Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins
By Gavin Francis. Counterpoint, 2013, 260 pp.
Emperor penguins are extraordinary animals, the only species to hatch their eggs on the sea ice of Antarctica. Images of male penguins huddled together, incubating their eggs in the harsh winter—protecting them in their brood pouches, balancing them on their feet as they shuffle about in their huddle, rotating to the warmer spots in the middle—are unforgettable.
It was a fascination with these birds and a desire to live alongside them that led Gavin Francis to apply for a position as doctor at Halley, which is the least accessible of the British research stations in Antarctica and just twenty kilometers from a rookery where some 60,000 emperor penguins breed every autumn.
But there were other reasons as well. He wanted to experience the solitude and silence the region would offer, a relief from his frenetic life in Edinburgh. He was drawn to the stories of such legendary polar explorers as Scott, Shackleton, and Byrd. And he hoped the time and space at Halley would help clarify his own future path: "whether to aim for a life of travel and expeditions, or commit to a profession and put down roots."
A chronicle of Francis's 14 months at Halley, Empire Antarctica is also the story of this personal quest. He reflects upon the amazing landscape he inhabits, the remarkable light and, in winter, the lack of light. He meditates on solitude and the experience of living in such close quarters with his small group of colleagues. He contrasts the dangerous conditions of previous explorers with his own relative safety. And he contemplates the lives of the penguins, whom he visits as often as he can and whose "warmth and energy…were a welcome and unexpected comfort through the months of darkness and isolation."
In Antarctica, the landscape and climate are more than background: they take center stage. "How to describe it?" the author asks. "An empire of ice and of isolation, a limitless plain of brilliant white, a binary world of ice and sky." Although I seldom find description effective and think too much of it slowed the book down, I did find Francis's imagery often arresting. "When the fog rolled back…it did so quickly, like an eyelid opening from sleep," he writes. And, "As I exhaled my breath hung in the air as it froze, a gelid mist, refracting the sunlight into evanescent blooms of colour. It was a novel experience to breathe in air and breathe out rainbows."
The best parts of the book, I thought, were the sections on the penguins and the profiles of past explorers, whose stories add both historical depth and an element of drama. I enjoyed learning about Richard Byrd, with whom I wasn't familiar, and reading again about Apsley Cherry-Garrard, whose wonderful book, The Worst Journey in the World, recounts the hair-raising expedition to the emperor penguin rookery near Cape Crozier that he undertook with Edward Wilson and Henry "Birdie" Bowers, both of whom later died with Scott.
"These days are with one for all time—they are never to be forgotten—and they are to be found nowhere else in the world but at the poles," wrote Wilson in a 1911 diary entry that is quoted by Francis. "One only wishes one could bring a glimpse of it away with one with all its unimaginable beauty."
Empire Antarctica is Gavin Francis's "glimpse," captured for him to savor and share.