The year he graduated from college, 22-year-old Noah Strycker was dropped by helicopter in a remote Antarctic field camp with two bird scientists and a three months’ supply of frozen food. His subjects: more than a quarter million penguins.
Compact, industrious, and approachable, the Adélie Penguins who call Antarctica home visit their breeding grounds each Antarctic summer to nest and rear their young before returning to sea. Because of long-term studies, scientists may know more about how these penguins will adjust to climate change than about any other creature in the world.
Bird scientists like Noah are less well known. Like the intrepid early explorers of Antarctica, modern scientists drawn to the frozen continent face an utterly inhospitable landscape, one that inspires, isolates, and punishes.
| If you have enjoyed Ron Naveen’s Waiting to Fly or Gavin Francis’ Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins, you will likely also enjoy this book. In many ways, Among Penguins is like an update of Naveen’s work, documenting just how far research in Antarctica has come in 20 years. I also found the book somewhat reminiscent of Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder.
Like Kaufman, Strycker is a young man obsessed with birds. Unlike Kaufman, he chooses to find research positions to facilitate his quest for a larger, more exotic life list (a list of all the species of birds that one has seen during one’s life, for those who are not members of the birding cult). Although Strycker isn’t sleeping in ditches or hitch-hiking his way to his next birding destination, he does still endure some hardships during his Antarctic sojourn—his tent is destroyed in hurricane force winds, his boots (when outfitted with crampons) wound his ankles, he is unable to shower for 3 months. Nevertheless, he seems a cheerful and willing researcher, completely under the spell of the penguin.
There is a fair bit of interesting penguin info in this slim volume and some insights into the research process, but there is also an awful lot about Noah Stryker! If you are looking for penguin facts and statistics, this may not be the best reference for you. However, if you are interested in the lives of researchers in far flung parts of the planet, it will scratch that itch.
Stryker’s tale also convinces me that biological field work is not for me! In my life, roughing it is a cheap motel and my knees long ago betrayed me, making me far too unstable on my feet for the type of terrain that he takes in stride. However, I can admire and enjoy his hard work and tenacity.
On the main point, I agree fully with the author: there is absolutely nothing like watching a wild penguin go about its business! I have spent many happy hours doing just that and hope to still clock a few more before I’m physically forced to give up such pursuits.