The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: February 2011

The Pursuit of Curiosity

Pristine Antarctica: the final frontier of modern wilderness tourism

Pristine Antarctica: the final frontier of modern wilderness tourism


“But, after all, it is not what we see that inspires awe, but the knowledge of what lies beyond our view. We see only a few miles of ruffled snow bounded by a vague wavy horizon, but we know that beyond that horizon are hundreds and even thousands of miles which can offer no change to the weary eye, while on the vast expanse that one’s mind conceives one knows there is neither tree nor shrub, nor any living thing, nor even inanimate rock — nothing but this terrible limitless expanse of snow. It has been so for countless years, and it will be so for countless more. And we, little human insects, have started to crawl over this awful desert, and are now bent on crawling back again. Could anything be more terrible than this silent, wind-swept immensity when one thinks such thoughts?” — From the diary of Robert Falcon Scott, written before turning back to end an expedition that took his party 320 kilometres onto the plateau

Aside from killer whales, if there is one thing I regret having been unable to see on this trip, it is the above. The ice sheet that covers 96 percent of the surface of Antarctica is so massive as to literally press the continent into the Earth; it averages 1.6 kilometres in thickness, making up 70 percent of all the world’s freshwater and 90 percent of its ice. Our expedition touched down on its friendliest shores on the Peninsula, never seeing the great frozen plateau. One tiny scion of this desolate world floated by us in the form of a brutally rectangular iceberg, maybe 400 metres square, which towered over our ship and touched bottom another 270 metres underwater. In comparison, the white wastes that Scott and the other adventurers of the “Heroic Age” trekked across are still unfathomable. It boggles the mind to imagine a continent two-thirds the size of North America which stands so astoundingly bare. (more…)

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Antarctic Meltdown

Reading cracks in the dramatically shrinking glacial ice at Neko Harbour

Reading cracks in the dramatically shrinking glacial ice at Neko Harbour

Photograph by Lee NarrawayLee Narraway

The other day the Antarctic University Expedition 2011 had a quick landing at Neko Harbour, a glaciated spot on the Antarctic Peninsula. Rather than hanging out with the penguins at the shore, this time I hiked up a snow-covered hillside with the glaciology students who had come to collect samples from it. The snows of the glaciers all around us were riven with cracks running along and across their course — a sign, University of Ottawa glaciologist Luke Copland told us, that they are under pressure, highly active despite their apparent stillness. Our group stayed within a box of footprints laid out by the professors (a safe area from any such crevasses) as the students laboriously shovelled through 1.5 metres of snow to reach the solid ice at its base. From there, they could extract the cores: thick, translucent cylinders, bubbled with air that was trapped inside the ice as it formed. These surface-level cores only go a few years back; the record to be found in deeper cores reaches as far back as 800,000 years ago. Glaciologists are consummate analyzers of gradual change — but, as the occasional crackle or boom echoing out of the surrounding area reminded us, those changes can culminate in very sudden and serious results.

Just those kinds of results are happening (and are expected to continue) as Antarctica responds to the Earth’s changing climate. Olle Carlsson, a Swedish naturalist and guide now in his twenty-first season of extensive visits to Antarctica, has been to these sites every year since 1991. He has watched them change with his own eyes. He says these glaciers at Neko Harbour were not so crevassed, and came closer to the beach, when he first saw them; ten years ago, part of Brown Bluff that we’ve walked freely through was frozen and impassible; ice all around is thinning or disappearing. Our expedition kept hearing that the insufferably adorable adélie penguins should be at the sites we were visiting; but they have moved increasingly southward, and only showed up in handfuls among the gentoos, who thrive better in low sea ice conditions.

Studies have been somewhat ambiguous on whether Antarctica, taken as a whole, has warmed significantly since record-keeping began. But at the local level things look much scarier. While high-elevation, thickly iced-over east Antarctica has kept relatively stable, the warmer western parts of the continent — the Peninsula, where we have been, and the Amundsen Sea — are showing serious warming effects. Temperatures in the Peninsula have been going up about 1˚C per decade, one of the fastest rates of warming on the planet. (more…)

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No. 3: Chance

A series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

From a series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

During my stay at Fauna, some of my relationships with the chimps were much more demanding than others. Take my friendship with Chance, who along with Rachel is one of the most disturbed chimpanzees at Fauna.

At first, I thought Chance hated my guts. This is because she was always trying to scare me. Whenever I approached her room, or simply walked past it, Chance made this loud puckering sound with her lips and juked her shoulder at me as if she was about to charge. Even though there was thick caging between us, her aggressive feints and angry noises always made me jump. But as I learned more about her personality and her awful childhood, I came to understand that when Chance tried to frighten me, she was actually doing all that she could to reach out to me. Chance was, in fact, desperate for her existence to be acknowledged, and she had been this way since the day she was born.

Chance was born by Caesarean in the lab in 1983, to a mother who had already been infected with, and tested positive for, hepatitis B. Babies born to infected mothers stand a 50/50 chance of getting the disease, which takes up to five years to show up in blood tests. So in order to protect the other infants in the lab from accidental infection (which would ruin their scientific value as “clean” test subjects), it was decided that the new infant would be housed alone, in a separate room from all the other chimpanzees, for the first five years of her life. The staff decided to name her Chance, a reference to her odds of infection. (more…)

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Enjoy the Silence

Paradise Bay, Antarctica lives up to its name

Paradise Bay, Antarctica lives up to its name

Photograph by Lee NarrawayLee NarrawayStudents on rock: Look closely, and you’ll see several members of the Students on Ice expedition at the summit

On our final outing yesterday, I ended up with a small group riding in a boat driven by Sonja Heinrich, touring the aptly named Paradise Bay. She’s a teaching fellow at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, and the leader of its contingent of marine biology students, who have been (I hear) taking to the outer decks of the ship at obscenely early hours each morning to count wildlife. She introduced us to the animals we were cruising past, like the continent’s only land-based bird, the white, chicken-like sheathbill (which subsists, unglamourously, on guano and whatever else it can grab, earning it a variety of shit-themed nicknames). We idled in the ice-riddled bay — towering glaciers loom over it precariously, coming down from the peaks on all sides, and distant thunderings had us hoping to see some ice fall in. But with only a few falls of snow making their way down the mountains, and with dinner looming, we eventually headed out to see something more exciting, particularly for someone with Sonja’s interests: seals had been spotted a little further out.

It didn’t take long to find the group of four crabeater seals out basking their pale, torpedo-like bodies on an iceberg about the size of a small house (which qualifies it as a mere “bergy bit,” according to our group’s glaciologists). Sonja advised us to stay quiet: these seals were more skittish than other breeds we’d been encountering, liable to disappear if disturbed. As our Zodiac drifted up to the berg, however, another crabeater showed up in the water, nosing its way over to us. As it spent more time near the boat it became emboldened, sticking its head up right beside us, swooping around and under us, circling the iceberg only to suddenly pop up again on our other side. As it became clear the seal had decided to hang out with us, Sonja started taking out her hydrophone, an underwater microphone on a long cord, hoping to get a recording of its sounds. While we stood and craned our necks trying to get photos and video, she wore headphones, listening for seal vocalizations. (The only distinctive sound she could make out was what she thought might have been our buddy briefly nuzzling or mouthing at the mic.) Sonja was as shocked and thrilled by this encounter as the rest of us — she’d never seen a crabeater so curious. (more…)

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My Life is a Movie

Of penguins, seals, and humpbacks: the scene in Brown Bluff, Antarctica

Of penguins, seals, and humpbacks: the scene in Brown Bluff, Antarctica

PenguinBruce Klock

“I felt as if, all my life, I’d been mistaken about something important. I followed… in agreeably engrossed disbelief, as in a dream in which yellowthroats and redstarts and black-throated blue and black-throated green warblers had been placed like ornaments in urban foliage, and a film production unit had left behind tanagers and buntings like rolls of gaffer’s tape… as if these birds were just momentary bright litter, and the park would soon be cleaned up and made recognizable again.” — Jonathan Franzen, on being introduced to the world of birdwatching

After a couple of landings here in Antarctica, it is hard to shake a feeling like Franzen’s above: that the scenes I am witnessing are unreal, that the wild drama on open display before me could only be a contrivance, some tableau from a nature documentary. Maybe it shouldn’t be shocking, in the most hospitable parts of the world’s largest wilderness area, to see a couple of dozen penguins skipping across the water; fur seals basking, backs arched, on rocks; the occasional pair of whales breaching; a leopard seal cruising sleek and serpentine through the water around a great guano-plastered penguin rookery. Disbelief and detachment at seeing this kind of thing surely reflects the extent of the depletion we have created in our own surroundings, and it suggests that televised nature alone has made a poor substitute. But, regardless, the sights of the last couple of days have felt surreal.

Wildlife sightings thus far on the Antarctic University Expedition 2011 have largely taken place from the ship, but this morning our visit to Brown Bluff put us straight onto a rocky beach amongst a large, scattered crowd of fur seals, penguins, and a few shorebirds. Most of us without glaciers to examine or animal counts to complete wended our way past the grumpy seals and sat down on the rocks with our cameras, taking in the sleepy scene. It’s forbidden to approach the animals so closely as to disturb them, but with a sufficiently disarming visitor, penguins will sometimes get curious, wander up, and maybe take a peck — as one did to the hand of Fabrice, a student from Bordeaux. It was interesting to watch the seals barking, whining, challenging one another for good spots, and play-fighting in the surf, and the penguins dozing, squabbling, and pecking at their as-yet-un-moulted down; but we watched with anticipation, a certain focus in mind: a common desire to connect with a wild animal. (more…)

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Putting boots on the (dung-like, muddy) ground of Seymour Island, Antarctica

Boots on the (dung-like, muddy) ground of Seymour Island, Antarctica

Seymour IslandSeymour Island

The most dedicated members of the Antarctic University Expedition 2011 roused themselves at 5 a.m. today to witness our entry into the Weddell Sea, the great, ice-riddled body of water from which we will be visiting the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands. Several wildlife sightings and a breakfast later, we got the news we were waiting for — the winds were high, but we would still be able to make our first landing on Antarctic soil today. The expedition’s ship, the Ushuaia, took us within a few kilometres of shore; we made the rest of the way on Zodiacs that manoeuvred us through the intervening field of icebergs. Conditions were choppy as advertised, and we stepped rather wetly out of the boats and onto a short beach overlooked by slanting cliffs. We had arrived on Seymour Island.

The geology students in our midst immediately set about examining the rock face. Our reason for choosing this rather obscure island had to do with their field of interest: it is one of few places on Earth known to preserve a fossil record encompassing the transition between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods of geologic time — and, of course, it is the southernmost of that group of about twenty. This transition, called the K-T Boundary, is better known to the rest of us as the mass extinction that ended the era of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, ushering in the Cenozoic era we occupy today. The cause of this tremendous upheaval remains contested, and, according to one of our experts, Carleton professor of Earth sciences Claudia Schröder-Adams, what can be found on Seymour Island plays a significant role in the debate. (more…)

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Sam Is a Person

An electronic conversation with poet and playwright Adam Seelig

An electronic conversation with Toronto poet and playwright Adam Seelig

Every Day in the Morning (slow)New Star BooksPage one of Every Day in the Morning (slow)

Poet and playwright Adam Seelig has created an ambitious new curiosity, Every Day in the Morning (slow) (New Star Books, 2010). Told in a visually and grammatically adventurous “drop poem” style, the book is equal parts novella, dramatic monologue, and audacious poetry trick. Superficially, it’s the story of a sad-sack young composer named Sam, but its true concern is more style than substance, more verve than narrative. Over the course of this recent electronic chat, Seelig talked about slow’s eccentricities and its essence, both as a formal experiment and a story.

Jacob McArthur Mooney Hi, Adam. Thanks for taking some time to discuss the book. This is likely to be more of a conversation about style than a conversation about substance. Surely, one thing becomes the other after a while, and the spacious, occasionally bland, monologue that is the novel’s substance does the text a lot of favours by getting out of the way and letting the style of slow take over. However, writers love their substance, too. So, just to get it out of the way before we talk about other things, where does the A-to-B plot line of your narrator’s day factor in the gestalt of the book? In other words, how much am I supposed to care about Sam’s musical career? Or, is he primarily an excuse for a voice, a narrator willing to be self-reflective and tangential enough to make full use of the layout you’ve chosen?

Adam Seelig Your questions all point to the core of the book: music. Music does not mean anything — it is that thing in itself. So with slow — the form forms the subject, and the subject informs. Its matter is its matter.

slow unfolds in the space of Sam’s morning, specifically the very first part of his morning. He gets up, walks past piano, enters bathroom, lathers face, picks up razor, turns on light above mirror, and shaves. This is related in the third person in the first few pages until we enter Sam’s reflective and meandering mind (which oscillates between first person and second person). One-hundred-and-fifty-pages later, however long that may be, we (mostly) come out of Sam’s internal monologue to watch him put down razor, walk past piano again, and stand for a moment in the sun shining through the window. The End.

This morning space definitely influences Sam’s thought process throughout the book. His thoughts flow from that middle place of consciousness between night’s sleep and day’s first cup of coffee, that place where the solitary mind wanders, reflects, and gathers. (more…)

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Crossing Over

Outbound from South America to Antarctica with Students On Ice

Outbound from South America to Antarctica with Students On Ice

Beagle ChannelBeagle Channel

With another full day behind us, the now-familiar voice of Students On Ice’s Geoff Green crackled over the intercom of the M/V Ushuaia last night: to starboard we could see the southernmost town in the world, Chile’s Puerto Williams; to port a huge, spectacular moon; to one o’clock, the Southern Cross. I stepped out of my cabin onto the deck of this ship that is taking us to Antarctica, watching Puerto Williams approach. Beneath the silhouettes of the mountains ranging to either side, the town appeared a single glimmering line of orange lights along the coast, a last thread of civilization hanging at the threshold of the very different world into which we are headed.

At midnight we left the Beagle Channel, entering the notorious Drake Passage that separates South America’s southern tip from the outstretched arm of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Between the last couple of days in the hotel’s conference room, and today in the Ushuaia’s rather more tilty lecture space (by the oscillations of dangling cords and strings, I guess that we have been rolling through 15–30˚ waves for hours), we passengers have been given a number of introductory talks by the trip’s enthusiastic, international team of professors, each explaining the relation of Antarctica to their field of expertise. One recurring theme is the continent’s incredible isolation, and the unique geological, climatic, and ecological features this has given it. (more…)

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“The Walrus” Cannot Be Ignored

“It is the strangest thing you’ve seen / Half animal, half magazine”

A ditty about us — composed and performed by The Arrogant Worms

The Arrogant WormsTom SandlerThe Arrogant Worms performing at The Walrus Foundation Gala

At The Walrus Foundation’s third annual fundraising gala, held last month, our guests were treated to a special performance by the celebrated musical-comedy group, The Arrogant Worms. To mark the occasion, Trevor Strong and The Worms wrote and performed a ditty called “The Walrus.” We’re pleased to give it a wider release here on The Walrus Blog.

Enjoy the wit that has made The Arrogant Worms a celebrated part of Canadian music and comedy for twenty years…

We praise The Walrus, noble beast
Upon whose words we love to feast
The beaver chews, the eagle soars —
The Walrus cannot be ignored

It is the strangest thing you’ve seen
Half animal, half magazine
Every word Canadian —
At least 80 percent of the time


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From Argentina: prepping to set sail for Antarctica with Students On Ice

From Argentina: prepping to set sail for Antarctica with Students On Ice

UshuaiaStudents On Ice

“Always think about where you are.”

At just this moment, I’m in a wood-panelled hotel conference room with a small stage at the front. Outside the windows are the slanted streets of Ushuaia, Argentina, a cozy port town nestled in amongst the awe-inspiring mountains of Tierra del Fuego. The people in the rows of chairs around me have arrived over the last few days from more than a dozen countries from around the world, and Geoff Green, the utterer of the words above, is giving an orientation talk, our group’s first official get-together. From the moment he begins speaking to us, Geoff exudes the sincerest enthusiasm for the mission of his organization, Students On Ice. We are here, in his words, “to use these amazing parts of our world as classrooms.” These amazing parts of the world being its north and south polar regions; the classroom in question today being Antarctica.

Always think about where I am: I am planning to take this motto very seriously. About a week and a half ago I learned of the existence of Students On Ice, a Canadian organization that runs yearly educational expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic for students in university or high school. (In 2009, Nicholas Hune-Brown wrote here about SOI’s trip to Canada’s Arctic.) At the same time I learned of their willingness to take me along on their Antarctic University Expedition 2011 — and now here I am, a little bewildered to find myself in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, preparing to leave tomorrow on a ship headed for the most alien and unwelcoming land on the planet. But as far as I have gotten to know the fifty-seven students and twenty-nine professors, scientists, experts, and staff who are coming along, I will be making the trip in delightful company.

For the rest of February, watch this space for updates on the icebergs, lectures, people, and penguins I will be encountering.

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Charlie’s Version

Charles Foran, winner of the Charles Taylor Prize, on writing Mordecai

Charles Foran, winner of the Charles Taylor Prize, on writing Mordecai

Charles Foran© James Lahey

Winner of the Charles Taylor Prize, a finalist for British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, and placement on numerous book-of-2010 lists — there are reasons why Charles Foran’s Mordecai: The Life & Times has earned so much attention since coming out last October. To be sure, it’s smartly written, well researched, and is at the centre of a recent wave of Richler revival projects, including the star-studded screen adaptation of Barney’s Version. At 725 pages, Mordecai is more than comprehensive; it delivers often on its promise (made implicit by its size and unprecedented access) to dish dirt on Canada’s favourite literary bad boy. But these are bookjacket-y accolades— great reasons to gift the thing, not necessarily to make space on your own nightstand. They’re not what critics are digging most about the book, or what makes it an original.

Foran has published nine books, four of which are novels, and is a gifted raconteur above all. Earlier, we chatted over coffee about what it was like turning an unbelievable life into an honest story.

“It was a monumental task,” he said and meant literally. “We sort of trimmed a small book out. I filed it at 310,000 words and change, and it ran at 245,000. While cutting, however, we were also adding details, and enriching scenes. It was a dance. But the book was always very big.”

That last part only sounds like an apology. It’s actually just leftovers from a conversation the writer had and resolved with his inner editor. “There’s an argument to be made for the size,” Foran continued, “to do with writing a book that is commensurate with [Richler’s] life and his talent. The idea of producing a small, cautious book about Mordecai Richler just seemed so wrong.” And taking into account the raw facts of Richler’s life, maybe impossible; by nineteen, he was living off loans, quaffing “pints” of Bordeaux in the Paris of Sartre and Camus, and making himself a regular in Ibiza’s brothels. All this and more before even a taste of literary success. (more…)

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No. 2: Yoko

A series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

A series of thirteen posts about the chimpanzees of Fauna Sanctuary

Yoko has a bit of a reputation. He’s the smallest chimp at Fauna, but he more than makes up for his size with his outsized “personality.” You see, Yoko has bitten off more chimpanzee digits than anyone else at Fauna. As Gloria says, “If Yoko was a warrior in some ancient tribe, he’d be the one wearing the necklace of severed fingers and toes.”

But as Gloria also points out, “Yoko is so much more than a bully.” I learned this firsthand one afternoon, after a long cleaning day, as I was watching Binky explore one of the outdoor island habitats at Fauna.

Yoko appeared in the chimphouse doorway. I said hello to him, but he wasn’t paying any attention to me. He had spotted Binky, who at that moment was climbing the stairs to one of the play structures. Yoko seemed spellbound by the sight of Binky, who was oblivious to Yoko’s presence.

Binky and Yoko have a bit of a history. They get into quite a few fights with each other, and some of these fights can be very rough. Knowing this, I began to fear the worst as Yoko slowly loped his way over to the bottom of the play structure. (more…)

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