, other circles connected with Antarctica came to mind. The huddle of penguins grouped closely together to keep out the cold; the circle of the volcanic mouth of Mt Erebus or the volcanic basin on Deception Island; ship’s radar; points of a compass; the Antarctic Circumpolar and Coastal Currents and the corresponding East and West Wind Drifts.  I incorporated some of these into this litho print.

The blue-green areas depict the pattern of phytoplankton which occurs because of the contradictory circulation that arises out of the clockwise flowing Circumpolar Current and the anticlockwise travelling Coastal one. The interaction between the two creates a region of turbulence giving rise to phytoplankton which attracts krill, crustaceans and other marine life to this rich feeding ground.

Penguin pool – ink on paper/stone lithographs:The interaction between these 2 penguins caught my attention. It looked as though one was saying “What’s up with you?” to his companion who seemed really down in the dumps!

Penguins only beyond this point:     This title comes from a sign on the Chilean Station – Base Antarctica Gabriel González Videla:  We humans stood there at the boundary while the penguins walked past it turning to look at us as though to say “We can come here but you can’t!”

Rookery Neuk:     ‘Neuk’ is the Scottish word for corner. The name of this painting is a play on the title of the farce Rookery Nook by Ben Travers.  As with rooks, rookery is the name given to the place where penguins breed and nest.  The penguins here are gentoos, the largest in size after Emperors and Kings and readily distinguishable by the strip of white across their heads and their bright orange beaks.  Penguins lost the ability to fly around 60 million years ago and now their wings have fused, moving only from the shoulder allowing them to make 180° underwater turns in less than one fifth of a second. They move like small torpedoes accelerating to 15mph in less than one second and can dive to depths of 500 metres.

Rammy on the rocks:   ‘Rammy’ is a Scots word used to describe a noisy altercation or a brawl. Although most of the time the penguins appeared to co-exist quite happily there were occasional territorial disputes.  However these seemed to be quickly resolved.

A good scratch: Fur seal and A seal called Arthur:     Fur seals are the only eared seals in Antarctica. Their hind flippers can be turned forwards which allows them to move at a fair speed across the land.  While gazing at some seals sitting on an ice floe ten feet above our zodiac I asked the guide how they managed to ascend the sheer, slippery sides. With a straight face he said “Well they wait until high tide!”

Wee crabbies:     These are crabeater seals. They tend to lie alone on floes or in small groups of 2 or 3. The name is a misnomer as they don’t in fact eat crabs, but subsist mainly on krill and other small crustaceans which they filter through their specially adapted teeth. They in their turn are predated upon and form an important part of the diet of leopard seals.  They are usually left alone by killer whales however because they are quite fierce and possess sharp multi-cusped teeth that can inflict a lot of damage. The Scottish wildlife photographer Doug Allan uses the diminutive term ‘wee crabbies’.

The watcher watched:     I saw this scene where one of the ship’s passengers was kneeling on the snow and looking at a group of penguins. What she didn’t realize however, was that she in turn was being watched by a penguin who, standing close behind her, was studying her every bit as intently as she was studying his friends.

West Wind Drifter:     Because of the total absence of land mass in the latitudes around Antarctica the winds pick up speed unhindered, whipping the sea up into huge waves – sometimes as high as 80 feet. The westerly air currents in the 40th, 50th and 60th latitudes have given the area their nicknames – the Roaring Forties, Howling Fifties and Screaming Sixties.  An environment not auspicious for many creatures, but perfect for the survival of the Wandering Albatross. These birds use their huge wing span to coast the air currents, heading into the wind to gain height, then turning to glide downwards towards the trough between two waves.

The title of this work comes from the West Wind Drift which is the dominant element of circulation in the Southern Ocean – with a nod of course to Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter!


The following four works were based on the accounts of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition gleaned from The log of the Scotia which is held in the archives of the National Library of Scotland.

On 2nd November 1902 the Scotia sailed down the Clyde bound for Antarctica.  The ship, a refurbished Norwegian whaling vessel was captained by an Edinburgh man – William S Bruce (1867-1921).

Blizzard on Saddle Island:     Their first stop in Antarctica was Saddle Island in the south Orkneys where they landed three months later on 4th February 1903 and raised the Scottish flag. They wintered on nearby Laurie Island where they built a shelter and established a meteorological laboratory, Omond House which has been in use ever since. Now known as the Orcadas Scientific Station it is the longest running weather station in Antarctica.

Rounding the headland:     On 15th December 1903 while making their way to Buenos Aires to re-fuel and stock up their provisions the ship ran into a north-east wind while trying to round a headland about 60 miles west-south-west of Cape Corrientes. Short of coal and unable to make headway the Captain’s log reads:

Dec16              Tacking to and fro all day off this infernal land. We have made about five miles altogether!

Dec 17             Tacking again. We sighted Mogotes Point Lighthouse half a point on the port bow at 8.30pm…it is all under 40 fathoms here, and a dangerous coast.

Dec 18             Still beating to and fro in an aimless fashion

Dec 19             Heavy rain all the forenoon. We made some progress with a north-west wind and did some steaming also. At evening the wind is dying again and we stand every chance of being becalmed

At noon on December 20th however, a south-west wind sprang up and finally, although it took them four days, they rounded the point!

Marooned: the Scotia stranded on a mud bank:     Their troubles however, were far from over. Two days later sailing up the Rio de la Plata they ran aground on a notorious shifting sandbank.

The Captain’s log again:

Dec 21             We were heading merrily west-south-west towards a lightship ahead, when suddenly at 8am, after two or three ominous bumps, we found ourselves aground in thirteen feet.

Afterwards they found that the lightships which should have guided them safely upriver had been shifted. Two days later they floated off and on Christmas Eve they arrived unscathed in Buenos Aires.

Russ and the Adelies:     Of the eight dogs taken on the expedition only four survived. Although there were occasional references to most of them only one of them was singled out. Russ makes many appearances in the Captain’s log:

Feb 23             The third [black-throated penguin] is alive on deck having escaped once from Russ, our Samoyede dog.

March 26        “Sir John” (otherwise Russ) went ashore with us and had a great time with penguins, thoroughly tiring himself out.

 July 12             Russ was busy on his own account with seals.

Sept 14            A number of gentoos came on The Beach from northward, and Russ played havoc, mangling many and driving one over the ice-cliff.

The Adelie’s however, seemed to be made of sterner stuff. Bruce records that ‘[Willie ]was in the midst of the penguins – all adelias. They were fighting each other and attacked his legs, and defied the dogs.’ So the outcome of this assignation is perhaps not all weighted on Russ’s side! Whatever happened he survived and returned home with the rest of the crew.


The Antarctic Treaty

In 1959 twelve countries gathered together and forged The Antarctic Treaty. This Treaty is recognised as one of the most successful international agreements with 53 countries now acceding to it.  It stipulates that “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. The Treaty and related agreements prohibit the use of Antarctica for military purposes as well as exploitation of its mineral resources. The Environmental Protocol to the Treaty designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”.

For all its success, the Antarctic Treaty System is under considerable pressure largely because of growing interest in the region’s resources including oil, gas, minerals, fish and krill.   Technological advances make exploiting these resources easier than ever before. It is therefore vital that the international community works together to protect the continent from a range of growing threats.


From:   Antarctica. Souvenirs from the Seventh Continent

Compared with the evolutionary history of the whales and the seals,

The history of homo sapiens has been very short.

Compared to just about anything, our history in Antarctica is less than a second in all eternity.

Maybe our history there – discovery, exploration and tourism – will be only a parenthesis.

And if so, what will the parenthesis contain?

       Olle Carlsson & Stefan Lundgren