A Portrait of Penguins and Pastel hues

Interview with author and artist Brett Jarrett

Simon Mustoe

Simon Mustoe

Writer, photographer and founder of Wildiaries


We interviewed Brett Jarrett, author of The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife for an insiders view on the continent, what it means to him and his advice for first-time travellers to get the most out of a trip there.

Where did your fascination with the Antarctic begin?

I'd always painted birds. Even at primary school, I had my own space on the wall. I've still got pictures of crested penguins from that wall. Most of my inspiration was from my imagination and I conjured up images from what I'd seen in books. From the age of about 10, I would spend days on the Great Ocean Road, beach-combing, finding carcasses of birds like Blue Petrels and albatross.

As I stared out across the ocean and in the distance, I could see Lady Julia Percy Island and Lawrence Rocks: islands surrounded by water and ringed by rugged cliffs. The fascination I had - still have - for islands was created from those early days. My drawings were what I could glean from my imagination, of distant places and hostile conditions. It was quite enthralling to let my mind wander like that.

How did you first get to the Antarctic?

By the time I first visited Antarctica, I'd been painting professionally for about 5 years.

That early childhood interest in islands, seabirds and marine mammals, made me want to go to Macquarie Island. I approached the Antarctic division about getting a public relations berth on a voyage but they were always so greatly competed-for by established journalists, film-makers and photographers.

In the end, I was offered the chance to work alongside a veterinary researcher who was studying Weddell Seals at Davis Station and while my first passion was the Subantarctic Islands, I wasn't about to knock back the chance to get to Antarctica. At the time, it was a far more difficult place to reach.

So I took on that role - as a field biologist - tagging and weighing Weddell Seals.

From September to February, we had to tag as many as possible. We handled 400 pups and did the first ever weighing of adults using a cattle weighing station. As with everything in Antarctica, you arrive thinking you know what you're doing and immediately face uncertain challenges.

The process of getting to the pups was more difficult than we imagined. They are pretty quiet animals and spend much of their time lying outside their breeding holes but when mum hears footsteps, she quickly makes it known how much she'll do to protect her newborn.

Pup Weddells are like most baby seals, fluffy, gorgeous and they have a beautiful little cry. However, they pack on weight pretty quickly each day and by the time they are sub-adult, are busy with the logistics of getting everyone on and off safely. Of course, there is a lot of safety gear - for people, animals and the environment - that has to be offloaded because it's really important to protect the place; how you move about on the ice, wildlife interactions etc, all have an impact that's managed carefully.

And there is a lot going on and often with the weather, so you can have brief windows of opportunity. In my opinion, the best days are those that start early and finish late ... there's not much time for rest but then you really feel like you are getting value for money!
Once the shore excursions have ended and the evening starts to unfold, there is plenty to do. Scientists are on board hosting different talks; there are movies;  bars ... and on some ships, libraries, sporting and recreation rooms. There's more than enough to keep you entertained on a day to day basis.

Does it feel crowded?

No, not really. 100 people doesn't feel crowded, even during shore visits, as they're often staggered - perhaps 15 people per boat. Generally, there's not 100 people on shore at any one time. Again, these landings are based around ship time ... breakfast, lunch and dinner have fixed spots. It's all very cleverly run so the guests are very well looked after and feel they have the space.

What about other boats? Do you see anyone else?

No. Other vessels are scheduled at different times, so they work around each other. I've rarely seen another ship turn up - so you feel the isolation. It's very special.

How does the reality compare to what you see on TV?

Most people are simply overwhelmed and are planning the next trip when they're already half way through the first one!

People want to see things they've heard about and seen throughout their life. Most of us have a wish-list and if, for example, you become attracted by a particular film about Antarctica, you just need help to select the journey that relates to those places. Some penguins for instance, most ships can't do it, there is a limited window.

You're a family man now. What are your hopes or dreams about getting back there in the future?

I can't see leaving my kids until they've left home. I have some regrets about not getting to certain Antarctic Islands as my childhood interests was in those moss-covered, tussock-covered islands which are a haven for all those animals I love.

One day, maybe, I will have a project in mind to get me down there. I am grateful I got this in before having kids, I feel very privileged. ◼

Visit Brett's website at http://www.brettjarrettwildlif...

Brett's books include:

  • A Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife
  • Whales, Dolphins and Seals: A Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the World.
  • Marine Mammals of the World: A Comprehensive Guide To Their Identification

About the Author
Simon Mustoe

Simon Mustoe

Writer, photographer and founder of Wildiaries


Simon is CEO of DeluxeLife. He is also an ardent conservationist and has been studying and observing wildlife for over 40 years. He's written a book called Wildlife in the Balance. He loves taking his worldwide travel experience to help people discover new and exciting places to visit,as well as contributing to science and conservation.

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