‘My Penguin Year’ tells a compelling tale of an extreme adventure

Lindsay McCrae missed the birth of his son to film in Antarctica. It made him appreciate the role that male penguins play in raising the chicks.

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
“My Penguin Year: Life Among the Emperors” by Lindsay McCrae, William Morrow, 304 pp.

On May 20, 2017, the sun peeked above the frozen horizon one last time. It was the beginning of polar night, and for filmmaker Lindsay McCrae, it also marked the most challenging stretch of his 11-month journey to Antarctica, where he had come to document the life cycle of the emperor penguin.

For starters, the darkness presented obstacles to his work. Even the specialized equipment McCrae had brought along was useless in the whiteout blizzards that lasted for days. Electronics do not function well in minus 60 degrees Celsius. 

The effect of the weather on humans is fierce. People can become lost in disorienting storms, even within meters of shelter. The constant darkness or daylight, depending on the time of year, impacts sleep cycles. And there is no way to leave. Once winter comes it is impossible to fly in or out of Neumayer Station III, a scientific research structure perched on hydraulic stilts atop the Ekström Ice Shelf on the coast of Antarctica closest to South Africa. It doesn’t matter if, as in McCrae’s case, one has a child being born a hemisphere away. 

But for McCrae, filming in Antarctica was a dream come true, the culmination of years working as a natural history filmmaker and photographer. His new book, “My Penguin Year: Life Among the Emperors,” is an earnest memoir of his experience – one that does not shy away from the hardships but, with a refreshing lack of bravado, keeps focus on the animals he came to film. 

The emperor penguin, the tallest and heaviest of the species, is the only animal to breed in the Antarctic winter. On the ice, the birds will pair off and the female will lay a single egg. Soon she leaves, traveling up to hundreds of miles to find open water and food. The males, meanwhile, incubate those eggs on their feet, under a flap of skin and feathers called the brood pouch. After the chicks hatch the females return, their bellies full of food to regurgitate to the babies. Then the fathers take their turn hunting.

It is an amazing process, and even more so through McCrae’s eyes and camera lens. We feel his anxiety as we watch the painstaking efforts to transfer the lone egg from mother to father. We watch the males huddled together against squalls so fierce that humans can neither see nor stand.  

At the end of the book, we sense the ominousness in McCrae’s matter-of-fact description of the early breakup of a penguin colony’s ice sheet. It was the second year in a row this had happened, and although McCrae sidesteps the larger issue of climate change, he is clear about the devastating consequences for penguin chicks.

The side narrative of “My Penguin Year” is McCrae’s own family life cycle. His wife, Becky, discovered she was pregnant shortly before he was scheduled to leave, but the couple agreed that McCrae should still carry out his assignment. If the implicit comparison to the penguins and their split parental duties occasionally falls flat, McCrae’s honest account of his anxiety about leaving home is a welcome antidote to the traditional meme of the intrepid explorer.

McCrae’s writing may be simplistic at times, but it holds an authenticity and sweetness that propels the book forward. 

One can’t help but share his awe at the landscape, or the birds he came to film. When he writes that a father penguin mourning a frozen chick is the saddest thing he’s ever seen, it gives the reader permission to put away skepticism and cynicism, and to simply feel an emotional connection with the other creatures of this world.

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