My Life is a Movie
Of penguins, seals, and humpbacks: the scene in Brown Bluff, Antarctica
Published: February 21, 2011
David Rusak, Walrus Magazine
“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.
I’ve been trying to think through what is so appealing about this experience — why we so strongly crave recognition from untamed creatures, and why the urge arises with these ones in particular. I have not in my memory witnessed anyone crouched in front of a squirrel in Toronto, hand extended, silently imploring it to take interest in them. We tend to pay wild urban animals very little attention, perhaps because their motivations seem fairly transparent to us. Our relationship with them has already been negotiated: it consists largely of mutual neglect and one-sided mooching of food. Maybe when we encounter animals with whom the terms have not yet been set we hope that they will appreciate our novelty the way we appreciate theirs. The dozey penguins on the shore are yet alien to us in a way that pigeons aren’t, a relational frontier — all the more so because the real action for them, and nearly all Antarctic fauna, takes place underwater and out of view. There is a sense of total serendipity when a whale chooses to rise out of the depths and play at the surface near our ship, because their reasons and their underwater lives are so inscrutable.
But if they were only alien — like, say, a jellyfish — they wouldn’t be so fun to meet. We can relate to them, too, and the relatable moments (penguins stretching after getting up, a humpback swimming with its calf, a seal settling onto a rock pillow and tucking in its flippers) are some of the most precious. These underline that we share things in common, and by virtue of that we can, to some degree, understand them. This is not the mushy make-believe that many would insist it is. As Franzen points out,
“[It is] anthropomorphic only to see yourself in other species, not to see them in yourself. To be hungry all the time, to be mad for sex, to not believe in global warming, to be shortsighted, to live without thought of your grandchildren, to spend half your life on personal grooming, to be perpetually on guard, to be compulsive, to be habit-bound, to be avid, to be unimpressed with humanity, to prefer your own kind: these [are] all ways of being like a bird.”
So their languages can be learned, especially with the help of the seasoned animal experts who’ve joined us. I never tire of hearing the reasons for the animals’ behaviours explained, even as this dispels some of their mystery. Perhaps the language of a penguin doesn’t really include “I see you, seeing me”; but it’s an amazing feeling to get to walk onto the set of the nature documentary and discover it to be real.
Original source taken from: Walrus Magazine