Antarctica: A continent of contrasts and conflicts

Midge Raymond is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short-story collection Forgetting English. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, Poets & Writers, and many other publications.

Raymond tells us why she drew inspiration from Antarctica for her debut novel, and how this unusual land of great contrast makes for a great setting.

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“It seems like there are two kinds of people who come to Antarctica,” penguin researcher and shipboard naturalist Deb Gardner tells a passenger in My Last Continent. “Those who have run out of places to go, and those who have run out of places to hide.”

While I don’t necessarily share Deb’s view, putting these two categories of people together provided plenty of drama for a novel about our planet’s last frontier.

As a writer, I’ve long been attracted to contrasts, and Antarctica provides a great deal of them, especially when it comes to those who venture there. When these contrasting individuals and groups share the ships headed down to the bottom of the world, we can learn a lot through their interactions and conflicts.

For many tourists, Antarctica is their seventh continent, the last place left to see. For shipboard naturalists, it’s a chance to educate tourists about the creatures they’ve studied all their lives, from penguins to whales to seabirds—as well as a chance to make the passengers’ last continent more than just something to check off their lists.

When I visited Antarctica in 2004, increasing tourism was a hot topic among the naturalists and crew. Among their worries was the fact that larger ships were beginning to enter the region—ships carrying thousands of passengers rather than a hundred or fewer. If something were to happen to a large cruise liner in Antarctica—where research stations and other ships are not hours but days away—it would be a disaster.

Author Midge Raymond
Author Midge Raymond

Since my visit, tourism in Antarctica has nearly doubled. And, unfortunately, a lot of Antarctic tourism is not about the wildlife but about skiing, fat biking, ice marathons—the sort of adventure that is not at all healthy for such a fragile environment. There are plenty of places to ski and bike and run, but no other place to see Adélie penguins or Weddell seals. These tourists don’t fit into the category of those who want to hide but quite the opposite—those have run out of places to go.

In My Last Continent, Deb and Keller seek solace at the end of the world because they have not been able to find it anywhere else. And, like several expedition naturalists I spoke with, they find themselves conflicted: They know the continent is vulnerable to rapidly expanding tourism, yet they also know that among the best ways to inspire people to protect this icy region is to show it to them.

To be a researcher, like Deb and Keller, is to see firsthand the effects of humankind on the animal kingdom—how such things as climate change and overfishing affects the fate of penguins from Argentina to Antarctica. Similarly, to be a writer is to live a life of constant observation, of seeing things others don’t often see.

Several days into my own Antarctic journey, I witnessed a fellow traveler slip and fall on a patch of ice on the edge of a penguin colony. I appeared to be the only one who saw him, and fortunately he got up immediately, more embarrassed than injured. However, having already heard concerns about accidents at the bottom of the world, I began to wonder: What if this man hadn’t gotten up? This question became the inspiration for a short story, and that story in turn grew into My Last Continent, which envisions an even larger accident in the Southern Ocean, one involving thousands rather than just one.

Antarctica was once the last frontier for explorers, and the continent is rich with the histories of Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, and Mawson. Yet we are no longer living in the age of discovery—now, we’re in an age of commercialism, in which the continent is under threat from those who are taking its whales and krill, and who have eyes as well for the oil that may be deep beneath its ice.

Antarctica is not as off-limits as it used to be—for those who aim to exploit it as well as those who wish to protect it. Today, all of us have a role to play in saving the planet and its many endangered species—and I hope all who are fortunate enough to visit their last continent return home inspired to preserve it.

You can buy My Last Continent here  

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