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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Empire Antarctica’

- - Sunday, December 1, 2013

Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins
By Gavin Francis
Counterpoint, $28, 260 pages, illustrated

Emperor penguins, and birds in general, fascinate Gavin Francis, the intrepid thirty-something Scottish physician who wrote this book some years after spending 14 months on the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) station known as Halley, 12 miles from the penguins' rookery in Antarctica. To learn whether he could survive — and even enjoy — such a long time amid ice and silence (he was getting paid for it, as the station's only physician), Dr. Francis started making inquiries when he was still in medical school in Edinburgh.

Then just for practice, he traveled to the Arctic, more than once. He has, since surviving the Antarctic, worked in India and Africa, traveled halfway across the globe by motorbike, married and fathered three children — while mulling his Antarctic experience before writing this book. All of this somewhat explains the floating-in-time aspect of this memoir — there's not a date in sight, only seasons.

Before he embarked for Antarctica, Dr. Francis had six months of training — learning to give general anesthetics, analyze blood samples, trephine human skulls, and "drill out rotten teeth" — a period he calls idyllic. (One of the men among the 13 people who spent the Antarctic winter with Dr. Francis had four teeth filled by the doctor during their time together, but there were no medical emergencies.) Upon arrival at the research station, Dr. Francis got no advice out of his predecessor, who told him, "I think I've decided for none at all, you've just got to live it yourself." But she did take him on a white-knuckle tour of the ice shelf by "skidoo." He records that "within minutes my cheek muscles locked solid, freezing my nervous smile to a rictus grin . I wondered how I was going to survive a year in this place."

Although the base doctor at Halley had no official duties — he was there to be available in case of an accident — the doctor was expected to share in the heavy labor that all the rest of the group performed, from collecting and packaging waste for the next ship to call to shoveling vast amounts of snow into a "melt tank" that supplied drinking and washing water. Dr. Francis also made himself useful around the aircraft based at Halley for the two-month summer period, handling cargo and fuel. He was rewarded by occasionally being invited to act as co-pilot, including on a flight to Berkner Island to pick up some frozen core samples, drilled deep into the ice mantle there, which would eventually be taken back to Britain for analysis to determine previous fluctuations in global climate.

Soon after that flight, the author joined a group preparing for their first holiday from work, to visit the penguins, which are accessible for only two months of the year. "Accessible" is a relative term. The visitors first had to be pulled by sledge to the ice cliffs above the rookery; then each roped up individually and abseiled down to a snow bridge over a tide-crack before stumbling toward the colony over a mix of solid ice and what seemed to be open water. "Chicks were crowded in gangs, unsure of themselves, but some of the 'creches' no longer had a supervisory adult, and soon their hunger would pull them out to sea."

Before the penguins again became inaccessible, he and a companion abseiled once more down to the sea ice where the penguins "made way for us as we moved through the rookery. They tolerated us, unafraid, and I thought of how those Hebraic prophets could be so wrong: 'And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every fowl of the air.'"

As the group wintering at Halley faced 10 months on their own before the next ship or plane would be able to return, the author contrasted Halley with McMurdo, "the American super-station on the New Zealand side of the continent," which hosted more than 1,000 residents in summer. The British team felt that their group, "living on Halley's plains of ice, long winters, and no possible visitors were the only ones experiencing 'the real Antarctic.'"

Just before the 114 days of total darkness began, the author spent the hours around noon skiing, "as if to charge myself for the long darkness ahead." Then he did some "reading, sitting, studying, writing, walking, praying, sleeping. Not much talking. I found myself relaxing into a delicious mental freedom." During the long winter, he also taught his companions first aid, learned how to service big diesel engines, played chess with himself, dreamed often of trees and studied the southern sky.

From his easy references throughout this book to details of early polar expeditions — be it Scott, Cook, Byrd or Shackleton — as well as to literary favorites from Chaucer to Wordsworth and Thoreau, one suspects that Dr. Francis is probably the best-read person to land at Halley in recent memory. He is practical-minded, however, as when he muses about how, until recently, the British Antarctic stations were the only major national program that selected personnel by "gut feeling," asking "could I winter with this man?" He cites a recent study that suggests that a psychological assessment of candidates would both discover which candidates were exceptionally well qualified to adapt to the Antarctic and weed out people who couldn't cope. The study also found that "women cope better than men in the Antarctic, but are less likely to be selected." (Two female meteorologists were among the dozen men in the author's group.)

At the end of his time in Antarctica, when the author took his replacement on the same white-knuckle tour that his predecessor had taken him on, he comments: "He was surprised to find me focus as much on ski-way duties and the waste-compaction rooms as I did on the X-ray equipment and the anesthetic machine. 'Medicine, I told him, as I showed him how to rivet lids on to waste drums, 'is likely to be the least of your concerns.'"

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.