From: Smithsonian magazine, Associated Press
Published September 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Expect the Unexpected in Antarctica

Rosemarie Keough almost died taking a penguin's picture. Camped on Antarctic sea ice with a small expedition of adventurers and photographers, she loaded film into three cameras and hiked a half-mile in a snowstorm to capture a colony of emperor penguins.


Then everything around her turned the same flat, featureless shade of white: the sky, the ground, and the driving snow in front of her eyes. The line of red flags she needed to guide her back to the expedition's tents had vanished.


"A total whiteout," she recalled in the September issue of Smithsonian magazine. The 45-year-old photographer said she faced a stark choice: "Do you head out to where the pole line should be, knowing if you miss it you'll wander until you freeze to death? Or do you stay put and hope someone comes to get you?" She chose the comfort of another living being, crouching next to the nearest penguin for several hours until the expedition leader finally rescued her.


That was just one of the risks that she and her husband, Pat Keough, 59, who is also a photographer, willingly shouldered to capture the raw beauty of that mysterious land and its hardy creatures.


Their pictures, collected in Antarctica, a limited-edition art book, are a counterintuitive vision: far from being a massive, sterile ice cube, the continent and its shores and seas are remarkably colorful. "Sunsets and sunrises seem to go on forever, icebergs turn every color in the rainbow," Pat Keough said. "Snow algae will turn a whole ice cap watermelon pink for hundreds of acres."


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Photography within the Antarctic Circle is a challenge. "It's easy taking photos when the temperature isn't below minus-30 and the wind isn't above 15 knots," Rosemarie Keough said. "But in blizzard conditions, you can't change film or lenses. Snow an inch and a half thick gets encrusted on the camera, and apertures can freeze."


Antarctica has attracted adventurers since 1773, when British explorer James Cook became the first human to venture inside the polar circle.


Just a few years after Cook's voyage, whalers and sealers sailed south. Seal hunters killed more than a million fur seals, at a rate of about 250,000 a year when hunting peaked around 1822. With the seals gone, massive whaling operations began in 1904. Land stations, shipped south piece by piece at enormous expense, fueled and supplied factory ships capable of killing and processing tens of thousands of whales in a year. Within a few decades, whaling drove the humpback, blue, and fin whales to the brink of extinction.


Today, fewer than 3,000 humpbacks remain in Antarctica, down from more than 100,000 a century ago.


Not all of Antarctica's lessons have been negative. The Antarctic Treaty, signed by 12 nations in 1959, established the continent as a rare model of cooperation. Signatories, which included the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States, agreed to demilitarize the continent, share scientific information from studies there, and set aside territorial claims.


Indeed, the 1959 agreement would serve as a model for later treaties governing outer space and the high seas. Another landmark treaty, in 1964, established protected areas and species. As a result, Antarctica's wildlife is recovering.


Nowadays, the very remoteness of the continent, long regarded as the planet's last untouched place, raises a new threat: tourism. According to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, planes that land on the continent and cruise ships that ply the polar waters carried nearly 20,000 people to Antarctica in the 2003-2004 season — more than twice as many as a decade ago.


Among the attractions are the huts built by the earliest explorers, legends such as Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Accidental time capsules whose contents are preserved almost perfectly by the cold, the century-old buildings are nonetheless being damaged by the harsh environment and increased traffic. The old rendering plants are also still standing, monuments to an ambition no less fierce than the explorers'.


"You can't help but be moved by the scale of industry and what it meant," Pat Keough said.


Ironically, the abandoned slaughterhouses are occupied again — by fur seals.


Not that the seals' return to Antarctica was entirely planned; the population began to recover only after hunters turned their attention to whaling. The depletion of whale populations increased the availability of krill, shrimplike organisms eaten by seals, which explains why there are probably more fur seals in Antarctica today than before humans first arrived.


Source: Associated Press


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