'Fraser's Penguins': Fen Montaigne's account of the Adélie penguin and its rapidly warming home
"Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica" is journalist and writer Fen Montaigne's breathtaking account of the life and times of the Adélie penguin of Antarctica, a species whose storm-tossed home is warming up faster than nearly any spot on earth, thanks to global warming. Montaigne will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
Fen MontaigneThe author of "Fraser's Penguins" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5 in advance at www.brownpapertickets.com, at 800-838-3006, and at the door.
The best books about far-off places make the exotic relatable, make the unimaginable plausible. In "Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica" (Henry Holt, 288 pp., $26), journalist and travel writer Fen Montaigne does both. He puts us up on deck as life-ending stormy waters roil off the coast of Antarctica; puts us on the ice as he's attacked (and describes attacks) by some of the world's most mysterious creatures; bundles us in warmth as we tumble out into an otherworldly, snowy, icy, chilling, breathtaking expanse.
The year is 2005. Montaigne is tailing longtime ecologist Bill Fraser as he conducts his ongoing research of Adélie penguins during breeding season on the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula. Over five months, he sees firsthand what Fraser has observed since his studies began in the early 1970s — that this fragile, starkly beautiful ecosystem is warming faster than nearly any spot on Earth (an 11 degrees Fahrenheit winter heat rise in the past 60 years) and becoming inhospitable to many of the creatures that have called it home for thousands of years, including the tuxedoed, iconic Adélie penguin.
Melting sea ice means less krill, which means fewer of the Adélie, fewer of its predator, the brown skua, and an invasion of warmer-weather gentoo penguins. By focusing on the imperiled future of one Antarctic species, he demonstrates the interconnected, questionable future for them all (and in turn, the rest of the planet).
The astonishing vignettes woven throughout are not for the squeamish or faint of heart. Montaigne's descriptions are painstakingly clear, which means that brutal moments, like a pair of skuas ripping apart a fuzzy penguin chick for dinner, seem real enough to make the reader flinch. His story of orcas smashing up through ice, attempting to nab unsuspecting seals and other potential prey (ponies, dogs, men) generates goose bumps — especially when he names adventurers who have narrowly dodged a similar fate, close enough to feel the "fishy smelling" blast of orca breath.
But the sublime moments are utterly so.
"One evening as we wrapped up our work on Torgersen, Fraser looked at groups of a dozen or two Adélies walking past us on their way from the sea to their colonies. As the overcast skies grew imperceptibly darker, the penguins' white breasts gleamed against the gray cobble, the clinking of their pink feet on the stones reminiscent of wind chimes."
Readers of this book would benefit from keeping Internet access nearby so the snow petrels, leopard seals, great southern petrels and other creatures he mentions (only a few species are pictured) can be better visualized to add gorgeous context. Birders, historians, those concerned about the environment and adventure lovers will find much to savor in this book.