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Shackleton's Hut. Photo from Jane Ussher's book Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton

Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica: A book extract

Rebecca Priestley has travelled three times to Antarctica. She longs to be there. It’s also the last place on earth she wants to go.

“Going to Antarctica was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. I was excited, over-stimulated. There was too much to process; I felt like I’d short-circuited,” writes Rebecca Priestley on the eve of her first visit to the wide, white continent in 2011. She was a nervous flyer; she was a mother to three young children. She agonised about the carbon miles. “How could I be flying to Antarctica to write about climate change research?”

Priestley made two further trips to Antarctica, spending time with biologists, geologists, glaciologists and paleo-climatologists – exploring the landscape and observing the wildlife.

We are the wiser for her journeys south. She has written and spoken eloquently on this place in her heart, tracing the steps of early explorers and skilfully unravelling the science and mysteries of Earth’s last great wilderness.

Following her 2016 book Dispatches from Continent Seven: An Anthology of Antarctic Science, Priestley’s Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica is a more personal tour of the continent. With candour, intelligence and humility, she reflects on what Antarctica can tell us about our planet’s future – and whether people even belong in this otherworldly place.

Scott's Hut, Antarctica. Photo from Jane Ussher's book Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton
The whisky is warming in the cold.

I’d be happy to stay longer, but it’s our last night here, so after the whisky I go to the high point on the edge of the ASPA [Antarctic Specially Protected Area]and look down on a circle of penguins and about 30 chicks. A skua flies over. I have a sense that I want to protect Antarctica with the same fierceness that I want to protect my children. After I’ve finished writing this book, I don’t need to come back. I won’t just have fulfilled our K217 event objectives; I will have done what I came here to do.

“I won’t come back,” I say aloud, to see how it feels.

I look out at the icebergs in the open water and imagine the tourist ships that will arrive in a couple of weeks. People will line up to go into Shackleton’s hut, or stand on the edge of the penguin colony to take their photos. Up to two ships a day can come here in summer, delivering up to 40 tourists at a time, plus their guides. I don’t ever want to see that.

Across the sound, the sun is low in the sky over the Royal Society Range. The penguins are making a racket –they really seem to ramp things up in the evenings. The New Zealand Birds Online website describes the Adélie calls as including a “sharp bark aark” and “a loud, throbbing bray arr-rar-rar-rar-raah, often followed by a reverberating kug-gu-gu-gu-gaaaa”. I would describe it as something between a dog bark, a rooster crow, and a geology undergraduate vomiting.

The others join me on the ridge and as we sit and watch, a pod of orca go past – five, six, seven, or more – porpoising through the water, travelling north.

Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition base at Cape Evans, looking from Home Beach across the sea ice to the Barne Glacier.

Cape Evans

Next morning we pack up our bedding and camera gear but leave the tents and the rest of the food for Stu and Semele, who are flying in from the Dry Valleys [a row of largely snow-free valleys, west of McMurdo Sound].

Snow [pilot Sean Mullally] picks us up at 9am and drops us on the gravel beach at Cape Evans 10km away. Last time [photographer Cliff Atkins] and I were here, a team of conservators offered us a hot drink and a snack, but today we’re the only humans around. It’s colder here; the wind’s up a bit. I layer up and fill my pockets with snacks. From the helipad on the beach we walk west towards the hut. To my surprise, we come across running water. It’s hard to find the right word for it: a brook? A creek? I guess it’s a small stream. We stop to listen to the sound. Cliff tells me about a time he was working in the Dry Valleys with Warren and they saw a glacier begin its annual melt. They watched it start with a bit of moisture, then a trickle, then a stream. He said it was bizarre. “It feels kind of ominous, in a way. I know it happens every summer, but more and more this is going to be happening. Little trickles coming off the ice sheet, litre by litre.” I don’t want to wait by this stream too long – it might make me want to pee, and I’m hoping that a day walking in this arid environment might provide a bit of absorption. This is kind of disgusting, but so is fumbling with an FUD [female urination device] and a pee bottle and accidentally peeing on your thermal underwear.

A skua dives for Cliff’s head as he crosses the stream.

Ahead of us by the hut, Chris whistles. I think of the huskies who lived here with Scott and his men and imagine he’s calling some ghost dogs, but once he’s got our attention he calls out, “There’s a whale in the polynya!”

Veronika’s recording the sound of the stream, and Cliff, who’s hard of hearing, doesn’t notice, but I walk as fast as I can in Chris’s footsteps across the snow then over a gravelly beach littered with dead seals in various states of disrepair – from emaciated seal mummies, to intact skeletons with meaty flippers, to scattered bones. I follow Chris up a rocky trail until we’re on the highest point of the cape, where there is a 360° view. Below us is a patch of deepest blue ocean water, surrounded by sea ice. A polynya. On our left is a giant iceberg, probably broken off the nearby Barne Glacier. The dark hump of Inaccessible Island rises from behind the berg.

“There it is,” Chris says.

I’m looking and looking, but I can’t see any whale.

“You have to know what to look for,” he says in response to my growing frustration. “That’s what I’m paid for.”

Rebecca Priestley at Cape Evans on Ross Island.

I hear it at the same time as I see it. A long black body with a small fin moves out of the water, then back under, in a rolling move that shows that this whale is much bigger than the orca we saw at Cape Royds. A minke, says Chris. As the whale surfaces it blows, and a puff of air and water blasts into the silence. It sinks again then emerges further west to roll and blow. Then there’s another whale, just beyond the main polynya. There’s silence apart from the whale blows and the occasional penguin bark or skua cry. Then they’re gone. The water is glassy, broken only by the splashes of a few penguins.

“Do you think he was taking a deep breath ready to go under?” I ask Chris.

“Yeah, get a few good ones on board, then go under the ice,” he says. “If I was a minke whale I think I’d hang out here, eh. Very nice.”

I can’t see them, but Chris says the whales are following a crack, heading towards where the icebreaker is at the McMurdo sea-ice edge. I keep my eyes on the crack and eventually see and hear the whales blow in the distance.

We stay watching the polynya, mesmerised by the beauty of the ocean and the ice glinting in the sunshine. Our noses are dripping in the cold. I hear a splash, see ripples circle in the water, then spy something silvery moving fast just beneath the surface. “Fish!” I cry out. But it’s penguins. The water is so clear we can see them streaking through the water, a flash of white tummy like a salmon.

Chris and I take a few photos of each other – smiling Antarctican with iceberg, polynya, blue sky and mountain ranges in the background.

“This is the sort of day you remember forever,” he says.

Detail of Emperor penguin specimen on the table in Scott’s cubicle. Photo from Jane Ussher's book Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton
Next to Scott’s hut, I film Veronika talking about the benthic life at Cape Evans. Scientists and divers started coming here in 2001, diving under the sea ice to look at the creatures living on the sea floor and in the water column. I’ve seen the photos: in contrast to the stark white landscape of the continent, the sea floor is a vibrant collage of colourful invertebrates – yellow anemones, pink starfish, purple urchins. Scientists studying this environment are monitoring the environmental conditions, and the animals that live here, to collect baseline data before ocean warming and acidification impacts on the ecosystem.

When we’re done filming, we decide to explore. Cliff’s seen some conical formations that he wants to investigate – are they cinder cones? – and I just want to walk. Cape Evans is near the western extent of Ross Island so we head east, and climb. Up on the rocky ridge above Evans there’s another creek. As we cross the shallow water, just a gentle trickle that covers only the smallest stones, I notice a rounded pattern in the mud around the rocks. I bend low to look closer and see that it’s moss. Veronika and I squat down to marvel at the tenacious display of life.

On the slope above us, Cliff and Chris are investigating the cones. They’re not volcanic after all, but dirt cones, a glacial feature where a core of ice is insulated by a thick layer of gravel and dirt. We climb to where we have a view of the polynya, Scott’s hut, a cross on a rise above the hut, and the Transantarctic Mountains across the sound.

Looking back, we can see Turtle Rock in the distance. Cliff tells his story of the Hägglund that went through the sea ice.

We traverse the slope for a while, now heading north. Cliff points out we’re walking through massive hexagonal polygons several metres across. Some of the cracks have survey pegs with University of Wisconsin written on them. A sign on a metal stake reads: Patterned ground / Cape Evans – Ramp Est by R. F. Black 1960–1962. Nearly 50 years on, there’s still no consensus on how these ice wedge polygons, found only in frozen landscapes in Antarctica and the Arctic, are created.

We come to a steep, snow-covered slope. Chris asks us to follow in his footsteps as he creates a tiny goat trail along the slope. I’m last in line and feeling unsteady, vertiginous. I resist the urge to crawl – I’d be a lot happier closer to the ground – and instead breathe slowly and deeply, trying to look directly at the footsteps in front of me. Two skua wait at the bottom, ready to feast on my flesh if I fall.

Chris leads us to a point where it’s low enough to slide the rest of the way. Before I slide, I look down at the landscape we’re heading into. At the bottom of the slope there’s bare ground. The volcanic rockscape is dotted with green ponds fringed with cyanobacterial mats. We each slide to the bottom and start to walk over the rocks between small peaks topped with skua nests. Skua fly down from their rock battlements to swoop low and circle us – You shall not pass! We hurry through the skua stronghold, heads bent low, and stop by an orange-edged pond to set up the camera.

During the long winter months, says Veronika, when snow covers this landscape, all the mosses and algae and lichens persist in a state that biologists call suspended animation – “They’re essentially freeze-dried. But as soon as the sun comes up, these dark volcanic rocks warm up, the ice begins to thaw, and you get liquid water, and it reanimates some of these life forms.”

The rubbery orange matter sitting just beneath the surface of the lake looks like a rotting corpse, I think. Veronika pulls a slurp of it from the lake. It’s the thickness and consistency of kelp. “These are called microbial mats. They are complex mixtures of bacteria; they live together in a mat, each benefitting from the existence of the other.”

She puts down the orange mat and picks up some of the flaky white matter that surrounds the lake. “In this freeze-dried state, they’re as light as a tissue. So this is how they survive the winter – and during these winter months, the wind can pick up a piece like this and take it anywhere, so this is how they distribute themselves throughout the continent.”

We make our way back to the beach along a small stream, avoiding mosses and dodging dive-bombing skua, who seem to have a particular malevolence for Chris and his wide-brimmed hat.

Inside Scott's Hut. Photo from Jane Ussher's book Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton
Chris, who has the key to Scott’s hut, lets me go in first. I open the door, and a second door, by pulling on a handle at the end of a leather thong. I walk through the kitchen area towards the sleeping zone. When I get to the bunks, I startle – it looks like there’s a person lying in one of them. Ghosts. This place feels so different from Shackleton’s hut. I don’t like it. I exit the first door and walk around the side of the hut through an annex that leads to the pony stalls. Around the first corner, I gag. A 100-year-old pile of seal blubber is oozing and dripping fat in the summer warmth. Chris says that one of the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust guys had the summer job of spooning up the brown liquid and transferring it to the back corner. I have my hand over my face, making gagging noises.

“But if it was a matter of life or death, would you eat it?” asks Chris.

“Yes,” I say, after pausing to think for a moment. “Good,” says Chris as he wanders off.

Around the corner is the rest of what Matt called the “chamber of horrors” back in 2011. A pile of emperor penguin carcasses. The stable where the poor ponies were housed. A dog skeleton curled up in the far stall.+

Rebecca Priestley is an award-winning science writer and historian. She won the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize in 2016, and in 2018 she was made a Companion by the Royal Society Te Apārangi. Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica is published by Victoria University Press (on sale from 12 September, $40).