Susan Moran – front and center – and a group of scientists and journalists based at Palmer Station warming up after a swim in the icy waters of the Antarctic Peninsula

You’ve heard of a polar bear plunge? Well, let’s just say my friend Susan Moran enjoyed a “penguin plunge” as she braved (briefly!) a dip in the ice-laden waters off the Antarctic Peninsula a few days ago – followed by a rapid retreat into a hot tub ashore.

That frigid frolic is just one of many amazing adventures Susan is having as she’s studying the natural world way down under on a fellowship for science journalists sponsored by the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass.


Moran, a freelance journalist from Boulder, Colo., is spending a month at Palmer Station learning about the southern polar ecosystem in the company of several U.S. scientists who are conducting field studies on everything from Adelie penguins to zooplankton. Much of their work involves searching for clues about how rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels are affecting predators and prey in the food web, says Moran.

Sunset on the Marr Glacier, Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Susan Moran

While I would give anything to be there with her, I am grateful that digital technology allows me to follow along vicariously. Susan’s blog, plus the one she is writing for On Earth magazine while she is in Antarctica, give me (and you!) the chance to listen with her to seals and penguins, to stand alongside scientists as they work in the most remote labs on earth, and to watch luminous sunsets over monolithic Marr Glacier behind the research station – all the while learning about the fate of the world’s last great wilderness.

One scientist Moran has shadowed is field biologist and penguin expert Jennifer Blum, who is trying to understand what’s behind the drop in the Adelie penguin population. In the 1970s there were some 15,000 breeding pairs around Palmer Station; now there are fewer than 3,000. Researchers suspect declining ice may have a role in the declining penguin numbers.

An Adelie penguin

Adelies are more dependent on sea ice than other penguin species, nesting atop it and feeding on the krill that live beneath it. Moran reports on her blog that the population of the shrimp-like krill in this area of the western peninsula has plunged by 80 percent in the past 30 years – and that experts like Fraser and Blum blame the disappearance of winter sea ice. Much warmer than the Antarctic mainland, the peninsula is a bellwether for a shifting climate: the average midwinter temperature here has risen by 11 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, five times faster than the global average, and faster than mainland Antarctica. As a result, ice cover has decreased by 40 percent since 1950.

Moran is accompanying Blum and her team as they count penguin eggs and breeding pairs, and track penguins using satellite telemeters and radio transmitters to chart their feeding patterns.

Another scientists Moran is following is Alex Culley, a microbial oceanographer, who studies the mysterious role of viruses in the marine food web, and the impact of climate change on life forms as small as invisible microbes and as large as humpback whales. Moran interviewed Culley for KGNU public radio’s science program “How On Earth” (airing weekly in Boulder, Colo. at 88.5 FM).

For more of Moran’s exploits on the ice, not to mention some great pictures of the Antarctic’s charismatic wild denizens, check out this recent post detailing the work she’s doing at Palmer Station — and the fun she’s having getting up close and personal with cute critters like this one.  Could you guess that this penguin is a chinstrap?

Chinstrap penguin. Photo: Susan Moran

Want to experience Antarctica’s wonders for yourself?  Natural Habitat Adventures has a whole slate of cruising expeditions to the bottom of the world. You’ll find surprisingly comfortable small ships — typically retrofitted research vessels with ice-strengthened hulls — with an ace team of naturalists and expert scientists on board to offer educational lectures and guided adventures by Zodiac and on foot.

If you liked that vocal elephant seal giving Susan an earful in the video clip above, but you’re not sure you want to travel all the way to Antarctica to see one, you can commune with their northern cousins at their spring breeding grounds on the California coast. Hundreds haul ashore to mate and give birth at Ano Nuevo State Park, the largest elephant seal rookery on the Pacific coast, about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz. Learn more about northern elephant seals elsewhere on Good Nature.

Here’s hoping your next nature adventure is as exciting as Susan’s!