Chronicling Global Warming’s Impact on Antarctica’s Chinstrap Penguins

A conversation with Ron Naveen from the film The Penguin Counters

The heating up of the Antarctic Peninsula by five degrees centigrade is having a colossal impact on the seventh continent and the species living there. Co-producers and co-directors Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon embarked on an arduous Antarctic odyssey with field biologists, led by the intrepid Ron Naveen, to probe this phenomenon by counting the region’s penguin populations. Their stunning new nonfiction film The Penguin Counters documents the effects climate change is having on Antarctica’s chinstraps, a penguin species so-called because of the distinctive black lines beneath their beaks.  

photo of chinstrap penguinsphoto courtesy of First Run FeaturesThe Penguin Counters follows a group of biologists on a mission to count Antarctica’s chinstrap penguins, a species so-called because of the distictive black line beneath their beaks.

Getzels and Gordon are globetrotting filmmakers making documentaries for outlets like National Geographic and the UK’s BBC at far-flung locations, from the Andes to the Himalayas. Naveen is Getzels’ wife’s cousin, a connection that led to The Penguin Counters and the documentarians’ first trip to Antarctica. Filming there along with cameraman Eric Osterholm, the team shot with Panasonic P2 and GoPro cameras. Despite using relatively low tech digital technology and facing very challenging conditions, the camera crew rendered some exquisite cinematography, shooting eye-popping scenery and wildlife at one of the world’s most remote destinations, footage that gives armchair travelers a “you-are-there” feel.

This truly on location reportage is the best part of a documentary that goes off-topic for about a quarter of its 70 minutes. Just by chance, the filmmakers said, aboard the ship carrying them to Antarctica were also the granddaughter of Ernest Shackleton, commander of the early twentieth century’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, plus relatives of John Wild, the British polar explorer’s right-hand man during the expedition. In 2011, they carried Wild’s ashes, which had been found in Johannesburg, South Africa, to inter them on the right side of Shackleton’s grave at South Georgia Island, located north of the Antarctic Peninsula. (The year seems to be at odds with when the filmmakers say they went to Antarctica, which seemed to be 2013 or 2014.)

All this was filmed and included in the documentary, along with some history about the South Atlantic island’s facility for boiling blubber. History buffs may find the attention focused on Shackleton and Wild to be intriguing, but more environmentally-minded viewers may find it to distract from the main thrust of The Penguin Counters engrossing look at the struggle for survival of the Antarctic’s flightless birds, confronted by the effects of global warming.

Born 1945 in Pennsylvania, Ron Naveen is the film’s human protagonist. He’s also founder and president of Oceanites, a non-profit, educational science group that takes on projects like the Antarctic Site Inventory, the penguin count that is the subject of the film. He’s been going to the Antarctic for 34 years, and started Oceanites after giving up his jobs as a lawyer and whale-watching guide. With clicker in hand, he is as dogged about keeping tabs on Antarctica’s chinstraps as a hardboiled private eye wearing out the shoe leather in a film noir movie. Naveen may be a longtime Penguin counter, but he is also an Antarctic watchdog. He spoke with me for this story by phone from Washington, DC.

The journey to Antarctica is long and difficult. Conditions on the seventh continent are daunting. Why are you and your field biologists going so far afield and placing yourselves in peril?

In the early 1990s the Antarctic Treaty parties adopted a new agreement called the Environmental Protocol, which essentially brought to that treaty system, which manages Antarctica, the requirement that for all human activities an environmental impact statement be done.

It dawned on me that nobody had been writing down, or even thought of writing down, who’s living at the various sites being visited by tourists. How many penguins were there? Were the numbers changing? So that was the birth of the Antarctic Site Inventory project in November 1994. We’ve been counting penguins ever since. Every year we work with a tour company — One Ocean Expeditions, from British Columbia — to get ourselves around the Antarctic Peninsula. We’re essentially free riders on these tour ships. [When we can’t get on a cruise ship,] sometimes we can rent a yacht. Sometimes we work off government vessels.

When did you go there for the film?

Three years ago, November into December, the time when the penguins are at their peak of egg laying and the best time to do the kinds of counts we do. We want to count those penguin nests at the peak of egg laying, when a majority of the penguins have their two egg compliment in their nest. We had a team of me and three other [field biologists]. We very assiduously worked the island for a week. That’s the story of the film — facing incredibly bad weather, bad counting conditions, just horrible cold. But we got it done, amazingly, and we gathered some pretty meaningful data.  

What have the results of your mission shown?

Over 23 seasons we’ve amassed data from more than 225 locations in the vastly warmed Antarctic Peninsula. We’ve made over 1,800 site visits and we have some pretty dramatic results. We’re following the significant decline of Adélie penguins in this region, the decline of chinstrap penguins, which is the subject of The Penguin Counters, and the increase in numbers of Gentoo penguins.

All of this is important because Antarctica is melting. This part of the Antarctic where I work is warming faster than any other place on Earth, except the Arctic. We’re the only group — and indeed, a nonprofit, charitable group — that happens to be monitoring the entirety of the whole Peninsula, which is very bizarre. What I want to accomplish is to give back to this wonderful, amazing place, make sure we have baseline data in place so we can tell how things are changing in the future and try to address those changes.

The particular mission we accomplished that is dramatically portrayed in the movie is focusing on one amazing volcanic island called Deception Island in the Antarctic Peninsula. This is where whalers used to hangout, where a number of nations — Argentina, Chile — still have bases. The UK used to have a base but it was destroyed by the volcanic eruption in the late 1960s. There are lots of chinstrap penguins there and key to our work is trying to understand whether the numbers that we thought had existed, numbers of penguins breeding at this island, were accurate. There were older numbers, counts and estimates, from 80,000 to 100,000 [nests].

Over the course of the many days working on this project with the filmmakers, we managed to count just over 50,000 chinstrap penguin nests. Which indicates an incredibly steep and significant decline of that species in this part of the Antarctic. We also wrote this up in a paper that came out a year or so afterwards. In the neighborhood there are other chinstrap penguin colonies that are also declining.

And it’s something that then triggers questions like, “Why is that happening?” Up and down the Peninsula, Adélie penguins are really declining, chinstraps also — Gentoos are succeeding. So sorting out why we have winners and losers is not only important to better understand this ecosystem, but it also gives us clues as to what might happen to humans if the same amount of warming gets our way well north of Antarctica.

So you feel this change in population is directly related to manmade climate change?

Climate change is manmade — no ifs, ands, or doubts about that. We were able to link up and correlate the changes that have occurred in the chinstrap and Adélie and Gentoo populations to this warming trend in the Peninsula. And to be very specific about what has happened over the last six decades, the Antarctic Peninsula has really warmed on a year round basis by three degrees centigrade or five degrees Fahrenheit. And in the winter a whopping five degrees centigrade, or  nine degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s really, really important, because if you remember Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth 10 years ago, the concern he had, which has now been amplified by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that we humans need to worry about the same amount of climate change. We already have suffered since the Industrial Revolution the change of about two degrees Fahrenheit — so we’re approaching the same kind of warming those penguins are facing right now.

Interestingly, because penguins are like humans — they need food, a good home, a good environment, and have to produce babies and grandchildren — those are the factors we look at immediately to try to figure out whether the changes in the penguin population relate to one of those key vital factors. That also may be what we need to look at in the future when we humans are adapting to a similar kind of change.

This interview has been edited for clarity.


After making the film festival circuit, where it won awards at the International Film Festival in Moscow and the Mexico International Film Festival, The Penguin Counters will be theatrically released April 21-27 at New York’s Cinema Village, coinciding with Earth Day, World Penguin Day, and the release of Naveen’s team’s inaugural “State of the Antarctic Penguins.” Naveen, Getzels and Gordon will participate in Q&As at various screenings. Learn more about the film and about Oceanites.

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