Return to Litchfield

In late January, Donna took me on a tour of Litchfield Island. It’s a skirt of pebbled beaches surrounding three tall bluffs covered in rare Antarctic mosses. The rocky beaches are still stained faint­ly pink, and bone fragments—seal and penguin—are mixed with the rocks.

“There were 700 pairs when I got here [in 1991],” Donna said, “The same size as Torgie is now.”

Off to the east lay Christine Island, and beyond that Cormorant Island. These are the next two islands that will lose their Adelies, Donna said, without a trace of uncertainty. On a survey of Christine a few days earlier, as thick snowflakes blew out of a soggy sky, the team had counted 82 adults and just 5 surviving young. In 1989 there had been 1,277 pairs—about the same number now at Torgersen, the biggest remaining colony. “It’s about as bleak as bleak gets,” Donna said.

Just then, I spotted that lone, wide-eyed Adelie picking up a pebble. Who knows what evolutionary imperatives it was obeying in that moment. The bird knew it needed to build a nest out of rocks, but it had not yet figured out it would need a supply of sea ice to fill its chicks’ bellies with krill.

[youtube id=»6D1TzLfve9o» size=»large»]How did photographer Chris Linder capture such great images in the harsh conditions in Antarctica? Science editor Hugh Powell explains. on his website.[/youtube]

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